Scottish Archaeologists Discover Ruins of Massive Lost Wine-Bottle Glass Factory

Bottled up for a century, the Edinburgh glass factory once churned out 1 million units a week—and may have helped shape the modern wine bottle

Scottish Archaeologists Discover Ruins of Massive Lost Wine-Bottle Glass Factory
The glassworks' conical furnaces make a cameo in the 19th-century William Reed painting "Leith Races," in happier times (left). The last one was torn down in 1912 (right). (Copyright City of Edinburgh Council / City of Edinburgh Council – Libraries)
Apr 22, 2020

Archaeologists have a knack for finding wine in unexpected places. In secret chambers. At the bottom of the sea. Right under your house! Now, a long-lost relic of wine history has been discovered in an urban timber yard in Edinburgh, Scotland, and it's a big find. The AOC Archaeology Group uncovered a massive mid-18th century glass factory whose cone furnaces once towered over the port district of Leith and supplied wine and whisky bottles to all corners of the British Empire at the height of its power.

A real-estate developer had been planning to turn the 3-acre timber yard into an apartment complex, but local law required that an archaeological survey be done before construction. Remains of the glassworks’ once-imposing brick cones, along with some vinous artifacts, soon came to light, said John Lawson, curator for the City of Edinburgh Council Archaeology Service. “We [seem] to have at least one dump of 19th-century wine bottles."

The Edinburgh glassworks had once been vital to Britain’s wine and whisky trade, at a time when the Empire grew increasingly thirsty. “It would seem that [the] glassworks were built in part to meet a growth in demand for glass wine [and whisky] bottles,” Lawson observed. Wine and whisky were sometimes linked, as the barrels for Sherry, hugely popular in 18th- and 19th-century Britain and its colonies, were often repurposed to age brown spirits. Casks of both drinks, as well as other fashionable pours like Port and French wine, were emptied into the bottles coming out of the Leith furnaces. “At its peak [around 1770], production was a staggering 1 million bottles per week,” said Fraser Parkinson, a local historian and tourist guide for Select Scotland Tours. “As business boomed, the [glassworks] expanded to producing clear glass bottles for white wines.” The factory even inspired the name of Leith’s Salamander Street, a nod to the furnaces and the mythological firefighting powers attributed to the not-at-all-fire-resistant real-life amphibians.

Painting of the Leith Races in Scotland
Off to the races! The full painting, "Leith Races," by William Reed (1845 - 1881) (Copyright City of Edinburgh Council)

Most significantly for today’s wine fans, Leith’s glass industry may have contributed to the design of modern wine bottles. Parkinson cited a late-19th century observation from writer James Grant: “The Leith pattern bottle is the parallel-sided, round-shouldered, narrow-neck bottle now dominant within the wine industry."

But the glassworks were destined to burn out. Per Lawson, an early blow was dealt to the business when a certain group of 13 colonies broke away from the Crown. “Trade to the U.S.A. in 1795 was significantly affected by independence, with the loss of trade except, it seems, to New York.” The furnaces bellowed on for another century, until gas power rendered them obsolete. “By December 1874, the Edinburgh press were recording the closure of the Edinburgh and Leith Glassworks,” Parkinson said. “The site was leased, and all machinery and goods down to ‘bottle moulds of every variety from flasks to carboys’ were put up for auction.” The last glass furnace was torn down in 1912.

Luckily, although they won’t be functional for future potables, it looks like the remains of Leith’s glass furnaces will be saved, even as construction continues. The plan now, Lawson indicated, is to build the flats around, and not over, “these nationally important remains.”


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