Riverfly on the Esk: How Community Science can expand our understanding of river health

Rebecca Lewis, Laura Goble and Sally York will talk about:
Riverfly on the Esk: How Community Science can expand our understanding of river health at 19.30.
on Thursday 30 March 2023

Rebecca Lewis, Laura Goble and Sally York have been the driving forces behind the Riverfly on the Esk project since they set it up in 2019. Since then, Riverfly on the Esk has grown significantly and now monitors water quality at 15 locations along the North and South Esk rivers.

The project goes from strength to strength and, with a number of years of baseline data, is becoming increasingly useful. It differs from other monitoring schemes by using community engagement to collect data – an excellent example of citizen science in action. Volunteers carry out monthly surveys of aquatic invertebrates; from this they can determine how clean the water is and highlight any pollution events to SEPA.

Pollution along the Esks remains a big concern for local communities. This project empowers them to get involved and make a difference. To hear how the Riverfly project on the rivers Esk was set up, how it has established survey sites and involved community volunteers, developed partnerships and is planning for future developments listen to Laura and Rebecca when they present the next Esk Valley Trust Zoom talk in the evening of 30 March. You need to register for the talk which is free.

To register for this talk click here

Back to News

Artists & Photographers along the River Esk

The Esk valleys have a rich artistic heritage. In October 2021 Joanna Soden, a former Collections Curator at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture, gave this fascinating introduction to some elements of that heritage.

As an independent art historian Joanna has a special interest in Scottish art since 1900. Her previous talks hosted by the EVT as part of the 2018 and 2019 Midlothian Outdoor Festivals were ‘sell-outs’. This one is part of the 2021 Festival and draws in writers as well as visual artists from along the North Esk in particular. This is a journey through some of the rich artistic heritage of the Esk valleys.
Just click on the recording below to see this talk.
Back to Stories

Tackling Pollution in the Esk Rivers

This talk was presented to the Esk Valley Trust in June 2021. It lays out the background behind plans to manage the pollution of the river North Esk from the outflow of mine water at Junkies Adit in Dalkeith.

Sadly pollution has been a recurring feature of the Esk Rivers for many years. In recent times discharge of contaminated water from old mine workings is a big problem. In particular discharge from Junkies Adit in Dalkeith, which has links to the now closed Bilston Glen mines, is having significant impact on the health of the river.

The background to, and what is being done and planned to monitor and resolve, the problems was covered in a talk to the Esk Valley Trust on 24 June 2021.

A recording of this talk can be seen:

The talk was given by Dr Anna Griffin of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), and her colleagues Paul Butler, SEPA Principal Hydrogeologist and Mining Sector Lead and Annette Lardeur, Principal Project Deliver Manager from the Coal Authority.

Anna has a background in ecological restoration and catchment working and has been part of a national team which co-ordinates the river basin planning process in Scotland since 2005. She develops river restoration projects and work to improve fish access on the catchment scale in partnership with others.

Paul has worked as a hydrogeologist for 30 years and has been involved in a range of coal and metal mining issues. As SEPA’s Mining Sector Lead, he is committed to working with partners to reduce the impacts of mining. He also hopes that the heat contained in the water in former mines of the Central Belt can play a key role in meeting Scotland’s future energy demands.

Annette has a civil engineering background with experience in renewable energy, river engineering/flood defence, mine water treatment and urban regeneration and has been with the Coal Authority since 2017, leading a team to deliver major new interventions and refurbish assets to prevent and alleviate the pollution from historic mine water treatment, both from legacy of coal mining and abandoned metal mines.

Back to Stories

How the American Civil War triggered an Environmental Crisis on the North Esk

The American Civil War forced a change in materials used for paper-making in the Esk Valleys with dire consequences for the pollution of the river North Esk – and a notorious court case

Paper making on the North Esk grew from a specialised local craft already well established in the 18th century to a globally significant industry supplying Edinburgh’s buoyant printing and publishing businesses. Until the 1860s cotton and linen rags were the main raw material for paper making, the industry had outgrown local supplies and was dependent on cotton rag from the United States. The American Civil War (1861-1865) cut off supplies. Consequently, the papermakers substituted esparto grass imported from Spain and North Africa. The processing of esparto required greater use of harsh alkali chemicals, producing toxic effluents and large quantities of organic matter all discharged into the river. Untreated sewage from the expanding towns along the river contributed to the ecological disaster. Aristocratic landowners downstream of the paper mills were incensed by the huge rafts of foam, generated by the papermaking process, drifting down the river and by the smell from untreated sewage. They did not recognise these as separate issues, instead they pursued the paper mill owners in “The 1866 North Esk Pollution Case”. A cholera pandemic had caused outbreaks in London and in Fraserburgh in the very week of the trial, yet barely merited a mention in the proceedings.

