In a tinderbox city where towering tenements with bone-dry timbers stood shoulder to shoulder separated by the narrowest of closes, the most chilling sound to pierce the evening air would surely have been the cry: “Fire!”.

Edinburgh’s Old Town was a bubbling hub of all human life: families crammed alongside businesses that relied on the power of the flame, bakers’ ovens and side by side steam powered printing presses, booksellers and court offices packed with paper.

And, in the case of James Kirkwood, copperplate engravers, blistering hot pots of linseed oil.

In the High Street workshop on a dark November night, the boiling oil would ignite, sending flames across a worktop piled high with papers.

Soon flames engulfed the city’s aged heart: a baptism – literally – of fire for its newly formed municipal brigade of firefighters.

At their helm was James Braidwood, whose first brush with the devastating consequences of fire came as a youngster watching powerless as his father’s cabinet-making business was turned to ash.

Still just 24 years old, he had persuaded city fathers to support his vision for the first municipal fire brigade in the world.

Now, just months after the Edinburgh Fire Service was established, he was facing what would become the Great Fire of Edinburgh.

Those events of 1824 are being recalled in a new exhibition and accompanying series of lectures that mark the bicentenary of the world’s first municipal fire brigade; founded in Edinburgh and a blueprint for firefighting services around the world.

The Herald: Edinburgh's 200 years of firefighting heritage features in a new exhibition Edinburgh's 200 years of firefighting heritage features in a new exhibition (Image: The City of Edinburgh Council)

Created in partnership with the Museum of Scottish Fire Heritage and based at the Museum of Edinburgh at Canongate, close to where 200 years ago the Great Fire of Edinburgh began, it shines light on days when fire was a constant enemy and fighting it was, until the young Braidwood came along, a game of chance.

Running alongside the Edinburgh: Rising from the Ashes exhibition are lectures that explore how fire helped shape the design of buildings in the city, leading to new fire prevention requirements and construction styles that sought to halt their spread.

One event will examine how fire investigation has evolved, including the use of Fire Investigation Dogs specially trained to locate and detect evidence of fire accelerants.

Another explores the early history of firefighting, from the Romans with their ‘bucket brigades’ who patrolled the streets of Rome, to the Scottish Act of 1426 which contained some of the first examples of legislation aimed at preventing fires.

By the early 19th century, Insurance Fire Brigades were found in many cities, but as Braidwood saw when his father’s business burned, only those rich enough to afford their services could call on their help.

It took his scientific approach to tackling fires and a deep Christian conviction to save his fellow man from their hell, to kickstart a new approach.

The Herald: Exhibits include an early firefighter's uniform and kit Exhibits include an early firefighter's uniform and kit (Image: The City of Edinburgh Council)

One of 11 children, his training as a surveyor had equipped him with expert knowledge of the city’s housing conditions and its topography – handy skills for his role as Master of Engines with the new municipal fire service.

The idea for Edinburgh Fire Brigade was driven by growing fears for the ‘tinderbox’ Old Town: in February 1824, a serious blaze ripped through Niddry Street, followed by another opposite the Royal Exchange, site of today’s Edinburgh City Chambers.

It focused minds on the need for a properly organised fire service to both tackle fires but also protect against them even starting.

A committee of police, magistrates and insurance companies had started working out how best it would run. But with Braidwood barely in the role, events at Kirkwood’s engravers in the congested High Street would take a terrible turn.

Most buildings in the area were packed five and six storeys high and, some spanned up to 11 floors from basement to roof.

The Herald: The new exhibition explores 200 years of firefightingThe new exhibition explores 200 years of firefighting (Image: The City of Edinburgh Council)

It was in a six-storey building at Old Assembly Close that the orange glow of flames was first spotted at around 10pm on the night of November 15th, 1824.

“The fire communicated by the roofs and from the height of the houses and the difficulty of access through the back parts of the closes, there was no possibility although every exertion was made, of opposing the progress of the flames,” reported one newspaper of the time.

Within an hour, three tenements were ablaze, with flames “bursting through all the windows and carrying everything before them with a fury that was most terrific.”

Wiped out was Kirkwood’s the engravers, Mr Milner’s apothecary, Mr Hunter’s grocery shop and Brunton’s clothiers.

