Dean Village in Edinburgh is a historic city suburb that was once the home of mills and industries that used the nearby Water of Leith. Although the water-powered mills are long gone many of the original mill buildings remain, most of which are protected and therefore unaltered from the time they were built over 100 years ago.
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Review of Dean Village
If you were to follow the Water of Leith through Edinburgh you’d eventually arrive at one of the most interesting areas in the entire city – the historic suburb known as Dean Village.
Formerly the site of a major grain milling industry that lasted over 800 years, Dean Village is now perhaps best known for the beautiful buildings that feature in so many iconic photos of Edinburgh.
While the milling industry has long-since faded into history hints of its heritage can still be seen in the various millstones and carved stone plaques that are littered throughout the area and a walk around this part of the city really is like taking a step back in time.
Today, the Water of Leith isn’t quite as important to Edinburgh as it was in the era of the mills, but it offers some lovely walking routes (see my Guide to the Water of Leith) and the paths are so picturesque it’s all too easy to completely forget you’re in the middle of a big city.
It’s remarkable that this peaceful riverside setting is only one mile from the hubbub of Waverley train station, but unfortunately it does get busy at times, especially in the peak tourist season.
There’s a lot to see on a visit to Dean Village but one of the highlights is the 400 foot-wide Dean Bridge that soars an impressive 106 feet above the waters that flow beneath it
Designed by British engineer Thomas Telford, the bridge was built over two years from 1831 and was paid for by the owner of the Dean estate along with a group of independent trustees.
Dean Bridge was a necessity of the time which helped massively with transporting commerce travelling from one side of the Dean Valley to the other and the toll-free bridge vastly improved access to and from the western side of the city.
Today you can walk under the bridge as you follow the Water of Leith towards the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art or you can walk across it for outstanding views looking out over the river. Both routes are highly recommended.
Another nearby site of historical interest is Dean Cemetry which became the fashionable burial ground for the middle and upper classes after its construction in 1846 by the renowned Edinburgh architect David Cousin.
In addition to being famed for its collection of ornate headstones and monuments, Dean Cemetry is accredited as being one of the few cemeteries in Britain to retain features from the 1840s – mostly due to the restoration works carried out by the privately-managed Dean Cemetry Trust.
Many of the stone pieces you can see at the cemetery are from Dean House which was built on the site in 1614, with the majority of the stones being re-used to construct the south retaining wall when the house was demolished in 1845.
The cemetery is open to tourists year-round so if you want a wee history lesson with your kids try to work out which of the stones are from the original Dean House and which were installed in later years. It’s quite an interesting place (as cemeteries go).
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Things to do in Dean Village
The easiest way to get to Dean Village is to walk to the far-western end of Princes Street and turn north up Queensferry Street. Follow the road till you see the Dean Bridge – you can’t miss it – and keep your eyes open for a road called Bells Brae which turns off at 45-degrees down a shallow slope.
Head down Bells Brae and once you’re at the river you’re basically in the heart of Dean Village which you can explore at your leisure, with the Water of Leith Walkway and Well Court being the main draw for most visitors.
Well Court is a lovely example of 19th-century Scottish architecture and it’s extremely photogenic, but please be aware that it’s also lived in and while it’s popular as a tourist attraction the residents don’t take too kindly to nosey tourists continually gawping through their windows, and who can blame them?
It won’t take you long to explore the village – plan no more than an hour – but you can at least enjoy the lovely walks along the river in both east and west directions after you’ve had your fill of Instagram selfies.
A good route to follow for a mini-itinerary is to walk over Dean Bridge, head down Bells Brae, admire the serenity of the river and the architecture of Well Court, and then continue down under the bridge to St. George’s Well and St. Bernard’s Well.
The wells are historical landmarks in a stunning riverside setting and from there you can either follow the path onwards to Stockbridge with its stylish cafés and bars or you can do an about-turn and walk back to the modern art galleries on Belford Road.
