Portobello Bathing Pool and Scottish Lidos, past and present.

by Lorna McCulloch

I’ve had a framed copy of this wonderful poster of Portobello Lido on my wall for years, and have occasionally mused about what it would have been like. After the fascinating lecture on Seaside Architecture by Dr Kathryn Ferry, I was inspired to do a bit more research on Portobello Bathing Pool and Scottish Lidos, past and present.

For well over 100 years, Scotland has had sea pools, which were usually rough stone walls built in natural bays to create a safe swimming area. Although some were developed into more formal outdoor swimming pools between the late Victorian era and the 1930’s, few were developed into full blown art deco Lidos with 3 notable exceptions (that I’ve been able to find). 

Portobello Bathing Pool

Portabello Open Air Pool circa 1958

The Granddaddy of them all was Portobello. One of the largest Lido’s in the UK (the size of 2 Olympic swimming pools), it was designed by Ian Warner and opened in 1936. The pool was able to seat 6,000 spectators and had lockers for 1284 swimmers. There were regular diving displays from the stunning cantilevered diving boards. Built with all mod cons, it was filled with filtered seawater heated by steam from the power station next door, although contemporary accounts are not very flattering about the temperature of the water, so that seems to have been more of a gimmick than a useful feature! What did work however, and was Portobello’s claim to fame, was the wave machine. Portobello boasted Scotland’s first electric wave generator, which could produce 1m-high waves, giving a realistic feel of sea-breakers. It also had underwater illumination, perfect for the floodlit evening galas and treasure hunts as advertised on the poster (admission 6D). There was also a glorious Art Deco Pavilion with Ballroom, restaurant and observation deck.  A further claim to fame is that Sir Sean Connery was a life guard there in the early 50’s – many a swimmer must have feigned drowning in the hope of getting mouth to mouth resuscitation from the original Bond!

The deserted complex in 1985 shortly before demolition

Sadly, like many other Lidos, it fell into disuse and disrepair and was eventually demolished in 1989.  Fortunately the other 2 Art Deco Lidos, both located in Aberdeenshire (somewhat surprisingly to those who know Scotland) have a happier fate.

Stonehaven Lido

The comparatively diminutive Stonehaven open air pool opened in 1934, and is unusual in that it has never closed. The Olympic sized heated pool cost £9,529 to build.  Portobello is reputed to have cost £90 000 – £7000 went on the wave machine alone. Stonehaven was threatened with closure in the mid-90’s but was saved by the local community. The Friends of Stonehaven Open Air Swimming Pool, now a registered charity, runs the pool in partnership with the council. A planned Art Deco Society trip for a midnight swim in the pool has sadly not come to pass this year, but a visit is high on the agenda once trips resume – although we will try and persuade them to replace disco with more era appropriate tunes!

Tarlair Lido

Tarlair is in the wonderfully named McDuff, about an hour and a half north of Stonehaven.  Designed by John C Miller, it opened in 1931.

Tarlair Lido in period – photo via tour-scotland-photographs.blogspot.com/

The 3 pool complex of main swimming pool, boating pool and paddling pool had a wave replenished design. The pools were connected by pumps – as the tide rose it filled the large swimming pool, clearing out the old water and the fresh sea water was in turn pumped into the other pools. Today it’s in a sorry state, but there is hope. Designated a category A listed building in 2007 in recognition of the unique nature of the pool structure, the site remains on the At Risk register.   In 2012 the Friends of Tarliar was founded with the aim of restoring the pool and bringing it back into use. A 3 Phase Conservation Plan by architect John Addison of Addison Conservation and Design is now in place and work commenced in 2015 with the repair of the infant pool, boating pool and terraces.  Unfortunately, funds allocated by the council have been withdrawn due to COVID, but the Friends of Tarlair have recently manged to secure a 100-year lease and will be carrying on with fundraising to complete phase 2, the redevelopment of the Art Deco Pavilion into a café and heritage centre. Phase 3 would be the full restoration of the site. Currently the boating pond is the only pond that is still in use, with model boats often out in the water. For the past 5 years the Friends have held a fundraising gala, which may well be a future Art Deco society trip!  Anyone who would like to follow the progress of the redevelopment of the pool or would like to help can find details here:

Friends of Tarlair are hoping to restore the lido

I have also come across Gourock Open Air Pool, which opened in 1909.  I can find very little historical information on it, other than that it was redeveloped in 1969 and again in 2010. Whilst the building has a slight art deco look to it, it’s unclear if this was built in the 30’s or is a later nod to Art Deco Lido architecture. If anyone has more information on this building, please let us know!

Stonehaven by night from a period postcard.

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