The legal case was prosecuted on the basis of nuisance under the law of property and eminent scientific witnesses testified on water chemistry and the capacity of rivers to purify discharges. Pleas were made on the basis that the economic benefits of industry outweighed environmental damage. The judge directed the jury to the narrowest interpretation of nuisance under the law of property. The judgement went in favour of the landowners, yet the consequences for the mill owners were limited. The Duke of Buccleuch had invested heavily in mining, railways and the new port of Granton as well as his extensive inherited agricultural holdings. His economic and political interests were enmeshed with the papermaking industry of the valley and the risk from the strict enforcement of environmental controls on his own investments may well also have inhibited full enforcement of the terms of the judgement.

The issues from 170 years ago have never gone away. A letter to the Scotsman in 1874 from the Provost of Musselburgh, which is a masterpiece of polemic, excoriated the upstream paper mill owners for their plan to dump their effluents on the seashore of Musselburgh via a sewer to be laid along the valley from Penicuik. Almost 150 years later on the Esk in July this year there was a major pollution incident caused by flooding of an abandoned coal mine, spilling contaminated water into the stream, and at the same time untreated sewage is also discharged into the river in ‘exceptional circumstances’ every other week.

It is clear that all the parties to the pollution of the river were, at worst, guilty of pursuing their “enlightened” self-interest. In the mid-19th century the belief in progress and the power of science to find a solution to every technical problem was pervasive and there was weighty evidence to support this conviction. For example, landowners and farmers in the Lothians had been early and enthusiastic adopters of the science of soil and plant nutrition. Between 1840 and 1855 the research findings of Justus Liebig had been taken up by British scientists and widely propagated to the landowning interests of the country. This led to a boom in the exploitation and rapid depletion of guano from remote Pacific and South Atlantic islands, then the development of a chemical industry producing phosphate from mineral sources. The nexus to Liebig can be traced further into the 20th century. August Hoffman, a star witness in the 1866 case and Liebig’s protégé, was appointed to a prestigious position in the School of Chemistry on his recommendation. Fritz Haber, Hoffman’s doctoral student developed a catalytic process for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. This process underpins the modern global fertilizer industry. The scientific witnesses called in the 1866 trial were almost exclusively adherents of Liebig. The 8th Duke of Argyll gave an address to the British Association on his inauguration as president in 1855. Those in attendance included: Sir Roderick Murchison, Sir David Brewster, Dr Lyon Playfair, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, John Tyndall (a pioneer in the science of climate change), Hugh Miller, Michael Faraday, Adam Sedgwick, Justus Liebig and several key witnesses in the 1866 North Esk case: William Allen Miller, Frederick Penny, and Edward Frankland. The duke’s speech surveyed the progress of the sciences since the previous meeting in Glasgow of the British Association in 1840. This covered a remarkable fifteen years of advances in many fields of science. Yet the insights of science seem impotent to effect changes in human behaviour where the beneficiary is the common good rather than the individual. If that was true in 1866, then it seems even more entrenched as a fact now. Perhaps there is a lesson for us all in the irony that the Duke of Buccleuch as an improving landowner and investor in the industrial development of the Lothians also suffered from the unintended consequences of economic growth. However, his biggest complaint in the trial was, according to the testimony of his head gardener, that His Grace’s peaches were blighted by contaminated water from the river. This may have influenced the jury more than all of the distinguished scientific witnesses.

Rennie Frazer; Autumn 2020

Back to Stories

A Nature-Based Catchment Action Plan for the Lothian Esks for the next half century

Many stories here look back to past events, past people. Here Roger Crofts gives some thought to the future – what might be done in the Esk Valleys to improve them for future generations.

The Esk catchment needs nature-based action plan to provide a forward looking, multi objective approach to delivering government targets and as a scale up from previous catchment action plans.

The proposal would be developed in the context of SEPA’s River Basin Management Plan for Scotland 2021-27and linked to Scottish Government forestry, biodiversity, and climate change action.

Why is this needed?

Flood Risk Management Schemes have a single, albeit laudable, objective but river catchments contain a variety of land, land uses, soil types, water movements, biodiversity and amenity that interlink. At present all of these are the subject of different Scottish Government policies and programmes. However, the recent work on the Eddleston Water and at a smaller scale on the Brunstane Burn in Edinburgh (there are also examples in England) have demonstrated that naturalising river courses within a catchment context can bring significant multiple benefits to, for example, soil retention, biodiversity gain and water management.

