The old Penny Well in Grange Loan: fact and fiction

Most of what we know about the Penny Well stems from a newspaper article of 1887. Headlined “Interesting ‘Find’ at the Penny Well, Grange Loan”, it describes the discovery of an old stone basin dug out from five feet down in a garden, just near a dried-up drinking fountain called the Penny Well.

Section drawing of stone basin dug up in 1887. A sideways perspective giving an idea of shape and proportions. The whole thing was two and a half feet across. (76 cms.)
Section drawing of stone basin dug up near the Penny Well in 1887. The whole thing, believed to be an old font, was two and a half feet across. (76 cms.) The basin was 10 inches deep.

This got Edinburgh residents and antiquarians talking, and the find was written up in a mish-mash of memories, speculation, legend and facts. Reports from that time are the core of the “evidence” we have today about the Penny Well.[ref]Newspapers, Jane Stewart Smith’s unsourced account in the Grange of St. Giles and a careful description of the basin in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland[/ref]

Local interest led to a campaign for a new well : an ornate drinking fountain installed the next year, 1888, and connected to the mains water supply. It lasted about 60 years before being capped behind a sandstone plaque. (Pictures lower down page.)

How much can we establish about the well’s history?

Quick guide to fact and fiction

Sketch of basin dug up in 1887 at the Penny Well site.
Sketch of basin or font dug up at the Penny Well site. It contained a “stalactite mass”, which was examined by the Edinburgh Geological Society. The hole had a lead pipe in it.
  • There was a quarter-acre of land called Pennywell in the Grange before 1716. This suggests an actual Penny Well in the area by the 18th century.
  • A stone basin was found buried just behind a 19th century drinking fountain in 1887.
  • An old wall changes direction as if to accommodate the basin.
  • A Penny Well drinking fountain with an inscribed  “mural tablet” was built into a retaining wall between about 1830 and 1850.
  • No evidence for a connection with the old Sciennes convent.
  • No proof that the well was known for the water’s healing powers.
  • The name has nothing to do with selling water for a penny a cup.

And now for more detail….

The well in the distant past

Side view of basin
Side view of basin, which had a stone cover. All sketches by J. Russell Walker, FSA Scot., 1887

After the exciting discovery of 1887, a narrative developed which was a mixture of facts, assumptions and stories. Once upon a time the “Penny Well” water must have flowed into a circular stone basin. This basin’s position was fixed long ago, it seemed, as this would account for the curious kink in an ancient wall. [ref]The “new” six-foot retaining wall outside today’s no. 52 was not there before the 19th century, but the north-south wall that separates nos. 52 and 54 had been there for a long time, possibly since the 17th century.[/ref] Today, just as in 1887, and on some earlier maps, this wall curves unexpectedly just where the old basin was found five feet below the garden surface: below current pavement level, apparently.

This narrative is quite plausible. However, there is surprisingly little evidence for a pre-19th century well in that particular place, especially not for a noteworthy one. It does not appear on any maps before 1890, not even on a detailed plan of the Grange estate drawn up in 1825, though other wells are shown.[ref]Miller and Grainger‘s 1825 map of the Grange. Printed 1835 and held by National Records of Scotland[/ref] Written references to it are hard to find. It does not fall within the boundaries of the property called Pennywell; it is just very close. Furthermore, it does not seem to be mentioned in pre-1887 writing about healing wells, nor in property descriptions.[ref]Please let me know if you discover an early reference![/ref] With such a shortage of written references to the well, an 1807 mention stands out, despite revealing almost nothing. According to a satirical piece of writing about patent medicines, someone who was very ill could…

….taste nothing stronger than Duffus’ whey at the meadow, and water from the penny-well at the Grange, for a month together.[ref]Scots Magazine, 1 May, 1807[/ref]

The curve in the wall and the old stone basin (which was probably a baptismal font) are perhaps the strongest evidence for the usual narrative. Some accounts say that when a drinking fountain called the Penny Well was built into a wall, probably between 1830 and 1850, it was a “renovation” of an earlier well by the keenly-interested owner of the Grange Estate, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder. This may be correct, but the only source appears to be a book by Jane Stewart Smith, who was not the most accurate of historians.[ref]One of her books, Historic Stones, asserted that Shakespeare visited Edinburgh, with no evidence offered.[/ref] This non-ancient, mid-Victorian well will be discussed later.

Penny Well in 1716?

