There is little left for the casual observer to notice today of the picturesque branch line that ran along the Water of Leith for six miles from Balerno to Colinton.
Built primarily to service the many mills along the river, it opened in 1874 after ten years of negotiations and delays, and had a profound impact on the development of Balerno, Currie, Juniper Green and Colinton. This was a time of frantic railway building, much of which was torn up during the 1960s. Balerno lasted until 1967.
The Balerno Branch was a loop off the main trunk line of the Caledonian Railway running from Carlisle to Edinburgh. Before the Balerno Branch, the mills on the Water of Leith had already benefited from the Edinburgh branch of the main line which opened in 1848, with stations serving this area being Slateford (later Kingsknowe), Currie (where the current Curriehill station is) and Kirknewton (the Kirknewton station was known at the time as the Mid Calder station). Paper mills, grain mills, snuff mills and the lone flax mill all received their raw materials by cart after they were unloaded at Currie or Slateford stations. Similarly, finished products had to be taken by cart and loaded onto trains. The mill owners felt that efficiency would be greatly improved by a rail loop serving them close to the river. They approached the Caledonian Railway Company, who were receptive to the idea and agreed to build and operate the railway. As with many other railway projects, shares were to be issued, and were specific to the Balerno Branch.
But first an Act of Parliament needed to be drafted and defended to a Parliamentary Committee in London, and there was noisy local opposition to the proposed line. An Act of Parliament was required because, among other reasons, there would need to be compulsory land purchases. Various landowners and even the guardians of the parish known as the Heritors campaigned against the line. Claims included health hazards from increased pollution due to the mills increasing production, reduced value of properties due to spoiled views, and best of all “in such a narrow district the introduction of a large number of Navvies might be productive of disorder and breaches of the Peace and of immorality in the villages to the great and lasting increase of the Parish burdens.” Nevertheless, an Act of Parliament authorising the Balerno Branch received Royal Assent in 1865 by Queen Victoria. The Act specifies that where public (“parish”) housing was to be compulsorily acquired “occupied by persons belonging to the labouring classes”, eight weeks notice must be given to the tenants provided 15 or more houses were affected. For 14 or fewer houses, no notice for the tenants was required at all!
No sooner had the branch received approval than The Caley, as the Caldeonian Railway Company was known, suffered a financial crisis. Money raised for the Balerno branch was illegally used to pay off other debts, and in 1869 efforts were underway to ask Parliament for permission to abandon the project. However the locals (particularly the mill owners, farmers and other businessmen) weren't going to lose their railway without a fight! The case came to the Parliament in London, and an agreement was reached – the original bill would be abandoned, but a new bill would be established and The Caley would be very strictly monitored as to how it spent its money. The new bill was duly passed in 1870, with a deadline of two and a half years to completion.
Sir William Gibson-Craig, second Baronet of Riccarton, Lord Clerk Register and local landowner decided to fire all his guns even at this late stage. Writing in The Scotsman and elsewhere he objected that such “small and poor villages could not provide any worthwhile traffic”, that the “church and manse would be ruined” and that it was “objectionable and dangerous”. The Caley seems to have been able to have quietened him down by increasing the payment for the small plot of Sir William's land they needed. Maybe it ran in the family - his father had protested in 1834 that the experimental steam-coaches on the roads endangered lives by inducing panic in passing horses.
In any case, Charles Brand & Son won the building contract with a bid of £42,143 13s. 6d. and the work was completed twenty months late, but by this time nobody seemed to care!
There were a total of 28 bridges plus the tunnel at Colinton, and many cuttings and embankments and retaining walls where the rail ran very close to the Water of Leith. There were stations at Colinton, Juniper Green, Currie and Balerno. Labour mostly came from outwith the villages, but there are no records of there being any particular trouble with Navvies. Ironwork for several of the bridges was sub-contracted to a young Glasgow engineer named William Arrol who had just set up in business. He was later the main contractor on the Forth Rail bridge, for which he was knighted in 1890. Quarries opened in the district to provide stone for masonry bridges. In places the rail ran extremely close to the river - in fact at Newmills the river had to be diverted a little. The contract was very clear that there was to be no interference with the flow of water during the works – or if there was, the contractors would have to compensate mill owners for all interruptions to production.
Due to the cutbacks imposed by The Caley's financial troubles, the loop was reduced to a single track, just 6 miles long and was infamous for its tight loops and steep gradients. Two specially designed engines had to be produced, called the Balerno Pug. There was no turning facility at Balerno – the trains had to go to Kirknewton station in order to turn. The line finally opened on 1st August 1874. The first passenger train was 7.50am from West Calder to Edinburgh and 8am from Edinburgh to Mid Calder, using the only passing place on the loop, in Currie. The goods trains would have been on the rails earlier, as they always had the rails first thing in the morning. As a single track, a strict system in place to prevent trains from opposite direction colliding on the single track. This was the Absolute Block Telegraph.
Despite Sir William Gibson-Craig's gloomy prediction that the villages were too poor to provide traffic, the service grew steadily. By 1880 it had eight passenger services a day. By 1896 that had increased to twelve.
Local people worked on mills, farms or were in service and so had no need or time for train travel. On their only day off, Sunday, there were no trains anyway (until 1913). However the people who did travel appreciated the new line – millers, farmers and retailers, plus a few professionals and gentry.
Soon articles were being written in Edinburgh about the pleasant afternoon or day trips available on the Balerno line. Middle class people started being attracted to live along the line and commute to Edinburgh to work. Colinton and Juniper Green expanded rapidly this way, although Currie and Balerno were further away and did not see so much growth in the early days. Each village had its ‘‘Railway Inn’’ - Juniper Green still does, although renamed "Juniper Green Inn" now.
Far from causing more pollution on the river from busier mills, the railway actually reduced it. The railway line was used to run sewage pipes down to connect with the Edinburgh system, making the Water of Leith considerably cleaner.
Competition from road travel, the closure of many of the mills and financial difficulties with the owners of the line eventually led to its closure for passengers in 1943 – a notice was placed in The Scotsman giving just two weeks’ notice of the closure. It continued in use as a goods line until 1967, and the tracks were taken up in 1968. Most of the track is now the very attractive Water of Leith walkway.
First published in Konect 2010
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer