Up until the mid twentieth century, the Water of Leith was an important industrial centre for Edinburgh, particularly in paper-making. At the height of industrial production there were 76 mills at work along this 23 mile stretch of river, Many of these mills were papermills undertaking a range of production activities. On the Water of Leith between Balerno and Colinton, each village had its own papermill: Balerno was home to John Galloway and Sons, which specialised in producing imitation art papers; in Currie, the Henry Bruce and Sons mill produced featherweight laid and wove book paper; in Juniper Green, the Woodhall Paper Company produced board for the whisky industry, among others; and in Colinton, Andrew Scott and Co manufactured Browns, which were papers used mainly in wrappings.
The mills were largely family-owned concerns. Many of these had been producing paper for centuries, and had played an important role in the development of the papermaking industry in Scotland. In fact, Dalry Mill on the Water of Leith was the site of the first papermill in Scotland, founded in 1590. Water of Leith mills produced a wide range of paper and board which included Imitation Art, Featherweight Laid and Wove Book Paper, Deckle Edged Antique, Chart and Map Papers, Writing and Ledger Papers, Machine Coated Papers and boards such as White and Tinted Pulp. The papermills on the Water of Leith were innovative in research into and development of new technology. They were involved in the introduction of new processes: John Galloway and Sons became the first mill in the UK to begin producing imitation art paper using the champion coating process of manufacture, and Henry Bruce's Kinleith Mill were among the first to introduce featherweight paper, a lightweight paper product used in the manufacture of portable books. Paper was sold and distributed to the major printing companies in Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but mills also had sales offices in London and agents in other centres of printing such as Manchester and Belfast.
The mills were the largest employers of labour in the communities where they were situated. Most labour came from the villages surrounding the mills, with many members and different generations from the same family working together. By the 1960s, demand for labour in the mills was so great that mills actively recruited and bused in employees from West Calder and other outlying areas. The mills played an active role in supporting and developing local community spirit, often placing themselves at the social heart of worker's lives. Mills provided recreational facilities for their employees and often sponsored annual trips and dances.
The Papermaking on the Water of Leith project researched the papermaking industry on the Water of Leith during the twentieth century, from the early 1930s through to the closure of the last mill in the 1989. It focused on work in the mills, technological change and innovations in the industry, range of paper and paper products, impact and shape on the communities along the Water of Leith and the demise of the industry. It looked at the workers employed in the industry, their roles, jobs, employment conditions. It also uncovered primary material connected to: relations between workers and managers; training; social organisation; welfare provision and facilities; role and impact of the unions and hours of work; Further primary material covers relations between the different mills, and the role of the mills on the Water of Leith within the British papermaking community. The project has also gathered photographs of the mills, the machines and those who worked them to accompany the oral reminiscences collected.