One or two books say the well is mentioned in early 18th century documents. Not quite true. A legal record of a land transaction in 1716 did indeed use the words “penny well” and “pennywell”, but they were quite likely referring to the plot of land called Pennywell, and not to an actual well or spring. Lawyers defining a particular three-acre plot said it was bounded on one side by “the lands belonging to the said William Dick and the pennywell”. Ambiguous? Certainly not a definite reference to a well.[ref]The 1716 date is mentioned in the The South Side Story, an Anthology of the South Side of Edinburgh by John Gray. He probably found this in the Old Edinburgh Club’s book (Vol 10, 1918) on The Burgh Muir of Edinburgh by William Moir Bryce. Bryce gives a detailed history of land ownership in the area. However, he seems not to know about the Pennywell pendicle, and assumes the 1716 reference is to water, not land.  His source, and mine, is a Contract of Excambion Betwixt Johnston and the Laird of Grange – full details above. It seems to be describing shared boundaries, not single points of reference like a well. When the Pennywell property changed hands 18th and 19th century legal documents typically described it as “the pennywell”, repeating this formula: “all and whole that one rood six falls and an half of land having Scheens lands lying on the north and east the common loan on the south and the land belonging to the said Sir Andrew Lauder Dick on the west parts respectively with houses and biggings thereon which lands are commonly called the Pennywell” (This from 1788 sasine)[/ref] Because the Pennywell property had been re-named Hewit’s Place around 1850, before the area was built up and filled with new residents, it seems as if the late Victorian antiquarians and early 20th century writers either did not know of it or did not take it into consideration.

The well in the mid-19th century

1890s - a new granite drinking fountain, replacing the older Penny Well. Photographed by Jane Stewart Smith.
1890s – a new drinking fountain replaced the older Penny Well in 1888. Note the cup hanging down on a chain.

So what was the well like for the few decades before the discovery of the old basin buried deep in the garden? People in the late 1800s clearly remembered it but unfortunately did not write their memories down in much detail, except to say it had dried up some years earlier. It had  a “quaint mural tablet” and “Ionic ornamentation”.[ref]Scotsman, 1887 article referenced elsewhere. A mural tablet implies an inscription.[/ref]

There are a few clues in an 1861 letter to the Scotsman:

Sir – I dare say you are familiar with the “Penny Well” at Grange. A quaff out of that crystal fountain is healthful at any time, but more particularly in summer; and dozens of passers-by, I believe, daily enjoy the luxury…

…Last night I paid my customary visit to the spot, and found that the water had so accumulated about the Well…as to create a species of obstruction on the footpath. [The writer goes on to suggest there should be a new granite fountain and at the same time]…

…the water should be raised to a height of at least four feet.[ref]The Scotsman, June 17 1861[/ref]

A week later came a response.

The “Penny Well” has this advantage over all our other wells, that it never runs dry, requires no repair, and cannot be damaged. All that is wanting is to repair the trough….

The wall with this mid-Victorian Penny Well was there by the early 1850s. The wall, but no well, is shown on an Ordance Survey map drawn up c1850. The land behind the retaining wall was feued out (sold) in 1852 to John Mackenzie, father of the man who discovered the old stone basin. His patch was included in a comprehensive feuing plan for the whole area. Maps suggest there were trees along the Grange Loan boundary until shortly before he became owner. Quite possibly the ground was levelled off and the wall built as part of the development process.

There is even an early photograph showing the Penny Well wall, but it is frustrating for anyone seeking answers. Taken from Causewayside in 1854, the perspective is confusing and the relevant bit of wall is fuzzily in the background. [ref] This picture was taken by J. G.Tunny in 1854. You can buy a bigger digital version.[/ref] The best guess anyone squinting at the picture can make is that the “well” was not flat on the wall where the plaque is now, but a few inches away in the corner where the north-south wall and the east-west wall meet.[ref]There had to be some kind of legal agreement with the owner of 52 Grange Loan about fixing the new well into the wall, which suggests it wasn’t a simple replacement of something else in the same place. Scotsman, 9 Dec 1887[/ref]

Jane Stewart Smith says the drinking fountain was installed by the wish of the laird himself, Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, who “seem[ed]” to take a great interest in it after coming to live at Grange House. While this may well be true, she tended to add flourishes to what she knew, and no one has found actual evidence of his personal involvement.[ref]Sir Thomas did not mention the Penny Well in his published writings about wells, or in his work on local rivers. [/ref]

The wall with the drinking fountain was built by 1852, when the OS map shows the wall but no Penny Well, but earlier maps are unclear. Installing the Penny Well stone tablet and trough seems to have been one of the many changes introduced by the Grange Estate between the 1820s and 1860.[ref]Maps, combined with the 19th century development of the ‘lands of Grange’, suggest the wall was built between the late 1820s and 1850, but not conclusively.[/ref] It is important to note that local residents “always contended that the bore [for water] had been sunk into an old drain”, despite the popular belief that the drinking fountain had been an outlet for an ancient flowing spring: “a clear, steady little rill”.[ref] Both quotes from the article mentioned at the beginning, in the Scotsman, 11 Feb 1887.[/ref]

In 1877 there was a proposal that the Council should restore the “ancient” Penny Well, which by then had dried up.[ref]The Scotsman, 10 July 1877[/ref] This is just one sign that the residents of the newly-built Grange villas were interested in the well as an attractive historical feature. However, there is no record of any research being done into its origins by local antiquarians.

Myth and scepticism

Ruins of the Sciennes convent in 1802.
Ruins of the Sciennes convent in 1802, with sheepfold built inside. Hutton collection, NLS, Creative Commons.

