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The Penny Well

 

In 2002, there was considerable excitement in the immediate neighbourhood of Seton Place. Workmen

from the Water Board, working on pipes just below Grange Road had uncovered an old well. It was

extremely attractive, with its complete circle of large stones and was very deep. Many people came to

see it, to photograph it and perhaps even to imagine sun-bonnetted maids and their swains taking their

ease around it on warm Summer evenings long ago! It was a real anticlimax when the well was capped

off and the tarmac again hid this piece of history. ‘Our’ well was not the first to be discovered in the

area, however. In October, 1953 a well was discovered in the garden of a house in Kilgraston Road. It,

too, was built on the drystane principle and was 20 feet deep.

Many people in the area will remember a rather strange but interesting building which stood in Grange

Loan almost opposite the Carlton Cricket Club. It was built in 1905 to cover and manage the artesian

well sunk in 1889 by Wm Younger and Co., the water being used for brewing. However, by 1985 it

was no longer needed and in its turn, that well too was capped, the building pulled down and the site

used for building flats. For those who did not know this building, there is a splendid photogragh in

‘Marchmont, Sciennes and Grange’, by Malcolm Cant.

But some wells in the Grange have a much longer history, the best-known being the Penny Well, which

was closely connected with the Convent of St. Katherine of Siena in Sciennes. The sisters at the convent

made an annual pilgrimage to the BalmWell at Liberton, which was believed to have healing properties,

principally for skin diseases. The story goes that the sisters took some of the water to Queen Margaret

at the Castle.

The Penny Well water too was reputedly a healing spring, especially for eyes. It also ran very clear and

even in times of drought the water did not dry up. The spring ran through the lands of Grange House,

so Sir Thomas Dick Lauder installed a new basin for the well in Grange Loan. Lord Cockburn speaks of

the old woman in the neighbouring cottage who had charge of the well and who sold glasses of water at

a penny or a ‘stoupful’ for family use at the same price. Before a public system with water supplied from

the Pentlands was instituted, many local households had their water supply needs met by the Penny

Well.

Unfortunately around 1870 the stream ceased to flow – perhaps because of the preparation of the ground

for the building of the many new houses. But a report in the Scotsman newspaper in 1887 tells us that

during a digging operation, the old basin of the well was unearthed and there was a large popular

move to have the well reinstated. Unfortunately tests showed that the water had become contaminated

so could no longer be used. But such was the weight of public opinion that the Council allocated 30

pounds for the connection of the well to the public supply system and for the provision of a handsome

basin, and at the pavement level a basin for the use of animals. The Penny Well was in use for many

years and was selected by John Gray, the author of a book on the Southside, as one of the 12 features of

Edinburgh worth knowing!

By 1945 it was felt that the PennyWell no longer served a useful purpose and could not be converted to

a more hygenic form of drinking fountain. So the basins were removed and a Cruachan red sandstone

bearing the inscription – the Penny Well – was retained.

(We are indebted to material from the book ‘The Grange of St. Giles’ by F.E. Smith, published in 1898,

for the early history of the PennyWell, and to the archive material in the Edinburgh Room of the Central

library).

Sheila Reid – July 2003


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