The private residential estate of Powderhall is situated on the south bank of the Water of Leith which flows a distance of eighteen miles through Edinburgh, from the Pentland Hills and into the docks at the Port of Leith. Powder Hall appears on the Adair/Cooper map of 1735, and as Powdiehall on the Roy 1753 map. Although it has been suggested that the name derives from a gunpowder factory set up by James Balfour of Pilrig House who, with others, was granted a monopoly on its manufacture in 1695, physical evidence that such a factory was ever located here is lacking.
It is possible that the designation Powderhall, as with Powderhaugh at Slateford, derives from the Scots 'Poldre Haw', meaning 'Marshy Haugh'. During the nineteenth century, 'Puddockie' was certainly in common usage as the colloquial name for the stretch of riverbank between Canonmills, Warriston and St Mark's Park, popular for catching frogs and tadpoles. However, this had previously been the site of a substantial mansion house known as Paddock Hall and, in all likelihood, the name Powderhall originates from this.
Several substantial mansion houses existed in this vicinity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — Redbraes, Stewartfield, Bonnington House and Pilrig. Around 1750, Powderhall House, described as "down in the dell," was the property of the Mylne family.
Thomas Mylne was Edinburgh's city surveyor and died at Powderhall in 1773. In 1775, Sir John Gordon of Earlston Bt, was married here to Miss Anne Mylne, "youngest daughter of the deceased John Mylne of Powderhall Esq," (Weekly Journal), a successful London-based engineer who designed the Blackfriars Bridge. Twenty years later, the property was sold to the family of Daniel Seton, Merchant. It then became the Midlothian residence of Sir John Hunter Blair Bt, of Robertland and Dunskey, whose father, Sir James Hunter, had been Member of Parliament for Edinburgh from 1780 until 1784, then Lord Provost. Sir James, a banker, had married Jane Blair, the heiress of Dunskey, and added his wife's name to his own. They had fourteen children, Sir John being the eldest.
Sir John died at Powder Hall in 1800, and the estate was purchased by Major, later Colonel William MacDonald. However, McDonald Road which runs into Broughton Road, was not named after him, but, much later on, after Sir Andrew McDonald, an Edinburgh clothier, who was Lord Provost from 1894 to 1897.
By then, a string of villas lined the road from Broughton towards Leith (Bonnington Road, terminating at the Mansfield Place toll); Broughton Hall, Broughton Park and others, providing family retreats for the city's mercantile elite. Other small estates, with grounds extending to the river, were served by a road from Canonmills to Broughton Point where, as now, it joined Bonnington Road. These villas included Heriot Hill, Logie Green, West Powderhall and Powderhall (these last two close neighbours to each other, perhaps as a result of a developer dividing an estate).
A mill lade formed the boundary to the west, straddled by a mill at Beaverhall, with another lade serving as an ornamental canal within the grounds. Aside from such formal gardens, the grounds consisted of woodland, orchards and meadows. The name Beaverhall is said to have originated from the beaver hats manufactured there in 1782 under licence to Captain Thomas Hamilton.
In 1820, the Powderhall area is shown as a semi-rural enclave of small fields and ornamental grounds between the industrial milling villages of Canonmills and Bonnington. To the north of the river lay true countryside, with large fields and extensive estates and, confusingly, two Warristons. The map also shows stepping stones across the river on a path from St Marks to Canonmills. Also a number of proposed roads and canals, none of which would be built (there was a credit crunch in 1827, leading to a thirty year slump in property investment).
In the early 1860s, the pioneer photographer James Ross lived at West Powderhall and exhibited several pictures of the area, now lost. However, the Ordnance Survey Map of 1876, shows considerable changes over fifty years. The property hitherto known as Powderhall is now East Powderhall and has been divided into three (two houses with gardens plus a meaner house located in what may have been the service wing). West Powderhall is now called Powderhall and has also divided into two.
Despite this, several villas in the neighbourhood survived intact; Blanfield, Logie Green, Heriot Hill, along with many fields. But Beaverhall had by then become heavily industrial, with a tannery, skin manufactory and iron works beside the mill lade, along with workers' tenements and many other buildings. Beaverhall House and its garden are still in existence, enclosed within this grim environment. Given what a tannery involved, the lade and river must have been revolting.
In 1868, the land at East Powderhall was acquired by a group of businessmen and laid out as an athletics track with two small spectators' stands; the forerunner of Powderhall Stadium. This was the setting for the first Scottish Amateur Athletic Association Championship, and at the final meeting held in 1922, both sprint events were won by Eric Liddell, upon whose story the film Chariots of Fire was based. Two years later, Liddell won the Men's 400 Metres at the Olympic Games held in Paris.
Athletic meetings continued up until the 1960s with the annual Powderhall Sprint, a unique event which took place on New Year's day, and is currently run in Musselburgh.
Over the century, a variety of other sporting activities also took place here, including rugby and football, and, from 1927, greyhound racing. Between 1977 and 1995, the stadium circuit was used as a motorcycle speedway for the Edinburgh Monarchs. In May 1977, Hearts (Heart of Midlothian Football Club) won the President's Cup, beating Hanover Football Club 5-4 in the Final at Powderhall Grounds, not the dog track but a pitch next to the railway line, standing on what is now the city refuse works.
Around the same time, Hibs (Hibernian Football Club) won the more prestigious Edinburgh Football Association Cup, and began a period of dominance that lasted for nearly ten years. However, this did not stop the growth of Hearts, and prior to the start of season 1879-80, it was strong enough to secure its own private park at Powderhall Grounds.
Then in 1995, all of the ground at Powderhall, with the stadium demolished shortly afterwards to make way for housing. The apartments on Powderhall Road and Powderhall Brae were built between 1999 and 2002 by Bryant Homes, and those in Powderhall Rigg between 2003 and 2004 by Miller Homes.
Powderhall Refuse Depot fronting on to Broughton Road was built specifically for waste incineration in 1893. The red sandstone, baronial-style headquarters on Broughton Road was designed by the burgh engineer, Mr Cooper, and today serves as a Visitor Centre. The present plant was constructed in 1970 and converted to its current function in 1985, when land-fill became a more economic option than incineration. Refuse is compacted into containers which are conveyed by rail to a landfill site located in disused limestone workings at East Barns near Dunbar.
Contributors: Joanne Bytheway, Hamish Scott and Roddy Martine, June 2008.
- The Place Names of Edinburgh. Stuart Harris. Gordon Wright Publishing. 1996.
- "Powderhall & Pedestrianism" by David A. Jamieson (W. & A.K. Johnston Ltd., Edinburgh & London, 1943).
- Edinburgh Old and New.- Its history, its people and its Places. James Grant. Cassell & Company Ltd, London, Paris & New York. 1880.
- Kirkwood's Plan of Edinburgh, 1820.
- Ordnance Survey Map, 1876.