The thread about the Third Day of Christmas; an Edinburgh French Connection

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

This post in the Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas is preceded by a thread about The Lochend Dovecot.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; Three (Little) French Hens. This refers to Little France, a charmingly named area to the south of the city where one will now find the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. As a place name it is recorded from 1655 onwards and the popular convention is that its origin comes from the French retinue surrounding Mary Queen of Scots at nearby Craigmillar Castle. However, as early as 1786 we are cautioned about this tale, in “An Account of the Parish Of Liberton in Mid-Lothian”, by the parish minister, Rev. Thomas Whyte. Stuart Harris, author of The Place Names of Edinburgh, describes the evidence for it as “thin” and “circumstantial“. The Mary Queen of Scots myth here was popularised by an ancient tree, shown on Ordnance Survey maps as Queen Mary’s Tree, a sycamore said to have been planted by her here in 1561. Given she only returned to Scotland in August 1561, it is perhaps unlikely she found the time to plant a tree this soon.

A 1928 newspaper photograph of “Queen Mary’s Tree”

In 1735, the Caledonian Mercury advertised the Lands of Little France as being for lease, paying a yearly rent of £432 12/- in old Scottish money and that there was a “good and sufficient” farmhouse and cottages here. In William Roy’s c. 1755 “Great Map” of Lowland Scotland, he records this place as the French Mills. This gives a hint at a more likely origin for the placename; it may be there was at some point a community of French cloth millers here working a mill powered by the Burdiehouse Burn. Indeed, the modern street name here is Little France Mills.

"Little France Mills with the ERI behind". The bow in the wall behind the red sign is where Queen Mary's Tree once stood.
“Little France Mills with the ERI behind”. The bow in the wall behind the red sign is where Queen Mary’s Tree once stood.

By 1795 the farm was again for let, and is described as extending to 27 acres and 12 falls. An 1825 sketch by Daniel Somerville entitled “Little France near Craigmillar” shows a row of cottages and a building that may be a drying house of some description. In the foreground we see the mill pond that is recorded on Ordnance Survey maps of this time. By the 1880s, maps show that the mill pond here had been drained and a more substantial farm occupies the spot.

Little France, by Daniel Somerville, 1825. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Little France does have a real claim to fame beyond improbable associations with Mary Queen of Scots; it was the terminus of the first railway to serve the city; the Edmonstone Waggonway. It was not the first railway in the Lothians however by some stretch; as early as 1722 a waggonway had run between pits around Tranent to Cockenzie and Port Seton.

The Edmonstone Waggonway was built by Alexander Laing, tacksman* of the Newton estate and colliery to Lt. Col. John Wauchope, landowner of the Edmonstone and Niddrie Marischal estates. It was built across Wauchope’s land to move coal from the pit at Old Millerhill to a depot at Little France. While this railway did not enter the boundary of the city itself, it was built explicitly to serve the city; cutting the cartage distance to it in half, and therefore the overall price of coal. The consulting engineer was Robert Stevenson, who proposed both a completely level line to a terminus at The Wisp or a gentle 1/1000 incline to Little France. Laing chose the latter option, on a marginally different alignment. It likely used wrought iron “edge-rails” which were favoured by Stevenson at the time. The waggons were horse-drawn, and could carry between 8 and 11 tons of coal.

* a tacksman was a senior class of tenant, who leased a “tack” of land from the feudal superior (Wauchope in this case), and had rights of sub-leasing it, at the same time as acting as a form of agent for the superior.

A Waggonway – at Tanfield on Tyneside. The horse provided the means to move the waggon on the level or uphill. Going downhill it was tethered at the rear and the waggonman would control the speed of descent using the large wooden brake lever.

The line was announced to be open for business in August 1818, not much is known about its operation however as it only placed this single advert in the newspapers. Alexander Laing of Newton died in his home on May 12th 1825, and the tack of Newton, its colliery and the Waggonway were taken up by Messrs. Alexander & Mowbary Stenhouse of Whitehill.

Caledonian Mercury, August 20th 1818

The Waggonway was soon threatened by the coming of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway, to bring Midlothian coal more directly into the city at St. Leonards. Its 1825 Parliamentary Bill failed, but it succeeded in 1826. Although Wauchope had been an objector to the 1825 bill and the Stenhouses initially acted likewise in 1826, they eventually came to an agreement with the railway whereby it would make use of some of the trackbed of the Edmonstone Waggonway and lay a connection to the Stenhouse’s pits.

Trace of the route of the Edmonstone Waggonway (pink) from Old Millerhill to Little France. The later alignment of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway – some of which is still in use by the Borders Railway – is in yellow.

In December 1833 the Edinburgh & Dalkeith advertised that Edmonstone Coal was now for sale at the St. Leonard’s depot, direct from the pit head. Some of the Edmonstone trackbed was later re-used in the 1890s by the Niddrie Coal Company, who laid a tramway to the old depot at Little France from their No. 14 and No. 15 pits sunk around The Wisp area.

For most of the 20th Century, Little France was an entirely unremarkable place on the outskirts of the city, most notable for its quaint name. All that changed in 1998 when it was announced that the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh would relocated to a greenfield site here, away from Lauriston Place in the city centre. It opened in 2003.

The Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas continues with a thread about Burdiehouse.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


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