Edinburgh Inferno: How photographer captured iconic shots of Cowgate blaze, in his pyjamas

A faulty fuse box sparked the great Cowgate inferno of 2002, a blaze that would rage for more than 52 hours reducing The Gilded Balloon, La Belle Angele and Edinburgh University's School of Informatics to little more than smoking rubble.

By Liam Rudden
Friday, 13th May 2022, 4:55 am

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The alarm was raised shortly after 8pm on December 7, 2002, and before long more than 150 fire-fighters had arrived to tackle the conflagration as it seared through the buildings of the Cowgate and South Bridge. By the time it was under control and extinguished, some three days later, an entire block of the Old Town had been razed to the ground - 13 buildings were gone but thankfully no lives were lost, although hundreds had to flee their homes.

It was 8.11pm when a small plume of smoke was first spotted emanating from Hastie's Close. Two minutes later, fire alarms sounded in closed stores up and down South Bridge. The first fire crews from nearby Tollcross station arrived moments later.

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Firefighters tackle the blaze in Edinburgh's Cowgate Pic: Tony Marsh

Another of the first people on site as news of the fire began to spread was photographer Tony Marsh of www.tonymarshphotography.com, to a corporate and wedding photographer, back then Tony was picture editor of the News’ sister paper, Scotland on Sunday. At home in the village of Cousland after a long day at the office, he was in his pyjamas, getting ready for bed when he got the call that would result in him capturing what would become the definitive image of the blaze, an iconic shot that today, would instantly go viral.

Recalling the night, Tony remembers, “I'd finished for the day and Jill, one of my deputy picture editors, was running the desk, due to finish at 1am. Late on, I got a call from her saying there was a fire in the Cowgate and that she didn’t have a photographer to go down and have a look. At that point we had no idea how big it was, but as a photographer as well as a picture editor I was always prepared for a late call, if it came.“So I decided to pull some clothes on over my pyjamas, hopped into the car and headed back to Edinburgh - the roads were quiet at that time of night so I did the journey in about 20 minutes.”

There was a police cordon in place by the time Tony parked up and it became quickly evident the fire was a major one.

Tony takes up the story, “There was a fireman at the cordon who I knew and I manged to persuade him to let me in - he was a rank so he had the authority to do it. As I stood at the top of Blair Street I could see how major a fire it was; there was hydraulic unit with a fireman on top with a hose and fire engines and fire fighters everywhere. When I saw the flames I was worried it was going to travel the whole of the Cowgate.

Fire engine attends fire at The Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh's Cowgate, Saturday December 7 2002 Pic: Tony Marsh

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“I took a few pictures and rang the office to say how big it was and then I spoke to the paper’s deputy editor and told him how big it was, and nobody really believed me. They thought I was getting over excited about it. So I took a dozen or so pictures and rushed back to the office on Holyrood Road to plug my camera in and download the images - this was in the days before you could wire or email your pictures in.

"I suppose I wasn't even there for half an hour as I was really conscious that if I didn't shoot fast I wouldn't get them back to the office in time to get them into the paper that night and beat everyone else in the morning.

“When I got back, about midnight, they had held the last edition of the next day's paper and put the picture on the front page, although until they saw it and realised how major it was they were going to put it on page four.”

Firefighters tackle the blaze in Edinburgh's Cowgate Pic: Tony Marsh

After he filed the photos Tony went back to take more pictures but was not allowed back in through the cordon.

He recalls, “I was so focused on getting in I can't even remember if a crowd had gathered. It was really exciting for me because it wasn’t often you had something that big happen at that time of night and there was a real buzz about meeting that deadline.”

He laughs, as he adds, “At the time it reminded of why I was doing what I doing but there are still times today when I hear a fire engine and think, ‘I wonder where they are going?’ Although gone are the days when I might follow one, but I do miss that excitement of that ‘at the moment’ news.

The fire itself made headlines around the world, the loss of the Gilded Balloon Fringe venue leading the then Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, to offer the advice of French architectural experts but it wasn't just the Gilded Balloon that was lost, music venue La Belle Angele, which had played host to a legendary Oasis gig in 1994 and bands like The Libertines, was also lost .Today, the site of the blaze houses a 257-bed Ibis hotel, a Sainsbury's at ground level on South Bridge and associated shops, restaurants and bars.

Firefighter tackles the blaze in Edinburgh's Cowgate Pic: Tony Marsh

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Photographer Tony Marsh