Penicuik grew up in prehistory on the edge of the wooded valley of the River Esk. The Britonic people here spoke an old form of Welsh – the invasions of the Angles and the Scots had not yet begun. The village was in a sheltered sandy hollow overlooking the Esk valley, with pure springs and fertile pasture. It took the name Penicuik meaning. “hill of the cuckoo” or “hill of broom”. Broomhill still overlooks the town centre today.
The Romans passed by Penicuik on either side. They and other north-south travellers kept to the high ground away from the tangled and dangerous river valleys, crossing only by a few well marked paths or “Howe-Gaits” for those going east or west.
Once the Romans had left Britain, the island came under attack from sea invaders. The local king Lot, with strongholds on Edinburgh Rock and Traprain Law and a settlement at Mount Lothian just across the Esk from Penicuik, kept the peace as far as he could.
Lot’s daughter’s illegitimate child Cunotigernos (literally “dog of the king”) grew up to be a wise Christian leader, known by his pet name of Mungo or “dear one”. As the main new faith Christian leader in these parts, Mungo supposedly had a test of strength with the Merlin (the senior old faith adviser) at Stobo twenty miles south of Penicuik. Mungo’s greater spiritual power is said to have hurled the Merlin over a wall.
To promote inner peace, faith leaders at that time immersed themselves in cold baths of spring water. Penicuik’s church and holy well along with many others in the Lothians is dedicated to St Mungo, and the powerful holy man’s fame travelled far and wide, particularly to the kingdom of Strathclyde where he was an adviser to the court at Dumbarton and Glasgow, and southwards to Hoddam, Cumbria, and what is now Wales, where Mungo began what became St Asaph’s cathedral.
Penicuik survived the next thousand years with scarcely a historical mention. The area was part of the hunting forests around Edinburgh, and local community leaders could hold their land “Free for a Blast” at the king’s pleasure provided they turned out for his service at the blast of a hunting horn.
Small and old, with a high square tower Penicuik’s church of St Mungo continued at the heart of the little community. As at Biggar the church sat in the middle of a circular enclosure, pathways running round the enclosed ground on either side. Penicuik with its doves and memories of St Mungo, was still well off the beaten track.
But as Edinburgh grew in size and importance the hill-hugging Pentland routes became ever more important for commerce as cattle and sheep were driven in to the city markets.
Here tucked into the hill slopes near Ninemileburn at Spital, monks ran a hospital where travellers could find shelter, and where discreetly outside the city (like the similar establishment on the other road south at Soutra) healing and anaesthetic herbs could be used with surgery to conduct advanced medicine or provide for childbirth.
With the discovery of the New World, and the spread of new ideas through printing, the whole of Europe began to feel the upheaval of the Reformation and Penicuik was no different. Here in the village the long-established local laird’s family of Penicuik of that Ilk left to seek their fortune in medicine and seafaring.
The old Penicuik estate with its “Free for a Blast” and wild boars were bought in 1646 by Scots merchant John Clerk who had made a fortune as an art dealer in Paris during the troubled civil war struggles in England and Scotland and the Thirty Years War in Europe, when families were fleeing in all directions and loot and treasured possessions changed hands at low prices to raise desperately needed cash. Perhaps this is when Hans Holbein’s world famous portrait of Henry VIII came into the Clerks’ possession.
Scotland’s religious wars came close to home in 1666 when hundreds of dissenting Covenanters from Dumfries and Galloway were massacred by government forces at Rullion Green. Robert Louis Stevenson would later write vividly of this event.
In the next generations the Clerk family took a keen interest in politics, architecture, landscape, music, the arts, and economic development across Scotland of began improvements to the estate and village of Penicuik. The main house on the estate was built and rebuilt in grander style. Papermaking was introduced to Penicuik sometime before 1700, Penicuik blue paper was sent to central America for trade by the ill=fated Darien expedition and the first purpose built papermill leased to the King’s Printer (who had the monopoly on bibles and prayer books) in 1704
The Darien disaster led to Scotland’s near bankruptcy and the 1707 Union with England. The Clerks and other leaders of the time saw this would finally offer Scottish traders access to English colonial markets and hefty financial compensation which could be used for land improvements and industrial development of the kinds they’d already begun.
