History of Canonmills

We thank our kind regular David, a history teacher, for the story of this incredibly interesting part of the City of Edinburgh.

As you enjoy the food and drink of One Canon, you’re also:

  • In a former medieval ‘business district’
  • Near the site of what was once Scotland’s biggest distillery
  • Next to a Victorian pleasure garden
  • Close to two historically important football grounds
  • Above an abandoned railway network
  • And much more!
  • But first…

What is a Canon and where is the Mill?

The Canons were priests at Holyrood Abbey (whose ruins are in the grounds of the Palace) founded in 1128 by King David I. Religious institutions played an important role in the economy and the mills were a key source of income for the canons.

Map of 1560 based on an original in the archive of Petworth House, Sussex, from Wikimedia Commons.

MAP 1 – This map was drawn up at the time of the siege of Leith by the English. Canonmills seems to be the area marked with a red cross. There were at least three mills here. It’s clear from the map just how small Edinburgh then was, with very little built up between here and the city centre which lay on the hill between the Castle and Holyrood Palace. However, although Canonmills was then a village that was not yet part of Edinburgh, it was always considered to belong to the city, and not separate, as Leith was until the 1920s. 

The mills were powered by water from a lade (stream) which connected a small haugh (a loch or pond in what is now King George V Park) with the Water of Leith. Some suggest that the lade went down what is now Canon Street; this is where the last surviving mill building is (a few doors along Eyre Place from One canon Mills, made of rough sandstone and with metal creatures on the roof). It dates from the 17th or early 18th century and is the oldest surviving building in the area.

After the Reformation, the clergy lost control of the area and much of it eventually handed over by King Charles I to the Heriot’s Trust. It now became a source of revenue to subsidise the education of the ‘puir, faitherless bairns’ that George Heriot’s School was set up to educate.

At the bottom of Canon Street, added to the wall of the petrol station, is the inscription ‘Baxters Land 1686.’ The Baxters were Edinburgh’s guild of bakers and for some years they were required by law to buy flour from the mills here.

Local residents at that time were a mixture of wealthy landowners in large houses and their workers, living in small cottages. Virtually nothing remains of any buildings from before 1800. From the early 19th century, the New Town expanded northwards and includes the elegant Bellevue Crescent, just up the hill from here. As well as horses, public transport for the wealthy included four sedan chairs, stationed at Canonmills Bridge. Their operators, licensed by the council, were also required to act as watchmen when not carrying wealthy locals up the hill to the city.

The last flour mill in Canonmills closed in 1865 – but other industries were already taking its place.

Canonmills enters the Industrial Era

Map of 1817 from the Collection of the National Library of Scotland

MAP 2 – This early 19th century map shows a street plan which is roughly similar to today’s. One Canon Mills is marked with a red X – if you look out the main windows across the street, you can see the Royal Navy Club, which is on the map as Heriots Hill. This building was originally called Heriot Hill House, and dates from around 1700; the extensive gardens visible in the map were lost, much to the owner’s irritation, later in the 19th century.  

To the west is Mr Eyre’s Brewery – nothing remains of this today, or of the Canon Mills Distillery further along on what is now Glenogle Road, but they were once huge enterprises. Several surrounding streets are named after Mr Eyre, but the story of the distillery is especially interesting.

Picture of Canonmills Distillery from Kask Whisky

Set up in 1780 by the famous Haig dynasty, Canonmills became the biggest distillery in Scotland. During the Great Dearth of 1782-4, poor weather and bad harvests led to widespread hunger, and there was resentment at the fact that grain was still being used to produce spirits. On 4 and 7 June 1784, angry mobs stormed Canon Mills distillery, looking for the foodstuffs they believed were being hoarded there. After being dispersed by the militia, the authorities had the ringleaders whipped and transported to Australia for 14 years.

From 1790 to 1825 it was owned by the Stein family, who produced spirits on sites in different parts of the United Kingdom, ranging from Port Ellen on Islay to Dublin. One of Stein’s managers, who later branched out on his own, was John Jameson of Alloa, who took over his Dublin distillery and made it the biggest in Ireland.

