It is probably the second most instagrammable vista in Edinburgh (after that lane), but what is this place actually called – and why?
“Dinnae be a dafty, Andy” I hear you say. “We all know that’s the Dean Village. Ask anyone in town. No ifs. No buts. Away to bed with you. ” Refreshing our local history, the story goes King David I gives the rights and profits of the mills in the “dene” or “dean” (gorge) of the Water of Leith to Holyrood Abbey in the 12th century, a village grows up around the mills and that becomes the Dean Village. Right? But what if, for most of its very long recorded history, what if… What if it wasn’t?
That a village did grow up around the mills of the Dean is indisputable, but it was never, ever referred to as the Dean Village until the late 19th century, and to the locals it never was until well into the 20th century. And what if I told you that the Dean Village, (or Village of Dean to give it its proper name) was actually some place else? Because, actually it was.
The earliest map that records this location is the anonymous map of the Siege of Leith of 1560 – likely produced by Richard Lees, an English military officer and surveyor. The captions are almost illegible in the publicly available copy, but the yellow one is “Com’on Mylles” and the blue one is “The De’nne“. So far so good; we have mills on the Water of Leith and a village nearby. But note that the village is actually up the hill and removed from the Mills.
The next earliest map showing this area is Blaeu’s atlas published in 1654, based on the surveys of Timonthy Pont and a bit of James Gordon’s, made decades earlier. It records the Den (Dean) Mills, with a house called Kraig (Craigleith) on the high ground to the north. That other mapmaker extraordinaire, William Roy, records the Dean Mills in his 1750s lowland map, downstream from Bells Mills, and to the north of the house of Cotts (Coates) (source NLS)
OK, that’s enough teasing with maps; it should begin to be clear that Dean Mills refers to the water mills in the river gorge (the “Dean” itself) and that there was a distinct place called Dean House or The Dean on the high ground to the north. The name of the village that grew up around the mills in the gorge wasn’t the Dean Village at all, it was simply Water of Leith, or the Village of the Water of Leith. Adair records it as such in 1682, in amongst the collection of mills, again north of Coates and south of Canonmills.
You can check if you don’t believe me, but right up to 1945, every single OS map and town plan records not the “Dean Village” but simply the “Water of Leith”.
Indeed many of the early town map makers didn’t even refer to the river as the Water of Leith, they called that the Leith Water! e.g. Ainslie here in 1804. Notice the property of the “Bakers of Edinburgh” (Incorporation of Baxters) recorded too.
What was called the Village of Dean or Dean Village was up the hill to the north, as shown on Kirkwood’s plan of 1817, adjacent to Dean House (or House of Dean) on the road known as the Dean Path. For hundreds of years these were two distinct villages, which are now little more than quaint little urban neighbourhoods, but the name of the former migrated itself down the hill to become attached to the other.
I shall call the higher level settlement the Village of Dean, so as to try and not get too confused, and it is now entirely gone in all but name, but it did leave behind some intriguing history. Malcolm Cant’s book on the Villages of Edinburgh gives a description. The village is aligned on the Dean Path (at that time long the principal “road” north out the city heading to Queensferry via Cramond, crossing the river at a ford and later a bridge in Water of Leith village). It was a few small lanes but had a population of 400 in the mid-18th century. The village was mainly single storey, thatched-roof cottages, but some extended to two, with the upper accessed in the traditional manner by an external staircase. The inhabitants were carters and quarriers of the Inverleith sandstones and farm labourers of the Barony of Dean.
For facilities, there was a smithy, a cartwright, a cordiner (the Scots term for a shoemaker), a small school and a tavern run by “Mrs Burr”, with a sign above the door with a picture of a horse and cart and which read “Lang May the Wheel Row“. The village was dominated by the House of Dean, a vast 17th century tower-house-cum-mansion inhabited by the Nisbets (Dean Baronets), wealthy merchants who counted Lord Provosts and even Poulterer to the King in their family tree.
Paul Sandby, the skilled landscape artist and surveyor, made this excellent and detailed illustration around 1750 or so. The two men on the roof of one of the Village of Dean buildings catch the eye as he on the left has a drawing board. I wonder if Sandby has drawn himself in?
In 1826, the prolific watercolour artist of Edinburgh and Leith, James Skene WS, made a similar illustration from a slightly different angle, showing not too much had changed since. The sky is typically dramatic like most Skene images, and he’s always prolific with smoke from chimneys too.
For a full history of House of Dean you can’t do better than this by Stravaiging About Scotland. Long story short, it was demolished in 1845 to make way for the Dean Cemetery, but some of its ornate painted interiors and plenty of carved stonework survives. By this time the Nisbet’s lands of Dean were owned by another Provost, John Learmonth, and it was he who successfully proposed the Dean Bridge to cross the Dean Gorge and open up (his) lands for construction of plush new suburbs north of the New Town.
