Memories of old Eskbridge

Brickworks Cottage, Penicuik
Brickworks Cottage, Penicuik

The attractive Eskbridge housing estate stands on the site of Eskmills, but until the 1960s the only houses were those that ran from the mill gates to the top of Harper’s Brae. Only two of those houses remain, writes Jim Neil.

Shop Raw was the strange name for a row of cottages that stood on the stretch of road that now includes the main entrance to the housing estate. How did it get this name? I’ve heard of two explanations. The first is that in the very early 20th century there was a shop in one of the cottages and the second is that at one time, many of the cottages were occupied by men in charge of the workshops in the paper mill, such as the engineers’ shop, the joiners’ shop and the plumbers’ shop.

On the other side of the Esk, Burnside Cottages stood between the present-day car park and the foot of Harper’s Brae and adjoining the cottages there was the local pub, The Pop Inn. Nearby there was the Eskbridge railway station, so this little community of around 60 families was served by public transport and had at least one shop and an inn. Also, a good service was provided by vans from shops in Penicuik and district. One that I, as a child, particularly remember is the ice-cream van. Tony was a plump wee man with a Scottish accent and he was always cheerful except on the last occasion I saw him, when he said to my aunt, Margaret Mercer: “Ah’ll no’ be back, Peg. They’ll be puttin’ me away now, although God knows why – ah feel as Scottish as the next yin!” The year was 1940 and Italy had entered the war on the side of Germany.

On the other side of the railway from Burnside Cottages there were the remains of an old brickworks, together with a cottage that was known as “the house that was built in a day”. Supposedly, the foundations were being laid when the first train went up to Penicuik in the morning and the finishing touches were being made to the roof when the last train came down at night!

At the foot of Harper’s Brae, a track led off to the left to follow the river and this led to Bridgend Church, which I knew after it had been converted into houses. All of the houses were occupied by mill workers, but in the 1930s an exception was made. One of the executives of Eskmills was a Major Jardine, who travelled to the mill by train from his home in Edinburgh. When the station closed in 1930, he was greatly inconvenienced so the story goes that the mill struck a deal with the railway company. They could have one of the houses at Bridgend for their signalman, provided the train slowed down at the old station to allow the Major to jump off.

Bridgend ceased to be a church in 1867 when it became too small for the growing congregation. A new United Presbyterian church was built in Penicuik and this is the present-day North Kirk.

Beyond Bridgend stood the Old Manse where I was born. Built around 1784, at the same time as the church, it housed five families of mill workers. Bridgend Church housed three families and was considerably smaller than the manse! The only reminder of the Old Manse is my grandmother’s clothes pole, which now stands above the Esk.

Let’s walk up Harper’s Brae. After the bridge over the railway, there was a drying green and beyond that, houses ran all the way up the Brae and near the top there was another shop, Maggie Barr’s. The shop was really part of her house for just inside the door there was a makeshift counter beyond which was Maggie’s kitchen/living room/bedroom. She sold general groceries, sweets and cigarettes and bought everything from the Central Co-op in Penicuik. She charged the same price as she paid, and her profit came from the “store dividend”. However, she was a kind-hearted woman and would give her best customers a dividend off her dividend!

On the other side of the road there was the Bonny Well, the source of fresh spring water for the residents of the Brae. You can still see an iron post that served as a gatepost for the railings that were erected to surround the well after the water had been piped to the houses. The water was alleged to be of such high quality that old Dr Melville, when doing his rounds in his pony and trap, would stop at my grandparents’ house to have a drink from their “well”. He claimed it was the finest water in the district. The well lay hidden from sight until a few years ago when Douglas Hall, who grazes sheep in the field, uncovered it while searching for a source of water for his animals.

The sole remaining house on Harper’s Brae is Southbank House. It is an attractive building and at one time served as the lodge house for old Southbank further down the gardens. The original Southbank has long since gone, but used to be the home of the McDougal family, proprietors of Eskmills. When they moved to Eskvale, next to the mill, old Southbank was converted into flats for the mill workers.

There is much more to relate about old Eskbridge and my illustrated book The Claes Pole is devoted to this area.