The thread about Bonnington; its early history; where its name comes from; which Bonnington House is which; and a little bit of its early industries

I came across this absolutely brilliant early 19th century watercolour on the National Galleries of Scotland website in the course of my daily rummaging. It is a view south across the Water of Leith at Bonnington, looking towards Edinburgh and the unmistakable (if slightly overdramatic) skyline of Arthur’s Seat and the Calton Hill. It is by John Harden and is date April 1809, and the scene is one mixing intense and jarring modern industry set amongst the dying days of the romantic Georgian pastoral idyll that surrounded Edinburgh and Leith.

Haig's Distillery, Bonnington, John Harden, 1809
Haig’s Distillery, Bonnington, John Harden, 1809

Harden (1772 – 1847) was from a wealthy, landowning Scottish-Irish family and a gentleman of means and leisure. He dedicated his spare time to being a watercolour artist and produced a number of landscapes around Edinburgh and Scotland and depictions of day-to-day life of his family, servants, friends and acquaintances. His intimate sketches of family life in Edinburgh’s New Town in the early 19th century are the earliest known visual record of its interiors and life within them.

Back to the painting – it is not a view you can get any more because of subsequent building, but it’s full of details of industrial Leith at the beginning of the 19th c. The artist is sitting roughly where the garages on Graham Street are, looking southeast.

Harden's watercolour, overlaid on the modern street scene
Harden’s watercolour, overlaid on the modern street scene

The main feature that dominates the foreground is Haig’s distillery at Bonnington, with distinctive cowls and pagodas. It was built in 1798 by Leith distillers Balenie & Kemp from Yardheads. They escaped the constrictions of the old town of Leith by moving alongside the river at Bonnington and building a large pot still distillery.

The Bonnington distillery was bought by John Haig in 1804, who already had a large distillery in Edinburgh, the Lochrin, at Tollcross. The Haigs were one of the dominant lowland whisky families. Kane McKenzie Haig had built what was probably the first commercial whisky distillery in the 1720s at Kennetpans near Stirling; even at this time the family had a long pedigree in distilling stretching back almost a century. The Haigs were relations by marriage to the Steins – the other big lowland distilling name – and also the Jamesons who would go on to make a name for themselves in Irish Whiskey. They were a founding member of the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) which went on to become an industrial giant and form the core of the spirits business of the multinational Diageo.

Mr Haig’s Distillery. Ainslie’s town plan of 1804, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

John Haig was one of only 5 Scotch distillers to take up a licence to export to England in 1814 when the prohibition on the trade was lifted. In 1835 a vertical Coffey Still was installed for constant production of grain spirit and the site started production of gin for the London market, as well as Scotch. Distilling ceased in 1853 and the site became a flour mill.

The distillery as the "Leith Distillery" in the 1849 OS town survey. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
The distillery as the “Leith Distillery” in the 1849 OS town survey. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

A possible reason that the distillery location was here was the presence of an existing well – you can see it on the map above in the top left corner, annotated “St Cuthbert’s Well (Chalybeate)”. A chalybeate well, from the Latin chalybs, is one whose waters are possessed of iron salts, and the drinking of such waters was increasingly popular in late Stuart and Georgian times for their perceived health-giving benefits. St. Cuthbert’s Well was no different. Its use probably goes back to time memorial, but by 1750 it was held locally to be a medicinal well and people frequented it for this reason. A well house was built in the early 19th century, containing a pump-room and a reading room, and advertisements in 1819 made it known that it was open from 6AM each day and that newspapers were available. This would have been a commercial enterprise on the part of the proprietor of the land, a Mr Mclean. The well was lost in 1857 when, during conversion of the distillery to a flour mill, the site was expanded over. Its existence is still remembered however; a recent planning application on the site was altered to ensure its site was not encroached upon.

Handbill advertising the mineral well, 1819, from the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, vol. 19
Handbill advertising the mineral well, 1819, from the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, vol. 19

In the foreground, women hang out their washing on the bleaching green. This allowed them to bleach their linen in the sunlight and was usually done alongside rivers as the linen would have to be boiled and rinsed up to a dozen times as part of this process.

Bleaching the linen
Bleaching the linen

On the right, a man leans on a fence admiring the first Bonnington Bridge, where the Newhaven Road crosses the Water of Leith. Interestingly the plaque on the bridge says it was first built in 1812, but it’s clearly here in 1809 and is on the 1804 map too! This bridge was rebuilt in 1902 to make it suitable for the coming of trams.

A gentleman of leisure
A gentleman of leisure

Here is that bridge in 1900(ish) before replacement. You can see oil lamps on L and R which have been converted to burn gas (but not yet been fitted with mantles). The building on the right is the paper mill. The young lads in the foreground are dragging a box and perhaps carrying a spade.