Papermaking in Penicuik moved forward in leaps and bounds over the next century at the hands of two strong women, both business titans of their times. At the beginning widow Agnes Campbell (Lady Roseburn) jealously guarded her late husband’s printing monopoly and developed her Penicuik paper supplies. Her nephew, John Law, became notorious as the man who introduced paper money, bubble economics, and many banking ideas still used today, as chief chancellor of France.
Big changes came to Penicuik at the end of the century. Scotland’s first cotton mill was established here on the Esk in 1778. Penicuik became a centre of handloom weaving and trading. The Clerk estate invested in new broader stone squares and streets, replacing the old towered kirk of St Mungo with a modern building in classical style. Leith grocer Charles Cowan took on the Valleyfield papermill, with its French pleasure gardens and “Jete d’Eau”. His enterprising wife Marjorie (an ardent French-educated Jacobite, daughter of Prince Charlie’s treasurer) was the real business brains, her papertrading headquarters was Moray House shared with the British Linen Company at in Edinburgh’s Canongate.
By the end of the century Penicuik had collected a host of paper, textile and machinery experts from across Scotland, England, France and Holland, and there were many radicals and religious dissidents in the town. The paper produced here on the Esk was not only used for all Scotland’s bibles, it was the medium of choice for the ideas of the Scottish enlightenment. Burns’ songs, and in due course Turners watercolours, Constable’s books, Walter Scott’s novels, Scottish banknotes and the great encyclopaedias of Britannica and Chambers would all come out on Penicuik paper.
It was an enormous logistical task to feed the mills with rags from which all paper pulp was made in those days. The rags were gathered from across the known world, brought by sea to Leith and then transported in 13 carts on the daily run to Penicuik.
But at the outset of the Napoleonic Wars all this trade came to a stop. The decisive Battle of Trafagar against the French and Spanish Navies was won in 1805 by Lord Nelson using the revolutionary naval strategy devised by John Clerk of Eldin on Penicuik High Pond.
But Napoleons armies had still to be defeated. In Penicuik, Cowan’s had to suspend production for lack of rags and markets and the Penicuik mills or rather the wooden huts where rags had been sorted, were turned over to the Navy to run as a camp for prisoners of war. The prisoners were allowed to make and trade elaborate ships in bottles made from chicken bones. They carried out the plan later used in the Colditz Great Escape digging a tunnel from under one of the huts and disposing of the earth through holes in their pockets as they walked innocently round the exercise yard. Of the many thousands imprisoned in Penicuik, over 300 died in captivity and are commemorated in the Valleyfield monument of 1830 for which Walter Scott suggested inscriptions.
Meanwhile In St Petersburg, Penicuik engineer James Finlayson became a friend and chief machinist of Britain’s ally Czar Alexander Romanoff. Encouraged by the Czar, Finlayson founded the great textile mill and city of Tampere in Finland (at that time a part of Russia). The business carries his Finlayson name to this day.
After the last French prisoners went home, the Cowan’s experimented with new papermaking machines to speed up production and meet the almost limitless demand. Penicuik became associated with radical ideas and Chartist sentiments, gave birth to an early mutual benevolent society the Free Gardeners, and in due course to a very successful Co-operative Association. Leading churchman Thomas Chalmers took up regular summer residence in his Cowan nephew’s house in Penicuik High Street and social reformers like Elizabeth Fry are thought to have visited him there.
When Walter Scott got into financial difficulties through the failure of his printers and publishers, it was Alexander Cowan the Penicuik papermaker and his friends at the British Linen Bank, who stepped up to give him the financial security to carry on.
As railways and a new democratic spirit began to spread across Scotland, the Church of Scotland became bitterly divided when leading light Thomas Chalmers argued that congregations should be free to choose their own ministers and not accept those presented by landlords. His supporters led a huge walkout in the great Disruption, the new congregations suffered without any churches, buildings or church salaries paid by the state. Enormous sums of money had to be found to pay the hundreds of clergy and build the hundreds of churches and schools needed in every part of Scotland. Charles Cowan the Penicuik papermaker and one of Edinburgh’s Members of Parliament, put his shoulder to the fundraising task.
