Decorators of Portobello

Nicky Bird

2019-2021 Assemble Heritage Landmark Place

A two-year mult-generational oral history project working closely with Portobello Heritage Trust and a number of decorators who once worked in Buchan Potteries in Portobello during 1950s/60s

The Decorators of Portobello‘ project was a two-year mult-generational oral history project led by artist, Nicky Bird, working closely with Portobello Heritage Trust and a number of decorators who once worked in Buchan Potteries in Portobello during 1950s/60s. The project sought to make visible previously unrecorded social histories for these women, using oral recording and archival photography. It brought attention to a group of women’s working lives at a point in time when we have an increased sense of the importance of place and industrial heritage.

Over the two-phase project (2019-21) a number of outdoor artworks, community events, kiln installations, walks+talks were run exploring the area of Western Portobello which once housed the decorator workshops and surrounding potteries. In 2021 the project culminated with the publication of a book ‘The Decorators of Portobello: In their own words‘ (Art Walk Press, Oct 2021), an exhibition at the Art Walk Hub & four nearby charity shops (Sept 2021), and a community multigenerational engagement project (led by Amy Johnstone) informing new audiences about heritage, working with local schools, and care homes.

The distinctive bottle kilns in Portobello, Edinburgh, are now the only physical remnant of a once thriving ceramics industry. But the voices of the women, who painted the distinctive thistle design on pots at the celebrated Buchan pottery, have remained largely unrecorded until now. This book celebrates five of Buchan’s former decorators, through their own words, personal photographs and other memorabilia. The Decorators of Portobello: In their own words makes visible a hidden social history of women that is still within living memory, where themes of life-long friendships, working responsibilities and conditions, are remembered alongside vivid memories of their craft.

Mairi Fortuna with Nicky Bird & Nicky Bird Artist Talk 2021
photograph credit: Ellie McMaster

Interview Extracts

Listen below to interviews with three decorators

Images: Installed cabinet, Art Walk Hub Exhibition 2021

List of Works & Events


(Supported by Creative Scotland, Robertson Trust and City of Edinburgh Council)

Show & Tell, Portobello Library, Thursday 19th September 2019

Artist Introductory Walk/Visit, Portobello kilns, Pipe Street and Bridge Street area Saturday 16th November 2019

The Decorators, Portobello Kilns and Bridge Street, Saturday 29th February & Sunday 1st March, Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March 2020. With the following site-specific photographic and sound works:

Outdoor photo-banner, 453cm (W), 242.5cm (H) door area 269.5 (H), Bridge Street Production: Eastern Exhibition & Display Outdoor Poster, 246cm (H) 178cm (W), Bridge Street Production: Eastern Exhibition & Display. Artwork by Rosy Naylor

Outdoor mesh wraparound banner around Kiln 1906, 386 metres. Production: Printvision. Artwork by Rosy Naylor

Sound work: three voices, three portable bluetooth speakers installed inside Kiln 1909

The Decorators’ Tea Party, The Wash House Community Centre Saturday 29th February 2020

Artist Walk/Talk, Portobello kilns, Pipe Street and Bridge Street area Saturday 7th March


(Supported by Creative Scotland, National Lottery Heritage Trust & Historic Environment Scotland)

Assemble, Group Exhibition, Art Walk Projects Hub, Portobello
September 2021

Photographs (various sizes), Buchan pottery, memorabilia and Decorators’ statements 2 metre display case and 1 upright cabinet display case, with 4 upright cabinets in British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Salvation Army, and St Columba’s Hospice charity shops Production: Eastern Exhibition & Display

Community Mapping Workshop & Walk with the artist and AOC Archaeology Group 4th September 2021

Artist Walk/Talk with Mairi Fortuna, Art Walk Projects Hub and Portobello High Street 5th September 2021

Book Publication: The Decorators of Portobello: In their own words Launch, 8th October 2021

Community Engagement Programme (Oct to Dec 2021) working with Towerbank School, Edinburgh College Princes Trust Award Programme, Portobello Older Peoples’ Project and local Portobello Care Homes (kiln visits, clay workshops, pottery makers’ mark making, collage making and reminiscence packs made by many of the school children based on their grandparents first jobs which were gifted to care home residents).

Image: Book Launch at Portobello Bookshop
photograph credit: Alison Chisholm

MediaKiln Wraparound 2020 – Artwork: Rosy Naylor
Inside the Kiln: with the voice of Mairi Fortuna


Nicky Bird web page detailing the project
Porty Podcast The Decorators – Art Walk Porty Residence, November 2019
Porty Podcast The Decorators – Part 2, 29 February 2020
Artist Interview with Genevieve Fay, February 2020
‘The Decorators of Portobello’ residency with Nicky Bird, a-n The Artists Information Company, February 2020
The Afternoon Show, BBC Scotland, 5 March 2020

With special thanks to:
Pat Banyard
Mairi Fortuna
Irene Forbes
Irene Macintosh
Barbara Naughton
& Portobello Heritage Trust

Image (above & below): Site specific outdoor photo banner 2020
photograph credit: Ellie McMaster