The Bonnington Bridge, looking north, c. 1900. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The Bonnington Bridge, looking north, c. 1900. © Edinburgh City Libraries

In the middle distance of the painting are the big hooses along Bonnington/Broughton Road. From left to right I think we can see; 1 – (New) Bonnington House, 2 – Bonnington Lodge, 3 – Redbraes, 4 – Rosebank and closer to us at 5 – Stewartfield.

Big houses along Bonnington and Broughton Roads
Big houses along Bonnington and Broughton Roads

Those rotating cowls on the roof of the malt houses are interesting, and a close match to those pictured by James Skene in 1818 at Eyre’s brewery, upriver at Canonmills.

Canonmills malt kilns, James Skene, 1818, © Edinburgh City Libraries
Canonmills malt kilns, James Skene, 1818, © Edinburgh City Libraries

When John Harden painted his picture, he was undoubtedly sitting in the gardens of Bonnington Old House. Bonnington – or Bonyntoun– is a place name recorded back to 1489 when Thomas Crawford of Bonnington was granted lands in this area t Hillhousefield, part of the Burgh of Regalty of Broughton. One might assume that Bonnington, a fairly common lowland Scots place name, might derive from the Scots bonny (for pleasant), but it is from Bondingtoun, i.e. a piece of land let out to a bonder – a yeoman farmer. Its roots lie with the Norse word bondi. A house of the name of Bonnington was built around 1521 when the Crawford’s successors were granted them in feufarm from the Barons of Broughton. The original manor house was probably destroyed during the Siege of Leith in 1560 and it shows up on the “Petworth House map” of that conflict as Bonneton. The manor house was rebuilt in around 1630, probably by a branch of the Logans of South Leith.

Bonnington Old House, by Thomas Ross, 1878

In 1684, Bonnington came into the possession of the Bairds of Saughton Hall who in turn sold it to an Edinburgh bookseller by the name of Thomas Brown in 1717. Brown rebuilt the facade of the house, including in it a moulding panel (seen in the picture above) with his own arms above the front door. When the house was demolished in 1891 to make way for workers’ tenements, the armorial panel was include above the dormer windows in one of these. Sadly it seems to have been lost when these tenements in turn were demolished during 1960s slum clearance.

It was known as Bonnington Old House because in 1805 the Haigs had built a new Bonnington House to the south of the distillery. It too was demolished, around 1904, as the large houses in this area were swallowed up for the expanding industries and blocks of tenements.

Bonnington House, from Cassell's Old & New Edinburgh by James Grant
“New” Bonnington House, from Cassell’s Old & New Edinburgh by James Grant

In the late 18th century, various parcels of the lands of Bonnington were fued off and in 1786 the core of the old estate and Old Bonnington House itself came into the posession of the advocate James Clerk; later James Clerk-Rattray, Baron of the Exchequer. This breakup of the estate resulted in houses variously named Bonnington Brae, Bonnington Lodge, two separate Bonnington Banks, Bonnington Grove and all the way north to Bonnington Park – the original name of the house and parkland which would become Victoria Park in Trinity.

Bonnington Bank, now much altered and extended, as Letham Park Care Home, on Ferry Road. One time townhouse of the Earls of Mar and Kellie
Bonnington Bank, now much altered and extended, as Letham Park Care Home, on Ferry Road. One time townhouse of the Earls of Mar and Kellie

It can be quite confusing to try and get your head around some of the placenames in this area, as some are long gone and others make repeated use of the placename “Bonnington”, so I have coloured in and clearly annotated Kirkwood’s map of 1817 to help.

Houses of Bonnington, 1817. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Houses of Bonnington, 1817. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The other historic centre of Bonnington was around the mills, on the other side of the river from Old Bonnington House. This area was known as Bonnyhaugh, centred on a house of that name; in Scots, haugh is a word for a piece of flat land on the banks of a river.

View of Edinburgh from Bonnington, 1875, Samuel Bough. © Royal Scottish Academy
View of Edinburgh from Bonnington, 1875, Samuel Bough. © Royal Scottish Academy

This 19th century view is taken from the bridge, looking west up the river. We see Bonnington Mills and the Bonnyhaugh on the far bank of the river; a green and pastoral looking scene. There are workers on the river banks, but the peace is broken by the steam engine hurtling towards us on the right of the picture in the direction of Leith Leith down the railway.

The relatively unknown artist William Channing was a prolific sketcher and painter of working areas and housing of Edinburgh and Leith in the early-mid 19th centurty. made a number of studies around the Bonnyhaugh. Channing was possibly a professional painter of theatre scenery, a quality which you can feel in his images. Again the scenes feel romantic and pastoral, yet with the omnipresence of industry.