Critical observation of management of land and water courses in the Esks catchment shows that there are many interventions which mean that the system is no longer operating naturally. Overgrazing is prevalent in the upper reaches, largely from sheep grazing, exacerbated by new track construction and intensive recreational activity. There is relatively little native tree planting compared with larger areas of non-native monoculture plantings. Water supply schemes are still active to serve adjacent populations and those provided for redundant industrial activity mean that channels are canalized, weirs retained, and small reservoirs retained for little or no purpose. And new infrastructure development, especially housing, is resulting in sealing of previously permeable surfaces. These factors increase the rate of run off from the land and through the river system to the Firth of Forth.

What type of Nature Based Solutions are possible?

Taking the internationally accepted definition of Nature-Based Solutions as approved by the 1200 member International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”, there are many possibilities in the Esks catchment:

  • Restoring grasslands and peatlands
  • Planting native trees
  • Blocking agricultural drains
  • Opening up floodplains
  • Building water retention ponds
  • Reintroducing the European beaver
  • Restoring river channels
  • Reducing hard surfaces in new infrastructure development.


What are the expected benefits of adopting a nature-based approach?

An Action plan, implemented over time measured in decades, would have the following expected benefits:

  • Reduction in flood risk
  • Improvement in biodiversity
  • Improvement in landscape amenity
  • Reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions
  • Improvement in human health and wellbeing.


Isn’t that something to aim for?

Roger Crofts; Spring 2022

Back to Stories

Fisherrow – a wee bit of its story

Simon Fairnie is the son of a fishing family whose ancestry can be traced back to the early 1700’s. In this recorded talk he introduces some of the stories of Fisherrow through the eyes of his own and his family’s association with this place.

Simon  was born and brought up in Fisherrow where he has lived all his life. He has an intimate knowledge of Fisherrow and its fishing connections and is always pleased to be asked to speak about his rich heritage. His special interest is ensuring that the history of Fisherrow and its people is preserved and recorded. Simon is currently Treasurer of Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group and Co-ordinator of Musselburgh Museum.

This is a recording of a talk that Simon gave to the Esk Valley Trust in October 2021:


Back to Stories

Esk Valley Trust evening talks programme 2023

As winter fades into spring we can all look forward to warmer times – and the Esk Valley Trust 2023 season of evening talks has already started.

Ed Clerk’s talk in January about his plans for the Penicuik Estate was the first in this year’s programme and proved hugely popular with more than 200 people listening in on the night. We are still completing the programme for the rest of the year. It will include talks on the work of the Riverfly on the Esk team (March 30th), Maps of the Lothians (May 26, alongside the AGM), the work of the Forth Rivers Trust (September 21) and the purpose and heritage of the Northern Lighthouse Board.

Full details of the talks and how to register for them will be given here and through our own and local community Facebook pages.

Back to News

Arniston House and the origins of Ordnance Survey maps

It could be considered that the origins of Ordnance Survey maps that we love and rely on, can be traced to Arniston House and the Dundas family.

It could be considered that the origins of Ordnance Survey maps that we love and rely on, can be traced to Arniston House and the Dundas family.

The age of the Scottish Enlightenment was the late 1600’s and early 1700’s.  During this time the rich and educated took a keen interest in everything scientific.  They craved accuracy in everything they did and spent a lot of money investing in new scientific instruments.  Maps were destined to be based on real measurements rather than panoramic sketches.

In 1712 Robert Dundas of Arniston, age 27, a lawyer and Solicitor General for Scotland, married Elizabeth Watson.  At the time of their marriage, both Elizabeth’s parents were dead.  Her youngest brother, David Watson, was only 8, and came to stay with them at Arniston.  Robert Dundas took a keen interest in geography and amassed a large collection of maps, globes and surveying instruments. Young David was also fascinated by this collection and learned how to use them to make his own maps.

A few years later in his late teens, David Watson joined the British army, spending most of the next twenty years on the continent much of the time as an engineer for the board of Ordnance.  After leaving the army, Robert Dundas helped David, now in his early thirties, move to the Board of Ordnance in London.  This had a small section devoted to map making.

Shortly before the battle of Culloden, Hanoverian commanders complained that their maps of the northwest highlands were useless – features, roads and names were often wrong or non-existent.  This was one of the reasons they took two months after Culloden trying to catch up with Bonnie Prince Charlie and Lord Lovett.  In 1747, a year after the battle of Culloden, David Watson persuaded the Duke of Cumberland that their maps of the Highlands were not fit for purpose.

This was the trigger for a national military map, initially of Scotland and later of England’s south coast. This is how it came about and another famous name creeps into the story.

