The thread about Edinburgh’s first piped water supply; what it has to do with a fox, a hare, a swan and a peewee; and what it doesn’t have to do with a cannonball

This thread was originally written and published in November 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

If you are interested in the Comiston Springs, the source of Edinburgh’s first public water supply, then the National Library of Scotland Map Library is your friend. Comiston is an old placename, stretching back to 1337 in records. It comes from Coleman’s tun in Old English; or the farm of a man called Coleman.

OS 1:25 inch map, 1892 survey. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
OS 1:25 inch map, 1892 survey. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Multiple natural springs in this area were captured by pipes that led to a cistern house, from where they were carried to the city. The cistern house marked on the map above was built as early as 1674, and was the source of clean drinking water that was led to the city reservoir and on to public wells.

Comiston springs cistern house, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Callum Black

These days it finds itself down a lane off the appropriately named Swan Spring Avenue in south suburban Edinburgh.

The cistern house marked in red behind the neat houses of Swan Spring Avenue.
The cistern house marked in red behind the neat houses of Swan Spring Avenue.

And why Swan Spring? Well all the springs that led to the cistern house were named for an animal, e.g. Fox Spring (which also has streets named for it). In the well house, there are (or perhaps now, were) lead statues of all the animals to denominate the pipes entering from the various springs. Some of these statues (or it may be copies of them, I am not clear) are now kept in the museum of Edinburgh.

The animals of Comiston Springs. Left to right the Swan, the Fox, the Hare and the Peeswee (Lapwing), from the Blipfoto of Flumgummery.

Here we see them in situ:

Inside the cistern house. © Scottish Water
Inside the cistern house. © Scottish Water

Interestingly, this 1976 photo shows them in different positions. Which is right?

Inside the cistern house, 1976. © The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Inside the cistern house, 1976. © The Scotsman Publications Ltd

But then here they are 10 years previously in the Water Board offices in Cockburn Street, so it seems they’ve been in the habit of taking them out and putting them back at least twice!

The Comiston animals, 1966 © The Scotsman Publications Ltd

The path that runs down the valley past the cistern is known by the ancient name of Cockmylane (no sniggering at the back). Stuart Harris makes a convincing case that it’s from the Gaelic Cuach na leanaigh, describing a hollow in a meadow with springs in it. Lane was just an Anglophone surveyor recording Leanaigh. There are 3 other geographically similar examples in the Lothians.

Cockmylane. OS 1:1250 survey of 1944. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Cockmylane. OS 1:1250 survey of 1944. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

There’s a nice BBC article on the subject of these springs but it does overlook that the engineering was German. The City contracted Peter Brusche to supply the water to the old town reservoir on Castle Hill, by gravity via a 3″ lead pipe. Comiston is at an elevation of 123m, so Brusche was able to defy the doubters and make water run “uphill” to the Castle Hill as it was 21m lower (69 feet in old money) at an elevation of 102m. The dates given vary between 1674 and 1681. I assume that this is a case of taking 7 years to complete the work.

I can recall learning this story as a schoolchild when once or twice you got to go to the council-owned Cannonball House on the Castlehill, where the tour guide, Mrs Quick, would give you the lowdown. I don’t know why Mrs Quick’s name stuck with me all these years, but it did, as did the story of the water supply by gravity. A formative experience clearly! Cannonball House is an ancient tenement at the top of the Castle Hill, which the story says is named for the cannonball lodged in its walls and that this was shot out of the castle at Bonnie Prince Charlie in Holyrood during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Right? Well, no.

Eighteenth century cannon were not peashooters, they were high velocity weapons. A cannonball like would have tore straight through the building, not lodged gently in the wall protruding out slightly. Given the size, it’s likely to be a “42pdr” (i.e. a “full cannon”, firing a 42lb shot with a diameter of 6.7 inches). This would have had an initial muzzle velocity of 1,200 feet per second and a kinetic energy sufficient to turn a domestic masonry wall to dust. The source of the story is the antiquarian James Grant in his book Old & New Edinburgh. Although Grant is usually reliable, we cannot rely 100% on what he collected in his books as being just local fable or hearsay – writing in 1947, local historian George Scott-Moncrieff says it is “not very convincingly reputed“.

The cannonball embedded in the walls of “Cannonball House”. CC-BY-SA 4.0 Enchuffla Con Clave

So, if it’s not a relic of the ’45 what is it? Well there’s two theories. The obvious one is that it was just a convenient piece of material to fill a hole in the wall, but at 42lbs it’s a very heavy piece to lift all that way up. This tenement was refurbished The nicer theory is that it’s a levelling marker for the gravitation feed from Comiston Springs – although it isn’t quite high enough for that.

Comiston Springs were Edinburgh's first public water supply, and first served as such in 1674. Find out what they have to do with a fox, a hare, a swan and a peewee, and what all this has to do with a cannoball.
Carvings on the east gable of Cannonball House in commemoration of the Edinburgh School Board rebuilding in 1913. © Self

I have a third explanation of my own. Cannonball House was rebuilt in 1913 by the Edinburgh School Board to serve as a teaching annexe for the overcrowded Castlehill Public School next door (now the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre). Perhaps the story of it being hit by a cannonball in the ’45 is true, and some humorous builders decided to add the cannonball to the western gable for the benefit of the tourists? Certainly during the works some significant alterations were made to both the inside and outside of the building, and antiquarian additions were made to the façade from bits and pieces recovered from other parts of the building. Curiously however, the first mentions of it being called Cannonball House in the local newspapers are only in 1909 when it came up for sale, and the name is given in quotation marks; clearly it was not a name in widespread official use and so perhaps it came entirely from Grant’s tale.

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