Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

The Portobello Pottery Museum

For today's MindLetter, I fess up to an obsession...

A photo of a book titled "Scottish Pottery" the front cover of the book shows a pot with two people enamelled on it.

Dear all,


The Friday drop-in continues this lunchtime, 1.10-1.50pm. Join us for some guided rest and recoup at the end of this long week.


For today's MindLetter, I fess up to an obsession...


The Portobello Pottery Museum 

My bathroom is a pottery museum. There are stoneware necks and lips, curved pieces of indeterminate provenance, bases and bottoms, and one perfect handle. They are redware and stoneware, red and cream and beige, the occasional porcelain. One thing is for sure: they are excessive. What started out as the odd piece, brought back from an amble on the beach, has of late become an influx of bottle, a rising tide of container, even a torrent of jug. At least, I think it has. Each one is, you see, a guessing game.  

At weekends, Hope and I go to Portobello beach and pick up pottery. Or I do; she lies down flat on the sand and watches me intensely, waiting for her ball. But as often as not, what’s in my hand is something a little more historic. Portobello, like many townships in East Lothian, was once a great centre for Scottish pottery: redware, then white earthenware, then stoneware. From the 19th to 20th centuries the Buchan and Gray kilns were renowned; specialising in the utilitarian with a smattering of tableware, they were among many that produced – according to the stunning little pamphlet Scottish Pottery, by Graeme Cruickshank – ‘barrels, bread safes, preserve jars, butter jars, meal jars, tobacco jars, whisky jars, cream jars, extract jars, bottles for ginger beer and oatmeal stout, polish bottles, blacking bottles, ink bottles, rennet jars, miniature whisky flagons, cream jugs, spittoons, vases, hot-water-bottles and water filters.’ Not to mention grocers’ butter crocks and cider jars.  

I first picked up pottery shards as a child, from the farmland outside Oxford that had been Victorian rubbish dumps. It was all porcelain there, white and blue and sometimes green. The pull was simple: I wanted to hold in my hand what others had held in theirs a hundred years before. Each fragment was a tangible piece of the past. As a child, I liked to dream of people gone by; fired earth in my hands, eaten from at a long-distant table, brought the dream light and sharp into my pockets, and this was a delight.  

A photo of a broken piece of pottery sunken into the sand.

The pottery at Portobello beach is more heavy-duty work. The section past King’s Road is best: there is a crook in the beach where the tide washes in all sorts of muck – plastic bottles, grass, twigs, takeaway cartons – but here you will also find red earthenware, some white slip, and fragments that look to be from the neck of a jug. For a while I kept finding large, clumsy pieces that looked nothing like domestic. Then a storm came, and washed in an enormous complete ceramic pipe. Mystery solved. 

For this, you see, is the appeal. What was it, once? Was it a jug that poured water for a thirsty labourer, or an ink bottle for a clerk? A ginger beer bottle on a housewife’s table, or a stone hot-water-bottle between chilled Edinburgh sheets? My eye is keenest for shards with character, for this will tell me most. A bit of curve or flat, once held with reverence, no longer does it. I won’t so much as step out of line, now, for anything less than a bottle top, a bottle bottom, a textured lip, a two-tone glazed flask neck. And like all obsessives, I’ve learned to scan the horizon with a ruthless gaze. I can pick out, at a distance, the difference between a broad piddock shell and a stoneware bottle base sticking out of the sand. 

My hunt reached its apex last weekend. After the great rain came a wild sea, and the waves washed up things that must have been held in the depths far out for decades. As the surfers surfed, and the chill bit, I picked up countless stout and ginger beer bottle bottoms, some the perfect size for tealights, others for plant pots. I carried them home with numb fingers while the puppy pulled on the lead. The next day came another layer of storm-revealed history: this time, the bottle tops to the forlorn bases. Clams hid in them, barnacles stuck to them. They were chipped and battered, some, but perfectly imperfect. I carried them home by the sackful. 

And then I had to stop and ask: just what did I seek? The Portobello Pottery Museum in my bathroom was over-flowing into the hall. I felt great satisfaction with my finds. I had the desire to put them all out on my living-room carpet and match them up, identify them with the help of the photos in Graeme Cruickshank’s Scottish Pottery: this flask neck was this kind of bottle, and this one, that. But still, I felt the itch to gather more. What for?  

We all dream the dream of completeness. It’s an age-old want: for finality, certainty, discovery. But with a hunt like this – perhaps with most – what we wind up learning is that it can only ever be a dance with great and complicated time and space. No matter how many times I prowl the beach, I will never find all the pieces of the Dublin-illustrated late nineteenth-century stout bottle whose face I picked up by the rocks outside the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home. I can never find perfect kinship with the men and women who walked the streets I walk, in this city we've both called home. For that was then, and I am now.   

Instead, I find the bottle in a book. I display the shard on a bookcase, and think about the nineteenth-century trade flow of earth and clay and stone, in a time when nothing was disposable. I rationalise my Portobello Pottery Museum; some of it, I take back to the beach. When, of a winter afternoon, Hope lies on the sand and fixes me with her gaze, the moment I take before I throw the ball is not to scan for more, more, more, but instead to watch the purple-gold light on the foaming sea. I think of them and let them go, those men and women who stood here where I stand. Sometimes incompleteness is perfect, and a better dream.

An old photo of Portobello beach
Portobello beach, 1890. Library of Congress