Author: Rob St.John (page 1 of 2)

Writing Water of Life

A long essay on the Water of Life project by Rob with new artwork by Tommy, to be physically published in the Random Spectacular magazine later in the year.

Water of Life set of art, writing and sound released


We’re delighted to announce that our ‘Water of Life’ set is released today.  Exploring the lines that water threads through Edinburgh, the package includes:

* Hand letterpressed folder on recycled card
* Set of six art prints by Tommy, riso printed using soy inks on recycled paper
* Set of five essays by Rob on water, art and the environment
* 7″ record pressed on recycled vinyl, with handpainted labels
* Download code

The set, limited to 300 copies, is available through our bandcamp page.

It can also be bought in Analogue Books, Underground Solushun, Vox Box Records and Red Door Gallery in Edinburgh.


Here’s some articles and interviews about the project:

Post Magazine, January 2014
A Closer Listen, 8th January 2014

Incendiary Magazine, 7th January 2014
The Active Listener, 6th January 2014
Record Collector, January 2014
The Vinyl Factory, 17th December 2013
The Quietus, 15th December 2013
Caught by the River, 11th December 2013
The Scotsman, 5th December 2013
Clear Minded Collective, 28 November 2013
Decoder Magazine, 21 November 2013
The Scotsman, 6th November 2013
The Herald, 6th November 2013

We also made Uncut Magazine’s Wild Mercury Sound playlist  and got a 4/5 review in The List magazine, which said that the project: “blurs field recordings with folksong, vintage synths and ambient electronica to create something at once natural, unnatural, and in perfect harmony with its source.”.  


Water of Life 7″ on recycled vinyl:

Field recordings made with hydrophone, ambient and contact microphone recordings of rivers, spring houses, manhole covers, pub barrel rooms, pipelines and taps are mixed with the peals and drones of 1960s transistor organs, harmoniums, Swedish micro-synths, drum machines and iPads: a blend of the natural and unnatural; modern and antiquated; hi-fi and lo-fi. Drum beats were sampled from underwater recordings, and reverbs created using the convolution reverb technique to recreate the sonic space of different bodies of water.

Many of the sounds collected around Edinburgh and used to make the record are available on our sound map.

WoL-InsertScan-Comiston-Image-WebA: Sources and Springs / Abercrombie, 1949 (4.30) 

Side A begins with a set of field recordings taken at the start of Edinburgh’s water network – the sources and springs at Talla, Harperigg and Comiston – slowly merging into a tune for Edinburgh’s imagined and unseen landscapes inspired by Abercrombie and Plumstead’s futurist vision for the city in 1949.

B: Liquid City / The Shellycoat (4.32) 

Side B is about confluences through the city: the pipelines, storm drains and sewers leading to sanitation and the sea, ending in a set of voices singing an excavated children’s song about a watery spirit said to haunt the Pennybap boulder by Seafield Sewage Works.

Additional voices on ‘The Shellycoat’ by Ruben Bee, Clarissa Cheong and Neil Pennycook.

Analogue Books

analogue talk


Please note the event is free but space is extremely limited so places must be booked in advance.

Call 0131 220 0601 or email to RSVP

Fieldwork photos: Tommy


Talla Reservoir

We designed this project with an emphasis on collaboration, and our regular research trips through the summer perhaps echoed the geography fieldtrip in many ways.   However, instead of taking numerical data, we took sound recordings, drew maps which stretched space and time, made notes based on our chats about art and the environment, and took photographs with fallible old film cameras.

As part of this work, Tommy dug out an old family Rolleiflex 120 camera.  When the negatives were developed, we found that the camera’s winding mechanism had embedded a series of scratches down each shot.  After a brief period of disappointment, we began to appreciate the photos for what they were, made entirely by our process of discovery, imperfect reflections of our views of water in the landscape: pastoral and mechanical; natural and industrial; out of sight and off-limits.  Many photographs have links to sound recordings taken at the sites.


Seafield Sewage Works


Pennybap Boulder, Seafield Sewage Works


Glencorse Filter Beds


Talla Reservoir


Glencorse Reservoir


Megget Reservoir


Waterfall on Edinburgh streets


Overgrown Water of Leith pipeline bridge


Edinburgh Bypass Bridge over the Water of Leith

Fieldwork photos: Rob


Water of Leith, Balerno


Overgrown pipeline across the Water of Leith, Balerno


Tommy and his Rolleiflex, Balerno


Millstone in Spylaw Park, Colinton


Comiston Well Head


Comiston Well Head


Fox Spring Rise, Comiston Springs, Oxgangs


Comiston Well Head


Tommy at Comiston Water House


St. Margaret’s Well, Holyrood Park


Lochend Loch and Pump House


Seafield Sewage Works


Talla Reservoir

Taken on 35mm film on a Voigtländer Vito B camera.

Performance at Summerhall

echo of light


On 7th and 8th November, we will perform at Summerhall, Edinburgh at a night curated by our friends at Folklore Tapes called ‘Echo of Light’.  Tickets and more information here.

