One of the great joys of Edinburgh is that it is a city built on a three dimensional landscape. Everywhere you look you see hills, and as you wander the city you keep coming across unexpected valleys and changes of level. One of the least obvious but most spectacular of these valleys is the steep sided gorge carved by the Water of Leith as it passes around the north-west side of the very centre of the city.
Nestling in the bottom of the valley of the Water of Leith only half a mile from the west end of Edinburgh's Princes Street is one of the city's best kept secrets, Dean Village. Here a warren of streets and walkways thread through a settlement which hugs both banks of the river. Converted mills and industrial buildings are interwoven with rows of mews houses, Victorian social housing schemes and (mainly) sympathetic new development to produce a community with a completely unique character: and one that is well worth exploring.
Dean Village has been here for a long time. Records show that in the early 1100s, King David I awarded the income from a number of water mills already in operation here to Holyrood Abbey. At this point Edinburgh covered only the area later called the Old Town and its westward development effectively halted at the castle. What was for centuries known as "Water of Leith Village" developed in isolation, harnessing one of the most powerful rivers within easy reach of the city to power up to eleven grain mills providing food for Edinburgh's growing population.
By the early 1800s the river was also being harnessed to power textile mills, and other industries such as tanning and blacksmiths had been established in Dean Village. It also lay on the route of the main road west from Edinburgh, which snaked down into the valley and crossed the Water of Leith over the narrow stone bridge which still stands in the heart of the village.
In 1831 Thomas Telford built Dean Bridge, the 450ft long four arched stone bridge which carried a new road at a height of over 100ft over the valley of the Water of Leith just to the north of Dean Village. The result may have been the first settlement ever to have been sent into economic decline by the building of a road bypass. All the traffic heading west from the city now crossed Dean Bridge and progressed through the steadily expanding new suburbs beyond. Dean Village became an industrial backwater. And since the raising of the parapets on Dean Bridge in 1912 following a spate of suicides it is unlikely that most people crossing it realise the scale of the valley below, or that a once distinct village still stands in the valley.
In the 1880s John Findlay, a newspaper magnate living in Rothesay Terrace, part of the New Town which overlooked the valley and village, funded the building of Well Court. This is a remarkable development of red brick, a complex of social housing topped off by a clock tower. Despite this, Dean Village spent the first half of the 1900s in continuing decline and the last working tannery closed in the late 1960s. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that change began to take place, with existing housing being renovated and old industrial buildings being cleared for redevelopment or converted into housing.
Because of its unregulated origins and growth, and rather fragmented more recent development, Dean Village offers a remarkable contrast with the carefully planned and ordered streets of Edinburgh's New Town. Its focus is the old bridge over the Water of Leith at the foot of Bell's Brae and from here you can wander around the village, taking in the fascinating variety of styles and types of housing, including mill conversions, traditional mews houses and modern apartments and houses. There is much to surprise and delight here, with Well Court continuing to be a highlight with its stunning courtyard and clock tower. Those interested in a circular tour can make use of the footbridge across the Water of Leith some distance to the south-west of the old bridge. It is also possible to walk along the Water of Leith to Stockbridge, half a mile to the north-east.
Within the village a mews terrace concluding in a round-ended building topped off with a conical slate roof, like some misplaced turret from a Scots baronial mansion, is a delight: as is the sign above a pair of garages in a mews terrace advertising "Ian F. Cunningham, Bentley Specialist".
The result is the remarkable place you find today. It is also perfectly demonstrates that successfully regenerating an area takes a timespan measured in decades not, as is too often believed by politicians, years. To its north and west, Dean Village blends into Dean, a more typical part of the Edinburgh landscape. A little to the west of Dean Village you find the Dean Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, both part of the National Galleries of Scotland. To the north-west of Dean Village is Dean Cemetery, regarded as the most fashionable cemetery in Edinburgh in the latter half of the 1800s.