This thread was originally written and published in August 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
Yesterday’s library trip was surprisingly productive on the subject of the water supply of old Leith. What I already knew was that it was unreliable and came from Lochend Loch via pipes to a reservoir at the foot of Water Street (hence the name) – but not much more.
So what did I learn? Traditionally, Leith was watered by the Water of Leith, the Broughton Burn and the Greenside Burn. The former was tidal at this time, so you had to take any water quite far upstream. But there was a big main problem though that all three were badly polluted by Edinburgh from where they flowed.
Big houses (of which there were very few in old Leith) kept their own wells. There were wells at Yardheads too, but these were private wells for the brewers of the burgh, and even then the supply was meager – there’s a good reason brewing never figured as a big Leith industry beyond meeting the residents’ own needs in older days.
There is a description and a number of images of water being carted in from the well at Restalrig too, the “holy” well of St. Triduana / St. Margaret, so this might have been more of a nice trade than a serious supply of potable water. Sourcing water was a serious problem for Leith industries too; distilling, soap making and sugar refining all suffered and migrated further upstream on the Water of Leith to Bonnington where there was a well.
In 1752, the “Incorporation of Traffickers of Leith” (the Leith Merchant Company) heard that Edinburgh was petitioning parliament for the right to levy a tax on ale of 2d per pint brewed. This would cover Leith too as Edinburgh controlled taxation over Leith. Leith saw an opportunity here, and lobbied Edinburgh to try and gain access to some of the collected revenues of this taxation to improve the water supply in the town. Surprisingly Edinburgh agreed, if Leith drew up a schedule of costs and the plans themselves.
The source of the water was obvious, as there was only one substantial body of standing fresh water in the parish of South Leith; Lochend Loch. Conveniently this had been made available by the Crown as after the Jacobite rising of 1745, the previous proprietor of the Barony of Restalrig – Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerino of South Leith – had forfeited this estate and his head for his part in that rebellion.
The cost was to be £600, and the plan was to pipe water from the Loch down the gradient to Leith in wooden pipes to a cistern at the junction of Carpet Lane and Water Lane, which was at that time known as Rotten Row*. It was reported in 1922 that wooden water pipes from this scheme were still in the possession of a “Leith Museum”.
(* = Rotten Row was nothing to do with being rotten, it’s an ancient name recorded in Leith as early as 1453 as Rantoneraw, later Ratoun Raw, from the old Scots roten, describing a soft piece of ground.)
The cost was to be met half each by Leith and Edinburgh. A campaign for public subscription in Leith raised only £110, so the Corporations had to foot the remaining £190 themselves. The contractor was a local plumber with no experience of laying a public water supply. Wooden pipes sound odd, but were cheaper and lighter than the alternative; lead. Whole elm trunks were used as they were resistant to rot, and they were hollowed out and joined with leather seals, you can see some contemporary originals in the Museum of Edinburgh.
The contractor had no capital of their own, so work proceeded piecemeal as the money came in and they paid their labourers and bought the pipes. Contemporary writer, William Maitland, in his “History of Edinburgh” wrote critically; the Loch was too small and unhygienic. The contractor he said was “a fool“, and laid the pipes so deep (15 feet) that cost was too high, progress was too slow, and the inevitable repairs were difficult.
The pipes were laid either under, or alongside, Lochend Road, which at this time ran through open fields. Water descended by gravity, but a pump house was constructed at the loch to lift the water out and start the syphon action. A simple chain pump was housed within.
The pump house is still there. It’s very intriguing, a small, octagonal structure. If you peek inside you will see it goes down below the current ground level and there are signs of where the pump was within.
If you look around the pump house you will notice on the south wall there are signs of where a pipe has entered the building and heading off north towards the park entrance you can trace a line of stone slabs, which undoubtedly covered the wooden water pipe.
It is worth noting that the surface of the loch back then was about 10 feet higher than it is now, and therefore the loch reached much further into the park. This is as a result of the abstraction for the water supply and also later on the railways to the north and south of the Loch reportedly cut through some of its underground springs. Note in the map below the pump house is within the loch, where as now it is high and dry, about 10m back from the edge.
Water reached the pump house by way of an inlet pipe, the remains of which can be seen on the late 19th century postcard below.
So Leith now had it’s own piped water supply! But immediately, there were problems. The pipes were too narrow and the cistern was too small. The system just didn’t provide anything like enough water! So at the expense of Leith, it was all dug up again within months and relaid with larger bore pipes. A new, larger cistern was constructed further south. The area appropriately became known locally as “The Big Pipes”, and a bar of this name stood until cleared away with most of the rest of Old Leith in the early 1960s.
Six wellheads were provided for the public, on the Kirkgate at Brickwork Close, in the yard of The Vaults, on the Coalhill at the bridge, on the Shore at the New Quay and at Bernard’s Neuk on Bernard Street. The well at the Shore was to be used for watering ships, but the task of filling casks lead to long queues of locals (mainly women and girls) with stoups (long, leather buckets suspended from a yoke), and so ships were forbidden to water between 5am and 8pm.