It was Charles Cowan at the coronation of the young princess Victoria, who felt a sudden urge to cheer and it was his voice that led the crowds in Westminster Abbey to an unexpected roar of joyful popular support as the new queen was crowned.
Following the example of their father Alexander, Charles, and his Penicuik brothers John and James, and his many other siblings (there were 20 in all, by two mothers) led all sorts of social endeavours as Victoria’s reign progressed. Often with buildings designed by F J Pilkington (Barclay Church) these included training for Edinburgh orphans at Wellington School, schools, libraries and water supply for workpeople, Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, working men’s houses and hostels in Fountainbridge, improvements in the slums of the old town and Royal Mile, the Scottish National Monument at Stirling, the National Institution for Incurables at Larbert, and the work of Josephine Butler for fairer treatment of women.
By the 1860s Penicuik paper was going all over the globe, the Cowans even commissioning the world’s fastest ship the Cutty Sark to supply Australia to meet deadlines. Penicuik also received new railway connections, as engineer Thomas Bouch (who built the doomed Tay Bridge) laid out three new lines to Peebles, Valleyfield Mills and Shottstown, serving east, central and northwest parts of Penicuik.
By now paper was being made with other vegetable ingredients, the supply of rags could no longer meet demand. Espato from Spain and North Africa was favoured, but its use led to massive river pollution downstream. It all came to a head in 1866 in the North Esk Pollution Case. A Great Jury Trial in the Court of Session, between landowners The Duke of Buccleuch and others versus papermakers Cowan & Co. and others) took place in August 1866 John Young, the local gas and water supply specialist (who supplied electrical carbons for the first transatlantic cable) was the expert witness in the case and devised some of the remedial works.
Penicuik began a close involvement with Japan in 1862 when Mary Cowan, daughter of Alexander, married family friend Colin McVean of Iona, with the wedding celebrations at Beeslack House. The couple left Penicuik for Japan soon after, where Colin was employed in surveys for the new Scottish style lighthouses around the coast and then directly commissioned by the Imperial Government to establish the first modern maps of Japan and Korea. Mary’s uncle Campbell Douglas (who designed Penicuik Town Hall) helped Colin design and staff the first Engineering and Architecture schools in Japan. Mary was one of the first Europeans to bring up her family in Japan. Her grandson, Colin McVean Gubbins, became famous in World War 2 for early liaison with Poland, Czechoslovakian and Norwegian forces, preparing the plans for Britain’s last-ditch defences in 1940 and then leading Special Operations across Europe.
Penicuik’s close links with Japan continued with the visit of an Imperial Delegation to Penicuik to see how modern paper could be made. Cargill Gilston Knott, brilliant mathematician son of the chief cashier at Valleyfield Mills, who worked in Japan to establish in the earliest surveys and principles of earthquakes with Japanese colleagues.
The Penicuik Estate developed magnificent new food and flower production garden in 1875. Now known as the Lost Garden of Penicuik, it contained a magnificent entrance grand staircase, fountain and nine great glasshouses.
More about Prime Minister Gladstone, Penicuik’s MP and arboriculture and the International Forestry Exhibition.
James Clerk Maxwell, leading scientist
John Lawson Johnston of Roslin, inventor of Bovril
Cossar Ewart and the Penicuik Zebra experiments
William Young, John Dennis and Scottish Oil
Shell Oil trademark and Cowans
Further growth of Penicuik Co-op
SR Crockett, novelist and Penicuik minister
Cloud Chamber CTR Wilson
Tom Adams,of Carlops the most famous Scot in America
The Penicuik suffragettes
Pioneering development of Cornbank Estate
James Hamiton designer of Concorde
Albert Watson, the world’s great photographer
Vicky Hipkin and Curiosity th Mars moon lander
The Corries and Siobhan Miller, Penicuik Singers
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer and Scotland-Jamaica
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