Part of the stone wall alongside the Water of Leith
Water of Leith
Well Court
Dean Village, Edinburgh, Scotland
St Bernard
Dean Village, Edinburgh, Scotland
Dean Village, Edinburgh, Scotland
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An idyllic setting and a sense of calm that cannot be missed

Dean Village, Edinburgh

Edinburgh, Scotland’s densely packed capital, is renowned for its neoclassical architecture and romantic blend of cityscape, open water and rolling mountains. While many of its buildings are from a bygone era, Edinburgh cannot be mistaken for a sleepy city. The roads roar with endless streams of vehicles. Sidewalks, whether narrow or wide, are always packed with locals and tourists alike. Admiration for your surroundings can only last a fleeting moment as you head from one task to the next.

Water of Leith

Where can a person go when they need more than a moment? Dean Village is the answer. Just a five-minute walk from Princes Street, the former milling village is a storybook configuration of charming architectural eras. Few cars are allowed to pass through. Most traverse through its cobblestone streets on foot or by bicycle. Set in a low dam, it is easy to accidentally bypass the area. But if you need a moment of reprieve, take the time for a little exploration.

Initially referred to as the “Water of Leith” village, it comes as no surprise that the eponymous river runs through the area (or that there used to be many water mills located here). The district originally served as a successful grain milling spot, a role it held for more than eight hundred years. At the peak of its operations, Dean Village was home to eleven working mills. So ubiquitous to the Dean’s success, in 1535 it was referred to as “the miller’s village”. In fact, Dean’s name is derived from the old Scottish term “dene”, which translates to the deep valley of a stream. As one of the oldest villages surrounding the city’s original royal burgh (a town either established with or given a royal charter), mention of Dean Village in historical records dates back to King David I’s reign in the early 1100s. Besides grain mills, the area also housed a distillery and a skin factory.

Stockbridge district

The area as a whole remained a separate village until the nineteenth century. With the development of bigger, modernised flour mills in Leith, Dean Village’s trade fell. Over time, its mills were removed. As work dried up, workers started to leave in search of better prospects. The area fell into ruin, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. Things got to a point where the village became known as one of the city’s slums. For many years, the area was associated with decay, hitting its lowest point in the 1960s. Then, in the mid-1970s, interest was reignited. Redevelopment and restoration projects started with the conversion of workers’ cottages, warehouses and mill buildings into liveable spaces. Since then, Dean Village has become a highly sought-after residential area in the Stockbridge district.

Well Court

When visiting Dean Village, its eclectic blend of styles from different eras makes it a truly unique walk through the past. One of the most breathtaking sites, Well Court, sits at the heart of the village. Commissioned in the 1880s by Sir John Findlay, then-owner of the Scotsman newspaper, he bought land in Dean Village in order to build accommodations. These were originally intended for local workers. Architect Sydney Mitchell designed the housing project. Work was completed in 1886, with many carved red sandstone plaques to commemorate its building. At the centre of the housing development sits a clock tower, which rises above what was once the social hall. The clock tower was intended to help the court’s inhabitants stick to the strict curfew imposed by Findlay (in exchange for staying at Well Court). Modern residents, thankfully, have no such restrictions set upon them. Besides the clock tower, Well Court is comprised of four- and five-storey tenement flats that enclose a communal courtyard. It is evocative of old squares, such as James Square in the Old Town. Now privately owned, in 2007 Well Court was restored through the joint efforts of the World Heritage Foundation and the building owners.

Former mill’s village

Situated immediately northwest of the city centre, the tranquillity of Dean Village and the Water of Leith is immediately noticeable. Upon stepping into the area, visitors are basked in a sense of calm, so much so that one has to consciously remind themselves that this was once a bustling workers’ site. But as times change, places such as Dean Village inevitably do as well. Thankfully in this case, the people’s call for preservation was answered in the affirmative, and the visual culture of the former mill’s village can be admired for years to come.

Text & Photos Victoria Mae Martyn