Penicuik (the hill of the cuckoo) was the first of several towns to harness the power of the Esk for papermaking. The New Statistical Account, 1845, states that ‘in 1836, Penicuik produced daily a quantity of paper 20 miles long.’ During the Napoleonic Wars, Penicuik had three camps for prisoners-of-war. The first was opened in 1803 at Greenlaw House, leased from the Trotters at the Bush, near Roslin. The second was at Esk Mills, built in the 1770s as Scotland’s first cotton mill which employed over 500 people by the end of that century. It was sold to the government in 1810 to house prisoners-of-war but due to several successful escape attempts and troubles, it was soon to be used as a barracks for the soldiers guarding the prisoners in the other prisons. This closure lead to the opening of the third and largest prison at Valleyfield Mill, a paper mill since 1709.
Watch the Video (extract from ‘The North Esk River, From Source to Sea’)
After the end of the war, Greenlaw became an army detention centre and is now Glencorse Barracks, Esk Mills became a paper mill and is now a private housing development and Valleyfield returned to paper manufacture and is also now private housing. A monument erected in memory of those prisoners who died in captivity is now surrounded by houses in this redeveloped area of the river valley.
The Midlothian or Esk Basin Coalfield stretches from the Firth of Forth to Gorebridge on the South Esk and to Carlops on the North Esk. The worst mining disaster in the Lothians took place at Mauricewood Pit, Penicuik when fire broke out on 5th September 1889, resulting in the deaths of 63 workmen and boys, their ages ranging from just 12 to 62. A memorial erected in Mauricewood Road to their memory has recently been renovated.
There are numerous well signed paths in the area leading to and from the river and towards the Pentlands. A railway line was built in the river valley to keep the mills supplied with coal and to transport the paper. This line is now a cycle and footpath which can be followed for many miles over bridges and through tunnels. Along the route you can see many remains of industrial use in the form of dams on the river and mill lades.
The Esk Valley Trust have produced a leaflet showing walking routes between Auchendinny to Penicuik.
Midlothian Council has produced a series of leaflets of maps and information on walks in Midlothian.