We will play music from our upcoming 7″, essay and print release, using recordings made with hydrophone, ambient and contact microphone recordings of rivers, spring houses, manhole covers, pub barrel rooms, pipelines and taps, mixed with the peals and drones of a 1960s transistor organ, harmonium, Swedish micro-synth, drum machine and iPad: a blend of the natural and unnatural; modern and antiquated; hi-fi and lo-fi. Drum beats have been sampled from underwater recordings, and reverbs created using the convolution reverb technique to recreate the sonic space of different bodies of water.

The performances will accompany screenings of the 1964 film ‘Rain on the Roof’, an Edinburgh Water Corporation production featuring a forward-looking blend of pastoral, mechanical and futurist visions for the city’s aquatic landscapes. The film has been specially digitised by the Scottish Screen Archive for this rare screening.

Letterpress Printing

photo (3) photo (2)BWdxU7PIgAAxDNJWoL-TestPrint2-1024WoL-FolderScan-1024
The cover for our 7″, essay and art print package, printed at Glasgow School of Art Letterpress Studio with Edwin Pickstone on Sunday 13th October.


Granular Synthesis


Science, society and the unknown: the 1871 Edinburgh ‘Water Controversy’


Daphnia illustration in James Colston’s ‘The Edinburgh and District Water Supply: A Historical Sketch’ (1890)

Using water as a divining rod to explore the histories which percolate through Edinburgh’s bedding planes, we’ve explored a set of sites, sights and sounds – the Comiston Water Houses, Seafield Sewage Works and the shellycoat to name but two – in this alternative, aquatic survey of the city environment.

Whilst working in the Edinburgh City Archives last week (photographs of hand-drawn 1890s sewer maps from the trip here), I came across a book from 1890 ‘The Edinburgh and District Water Supply: a Historical Sketch‘ by James Colston, a judge and convenor of the Edinburgh and District Water Trust between 1872 and 1890.  A significant section of the book is dedicated to the 1871 Edinburgh ‘Water Controversy’, a fascinating (and little known) insight into society’s relationship with water at the time.

The Water Controversy: naturalness, uncertainty and propaganda

In 1870 a debate began over whether St Mary’s Loch in the Pentland Hills should be used to supply water to Edinburgh.  The proposal – put forward by the newly formed Edinburgh Water Trust – initially met with little opposition, until a series of anonymous letters signed ‘A Physician’ began appearing in The Scotsman newspaper.  Discovered to be the work of Dr Charles Wilson, a retired physician from Kelso – and shareholder in the recently disbanded Edinburgh Water Company – the letters objected to the use of St. Mary’s Loch water because of the presence of daphnia or ‘water fleas’ in the loch.  Wilson suggested that ‘repugnance to the use of lake water [for drinking] is as old as it is universal’.  Proponents of the scheme at the Edinburgh Water Trust received the advice of two doctors, who stated that the loch water was safe for consumption, and that daphnia was only present in the ‘best and most wholesome waters’.

A Bill in favour of the scheme was passed in the House of Commons in May 1871.  In 1890, Judge James Colston wrote: ‘since the celebrated Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843, party feeling in Edinburgh had never run so high, nor was it so embittered, as in this great water struggle’.  Edinburgh newspapers took the side of the scheme’s opponents, and line drawings of the infamous daphnia begun springing up on their pages and as large posters and placards plastered across the city.

The image of the daphnia – this visual propaganda telling of unnatural, unfit water – gained wide public support for the opposition campaign.  Water as ‘natural’, biodiverse and full of life was presented as being a public health hazard.   And when thinking about water and the ‘natural’, this is a tension that still exists: water from springs must undergo a series of mechanical transformations, filtration and sterilisation to become ‘pure’ mineral water.    The water controversy came before the House of Lords on 27 June 1871 and the St. Mary’s Loch proposal was dismissed.  This brief episode in the history of Edinburgh is not widely known, yet reveals a large amount about the interrelationship of science and society at the time: centred on ideas of water’s ‘naturalness’ and purity. 

Working with this legacy: finding inspiration in the unseen

Microscopic photograph of  water sample from Oxgangs Lochan. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

Microscopic photograph of water sample from Oxgangs Lochan. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

Microscopic photograph of  water sample from Talla Reservoir. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

Microscopic photograph of water sample from Talla Reservoir. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

Tommy and I approached this work as a true collaboration: to co-produce the final work based on fieldwork and research undertaken together, both responding to new information. Our research process echoes a geography fieldtrip in many ways. We set out to gain an understanding of a set of sites, where the data we collect is field recordings and fallible 120 film photographs; the maps we draw stretch time and space and juxtaposed disparate information; and – inspired by the St. Mary’s Loch controversy – the water samples we take are used to explore the beauty of microscopic creatures rather than their biological characteristics.

Microscopic photograph of  water sample from Oxgangs Lochan. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

Microscopic photograph of water sample from Oxgangs Lochan. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

We took water samples from two very different bodies of water on Edinburgh’s aquatic network: Talla Reservoir in the Scottish Borders, and Oxgangs Lochan in the city’s southern suburbs.  Talla is one of the main reservoirs supplying Edinburgh.  Oxgangs Lochan was created in 2003 on the site of a demolished 1960s tower block, the hollowed out foundations of planned naturalness finding a niche in the city.   Designed to help alleviate flooding from the nearby Braid Burn, the lochan now fizzes with life: dragonflies, coots, and wagtails all flitting amongst the irises.

