Valleyfield Mill - the first paper mill on the River Esk
Papermaking was started at Valleyfield, Penicuik in 1709 by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, Baron of the Exchequer and a negotiator of the Treaty of Union, and a formidable lady called Agnes Campbell. She was the widow of Andrew Anderson who, as printer to the Crown, held a printing monopoly. Valleyfield was clearly not the best site available as it could only be reached by pack horse at that time, but Sir John was determined to promote indigenous industry and establish papermaking on his own land.
In 1716, Agnes Campbell sold Valleyfield to her grandson, William Hamilton. Thereafter it passed through various hands until 1779, when it was taken over by Charles Cowan, a merchant in Leith. Cowan ran the mill with his sons, Alexander and Duncan. In 1796, the mill was making 2-3 tons of paper per week, with a workforce of 30. It eventually became the largest paper-mill in Scotland.
In 1811, Valleyfield Mill was sold to the government, for conversion into accommodation for French prisoners of war. The prisoners earned money making straw dolls and model ships from bones. Some made bone stamps for printing counterfeit money. 309 prisoners died, and are commemorated by a monument commissioned by Alexander Cowan in 1830.
Trade improved with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1818 the government tried to sell Valleyfield as a paper mill, but failed because the Cowans had retained the water rights, enabling them ultimately to buy the mill back at a bargain price.
A papermaking machine of the Fourdrinier design was fitted at Valleyfield by Bryan Donkin & Co in 1821. One of these machines produced in a day as much as could be produced in a week by hand.
The use of esparto grass as a raw material was pioneered at Valleyfield from 1860. Demand for paper was increasing and new raw materials were essential to make up for the shortage of rags. In 1861, when the tax on paper was finally abolished, partly though the agency of Charles Cowan MP, the mill produced 1600 tons of paper.
During the 1840s, Valleyfield lost a court case concerning pollution of the Esk, which led to the creation of settling ponds. In 1866, a further case forced mill owners on the Esk to build filters to reduce pollution. The following year, boiling of esparto grass at Valleyfield stopped, to prevent further pollution. In 1871, an esparto pulp plant was built at Inveresk near Musselburgh, where the proximity of the sea made pollution less of an issue.
As well as the mills in Penicuik, the Cowans owned a number of other mills, including Balerno Mill with George Laing, Lochmill at Linlithgow, Kate’s Mill at Colinton, Melville Mill at Eskbank, Inveresk Mill at Musselburgh, and Bullionfield Mill at Invergowrie.
Improvements continued: in 1898, a generator was installed, providing Valleyfield with its first electrical supply. Two years later new rag and grass boilers were added. Coated paper was produced from 1907. In the late 1920s, the pulp and grass sheds were rebuilt, and a new boiler house and a new power house constructed. A fourth papermaking machine was added in 1947. More extensions to the premises followed in 1958 – 1960, and a re-commissioning of the power plant.
In 1889, the business became a limited company, though the Cowan family retained most of the stock. In 1951, the company raised capital on the Stock Exchange, ending the era of family ownership, and in 1965, the last representative of the Cowan family left the Board. The Reed Paper Group bought the company the following year.
The esparto grass process ended in 1970, and processed pulp was introduced. Valleyfield closed on 1 August 1975, ending 267 years of papermaking.