With the bridge completed and opening to traffic in 1834, the farmland and orchards which occupied the Dean Estate now found themselves opened to development – although that proceeded at a slower pace than Learmonth envisaged and he never lived to see much of it.
And as for the Village of Dean? That seems to have disappeared quite quickly between 1831 when its position is shown on the Great Reform Act maps, and 1849 when it’s missing from that last OS Town Plan above. A simple village for simple folk, we might never have known any more if it wasn’t for the curious tale of one of its blacksmiths. Enter stage right Robert Orrock (or Orrok, an old Fife name derived from an ancient Norman landowner, Symon de Oroc).
Orrock was the village smithie in the 1790s and was deeply interested in political reform under the influence of the French revolution and also in Scotland a lingering feeling of political disenchantment following the Act of Union (sound familiar?). In the 1790s in England, reform-minded Whigs began to set up a group called the “Society of Friends of the People“, a sort of gentlemens’ political debating club by invite.
In Scotland, and mainly around Edinburgh, the similarly minded and sounding “The Friends of the People Society” was an altogether different organisation, largely composed of the more skilled and higher status working classes like shopkeepers, artisans and the trades. The Friends of the People also attracted writers (solicitors) and advocates (barristers) and church ministers to their ranks, and in 1792 and 1793 they held three “general conventions”, which grew increasingly radical and saw the more learned and middle class members drift away.
Robert Orrock became involved in the last and most radical of these conventions, the “British Convention“, where members of some of the English societies were invited to Edinburgh to attend. The Convention’s goals were universal male suffrage and annual free elections. Amongst their hundred or so attendees they included the local legend that was “Balloon Tytler“, James Tytler, the man of the Great Edinburgh Fire Balloon who made the first flight in the British Isles.
While the attendees debated at Mason’s Lodge on Blackfriar’s Wynd in the old town, Robert Orrock was hard at work at his forge to all hours. When asked what he was working so hard on he would reply he was “making ornamentations for a gentleman’s gate“. Except, he wasn’t. Those long metal spikes weren’t for a gate. He was making pike heads! To be precise, he was making four thousand pike heads! Orrock was in a small faction of the Friends who had decided that they might need to follow the French example and undertake revolution if they wanted the change they desired.
The plan was simple. Once Orrock had made enough pike heads and they were assembled into weapons, the old excise office would be set alight to draw out the castle garrison. Once they had exited the castle, another fire would be lit behind them to block their retreat and the conspirators would then rush the depleted castle and take control. With the castle under control and the masses (hopefully) flocking to be equipped for revolution from its armory, the city and the reins of power of the Scottish administration would be seized by quelling the town guard, rounding up the judges and the magistrates, and requisitioning the banks. All “country gentlemen” within 3 miles of Edinburgh were to be ordered to “keep within their houses” on pain of death.
While this might seem fanciful to us, the 18th Century “Edinburgh Mob” was notorious and more than capable of taking the law into its own hands and overpowering the City Guard when required. This included lynching its Captain in 1736 when they feared he would evade justice for ordering his men to fire into a crowd.
The plan came to nothing however, Orrock’s stash of weapons had been uncovered by the sheriff’s men when only 40 were complete and he turned crown evidence to save his own skin. The Convention itself was broken up by the authorities, terrified of revolution, and five of its leaders and principal spokesmen (2 Scots and 3 English) arrested, tried for sedition and sentenced to transportation. They are commemorated by the Martyrs Monument on Calton Hill.
Of those arrested with Orrock, Robert Watt and David Downie were tried and convicted of High Treason and ordered to be hung, drawn and quartered. Watt was executed but Downie was pardoned in 1795 on sentence of a further year in jail and self-banishment from Great Britain. Neither Orrock or any of the others were tried. As if to labour my point, one of his conspirators who also appeared for the Crown as a witness was one Arthur Macewan, a weaver from “Water of Leith”. What became of the revolutionary, turned blacksmith, turned turncoat, Robert Orrock, is not recorded in my book. He was ordered to be released in December 1794, and a Robert Orrock died in Edinburgh in 1806, age unknown, which could be him.
And how did the Water of Leith Village become to be known as the Dean Village? Well apparently its use was first recorded as such in 1884 in reference to Well Court, that beautiful model workers housing scheme built by John Ritchie Findlay of the Scotsman.
n.b. apparently the clock tower and “Dutch” steeple are modelled after the original of the Tron Kirk, lost in the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824.
Anyway, that’s straying dangerously close to the history of the Water of Leith village rather than the Dean Village. Apparently until 1962 you could still find businesses listing themselves under “Water of Leith” as their address in the Post Office directory (this example 1941)
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[…] Today’s property listing of historical interest was a flat in this curious Victorian, mock-Tudorbethan house at 1 Belford Road at the head of the road above the Dean Village (or as it would have been known at the time, the Water of Leith village). […]