After the 1887 discovery, it was said that the Penny Well had some association with the ruined convent of St Catherine in Sciennes. This was said about several of the numerous wells in the area – for instance a “Ladies Well” in the garden of 2 Lauder Road, and a well in Sciennes Court – not to mention the well that had been part of the actual convent.[ref]George Seton, The Convent of St Catherine of Siena near Edinburgh, 1871, privately printed. Seton does not mention the Penny Well.[/ref] The nuns may have made an annual visit to the Liberton Balm Well, but there is a shortage of reliable records linking any well outside the convent walls to the nunnery.[ref]The Balm Well connection with a different St. Catherine goes back to Boece in the 16th century, but I’ve not found the nuns’ visit explicitly mentioned before the early 1800s.[/ref]

[On the former convent land a] circular stone built well, about 4 feet in diameter and eight or 10 feet deep … was discovered by Mr McLachlan in 1864. … The well … appears to have been in the centre of the enclosure or courtyard. … It is thoroughly built with large ashlar dressed stones. The tradition about the brook supplying the monastery with water, must have arisen after the filling up of the well, and all remembrance of it having died out; for the water in the well is good and abundant, standing within a couple of feet of the surface, and therefore the monastery had no need of the brook except for its cattle.[ref]George Seton, The Convent of St Catherine of Siena near Edinburgh, 1871, privately printed.[/ref]

Can we really rely on vague reports of late Victorian “tradition” to link the Penny Well with the Sciennes nuns or with stories of the water’s healing powers? It did not have a well-established reputation as a sacred well and was not included in books about such places. It is “omitted from the primary Scottish surveys on holy wells”. It was not important enough to be identified on maps before the new drinking fountain was erected in 1888, and was not noted in the huge Ordnance Survey project around 1850. Nor was it included in historical accounts of the Grange/Sciennes area.

St. Roque Chapel 1789
Ruins of St. Roque’s Chapel to the south of Edinburgh. 1789 drawing by Hooper, from Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland.

If the Penny Well has a connection with a holy place it may be with the old chapel of St Roque. John Russell Walker, the antiquarian expert on baptismal fonts who studied the stone basin after it was excavated, was confident it was a font and speculated that it might have been hauled from the chapel less than a mile away. (The site is now part of the Astley Ainslie hospital.) Other stone from the ruined chapel had been used at a cottage nearby.[ref]Robert Chambers,
Gazetteer of Scotland, Blackie 1838, p. 358. Also see Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant, 1880s periodical.[/ref] The font itself was probably still in the chapel in the 1780s as Walter Scott thought he remembered it there. Does that make it more or less likely that it was the one found 5 feet underground in 1887?

[The ruins] stood in the open field (as the author of this description well remembers), and exhibited an oblong, square, without any architectural ornament; the windows and roof totally demolished, and the font-stone alone remaining, to mark that the place had been ever dedicated to the service of religion.[ref] Walter Scott, Provincial Antiquities of Scotland, Arch 1826. The OED says a font-stone is simply a stone font.[/ref]

Any suggestion that the Penny Well  was named after the sale of cups of water can be dismissed. The name pre-dates any memories anyone in 1887 could have had of an old woman asking for pennies. There were wishing wells and springs throughout the British Isles with traditions involving coins, pins, or other small items being thrown into water for luck and healing. Some were called “penny wells”  or “silver wells”.

Will we ever know more about the early Penny Well?  

A crumbling plaque marks the site of the ornate drinking fountain installed in1888.
A crumbling plaque marks the site of the ornate drinking fountain installed in 1888.

The Pennywell property’s name inspires confidence that there was such a well somewhere in the Grange before the 18th century: probably at or quite near the current site. Sadly, there seems to be no definite written reference to an actual penny well in the Grange during the 18th century. In the 19th century we have to consider the tendency of that era to romanticise history. If Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, the landowner, had a hand in “restoring” the well, we must note his loss of historical judgment when he was drawn into the Sobieski tartan scam.[ref]Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland, in Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983. Sir Walter Scott’s Journal, 5 and 7 June 1829.[/ref] Later in the 19th century journalists and Jane Stewart Smith offered unsupported anecdotes as “tradition”.

But a basin is a basin and a wall is a wall. Their solidity adds some strength to the Penny Well story.

Some of the many definitions of “well” in the Oxford English Dictionary:

A spring of water rising to the surface of the earth and forming a small pool or flowing in a stream…..

(Chiefly Scottish:) A fountain fed by a spring; a pump, pipe, or similar device erected above a spring or water supply; a drinking fountain…..

A spring of water supposed to be of miraculous origin or to have supernatural healing powers.

Read about the house with the garden where the basin was dug up.

Read about the land and houses in Grange Loan called Pennywell.

  • Scottish Baptismal Fonts, John Russell Walker, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 13 June 1887
  • Interesting “Find” at the Penny Well, Grange Loan, Scotsman, 11 Feb 1887
  • Contract of Excambion Betwixt Johnston and the Laird of Grange, 20 Dec 1716 and 29 Jan 1717, Books of the Lords of Council and Session (Dalrymple), vol. 178, 20 Nov 1740, catalogued at the National Records of Scotland under the title Register of Deeds Second Series, Dalrymple’s Office
  • The Burgh Muir by William Moir Bryce, (Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, Vol 10), Constable 1918
  • J.M. Mackinlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, Hodge 1893


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