The unusual gift from Shetland to Edinburgh that (usually) adorns the Meadows

By Kaite Welsh

For a city with a history as gruesome and gothic as Edinburgh's, the idea that we might have an archway leading to one of our most beautiful public parks made entirely of bone is...well, frankly it's pretty on brand.

In fact, given the fact that Surgeons' Hall Museum contains a notebook made out of a murderer’s skin, we should probably be thankful that they’re not human bones.

In fact, the iconic Jawbone Arch that leads from Marchmont into the Meadows is made up of four bones from the upper and lower jaws of a whale. Standing there from 1887 until 2014 when they were taken away for restoration, we’re still waiting on the return of one of the city’s oddest items.

The bones originally formed part of the Orkney and Fair Isle Knitters’ Stall, part of a grand exhibition Edinburgh hosted in 1886, which suggests that late Victorian Scottish knitters were actually pretty badass. Rather than transport them back home, the bones were donated to the city that year and were later arranged at the entrance leading onto Middle Meadow Walk. They were supported by a metal strut and bronze bands which bear the inscription From Zetland and Fair Isle Knitting Stand/Edinburgh Exhibition 1886.

Although dramatic, this isn't the only example of whalebones being used in landscape architecture in Britain. Cardigan Castle in Wales has one that also dates back to the 19th century. The Arctic whaling trade reached its height in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and decorating one's house or gateway with the jawbones was deeply fashionable. These days, however, there are only around 90 such arches still standing.

But thanks to the Edinburgh weather, the bones were in need of repair and restoration after over 100 years braving the Scottish elements.

Unfortunately, preserving centuries old whalebones is harder than you might think. It has required specialist attention after being taken into storage to dry - and whalebone experts aren't easy to find. Although the restoration has taken longer than expected, it's hoped that they will be back in their original position by the end of the year.


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