If you turn down the rather unassuming Bonnyhaugh Lane off of Newhaven Road, you’ll be rewarded with a little cloister of beautifully restored old mill buildings, and a big old iron mill wheel. Bonnyhaugh Lane here follows the line of the old mill lade from the caul (weir) at Redbraes.

Bonnyhaugh restored. Bonnyhaugh house on the left, the mill house is behind the trees and mill wheel
Bonnyhaugh restored. Bonnyhaugh house on the left, the mill house is behind the trees and mill wheel

The buildings here were a combination of milling process buildings, warehouses, cottages, and the remains of some older, larger houses. The tale goes that the mill was founded by French protestant refugees in the 17th century, but most tales of that sort in Edinburgh seem to be myths. The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club relates that the first record of industry in this area was when the Town Council engaged a Dutch cloth maker and dyer, Jeromias van der Heill, to establish his craft on the site, which was already being used as a bleaching green. A house and works was built here by the Council on his behalf, as such it is the oldest building in the Pilrig and Bonnington area, pre-dating Pilrig House.

Bonnyhaugh, this is the building that can be seen on the left of the above image, with the red door
Bonnyhaugh House, this is the other side of the building that can be seen on the left of the above image, with the red door

The name Bonnyhaugh was given to it in 1723 when it was taken over by Gilbert Stewart, a linen maker. From Stuart’s heirs, Bonnyhaugh was purchased in 1752 by a William Stuart Carmichael, whose wife was the daughter of the (Scottish episcopal) Bishop, Robert Keith. It was in Bonnyhaugh that Bishop Keith wrote his book Catalogue of Scottish Bishops, and died here in 1757. Stuart Carmichael was a Jacobite, who had been arrested to “save” him from joining the 1745 rebellion, and thus had survived it. He apparently produced fabric for dresses at Bonnyhaugh, styled on that said to have been worn by Charles Edward Stuart when he took to crossdressing to evade the Hanoverian Army, which proved outrageously popular.

"Bishop Forbes House" at Bonnyhaugh © Edinburgh City Libraries
The Mill House at Bonnyhaugh, 1953 © Edinburgh City Libraries

The mills at Bonnington were later altered, in 1849 the part to the west of the Newhaven Road was milling corn and flour, and to the east was a tannery. By 1893, the tannery has been replaced by the Bonnington Bridge Paper Mill and to the west of the haugh, closer to Redbraes, is the Bonnington Skinnery. The mill buildings were decrepit by the 1960s and were partially demolished; fortunately the older parts were saved and refurbished into houses in the mid 1980s.

The last location of old Bonnington that this thread will cover is Bonnington Toll. This was named for the toll bar cottage on the turnpike road, and it was located at the crossroads of Pilrig Street, Broughton Road, Bonnington Road and Newhaven Road. For many years the pub on the opposite corner was known as the “Bonnington Toll”. The tollbar was erected around 1768, when the building of the Canonmills Bridge meant that the Bonnington Road became for a while the principal route to the west from Leith (the Ferry Road would not be widened and improved until later in the century). The construction of the Bonnington Bridge meant that the tollbar could also control the traffic from Edinburgh to Newhaven down Pilrig Street and the NEwhaven Road.

Bonnington Toll house - Now And Then overlay
Bonnington Toll cottage – Now And Then overlay

A small hamlet grew up around the tollbar and the existing villas on the road (variously Bonnington Bank, Bonnington Lodge and Bonnington Toll, or “Barclay’s Houses” after the man who built them).

Closeup of the toll cottage scene in the animated transition above. It was taken in 1895 by John McKean. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Closeup of the toll cottage scene in the animated transition above. It was taken in 1895 by John McKean. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The toll cottage did not survive long after the somewhat idyllic picture above was taken; in 1903 this became the route taken by the Leith New Lines of the Caledonian Railway as they wound their way from Victoria Park to Seafield across Leith. To cross Bonnington Toll, a diagonal route was taken on a heavy girder bridge, with substantial approach embankments and retaining abutments required. The bridge, just high enough for a tram to squeeze under when the road had been lowered by a few inches, dominated the junction until it was demolished in 1968 on the closure of the railway. Its embankments survived into the 21st century but are now much reduced.

Removal of the Bonnington Toll railway bridge. The toll cottage was on the right between the traffic signals. CC-BY-NC-SA, T. Cassie, via THELMA
Removal of the Bonnington Toll railway bridge. The toll cottage was on the right between the traffic signals. CC-BY-NC-SA, T. Cassie, via THELMA

There is much, much more to cover on the industries of Bonnington, but that will all have to wait for another thread.

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5 comments

  1. This is great and the illustrations are fantastic. You have a mention of ‘Newington Road’ on here where you mean ‘Newhaven Road’. Sorry to nitpick.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] 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. […]

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