William Roy, age 21, and his father worked as factors on an estate near Carluke.  William had no training in maths. The estate they worked on had originally been owned by Robert Dundas’s second wife’s father. The new landowners at Carluke decided they needed a detailed map of their estate.  Possibly at a family lunch when the Dundases visited Hallcraig, David Watson was introduced to the enthusiastic young William Roy then aged just 21.  David, working as he was for the Board of Ordnance, (and, remember, stepson of Robert Dundas of Arniston), employed William Roy.  He was given the job of mapping the Highlands of Scotland and later the Scottish Lowlands.  On completion four years later, he moved to London and moved onto mapping the coastal regions of the south of England.  Within seven years of his death, his successor, Charles Lennox, persuaded King George the 3rd to fund mapping of the nation using the new triangulation system.  This is the beginnings of Ordnance mapping as we now know it.

So in summary, Robert Dundas of Arniston’s interest in maps and surveying instruments rubbed off on his young stepbrother who later employed William Roy.  He created the most accurate and detailed maps ever seen of much of Britain.  It was the vision of David Watson to produce a map of the country that eventually came to be at the hands of William Lennox starting in 1791.

A footnote on Board of Ordnance mapping

When William Roy created his maps of the Scottish Highlands they used a chain to measure straight lines.  At a corner in a track he recorded the angle to the next straight line.  This meant that measurement errors gradually increased.  By the time he reached the lowlands the error had reached something in the order of 20 miles.  The triangulation method that was introduced 30 years later, meant the for the most part, that errors tended to cancel.

In 1784 William Roy laid down the trigonometrical baseline (5.2 miles) on Hownslow Heath   (now the edge of Heathrow Airport) initially using wooden rods and later glass rods which were less affected by temperature and moisture.  This was used to create a triangulated map between Greenwich and the Paris Observatory.  This would allow the map makers to provide sailors with significantly more accurate charts.  The baseline was re-surveyed by Charles Lennox in preparation for creating the first Board of Ordnance maps.


When the full triangulation of Britain was started, the original baseline was used as the starting point.  In 1794, a second baseline of 7 miles was accurately measured on Salisbury Plain by Mudge & Dalby to check the accuracy of the first stage of triangulation.  Measurement of the new baseline confirmed their triangulation to have been “very accurate”.  In general, any triangulation errors tend to cancel themselves out whereas with the original end to end measurements plus measurements of angles (Roy’s original technique) the errors tend to be cumulative.  While Roy and later Mudge & Dalby measured very large triangles, a separate team of surveyors, created smaller triangles and noted the small detail topography producing useful maps as we now know them.  On the triangulation survey, the surveyors marked their theodolite points with a small pile of stones (cairns) which they asked the locals not to disturb.  This original triangulation survey remained the basis for all OS mapping until the 1935 when the small cairns began to be replaced by the modern concrete obelisks.

Ian Brown

Back to Stories

What next for the Penicuik Estate?

The next Esk Valley Trust Zoom talk will be given by Edward Clerk who is the latest member of the Clerk family to manage the estate. He will talk about future plans for the Penicuik Estate on Thursday January 26th 2022 starting at 19.30

The next Esk Valley Trust Zoom talk will be given by Edward Clerk who is the latest member of the Clerk family to manage the estate. He will talk about future plans for the Penicuik Estate on Thursday January 26th starting at 19.30

To register for the talk click on:


Known and loved by its many visitors the Penicuik Estate has been owned by the Clerk family since 1654 when John Clerk, a merchant with an emporium in Paris specialising in fine art, bought Penicuik Estate with the original Newbiggin House.

Since then there have been many developments with the house (including, of course, the disastrous fire of 1899 which reduced the new Penicuik House to a shell) and the estate with its Designed Landscape.

The impact of the Clerk family on Scotland’s intellectual, cultural and scientific history, has been immense and today Edward Clerk manages the Estate, is overseeing the next stages in its development and, in partnership with Penicuik House Preservation Trust, oversees the running of the conserved ruin of Penicuik House and the restoration of the Designed Landscape for the benefit of the local community and numerous visitors every year.

Plans for the Estate never stand still and Edward Clerk’s talk will outline the plans for the next stage in the development of this significant part of Scotland’s heritage.

The talk is free to all.

Back to News

Talk – William Fergusson, surgeon extraordinaire. Thurs 10th November 2022

William Fergusson, who established his formidable reputation as a surgeon before the advent of anaesthesia, was born in 1808 in Prestonpans.

William Fergusson, who established his formidable reputation as a surgeon before the advent of anaesthesia, was born in 1808 in Prestonpans. He rapidly gained a strong reputation as a surgeon and, in 1840, accepted an invitation to become Professor of Surgery at King’s College London and Surgeon to King’s College Hospital. His many achievements made him perhaps the most celebrated surgeon of his time. He died in London in 1877 and is buried at West Linton.

Peter Raine, himself a paediatric surgeon, will talk about William Fergusson’s life and work in the next Esk Valley Trust Zoom talk on Thursday November 10th at 19.30 hrs.

To register for this talk click here.

Back to News