The area in 1921, much more built up – the circular objects by the river are the brewery maltings. From the Collection of the National Library of Scotland.

It became a brewery maltings later in the 19th century but all traces of it have disappeared – the site is now modern housing. Still, it is nice to know that the global Haig and Jameson brands have a Canonmills connection. Other popular foods once produced in the area were Golden Wonder crisps and Walnut Whip chocolate, produced in Beaverhall Road until 1996. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were many other industries in the area: various maps show a pepper mill, snuff mill, foundries, and the Lothian Chemical Company, which took over some of the once-lovely Heriot’s Hill gardens in the late 19th century and, during the First World War, made explosives for the military in its factory across the road on the current Tesco site.

Towards the Canonmills of Today

Although the loch had been a popular spot for curling, in 1842 it was drained and the area redeveloped for leisure purposes. For a time in the 19th century what is now George V Park contained the Patent Royal Gymnasium where Victorian folk got healthy by pedalling, hundreds at a time, a giant wooden sea serpent in a new circular artificial pond on the site.

The ‘sea serpent’ at the Patent Royal Gymnasium (picture from Juliet Rees, Once Upon a Haugh, published by the Scotland Yard Adventure Centre, 1993)

From the mid-19th century the railways came to Canonmills. Rodney Street tunnel runs underneath the crossroads outside the pub, connecting the Heriothill goods yard (now Tesco car park) with the Scotland Street tunnel. This was an underground line up which trains were dragged to Canal St station on Princes St, opposite platform 19 at today’s Waverley. The trains which headed north from the goods yard went up to the coast, some being loaded onto a boat which ferried them over to Fife. Until the early 1950s, you would also have seen trams rattling up and down the street outside the pub. The last train ran in 1967 and the railway lines are now a network of paths which link us to Leith in the east and Murrayfield in the West.

In 1842, Canonmills had a royal visit, when Queen Victoria landed at Granton pier and passed through the area on her way to the city centre. A grandstand was set up for the public at Brandon Terrace, with a triumphal wooden arch where the city councillors were due to formally welcome Her Majesty. Unfortunately, the visit was dogged by confusion about timing. The Queen arrived at Granton earlier than expected, and as her carriage went past the cheering people on the grandstand, the councillors were running down Dundas Street in a sight that was remembered for decades afterwards. Important 19th century ‘locals’ included Robert Louis Stevenson, who went to school across the street, and Frederyk Chopin, in exile from Poland. A less welcome visitor was the Zeppelin which dropped a bomb just up the street at Bellevue Crescent in 1916.

The building whose ground floor is occupied by One Canon Mills dates from around 1898 and is one of a number of tenements constructed in the late 19th and early 20th  centuries to house employees of the various local factories. Several pubs have occupied this site, and that of the tenement diagonally opposite which is now O’Connor’s.

Local entertainment was provided by the Ritz cinema and top-quality football. St Bernard’s FC were in the Scottish first division through the 1890s, winning the cup in 1895 when they defeated Rangers. ‘The Saints’ played at a variety of sites in the area: the Gymnasium (now George V Park), and on the other side of Tesco both Logie Green (now a business park) and Powderhall (later a greyhound/speedway circuit and now housing). Although they had a lot of local support and still had some successes (defeating Hibs in 1932) the team collapsed in 1942 and all these stadiums of dreams have become victim of progress. It is still nice to think of their loyal fans celebrating success in these premises all those decades ago.

An artist’s impression of the St Bernard’s ground after the First World War; One Canon Mills would be on the left edge of the picture. From the Friends of King George V & Scotland St Parks site.

When you are enjoying the hospitality of One Canonmills, you are in one of Edinburgh’s oldest areas, long preceding the New Town, which until the eighteenth century was still farmland. The old distillery and brewery may have gone, but One Canon Mills now stocks examples of the excellent craft beers, real ales, and spirits now produced elsewhere in Edinburgh by exciting new companies in recent years. It is the successor not only to the pubs on this site but also to the other businesses which, over 900 years, have fed and watered the people of this ever-changing corner of Edinburgh.