Balerno Mill

Article in Konect Balerno April 2013

By James Thomson 

The earliest mills on the Water of Leith ground corn or, at waulk mills, prepared wool cloth to remove oils and make the cloth thicker. Of all the mills that developed between Balerno and Juniper Green, Balerno Mill has its origins as a waulk mill but went on to have the most varied story of all the local mills before finally closing in 2010.

The first thing to note about Balerno Mill is it was never in Balerno, it was a Currie mill just down from Waulkmill Loan. The exact date when a mill was established is not recorded but by 1788 what was described as the old fulling mill (fulling is another word for waulking) was leased to Alex and William Nisbet and William McNiven, who used the site to start the first papermill in the area. Their lease was to be for over 50 years but by 1799 the business had failed. Paper milling had already been well established over at Penicuik and by 1805 two other mills (Kinleith and Balerno Bank) were underway in the vicinity. These mills greatly expanded the population of Currie and Balerno but while pay was better than farmwork, it was hard and contentious.

The Statistical Account of Scotland of 1793, in reference to the sizeable 'paper manufactory' of Nisbet and MacNiven, stated "The paper trade employs children from 10 or 12 years of age, a period when they can do nothing very laborious, and when their morals - from idleness and neglect - are very apt to be corrupted". Indeed by 1808, a full 63 years before trade unions were legalised, paper workers from several mills in and around Edinburgh, conspired together "for the purpose of compelling their masters or employers to raise their wages" and were taken to court by the equally hard nosed mill owners; the workers won - the court dismissed the criminal libel as not relevant.

The next record of Balerno Mill paper works appears in 1825 when it was being operated by Messrs. Kilgour & Paterson. Certainly the demand for paper was expanding; the number of book publishers in the city had more than doubled in the three decades prior to 1819 as they dealt with Edinburgh's legal and educational need, its undoubted medical supremacy, and then was further increased by Walter Scott who had created the new trend for the historical novel.

Sadly none of this appears to have helped business at Balerno Mill, as again by 1826 the company had fallen into bankruptcy. Within two years the papermill restarts under the guidance of a Mr Laing and for 21 years George Laing & Co. operated the mill, no doubt aided by the partnership of the Penicuik papermaker Mr Cowan who ran the business with him and continued for a few years after Mr Laing died. It was during this manufacturers tenure at Balerno Mill that a certain millworker, Mr William Home, described as a "bitter, morose and unhappy man" and his eldest son John worked at the mill. But William was no ordinary millworker; the illegitimate son of the 11th Earl of Home produced some startling offspring. John emigrated to America and soon managed a mill in Philadelphia. Another son Daniel surpassed even his illustrious legitimate cousins (the 12th Earl was father to Prime Minister Alec Douglas Home) by becoming feted across the world by Kings and Queens as one of the most celebrated men of his time. 

By 1852 the Balerno Mill was in new ownership, again as a papermill, under James and William Durham. Sadly the history of company failure raised its head one more time and both they and their business was declared bankrupt in 1868. At this point the mill story might have ended. It burnt down and lay empty for the next 30 years; but the publishing and book trade in Edinburgh needed supplies so once again Balerno Mill was raised from the ashes. This time the Fife firm of John Darney & Son of Kinghorn established a glue and gelatin works; glue being in demand for bookbinding and gelatin for photography and printing. 

Image : 1904 advertisement for Darney & Sons 

Darney's would have created the buildings that then existed until after 2010, but the firm was gone by 1908 to be replaced by the company many will remember, the leather works of J Hewit & Son. By now the Balerno Mill site was know by its other name, Kinauld, as it was no longer outwith the original small settlement of Currie, set around Currie kirk, and Balerno Bank Mills had for years become a major papermill upstream.

At the beginning of the 1800's a Hugh Hewit was a shoemaker at Potterrow in Edinburgh and the family business then expanded into a leather warehouse and tannery before taking on the Kinauld site as a second leather works in 1913, finally consolidating all their business there by 1969. The illustrious Home family would be proud that by 1975 Hewits had become 'by Royal Appointment' as their bookbinding services and leather is supplied to the Royal Library at Windsor. The company recently relocated to Livingston but can be proud that, for more than half of the recorded operations at Balerno Mill, their company is a final testament to the site's extraordinarily varied and colourful past.  

Daniel Home

Daniel Home's family might have lived in modest mill workers' cottages in Currie where his father and brother worked at Balerno Mill, but Daniel, whose mother was a clairvoyant, went on to forge a truly illustrious lifestyle; he is unquestionably the most colourful person to have come from Currie. 

Daniel Dunglas Home became an internationally famous medium, an ornament of Victorian spiritualism, holding seances for the rich and famous in England, France, Italy and Russia. His hosts included Napoleon III, the King of Italy and the Queen of the Netherlands, who were all impressed by his paranormal abilities.  

His heady contacts knew no bounds; when he married in St Petersberg, his best man was Alexander Dumas - author of The Three Muscateers. 

Daniel Home

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stated that Home was unusual in that he had four different types of mediumship: the ability to let spirits speak, to let spirits speak through oneself, to see things that are out of view, and physically move objects and levitate - the latter in which he had no equal.

Debunkers tried to prove that Home was a hoax, offering theories that Home chloroformed his sitters or travelled with a hidden monkey responsible for levitations and movements of furniture. Houdini claimed he would duplicate Home's levitations, but cancelled the event. Home was, perhaps, the most celebrated medium of all time. 

© Lothian Publications Ltd 2014