Behind a thick wall, close to the bustle of brick and pottery factories and clinging to the edge of the Forth, William Creelman’s impressive apple trees bore particularly rich crops of luscious fruits.

With the patience and vision of the most determined 19th century horticulturist, the brick works owner had carefully selected varieties to withstand the east coast winds, planting them a couple of hundred yards away from Portobello’s beach in such a way that would impress his horticultural peers.

The trees were trained on brick walls “so much inclined to the horizon to be almost horizontal”, the Caledonian Horticultural Society was told as they gathered in Edinburgh on September 6, 1828, to inspect his impressive specimens of homegrown fruit.

“The committee have reasons to expect that an account and plan of those walls will soon be communicated to the Society by Mr Creelman,” continued the report of proceedings.

Eventually Mr Creelman’s lovingly tended orchard in Figgat Street would be lost to progress, along with the Abercorn Brick and Tile works which he once ran and countless other once precious orchards which had thrived beside the seaside.

And the traditional apple varieties they boasted, with evocative names like Bloody Ploughman, Tower of Glamis, Coul Blush and Hawthornden, would also gradually fade from the landscape.

This time next year, however, an art project inspired by the coastal orchards and intended to reconnect communities fractured by Covid-19, will hint at a return to the busy September harvests of years gone by.

The first 100 apple trees selected from heritage varieties known to have grown in orchards like Mr Creelman’s will soon be given to local volunteers for planting in front gardens, outside a health centre, nursery and school, respite centre and dozens of shared spaces across Portobello, Musselburgh and Craigmillar.

The trees are intended to become community focal points; their spring blossoms enjoyed by passers-by on daily walks, to be seen from buses and neighbours’ windows, and eventually with crops of fruit to be shared and enjoyed.

They will also create a living corridor of blossoms for bees and pollinators to explore.

The Neighbouring Orchard project, commissioned by Art Walk Projects, has been created by Edinburgh artist Annie Lord who, inspired by a single ageing apple tree she saw growing in the area and struck by the pandemic’s impact on communities, researched its apple growing heritage and discovered a once thriving network of orchards. She was particularly fascinated by an 1828 illustration and description of Abercorn Brickworks’ director Mr Creelman’s unusual sloping and horseshoe-shaped orchard, held in the library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In a letter to the Society that December, he explained how bricks rejected from his factory had helped build the orchard walls, supporting his trees, radiating heat and boosting his crop.

It also recorded his pride in two particular trees, a Scarlet Nonsuch and Ribston Pippin, which, having been trained to grow along the flat, near horizontal walls, produced 230 apples between them, some fruit up to a foot in circumference.

Mr Creelman’s orchard was just one of many scattered around the area, including a showpiece orchard at Pinkie House in Musselburgh. There the gardener, John Lyall, planted a rich crop of apples with evocative names like Tower of Glamis, Broad-eyed Pippen and Cats Head, which also received praise from the horticultural society.

According to Lord, the art project aims revive the area’s connections with fruit growing and bring communities together.

“I had been thinking about how to create a different model of community orchard, when Covid-19 happened,” she said.

“A single place for people to gather no longer felt possible. Instead, I wanted to create a network of trees that linked people. So even though they are not in same physical spaces, they would know that there is a network of trees that is always visible.”

Mr Creelman’s orchard, a stone’s throw from Portobello’s seaside promenade, struck a particular chord. “There is a beautiful description of the old orchard which lists every single tree that was growing there,” she added.

“Apple varieties fall in and out of favour, and but we have found a couple that are still produced.”

Her call for local people to plant a tree sparked an overwhelming response. Around 100 people have joined a waiting list for a second tranche of trees.

The project is just one of countless community orchard schemes which reflect Scotland’s once rich apple-growing heritage, which can be traced back to the 12th century when orchards were cultivated at abbeys and monasteries across the country.

By the 17th century, large plantations of fruit trees were common on estates and across open land in what is now city and town centres.   By Mr Creelman’s time, competition was rife among growers to create bumper crops and perfect new growing methods. September harvest meetings of the Caledonian Horticultural Society in Edinburgh offered a chance to show off their impressive harvest.  By the 1911, the September gathering attracted growers from across Scotland and England and was so large that it had to be held in Edinburgh’s vast Waverley Market.  One Dundee grower, D & W Croll, displayed more than 100 varieties of apples, only to be outdone by Storrie & Storrie of Glencarse in Perthshire, with 150 different types.  However, industrialisation and the arrival of fruit from overseas led to the loss of at least 90 per cent of Scotland’s orchards.

While many are now built over, new orchards are springing up from Alexandra Park in Glasgow to Cultybraggan Camp, an ex-POW Camp in Comrie, Perthshire, where over 200 fruit trees and 2,500 edible hedge plants have been established.

Close to where Mr Creelman’s Abercorn brick works once stood is Portobello’s community-run Donkeyfield orchard, where more than 90 fruit trees have been planted since 2010.  While across Edinburgh, where the land to the west of Comely Bank was once so rich with apple trees that it became known as Orchard Brae, the congregation of St Ninian’s Episcopal Church have planted eight apple trees, reflecting the area’s apple heritage.

The new trees are part of an ecumenical pilot project with the Church of Scotland, with the assistance of Eco-Congregation Scotland and The Orchard Project which has also seen trees planted at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, Colston Milton Parish Church in Glasgow and Newton Mearns Baptist Church.

“This area has a history of growing fruit, as can still be seen from the street names such as Orchard Brae, Orchard Road and Orchard Bank,” said the Very Rev Frances Burberry, Rector of St Ninian’s. “We hope to plant more.”