Microscopic photograph of  water sample from Talla Reservoir. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

Microscopic photograph of water sample from Talla Reservoir. Image: Dr Lydia Cole

The photographs in this piece are taken from these samples, taken by Dr Lydia Cole at Oxford University Department of Zoology.  There’s a beauty in the unknown and the unseen, Tommy and I explored a couple of years ago in a cross-disciplinary animation ‘Water Lives…‘.  We’ve been inspired by the alien shapes and patterns in these slides, the results of which we’ll use to inform our visual and sound works for the project.

Liquid city: finding lost lines of water

Hand-drawn sewer map overlay on 1891 Bartholomew map of Edinburgh

Hand-drawn sewer map overlay on 1891 Bartholomew map of Edinburgh

The image above is from an 1891 Bartholomew’s map* overlain with hand-drawn plans for the city’s sewer network, a fantastic resource sourced for me by the ever-helpful staff at the Edinburgh City Archives.

The map is grubby and worn, evidently through a history of use and handling.  Thought to have been annotated by the City’s Planning Department at the time, the map is a fascinating indication of the networks of pipes and drains that flow beneath our feet – confluences of water both purified and polluted by excess – the historic network that still underpins our daily lives.


The map yields insights into the evolution of water in the city.  In the section above, showing Powderhall, we see the pond in the Botanic Gardens, built in 1822, and two mill leads, both built to provide power for mills, and both now extinct remnants, their beds covered by city streets.  There is also little trace of the city’s first zoological park, open between 1840 and 1867 between Bellevue Road and East Claremont Street, which alongside a pond created for waterfowl, housed polar bears, wolves and hyenas.

To the south of this section was Canonmills Loch, a body of water created by the retreat of the last ice age around 10,000 years ago, which supported settlements based around mills and breweries from the 12th century onwards.  Peter Brusci (or de Bruis, depending on your source), architect of Edinburgh’s first piped water supply from the Comiston Springs had a large playing card factory on the site in the 17th century.

Canonmills Loch, from John Ainslie's 1804 map of Edinburgh and Leith -

Canonmills Loch, from John Ainslie’s 1804 map of Edinburgh and Leith –

The loch was drained in 1847, coinciding with the construction of the Scotland Street Tunnel, taking trains uphill to Waverley Station.  At this point, the station was briefly named Canal Street Station, a reference to the (now demolished) street built when George Drummond, Lord Provost of Edinburgh and chief instigator of the development of the New Town, put forward plans for an ornamental canal to replace the polluted Nor’ Loch.  The Nor’ Loch was created around 1450 by flooding the valley where Princes Street Gardens currently sit.  Fed by nearby springs (the Wellhouse Tower stands partially ruined in the gardens), the loch, thought to have been created for defensive purposes, became a meeting point for industry and the city’s waste.  By the 1700s, the Nor’ Loch had been encroached upon by a growing city, and become polluted and stagnant. Drainage began in 1759, an act of urban domestication on the feral margins of the growing New Town.  Now, the only traces of water in the valley are in the ornamental fountains, and in the ‘Nor’ Loch’ pub built in Waverley Station: a new set of sullied water flows.

Nor' Loch pub in Waverley Station.  Image: Yelp

Nor’ Loch pub in Waverley Station. Image: Yelp

Descending back down the – now disused – Scotland Street tunnel, water in Canonmills was given a brief resurgence in 1865 when a large artificial pond was created on the site for the Royal Patent Gymnasium, the brainchild of John Cox, a philanthropist who looked to promote outdoor recreation and exercise for the city’s population.  As described by an article by Lost Edinburgh in The Scotsman, this pond housed a huge circular contraption of wood and metal, 471 feet in diameter, known as the ‘Patent Rotary Boat’ or ‘Giant Sea Serpent’, which allowed up to 600 people to board and row together, creating a giant centrifugal motion in the water at the speed of a small steamship.

port hopetoun

Finally, this section of the map showing Lothian Road and Fountainbridge shows the extent of the canal basins, Port Hamilton and Port Hopetoun. The construction of the railways in the 1840 changed the role of water in the city.  The brief heyday of the existing canals as routes of transport and industry in Edinburgh was over (as was George Drummond’s plans for a canal, and ‘Canal Street’ itself), and in the 1920s, the grand basins at Fountainbridge were drained, filled in and built over.  The Port Hopetoun basin, the eastern terminus of the Union Canal was drained in 1922, and the Art Deco Lothian House building built on the site in 1935.  The building now hosts a small, dark subterranean swimming pool in its basement: a chlorinated aquifer remade in the space of the past.

Not only do the hand-drawn overlays on these maps give an indication of hidden and lost water in the city, they give clues to stories and histories of Edinburgh’s aquatic past, which spiral, tumble and blend together.

* Thanks to Chris Fleet, Senior Map Curator at the National Library of Scotland – – for help in identifying this map.

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