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The History of Colinton Tunnel

When and why was it built?

The Colinton Tunnel was completed in 1874 as part of the construction of the Balerno Branch Line, itself an expansion of the then Caledonian Railway Company. Its completion of the line created a 5 mile extension, running from Slateford to Balerno and connecting Balerno and all of the villages and mills along the line directly to Edinburgh’s Princes Street Station.


For the residents of Colinton, the opening of the Balerno Branch Line transformed their access to Princes Street with the previous hour-long journey on horseback being replaced with only a 15 minutes’ train ride. By 1880, there were eight services daily – increasing to twelve by 1896. Soon the line became known as the 'picnic line' as it became increasingly popular for people to visit the countryside along the Water of Leith. Between 1900 and mid-1920s, as many as twenty-one passenger trains ran every day, making the line the single major catalyst for the growth of the Pentland villages into suburban residential communities.

The Balerno Pug

A 'Balerno Pug', LMS No. 15151, standing on the engine loop at Balerno station on the 14th April 1925.

Typical goods wagon

A private owner wagon No. 6 for Henry Bruce and Sons of the Kinleith Paper mills at Currie. 

When was it closed?

Bus services to Colinton commenced in 1920 and then extended further out to Currie & Balerno in 1922. With the Edinburgh City Tram service also connecting to Colinton from 1928, there were clear impacts on the Balerno Branch line with passenger numbers falling and services being used less and less. Sadly but almost inevitably, passenger services stopped completely in 1943– though freight services continued for another twenty-four years.


On the 4th December 1967, the last freight train ran on the line and all services ceased as the line closed. Shortly after this, the Colinton Tunnel was also closed and bricked up at both entrances.

What happened then?

For the next thirteen years, it remained that way until work began on the creation of the Water of Leith Walkway in 1980. An attempt at refreshing the Colinton Tunnel led to the walls and ceiling being re-painted and the installation of lighting. Landscape Architects, Ian Temple and Charlotte Cottingham, created the mural here, showing the Balerno Pug along with a continuous band along both walls.

1980 image
How it looked before we started

Why the current tunnel mural was created? 

By 2017, the Colinton Tunnel had fallen into serious disrepair. The freshness of the 1980 re-painting had long since vanished. The Tunnel had become dirty and dingy. It was also becoming increasingly dark and forbidding to visitors.


The old mural was almost invisible and had almost been lost to dirt and graffiti, and unless you knew exactly where to look, it was unlikely that you would be able to spot it. There had been recent proliferations of antisocial graffiti and reports of youth misbehaviour, leaving solo walkers and runners feeling insecure and unsafe.

At the same time, Colinton Village's economy was declining due to the closure of its bank and with some of its shops shutting down. It was at this point that a number of Colinton residents started to consider what could be done with the Colinton Tunnel to make use of its under-valued space, to create a safer environment for the local community to enjoy and to attract visitors to increase footfall for the shops & businesses in Colinton Village.


Initial informal discussions led to the formation of the Colinton Tunnel SCIO (a Scottish registered charity) in June 2018 as the vehicle to implement a plan to renew the Colinton Tunnel. Its first important early success was in convincing City of Edinburgh Council to improve the Tunnel’s lighting on basic public health and safety grounds.


Early plans for the interior of the Tunnel focussed on the creation of a Mural, running the full length of its 140 metres. The initial design concept was developed and taken forward by Edinburgh based Muralist, Chris Rutterford and crystallised around a short Robert Louis Stevenson poem ‘From a Railway Carriage’.

From a Railway Carriage 

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.


Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

The poem itself is a visual description of the delight of a child’s rail journey through fast-changing countryside at an exciting pace. The poem’s phrasing echoes the cadence of a fast-moving train and the poem itself has a special extra resonance with Stevenson’s own close connections with Colinton Village through his many visits to his grandfather, the Minister in Colinton Church.


