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Rubicon Scotland Survey

Whisky Galore on the Water of Leith!

A common aspect of the work of Rubicon Heritage is the recording of historic buildings in advance of redevelopment. A recent project on the outskirts of Edinburgh near Currie produced some interesting results and added to our understanding of how important the Water of Leith was as a source of power for a variety of industrial activities during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our survey in Currie in action (Rubicon Heritage)
Our Currie survey in action (Rubicon Heritage)

Rubicon’s involvement came due to the redevelopment of a house site, when an old residence needed to be demolished to make way for the new build. In response to a condition of planning a number of archaeological investigations were required, one of which was a historic building survey. This involved a measured survey of the elevations of the building that was carried out in conjunction with documentary and cartographic research. Historic maps of the site showed that a ‘mill’ had been constructed at this location in the past. One of them was the Sharp, Greenwood and Fowler 1828 Map of the county of Edinburgh, which depicts a number of buildings at this location. By 1853–the time of the First Edition Six-inch Ordnance Survey map– a single channel of the Water of Leith was shown running through this area, with a ‘mill lead’ and associated footpath bisecting the development site. This mill lead was located between two buildings and was still in existence at the time of the 1893 Six-inch Ordnance Survey map. Intriguingly, the cartographers had labelled these two buildings ‘Old Distillery’.

Rubicon's measured survey of the historical building at Currie (Rubicon Heritage)
Rubicon’s measured survey of the historic building at Currie, showing where the horizontal-axle once turned (Rubicon Heritage)

Rubicon’s detailed recording and analysis confirmed that the core of an older structure was preserved within the much altered house that was the subject of our historic building survey. A blocked opening on the side of the building was interpreted as the remains of the access for the horizontal-axle, the shaft that was turned by the long-disappeared water wheel powered by the mill lead depicted on the early maps. As suspected, a trial trench we excavated adjacent to the building identified the buried remains of the mill lead, albeit in a culverted channel.

Historic mapping depicting the distillery
Historic mapping from 1893 depicting the ‘Old Distillery’ (Rubicon Heritage)

The archaeological evidence together with the evidence on the historic maps confirms that the building forms the remains of a mill which was part of a distillery in the 19th century. It would not have been an uncommon site along the banks of the Water of Leith– during the 18th and 19th centuries mills were present at over 70 locations along it’s course. These structures harnessed the power of the river in order to carry out industrial processes associated with paper, flour, wool, linen, spices and snuff. Our mill likely owes it’s function to a 19th century boom in Scottish whisky production which coincided with the invention of the Coffey still, an advance which allowed whisky to be produced on a larger scale than using traditional processes. Edinburgh was at the centre of exploiting this development; Rubicon’s work at the Currie site adds a further layer to our knowledge about the local impact this boom had on an industry that has today become synonymous with Scotland.

Aeneas Coffey, the Irish distiller whose invention of the "Coffey still" led to a growth in 19th century Scottish Whisky production (MasterofMalt via Wikipedia)
Aeneas Coffey, the Irish distiller whose invention of the “Coffey still” led to a growth in 19th century Scottish Whisky production (MasterofMalt via Wikipedia)