There’s a distinct lack of taxis to flag down in this part of Edinburgh so if you find yourself lost try to make sure you have a mobile phone and the number of a local taxi firm to hand (I recommend Edinburgh ComCabs, telephone +44 (0) 131 272 8001).
The history of Dean Village
Dean Village developed its numerous mills thanks to the Water of Leith that powered the milling stones that refined wheat crops brought in from across the Lothians.
In total there were eleven working mills in this one small area of Edinburgh along with many other buildings to house hundreds of mill workers, but over time the milling technology improved so that fewer people were needed to produce flour.
You’ll see a virtually unchanged example of these buildings at Well Court, the collection of four and five-storey tenement flats that were built in the 1880s by Sir John Findlay, owner of the Scotsman newspaper.
Sir Findlay bought the land on which Well Court now stands with the intention of building accommodation for local workers who were ‘a respectable class of working men’, and the buildings soon became highly desirable as housing for young families.
Unfortunately, the maintenance of Well Court was decidedly lacklustre and over time it deteriorated so greatly that by the 1960s it had become synonymous with deprivation and poverty.
The dilapidation was finally reversed in 2007 when the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust recognised Well Court as a site of historical significance and the distinctive red sandstone buildings were brought back to their former glory.
Today, Dean Village is once-again one of the most sought-after residential areas in Edinburgh.
- Dean Village is a little oasis of history that’s just as atmospheric as The Royal Mile.
- The Water of Leith offers a lovely walk from Dean Village to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
- Dean Village is ideally located for a sightseeing itinerary as it’s only a 15-minute walk from Princes Street and 20 minutes to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
- Driving? You can usually find road-side parking across the Dean Bridge. It’s pay-by-the-hour midweek but it’s free on Sunday.
- Please be respectful of the people that live in Dean Village and be mindful where you poke your camera.
- There aren’t any refreshments in the village but you’ll find coffee-shops galore on nearby Queensferry Street. See the map further down the page.
Click the map for directions
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Things to do near Dean Village
- The Water of Leith Walkway. Damside, Edinburgh EH4 3BE. 5-minute walk. The Water of Leith is a river that starts in the Colzium Hills outside of Edinburgh and flows all the way to Leith. The majority of the section inside the city has paved pathways alongside it that are suitable for use by all ages and abilities.
- Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. 75 Belford Rd, Edinburgh EH4 3DR. 10-minute walk. This gallery is divided into two buildings – Modern One and Modern Two – and both feature a range of displays and exhibits by famous artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. There are both free and paid exhibitions, most of which rotate exhibits throughout the year.
- The Georgian House. 7 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DR. 10-minute walk. An 18th-century luxury townhouse designed by the architect Adam Smith. Today it is managed by the National Trust for Scotland who have installed period furniture, costumes and artworks.
- St. Bernards Well. MacKenzie Pl, Edinburgh EH3 6TS. 10-minute walk. Famous Edinburgh landmark set alongside the Water of Leith that lies midway between Stockbridge and Dean Village.
- The Ross Fountain. Princes St, Edinburgh EH1 2EU. 14-minute walk. A cast-iron fountain set in the western end of Princes Street Gardens. The fountain was created in 1872 and represents Edinburgh’s associations with science, the arts, poetry and industry. The fountain is a popular location for tourists as it offers superb photo opportunities of Edinburgh Castle.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- Cramond Island – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideSituated just over 3/4 of a mile into the Firth of Forth, Cramond Island is a tidal landmass located close the village of Cramond near Edinburgh.
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World: Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh Butterfly World is a fascinating tourist attraction on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh that showcases some rather incredible, beautiful, and very creepy-crawly insects and reptiles from across the globe.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideIf you’re embarking on a visit to Edinburgh then your trip won’t be complete without a visit to The Scotch Whisky Experience, located just a short walk from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on the Royal Mile.
- The Royal Yacht Britannia – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Royal Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of HM Queen Elizabeth II which now takes pride of place at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith in Edinburgh. Over the course of her working life Britannia was the official residence of the Royal Family and sailed over one million miles around the world.