The final design concept meant that the words of the poem (along one side of the Tunnel) were complemented by the images contained in those words, all drawn from different parts of Colinton and Water of Leith history – rural, artistic, military and industrial.


The challenging condition of the Tunnel walls meant that it was necessary to decide that some parts of the Mural had to be painted first on to marine plywood boards which were then attached to the bricks. This approach permitted any water ingress to run down the back of the boards and allowed air to circulate.

Design concept drawing
Work in progress

When and how was the Tunnel mural completed?

Over the next three years, the Colinton Tunnel charity laboured long and hard to raise the funds to finance the creation of the mural. A steady flow of donations from the general public was supplemented by significant contributions from SUSTRANS, Armed Forces Covenant and the Turtleton Trust among many other local and very supportive organisations.


Vital surface preparation work and support activities were completed by many volunteers including those from Tipereth’s mighty ‘Peregrines’ group, Water of Leith Conservation Trust, SUSTRANS and Boroughmuir Rugby Club.  Their efforts were crucial in improving the core of the Tunnel in readiness for the mural artists to create their magic.


Chris Rutterford led a multi-skilled team of muralists in translating the initial concept into its stunning colourful reality - with resident street artists, Craig Robertson and Duncan Peace responsible for the painting of the Poem itself.


Their work was helped by the input of nearly 600 young people from five local schools plus various youth groups and members of the Pentlands Art Club. Their focus was on the creation of artwork on the plywood boards, which were smooth enough for finer details to be included. The use of the boards meant also that their preparation could be completed off-site for transporting to the Tunnel for installation.


Work on the mural started in April 2019 and proceeded at the same rate as funding flowed in. Interruptions from the COVID pandemic and pauses for bad weather in the winter seasons meant that the Mural was not completed until the summer of 2021.


The Mural’s completion was also supported enthusiastically by other Colinton community organisations. The Colinton Amenity Association commissioned a new dry-stone bench on the west side of the Tunnel. That formed part of a wider package of measures including wild flower planting – all designed to improve the visitor experience.

What has happened since completion?

Public interest in the Mural – measured by the recorded footfalls through the Tunnel – grew steadily across the creation phase. Social media picked up quickly on what was happening in the Colinton Tunnel with a regular stream of positive comments/videos/photos of progress appearing in various online channels.


Since its completion, the Tunnel has emerged as a serious ‘tourist destination’ in Edinburgh, hitting the top ten of places to visit. That is a serious achievement in a city already crowded with so many long-standing tourist attractions. Visitors so far to the Tunnel come from everywhere – from locals (who didn’t even know there was a Tunnel!!), from other parts of Scotland and UK and from Europe, North America and Asia.


At the same time, the local businesses in Colinton Village have benefitted with the increased number of visitors and their spending power in the shops and restaurants. Footfall through the Tunnel increased from just over 2,000/week in 2018 to over 7,500/week by 2022.

Looking along the tunnel
Looking further along the tunnel

What does the future hold?

The completion of the Mural does not mark the end of activity on the Tunnel’s development.


The environmental conditions within the Tunnel mean that there is a clear need for an ongoing annual maintenance program to sustain the high quality artwork in the Mural. A minimum annual spend of around £7,500 needs continuous public support in terms of a regular flow of donations – and the Charity invites you to contribute in whatever amount you are comfortable with.


There are also plans to continue to regularly refresh the Mural through the upgrading of some of the panels created through the link-ups with local community schools, especially those which are showing signs of degradation due to the passage of time. These will involve significant community re-engagement exercises, led again by Chris Rutterford, and we aim to replace 2-3 panels every year in this way. Again, the Charity seeks additional public support to pursue these plans.


There remain aspirations to see the Tunnel emerge as a destination for events for both the local community and for the wider city. A broad range of options is actively being considered as we strive to work out a vibrant and alive future for  Edinburgh’s hidden gem in the Colinton Tunnel.

Keep the history alive by donating!

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