Just five minutes walk from Princes Street, the heart of Edinburgh's New Town, is an area seen by relatively few visitors to the city. In the valley to the north of the city's Georgian development is a former industrial town which today has been incorporated into the city itself, but still retains much of its picturesque origins as an outlying settlement.
Established along the banks of the Water of Leith, which for a long time formed an unofficial boundary, limiting the growth of Edinburgh at its northern edge, the Dean village was a major industrial centre which utilised the fast flowing water to provide power to its mills, grinding corn to produce flour. This flour was then imported into the city of Edinburgh, serving its bakeries, and further afield too.
Some of this heritage is still visible in the area today, where the river is studded with weirs built to create mill races, artificially fast passages of water which turned the mill wheels with greater efficiency. You may also see an old millstone, recovered from the water during a more recent clearance of the waterway.
The old mill cottages, which previously housed the workers in these mills, are today desirable residences for people seeking a quiet haven within easy reach of the city centre, and above the tree tops to the west of the village you may see the towers of one of the modern art galleries at Belford, accessible from the Water of Leith walkway along the banks of the river.
The Dean village - from the word 'dene', meaning valley - was an important outlying settlement for travellers into Edinburgh, growing up around the narrow stone bridge which provided one of the only convenient crossing points across the otherwise deep ravine. People travelling from such far-flung lands as the Kingdom of Fife would once have passed through the Dean village on their way into Edinburgh, boosting its profile as an important area en route to the city.
This all changed after 1827, when John Learmonth bought lands on an estate to the north of Edinburgh, with a view to developing them as part of the ongoing New Town expansion. Being on the far side of the ravine from the city, his land was not considered especially valuable, as there was no easy access from it into the city itself.
Learmonth commissioned the construction of a major bridge across this valley in order to make his land more attractive to developers. Civil engineer Thomas Telford undertook the design and construction of what became the Dean Bridge - his last project before his death - which was built over a period of around 2 years, and completed in 1831.
Suddenly Edinburgh was accessible without travellers having to descend into the valley where the Dean village stood. Learmonth's estates were developed, and today Learmonth Terrace forms part of the development around the Comely Bank area to the north west of the city.
Crucially, however, the impact on the Dean village was to by-pass it, and in so doing reduced its status and importance as an outlying town. In time the mills themselves closed in favour of more attractive sites closer to the port of Leith, where greater quantities of flour could be more easily exported from the docks. By the 1880s the Dean village was becoming a ghost town, until the building of the Well Court housing development sought to introduce a new population to this former industrial area.
Today the Dean village retains much of its late Victorian charm, with the river providing an oasis of calm just a short walk from the bustle of the city.
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