Notice that North Leith is excluded from all this, it was a separate burgh from South Leith at this time. In 1771, a Police Act for Edinburgh (“police” at this time covered powers of sanitation, lighting, cleansing and the prevention of infectious diseases) included South Leith. The Act made provisions for the paving, watering, cleansing and lighting of areas of South Leith including St. Anthony’s (the Kirkgate) and Yardheads. One of the provisions was a new water cistern reserved for shipping, at the Ferryboat Steps on the Shore. It cost £850 and ships could get water for 1 shilling per ton. Clearly a lot of water would need to be provided to cover the costs.
But the basic problem persisted that Lochend was not a satisfactory reservoir and the Big Pipes were insufficient. They were sunk deeper into the loch, but silted up and had to regularly be cleared and the Loch would start to dry up in summer as a result of deeper extraction. Various schemes were mooted to resolve this, including constructing a dam across the Back Drum – the area of high ground to the west of the Loch on which Easter Road Stadium stands. A steam pump would be used to lift the loch water into this reservoir, where the silt could settle out, and from there it could run by gravity to the wells and cisterns in Leith.
But after much lobbying instead a 2 inch lead pipe was provided from Edinburgh’s water supply to supplement that of Leith. A source refers to the Crawley Pipe, but given that wasn’t laid until the 19th century it’s clearly one of the earlier pipes from Comiston springs. Leith of course had to pay for the privilege, £1,000 billed to the Leith Police Commissioners. Not long after it was completed, a drought in 1793 resulted in Edinburgh cutting off the pipe. Chalk up another example in the long history of Edinburgh messing with Leith!
The situation remained dire – money was always the problem, the Commissioners had the powers but not the funds as Edinburgh kept a tight and uncooperative hand on the purse strings. All that changed in 1799, when John’s Place, a fashionable new development of merchant class villas to rival Edinburgh’s New Town was constructed in Leith as it slowly expanded from the confines of its medieval boundaries.
The proprietors of the development wanted to match the New Town, and that meant having piped water. So they proposed to the Commissioners to lend them the money for improvements at 5% interest, in return for supplies being laid to John’s Place. The Commissioners jumped at the chance. The residents would also pay annual dues for the privilege. On hearing this, “every heritor on the line of the pipe from Lochend” also got on board. Each would pay 1 guinea per annum, and 21 pounds was lent to the Commissioners.
Work to improve the supply and provide private supplies took 2 years, but finally it was complete. On the grand day, the private stop cocks were opened and the public cistern promptly ran dry! There’s a problem with tapping off your water supply before it reaches its destination! So the private supplies were all shut off, and could only be opened as and when the town cistern was filled. Slowly, as Leith redeveloped and began to clear away its medieval housing stock with newer developments, others joined the scheme.
The supply remained poor, however, and the water quality was doubtful. Finally, in 1869, the Corporations of Edinburgh, Leith and Portobello combined their water interests and took over the Edinburgh Water Company to run things for themselves. Thus the Edinburgh District Water Trust came into being (look for EDWT street furniture at your feet), and Leith finally got a proper water supply.
I have used some educated guesswork to trace a route of the “big pipes” into Leith from Lochend loch, overlaid on the 1849 town plan. You can trace it out the park as you can see capstones over the pipe through the grass, and we know it ran under or parallel to Lochend Road .
You can then assume it follows the line of pumps along the western edge of the Links towards John’s Place, where pumps and troughs are marked.
It makes sense that it goes along [Queen] Charlotte Street (known simply as “The Links” when the pipe was first laid) as there was no other route into Leith from the east at the time. In the mid-to-late 18th century, the remains of the Marian walls and bulwarks of Leith were still a considerable obstacle to the east of the town – although they had largely been re-purposed into gardens. Even in 1795, their ghost was still there, clearly shown on a town plan.
There’s no sensible reason to cut the trench for a water pipe *up* a hill, if you can just go around it.
The Burgh of Leith retained a right over the Loch as a water source after it was abandoned for the drinking supply in 1869; it was still useful to some industries as it was softer water than the drinking supply so better for use in boilers. It was as late as 1922 when the Loch was finally abandoned as a water source. Leith exercised these rights in Parliament in the 1906 when Edinburgh put forward a Parliamentary Bill which would allow it abstract water from the Loch for the condensers in its electrical power station at McDonald Road. Although the Loch was partly within the municipal territory of both Edinburgh and Leith, the rights of the latter were successfully defended.
If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.
[…] the Strype which drained the lands from the direction of Easter Road. From the 18th century it was the water supply for the Port of Leith, but the quality was poor and much of the water leaked out of wood and leather pipes on its journey […]
[…] Leith was always critically short of clean water (despite the river running through it), and its public water supply from Lochend was always insufficient. The company therefore established a mill at Malleny in 1805, south of Balerno on the upper reaches […]
[…] back, warmed, from whence it came. However Leith Corporation had a veto over this as it still used its former drinking water supply for industrial purposes and the scheme came to nothing. Its customers were paying for water for […]
[…] one of the first houses in Leith to have running water. It’s not clear if the water came from the new public supply for Leith from Lochend Loch or if it was tapped off of the well of the name Lady Fife’s Well opposite the house on Leith […]
[…] my true love gave to me; Pipe Street. I could have gone with the Big Pipes of Leith, but they are covered in another post, and this gives me a chance to include something of Old Portobello; “the town that bricks […]