The History of Eskmills

September 5th, 2018

Checking fishing nets, Eskmills history 1860s

These days, Eskmills is a busy business hub, with lots of great local businesses calling it home. Before they were turned into offices and meeting rooms, the buildings of Eskmills were used for a very different purpose. Next time you’re strolling through the courtyard, think back to Eskmills of days gone by…

Eskmills and the net industry

When Eskmills was first established, it was tied into the traditional coastal industries that grew up around Musselburgh. In 1812, Colonel James Paterson (a Musselburgh native) invented and patented the first machine capable of tying knots for the manufacture of fishing nets. After he died, J.W. Stuart bought the company and patents, then established a new factory for the manufacture of fishing nets on the banks of the River Esk. And that’s how Eskmills was born!

eskmills history

The business soon became a world leader in the fishing net industry, with outposts in North America, Europe and Australia – as well as the original factory at Eskmills.  At its height Stuart’s mills employed over 800 people in cotton processing and rope manufacturing. The mill played a major part in the local economy, and dominated the fishing net manufacturing industry for decades. Throughout the world, ‘Scotch Weave Nets’ became the generic name for machine produced nets.

The buildings of Eskmills

Many of the buildings around Eskmills were part of the original fishing net factory which was built in the mid 19th century. Stuart House, the main building at Eskmills, was built in 1867 and housed spinning and weaving machines on all floors. The building design was revolutionary at the time as it was “fireproof”, with iron columns and floor formers, infilled with brick arches and concrete, rather than timber as had previously been used. The front facade has highly decorative stonework, with four statues on the top level. Grecian-style female statues hold a cotton bobbin, an anchor, a bible and a bundle of flax – reflecting the building’s purpose and history.

eskmills history

On either side of Stuart House, forming the Eskmills courtyard, is Hercules House and Archibald Hope House. Both these buildings were single-storey mills, where the famous Scotch Weave Nets were produced. At the opposite end of the courtyard from Stuart House is North House, the despatch warehouse for the mill. It was connected on one side to maintenance workshops for the mill, but these have now been demolished.

Elsewhere in Eskmills is the Old Engine House, which used to house the main steam engines which provided power for the mill, replacing water wheels which were previously used. The engines took water from a well in the courtyard (which still exists!) and used coal as the heat source to convert the water into steam and power the engines. Power was delivered to the mill buildings by systems of drive shafts and belt pulleys.

Converting Eskmills

The mill’s domination of the market faltered when newer man-made materials were introduced, namely nylon and terylene. Their late adoption of the stronger and cheaper materials handed their competitors a considerable advantage and Esk Net Mills slowly declined.

The company and factory eventually closed in 1979. A new company bough the name J.W. Stuart because of the reputation associated with it, but Eskmills itself ceased to be part of the fishing net industry. The factory complex went through various owners over the years, falling into disrepair. The site was then bought by Malcolm Gillies in the 1980s and the conversion and restoration work began.

Now, Eskmills is a thriving business park with a wide variety of businesses using the space. Many of the original Victorian buildings and features have been saved thanks to the restoration work, and updated with modern facilities and equipment to create a working environment perfect for the 21st century.