Edinburgh’s clean water on tap

For inhabitants of a modern city such as Edinburgh, it is easy to take clean fresh water for granted. Half a million of us have a seemingly inexhaustible supply at the turn of a tap to fill our kettles, baths and sinks. And most of us take advantage of this without batting an eyelid!

But we should remember that we have this luxury while living in the same city, the same streets and often the same buildings which were once dangerously dirty and smelly. Auld Reekie’s inhabitants regularly fell victim to waterborne plagues due to a lack of clean, safe wells.

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition, Reservoirs of Edinburgh gives a unique insight into how this problem was solved, through the eyes of one of the engineers involved,  Alexander Leslie C.E.

We know little about Leslie and only discovered him by chance when we came across a mysterious and anonymous album entitled ‘Photographs of Edinburgh Reservoirs’ among our photographic collections.

Leslie was a partner in the civil engineering firm J & A Leslie and Reid, who oversaw the building of the Moorfoot project, constructing several reservoirs in a range of hills to the south of the city.

The photographs may simply have been a tool to record the project’s achievements, but the volume also contains images from further afield so we can perhaps assume he was a keen amateur early photographer.

These photographs are attributed to him by James Colston, a local lawyer and author within his book ‘Edinburgh and District Water Supply: A Historical Sketch’ published in 1890. Colston’s volume contains several illustrations based on scenes from Leslie’s photographs.


The images show reservoirs in and around Edinburgh and their infrastructure which are now over a century old, during their construction or just after their completion.

Interestingly some images show the navvies who worked on the project at ground level. Often with great works of engineering the designers and architects are remembered in history but the faces and names of the men who did the dirty work are lost making this insight rare and invaluable.

We’ve also included some of the other illustrations from Colston’s book as they helped to develop a more rounded picture of the history of Edinburgh’s water supply including images in the typical style of Walter Geikie, of life in the city before water was readily available in private homes and of prominent figures integral to the process of bringing Edinburgh’s water supply up to scratch.

Discover more about the history behind Edinburgh’s clean water on tap at Capital Collections. 


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