Gone too was carpet dealers Duncan and Greig, Mr Lindsay’s victualler, Isbister’s the grocers and dozens of homes.

The new Edinburgh Fire Service consisted of carpenters, masons and mariners with limited equipment, intermittent water supply and the biggest blaze to engulf the city unfolding before them.

The Herald: A manually drawn water-pump from the year of the founding of the Edinburgh Fire Establishment, Britain's first muncipal fire brigade, led by James BraidwoodA manually drawn water-pump from the year of the founding of the Edinburgh Fire Establishment, Britain's first muncipal fire brigade, led by James Braidwood (Image: Kim Traynor)

What they lacked in experience, however, they made up for with their bravery.

Up in flames went the offices of the Courant newspaper, and as the blaze burst through the roof and engulfed one flat after the next the fire crews focused on trying to protect St Giles Cathedral.

The fire roared towards the Cowgate, ripping through packed buildings full of old, dry timber, and spread panic among the Old Town’s citizens.

Some had already suffered the consequences of fire; Messrs Bell and Bradfute, booksellers, whose previous premises at Parliament Close had been lost to an earlier fire, saw their new one consumed by the blaze.

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By noon next day and with the new Edinburgh Fire Service exhausted, hopes soared that the worst might be over.

It was not to be.

Sparks and dying embers flew on the breeze and the bone-dry Old Town wood was perfect kindling.

Before long the steeple of the Tron Kirk was ablaze, pouring molten lead to the road below and forcing the novice fire crews to retreat.

Weakened, it crashed to the ground.

All hands were on deck, with police and military men called in to try to control the hysteria as frightened citizens gathered meagre belongings and fled homes and businesses.

A full 24 hours after the fire began, one of the city’s tallest buildings, a ‘skyscraper’ spanning 11 storeys, posed a fresh challenge.

Its great height meant fighting the flames was impossible; floor after floor was consumed.

The Herald: Four volunteer firemen stand in front of their fire-engine in days before Edinburgh's pioneering municipal fire service Four volunteer firemen stand in front of their fire-engine in days before Edinburgh's pioneering municipal fire service (Image: Wellcome Collection)

“The appearance from the Cowgate was singularly terrific,” stated one account. “The torrents of flame bursting forth with irresistible fury from every aperture in the house and rising to an amazing height were brightly reflected from the sky, while the red glare which they shed on the adjacent buildings, on the spire of St Giles’s and the battlements of the castle was at once picturesque and awful.

“Seen from a distance (it) gave the mind a most vivid impression of the dreadful scene.”

After four days, a torrential downpour finally brought respite.

The Great Fire of Edinburgh had claimed 13 lives including two of Braidwood’s brave ‘pioneers’.

Far more suffered dreadful injuries, more than 400 families lost their homes, dozens of businesses had been destroyed and a vast area from the High Street to the Cowgate including the Old Assembly Hall and the Tron Kirk, was gone.

An inquiry later praised Braidwood and his crews, but highlighted the difficulties posed by confusing orders from police, councillors and others.

It led to the decision that only firemasters should be in control of a fire scene.

That crucial move, still in place today, enabled Braidwood and the fledgling fire service of 80 men and three engines to become increasingly experienced in tackling fire.

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He went on to share his firefighting theories in textbooks that became crucial reading for the UK’s fire services for generations.

Braidwood later moved to London, where he used his experience to train the London Fire Brigade.

He was at a huge blaze at Cotton’s Wharf near the Thames in June 1861, when an explosion buried him beneath rubble.

His loss was mourned in London, Edinburgh and the many towns and cities which had him to thank for establishing the world’s first municipal fire service.

The Herald: Assistant Chief Officer for Operational Delivery at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, David FarriesAssistant Chief Officer for Operational Delivery at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, David Farries (Image: The City of Edinburgh Council)

Assistant Chief Officer for Operational Delivery at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, David Farries said: “This year is an incredibly historic year for us as we recognise and proudly celebrate Scotland’s rich fire and rescue heritage. 

“The world has changed drastically since 1824 and so has our service.

“Through these exhibitions we want to showcase the people, the innovation, and the values that our service was built on and are still at the heart of the modern Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.”

Edinburgh Rising from the Ashes: 200 years of the Scottish Fire Service is on now at Edinburgh Museum, with events and lectures planned throughout summer.