Archaeologists Unearth Remnants of Lost Scottish Wine-Bottle Glass Factory

The 18th-century Edinburgh factory once produced a million bottles a week

Leith glass factory
The Leith glass factory's cone-shaped furnaces appear in the background of painter William Reed's Leith Races. William Thomas Reed via Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council under CC BY-NC-ND

Construction of an apartment complex in the Scottish port district of Leith has revealed the remnants of an 18th-century glass factory, reports David McLean for the Edinburgh Evening News.

Leith’s bottle production was once vital to Britain’s trade in wine and spirits. At its peak around 1770, the glass factory’s furnaces produced “a staggering [one] million bottles per week,” Fraser Parkinson, a local historian and tour guide for Select Scotland Tours, tells Collin Dreizen of Wine Spectator.

Archaeologists discovered the factory’s remains while excavating a timber yard during a pre-construction archaeological survey mandated by local law. On its broadest side, the three-acre area is flanked by Salamander Street, which also serves as the development project’s name. Though it might seem like an odd choice for a street name, the amphibious moniker was actually adopted in a nod to the blazing, coal-fired kilns of the property’s past: Folklore associating salamanders with fire dates back to the days of ancient Rome.

The archaeological survey quickly turned up evidence of the Edinburgh and Leith Glassworks’ six enormous, cone-shaped kilns. The kilns—standing 80 to 100 feet tall, with a diameter of roughly 40 feet at the base—once formed a dominant part of the local skyline; per the Edinburgh Evening News, the company fired up its first furnace in 1747.

Though not a major wine producer, the United Kingdom has still made significant contributions to the field of glass bottle manufacturing. In 1615, England’s James I demanded that the wood used to power glass-making furnaces be diverted to the construction of warships needed to protect the British Empire, reported Restaurant Business in 2006. Coal replaced wood as the fuel of choice for glass-making, and as a result, hotter furnaces yielded stronger glass.

The next innovation arrived in 1633, when Sir Kenelm Digby—a founding member of the Royal Society in London, as well as an adventurer, privateer and alchemist who is said to have faked his own death—tweaked the glass formula by adding metals and oxides. This produced bottles that were stronger, thicker, darker and cheaper, reported Henry Jeffreys for the Spectator in 2013.

Digby is credited as the “father of the modern bottle,” and it was his stronger glass that made effervescent wines such as champagne possible. Until then, glass was too delicate to withstand the substantial pressure exerted by bottle fermentation.

“There are references to wines that sparkled in Roman times,” Gladys Horiuchi of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute told Restaurant Business, “but back then they had no good way to package it, no way to keep the bubbles contained.”

Leith produced its millions of bottles to accommodate the growing demand for wine and whiskey across the British Empire, John Lawson, the City of Edinburgh Council’s archaeologist, tells Wine Spectator. When barrels of wine and spirits arrived at the port of Leith, they were swiftly decanted into bottles from the newly rediscovered glass bottle factory.

The factory was conveniently located near plentiful sand and kelp essential to glass production, reports the Edinburgh Evening News.

The bottles produced in Leith may have even influenced the shapes of wine bottles seen today. Speaking with Wine Spectator, Parkinson cites a late-19th century quote from writer James Grant: “The Leith pattern bottle is the parallel-sided, round-shouldered, narrow-neck bottle now dominant within the wine industry.”

Other sources cite Peter Mitchell, an early 18th-century Irishman who immigrated to France and changed his name to Pierre, as the inventor of the Bordeaux bottle, or bordelaise. The bordelaise’s mostly cylindrical shape allows it to be stored on its side for aging, keeping its cork wet and maintaining a tight seal that prevents air from intruding.

In 1874, the Scotsman newspaper reported that the Edinburgh and Leith Glass Works Company had been dissolved, per the Edinburgh Evening News.

One of the reasons for the factory’s closure was the loss of business following the American colonies’ declaration of independence, Lawson tells Wine Spectator.

“Trade to the U.S.A. ...was significantly affected by independence, with the loss of trade except, it seems, to New York,” he says.

The site’s last glass furnace was finally torn down in 1912. Its subsequent leasing by a timber yard signaled the fadeout of Leith’s historical glass industry.

“[I]t is really exciting to be able to view the footprint of the old glass making buildings and especially the foundations of the old cones,” says Parkinson to the Edinburgh Evening News. “ … It’s a brief but appreciated glimpse back in time. Let’s hope that the developers make good recordings of what is unearthed before moving onto Leith's future buildings.”

Lawson tells Wine Spectator that the current plan is for the apartment complex to be built around—rather than on top of—“these nationally important remains.”

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