Jawbone Arch Project

Jawbone Arch, the Meadows, Melville Drive, Edinburgh

(update August 2019 - I saw somewhere on "social media" that the rare four-bone arch, removed for conservation, may be returned soon. Robin Barclay)

The Jawbone Arch is a unique Edinburgh landmark made from the upper and lower jawbones from a whale, located on Jawbone Walk on the Meadows, a large area of common land on the Southside of the city centre. They were originally erected as the Shetland and Fair Isles Knitters stand of the 'International Exhibition of Industry Science and Art' in 1886, a major showcase of 'commerce and manufactures'. Each jawbone has a bronze band with the inscription: 'FROM ZETLAND FAIR ISLE KNITTING STAND. INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION 1886'.

After the exhibition they were accepted by Sheriff Thoms for Edinburgh Town Council on 1st February 1887, and sited at the West Meadows gateway. Using whalebones as a functional decorative arches was quite common in traditional fishing communities in the 19th c. heyday of the whaling industry. There were examples all over Britain, at Berwick Law, Lothian, Bragar on the Isle of Lewis, and the jawbones at Whitby commemorates local hero, Captain Cook. All these have all had similar problems being outdoors for over a century, and many have simply deteriorated to extinction. The jawbones at Berwick Law have been replaced with a fibreglass replica, on Bragar they have been covered in fibreglass, while the arch at Whitby has been moved inside the local museum.

The Meadows Arch is a unique legacy of the exhibition of 1886, literally a tented showcase of Shetland and Fair Isle knitting and weaving, made from whalebone transported from the Northern Isles. The other vestiges of the exhibition in the locality are the Masons pillars and the Sundial, structures made of different sandstone sections from Scottish quarries and finished with stonemasons marks and tooling, while the Brass-founders pillar in Nicolson Square highlights foundry skills.

Despite the original temporary nature of the structure, the Jawbone Arch has become a popular and well-loved feature of the Marchmont and Meadows Conservation area, on a popular route to the Old Town along Jawbone Walk. While it lies just outwith the Edinburgh World Heritage site they are in the 'buffer zone ‘ and contribute to the 'outstanding universal value’ of the locale. The jawbones have stood the weather and the passage of time well, however they are now in need of serious conservation. age has ernbrittled the sponge-like cellular structure of the bone itself, inherently waterproof, but ultimately susceptible in the outside environrnent .

Current Condition and Consenation Proposal

While it is not in immediate danger of collapse, deterioration will present an increasing risk to public safety if not upgraded. Standing outside open to the elements has caused weaknesses, particularly at the lower ends where the jawbones are held in cast-concrete supports. These hold dampness in the fabric and now compromise the structural integrity of the arch, and potentially its ability to stand unsupported in the future as it has for over 120 years. Previous gap-fill repairs have been in cement and epoxy, applied with no understanding of the nature of the material, and now failing and becoming loose. Specialist assessments have been done, and the proposed project will strengthen the structure by impregnation with a conservation-approved acrylic resin. which is a recognised and well-tested conservation agent for this type of material.

The intended conservation approach is to retain the original fabric, intrinsic to identity and sense of place Unlike other arches which have been replaced in fibre glass, thereby ruining any historical authenticity. Consolidating the jawbones will improve the structural integrity and bespoke support 'shoes' in stainless steel or bronze to replace the existing concrete blocks will improve appearance and longevity. The work will be undertaken by specialist conservation contractors, and requires the material to be well dried out, so the arch would be dismantled and removed from site to a workshop for about six months.

Costs of this unusual and specialist work are estimated at around £50,000 for work to the jawbone and for creating bespoke stainless steel/bronze supports. As part of the project we aim to include an interpretation panel to ten the story of the Jawbone Arch and the Meadows Exhibition. Edinburgh World Heritage Trust are supporting the fundraising project as they have been instrumental in the Twelve Monuments Restoration project in the city, which has recently preserved the Burns, National and Nelson monuments and several bronze statues. (David Livingstone, Adam Black, Professor John Wilson, Duke of Buccleuch and the Black Watch memorial). We also intend to apply to the Shetland Amenity Trust for financial support, but are keen to enlist all interested parties.

The upgraded arch will ensure this small Shetlandic historic feature of the Meadows can continue to be enjoyed in safety by everyone for many years to come.

Paul McAuley, Conservation Officer, City of Edinburgh Council. 0131 556 9536


Fiona Rankin, Project Manager, Edinburgh World Heritage Trust 0131 220 7727