History & Heritage

The ability of the Water of Leith to provide water, power, disposal facilities and safe mooring at its mouth, means that it has been actively used for many hundreds of years. The river has a rich history dating back to pre-historic times, with Bronze Age remains and Neolithic sites. From the medieval era there are manor houses, castles and mill sites dating back to the 12th Century, and an extensive industrial archaeological history which peaked in the late-1700’s when there were seventy six mill sites over twenty three miles of river.  Leith harbour and docks also has a rich and varied history and was of strategic importance for battles and trade. 

The power of the Water of Leith was used for a variety of industries including grinding grain, wood, spices and snuff, paper making, washing and waulking (fulling) cloth, tanning hides, and cutting timber and stones.  Weirs and mill lades were constructed to provide adequate water for the mills. In the mid-1800’s the flow was further altered through the tapping of the headwaters to provide a clean water supply for Edinburgh; the consequent construction of Harlaw, Threipmuir and Harperrig reservoirs ensured a continuous water supply in the river for mill owners.  During these industrial times, the river was grossly polluted. However, as the mills closed and sewers were constructed, the river was able to regenerate and recover. Now, the only remaining relics are weirs, lade streams, millstones and mill buildings scattered along the river valley. 

There are many Scheduled Monuments, Historic Gardens, Designed Landscapes and Conservation Areas.  Numerous listed buildings are also present along its banks, and the area from Roseburn to Stockbridge is part of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage site.      

 Call into the Visitor Centre for more information or why not book a talk from one of our speakers. 

Graham Priestley back in print...

The Water Mills of the Water of Leith” book by Graham Priestley is back in print and is for sale from our Visitor Centre or you can purchase a copy using the PayPal button below – Sorry we are not able to ship outside the UK. 

Graham Priestley - Water Mills of the Water of Leith