Edinburgh International Exhibition

In 1886, Prince Albert officially opened the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art, a sensational spectacle, held at the Meadows, Edinburgh. One or two artefacts in the Bartholomew Archive Printing Record and an excellent account by J K Gillon, hosted by Fortunecity reveal something of the excitement of this impressive extravaganza.

Location of Edinburgh International Exhibition

The 1886 Edinburgh Exhibition was part of the grand Victorian tradition. The first such exhibition to be held in the United Kingdom was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations housed in the Crystal Palace, in 1851. Visiting these exhibitions gave members of the public a taste of the exotic and a look into the exciting new technologies of the future. Even the buildings these grand exhibitions were housed in were impressive and imposing.

Exhibition building

Visitors to the Edinburgh Exhibition were treated to row upon row of exhibition space running off of a central corridor. The pièce de résistance was the 120-foot high dome in the Grand Hall. Some of the exhibits J K Gillon mentions include violins from Prague, Turkish embroidery and a Women’s Industries display which exhibited Belgian glove making, Fair Isle, Shetland and Icelandic knitting, Irish linen and of all things, artificial fly production. The Exhibition included a mock-up of a typical house, demonstrating some of the latest technological conveniences for the home, as well as a reconstruction of Netherbow Port as it would have been in the 17th century. One of my favourite exhibits would undoubtedly have been the National Exhibit of Scotch Malt Whiskies, captured in this piece of early advertising.

Whisky exhibit

But perhaps the most impressive thing to the Victorian visitor would have been the 3,200 electric lamps which illuminated the Exhibition building and grounds. We might take this for granted, but in 1886, this was the largest illumination scheme ever attempted in Scotland.

To the modern day visitor, and Edinburgh resident, the Meadows are a familiar and popular summertime destination. Yet, very little now remains to even hint at such a spectacle being held there. It had been intended that the Grand Hall would remain as a permanent feature but due to an Act of Parliament, forbidding all permanent structures on the Meadows, the whole lot was demolished. One or two bits and pieces do remain though, such as the Memorial Pillars at the western end of Melville Drive (the pillars at the eastern end were an earlier commemoration to the Edinburgh Town Council donated by Edinburgh publisher Thomas Nelson & Son) and an enormous jaw-bone located on Jawbone Walk. However, my personal favourite is an easily missed tiny sundial and small collection of trees. I have often walked past these trees and never given them a thought, not until I happened upon this map from the Printing Record.

Plan of sundial and memorial trees

It shows the location of the sundial, and the commemorative trees, which were planted by members of the Royal family to mark the occasion of the Edinburgh Exhibition.

Tree planted by Prince Albert

I often wonder how many visitors and residents of Edinburgh know the history of these trees, why they are there and who planted them. It seems to me that the world gets more and more interesting the more you learn about it.

The Edinburgh Exhibition was an enormous success but for something so impressive there are now only the merest traces of it left. Some are dotted about the city whilst others are preserved in resources such as the Bartholomew Archive.