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The Water of Leith: a source of high fashion and clear thinking?

Anyone walking along our local river, the Water of Leith, cannot fail to see remains of countless sluices and areas where water driven mills were developed over the years.

Today it may not look that significant to the cultural and economic growth of our capital, but the use of this quite modest waterway should not be underestimated. In 1810 the eminent antiquarian George Chalmers, in his three volume 'Caledonia', wrote "This is the most useful river of any in Edinburghshire, perhaps in Scotland". His justification lies with the sheer number and concentration of mills for processing and milling goods of all kinds, and of these few could be more fascinating than the once highly valued milling of snuff.

Most people know that snuff is a tobacco powder that is sniffed, but it is also one of the four major tobacco trends that each lasted broadly over a century, as each supplanted the other. In the 1600's tobacco was smoked in pipes, from the mid 1700's to mid 1800's snuff was high fashion, and then we have the heyday of cigars and finally cigarettes - we might even finish off these four tobacco chapters with the final one - the regulations banning smoking, but not snuff as it happens, from many public places.

On The Water of Leith, on the two mile stretch of water that passes Juniper Green and meets Colinton village, there was once the greatest concentration of snuff mills probably anywhere in the world; five, perhaps six, grinding mills that supplied Edinburgh, Scotland and beyond with a constant supply of the finest Sneeshin – an alternative Scots word for snuff. The earliest snuff mill, at the border of Currie and Juniper Green, was started in 1749 just downstream from East Mills bridge at Blinkbonny where the walkway crosses the river.

Juniper Green Snuff Mill. Watercolour by Edwin G Lucas

There may have been one on either side of the river here and the snuff miller is recorded in the 1842 Post Office directory as a James Watt. Further down was Watt's Snuff Mill, that remained operating as the last mill until around 1943, sat alongside the old Juniper Green railway station close to Baberton Loan. Just into the neighbouring parish of Colinton was Flemings snuff mill at Upper Spylaw (where the city bypass crosses the Water of Leith) and then almost immediately beyond was the respected Royal Mile tobacconist James Gillespie. Records show Gillespie milled from 1759 right at his riverside Spylaw House and yet another Spylaw snuff mill was situated close to Colinton Church. Gillespie purchased the small mansion and estate of Spylaw, and while he attended to the milling his brother ran the shop; between them they became Edinburgh's most successful snuff makers.

The demand for snuff was driven by fashion and the rise of Edinburgh as one of Europe's new cultural capitals – a period known as the Enlightenment. As Scotland had always enjoyed strong links with France, snuff was just one of many fashions that arrived here before they became widespread south of the border. Both Royalty and the Church helped seal the fashion, from Frederick the Great (the snuffing king) to our own George III and particularly his consort Queen Charlotte, whose nickname became Snuffy Charlotte. In 1724 even Pope Benedict learned to smoke and use snuff and repealed the papal bulls against clerical smoking. Napoleon Bonaparte's snuff habit saw him shift more than three ounces a day.

Downstream Edinburgh was expanding towards and across the Water of Leith as the New Town, the largest planned city development in the world at that time, created elegance and an escape from the crowded, odorous Old Town. Many meeting places remained amongst the squalor and smells in the old quarters and snuff contributed, in a verse from poet Robert Fergusson's masterpiece 'Auld Reekie' written in 1773, to help dispel the effect :

Gillespie's snuff shou'd prime the nose

O' her that to the market goes,

If she wad like to shun the smells

That float around frae market cells

Note his advice is for the female snuffer, for as many as half of all adults were caught up in the sneeshin craze. The men too were taking things pretty seriously; in Enlightenment circles, the nose was considered as a direct passage to the brain, the seat of Reason. In order to ensure free access to the nose men turned away from the turned-up moustaches and imperial beards of the previous century and began to shave their upper lip.

The snuff fashion came and then finally passed but making a lasting legacy from all this milling and sniffing stands James Gillespie who, being unmarried, left his snuff fortune to establish both a hospital for the poor and a school. The school, in the form of James Gillespie's High School, continues and flourishes to this day.


Gillespie's Hospital & School: from Arnot's History of Edinburgh (1816)

"Gillespie's Hospital, a commodious oblong building, ornamented with battlements and small turrets, situated on a spot in a direct line south of the castle, was endowed by Mr James Gillespie. He acquired a large fortune by trade in snuff and tobacco, the greater part of which he appropriated to the erection of this Hospital, and a School in the neighbourhood. The one for the maintenance of old men and women, the other for the education of an hundred boys.

"The right of admission to the Hospital is good behavior and poverty, fifty years of age and upwards, with no allowance from any other charity. The late servants of Mr Gillespie are preferred. Those of the name of Gillespie; those living in Edinburgh and its vicinity; in Leith and in the country. And, in case of vacancies, those residing in any part of Scotland.

"The right of admission to the School is poverty, under six and not above twelve years of age. Place of residence unlimited. The total number in the Hospital is above forty. The surrounding fields add greatly to the pleasure and healthfulness of this dwelling."


Article published in Konect March 2013

Author: James Thomson


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