How mammoth effort brought Edinburgh clean water

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IT is the very essence of life, without which we would be left high and dry. No reviving morning cuppa, no refreshing shower. No rehydrating workout reviver, no splash for our Burns Supper dram.

Turn a tap, and water flows out. That is just the way it is.

Construction at Rosebery reservoir, main image, in 1879. Picture: Capital Collections

Construction at Rosebery reservoir, main image, in 1879. Picture: Capital Collections

But, of course, not always. And in Edinburgh of old, the notion of free-flowing clean, fresh water piped to our homes and available at the flick of a wrist dominated our forefathers’ thoughts – not just because it would make brewing the kettle a much simpler affair, but it could also help save lives.

Waterborne plagues caused by a desperate lack of clean water wells and, eventually, the demands of the Industrial Revolution, meant water was our most precious commodity. Bringing it to the masses was a major problem.

There’s no doubt that city engineer Alexander Leslie understood the significance of the projects his family firm had worked on high in the Pentland Hills.

Armed with a keen eye for a photograph, he gathered a series of images: navvies digging with their shovels, deep channels emerging from the ground, huge embankments to hold the water secure, impressive aqueducts, sprawling filtration plants and the stiff collared, bristle moustached, white collared architects and engineers who oversaw the work.

Dozens of his grainy pictures charting the development of Edinburgh’s reservoir network were carefully filed into an album. Years later, once the thrill of creating a water system fit for a capital had worn off, the book of photographs was tucked away, forgotten.

Now, however, the precious snapshot of a vital element of city life has re-emerged, found during routine work within the city library archives.

And today the images, along with detailed explanations of what they portray and their significance, have been carefully documented for an illuminating online exhibition which charts an essential if largely unappreciated aspect of our everyday lives.

Leslie’s collection of images focus on the back-breaking construction of reservoirs in the south-east area of the Pentland Hills, documenting the changing landscape as Victorian workers transformed the way Edinburgh people lived their lives.

Combined with illustrations of day-to-day life, landscape views of the world frozen in time before modern development took over, and fascinating sketches of the leading city figures of the day, the result is an absorbing reflection on the background to our richest resource.

According to Jim Thompson, the city council’s library information and digital services manager whose department compiled the Reservoirs of Edinburgh online exhibition, the result is a reminder of the mammoth task that faced engineers and architects as they strived to bring mod cons to an ancient city.

“It’s sometimes overlooked how much engineering work lies in the history of the city, particularly when it comes to bringing us water, something we all take for granted,” he says.

“Water comes out the tap and we don’t think much about how it gets there. In fact, as this shows, it’s part of a centuries-long piece of work.”

By the late 19th century when Leslie gathered his photographs documenting the creation of the Moorfoot project – the series of reservoirs that would eventually include Gladhouse to the south-east of Penicuik, Edgelaw to the west of Temple and Rosebery to the south-west of Gorebridge – water had been on the minds of Edinburgh’s civic heads for hundreds of years.

However, in a frustrating drip, drip, drip approach that makes the construction of Edinburgh’s tram line seem almost super speedy, citizens found themselves waiting in some cases a lifetime for the water to flow.

To begin with, their hopes were first raised in 1621 when an act of parliament gave the go-ahead for the town council to construct a pipe line to carry water the three miles from Comiston Springs to the city centre. That alone would have meant a massive improvement in day-to-day life for the city’s citizens, hardy souls whose water supplies were drawn from wells in the Cowgate area or the stinky depths of the Nor Loch which had a habit of going stagnant in the heat of summer.

However, an almost endless series of furious debates over water tax charges meant it would be 50 years before the act was carried out – and a further four years before the water flowed. Even then, flowing water only reached the very poshest of city homes.

The rest of the population still had to use water stands in the local high street to collect their daily supply.

Eventually, a network of wooden pipes was used to channel spring water from sources at Liberton and Bonaly. Later the wood – prone, naturally, to rotting – was replaced with cast iron ones.

But, as Leslie’s collection of photographs document, soon work would begin in earnest to create a water system of a much grander scale – one which would continue even today to keep the fresh water flowing to Edinburgh’s ever-increasing number of homes and businesses.

Through 1819 until 1905 the Edinburgh Water Company worked almost constantly to improve the supply and quality of Edinburgh’s water, driven by the need to bring fresh supplies to the growing population and feed the thirsty beast of the Industrial Revolution.

Leslie’s father, James, a civil engineer, had already worked on creating some of Scotland’s major reservoirs by the time he joined the family firm of J&A Leslie and Reid.

Young and armed with a determination to document the scale of the reservoir works, Alexander gathered together Victorian images documenting the construction work, capturing the landscape before, during and after it had been transformed by vast pools of water bound for the city’s homes.

Discovered by Edinburgh City Council library staff during painstaking work to create digital copies of the thousands of books and documents in their possession, they were struck by the forgotten images and pieced them together with a second volume in their archives, a book of illustrations, many of which bear remarkable similarity to the photographs and apparently copied from the originals.

For years hidden from sight, they can be viewed online as part of the city library’s Capital Collections website (

From caddies and barrels to modern pipes

IN the 17th century water was drawn from wells, with the rich employing caddies to carry it to their homes in barrels called rakes in return for a penny.

Eventually the discovery of water at Comiston Springs, 60ft higher than the proposed collecting tank at Castlehill near the Esplanade, meant liquid gold could finally pour into the city. Later 27 springs were identified and given names of birds and animals. Fox Well can still be found on Fox Spring Crescent in Comiston and old pipes from one spring are in the grounds of Hunter’s Tryst Primary School.

Lead pipes channelled 135,000 gallons of water per day to the city.

Eventually new supplies were developed at Liberton and, even more distant, the Pentland Hills.

The reservoir at Castlehill was sold in 1996 and was converted into the weaving museum.

By the mid-19th century reservoirs had sprung up at Harlaw, Threipmuir, Harperrig and Crosswood.

In Midlothian, reservoirs for the River Esk were built at Gladhouse; Rosebery and Edgelaw.

Today’s supplies mainly come from the Talla Reservoir, Tweedsmuir, flowing via a 28km aqueduct and Meggat Water in the Ettrick Forest.