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Historic tram cable wheels returned to original Leith site after a century

Photo of one of the Pilrig wheels when it was unearthed during excavations

A large pair of Victorian-era tram cable wheels discovered on the historic boundary between Leith and Edinburgh will soon be put on permanent public display.

The wheels, dated to 1898, are each 2.6m in diameter and were used in the underground cable-winding mechanism for Edinburgh’s original cable operated tram network. They were rediscovered at the Pilrig Street junction with Leith Walk in August 2021 during Trams to Newhaven excavations.

Work will now begin to install the wheels on the opposite side of Leith Walk, at its junction with Iona Street, which has been closed to traffic at its west end. As part of improvements to the newly pedestrianised area, the Trams to Newhaven team will also add benches, planters and an information board.

The wheels’ location was chosen in consultation with the local community and their placement side by side will reflect their arrangement when in use up until the early 1920s, when Edinburgh and District Tramways Company introduced an electric system.

Councillor Scott Arthur, Transport and Environment Convener, said: 

The presence of trams in Leith is part of its heritage, so it’s fantastic that we’ll be able to return these historic wheels to their home, for the community to enjoy and learn about.

As we approach the completion of Trams to Newhaven, it’s touches like these that demonstrate that, as well as delivering a sustainable, high-capacity transport link between the city centre and the north, the project is transforming spaces along the route.

John Lawson, City of Edinburgh Council Archaeologist, said:

I’m really excited that we’ll be able to showcase the Pilrig wheels close to their original location. Celebrating our archaeological heritage with the public is an important part of the project. The wheels are a unique part of Leith’s and Edinburgh’s heritage and provide a fascinating link between the old and new tram systems.

Created in 1905, Leith Corporation Tramways pioneered electric trams, prior to Edinburgh switching from a cable-operated tram system. During this time passengers travelling between Edinburgh and Leith would have to alight a cable-operated tram and board an electrified tram at the Edinburgh-Leith border. This became known locally as the ‘Pilrig Muddle’ and lasted nearly 20 years.

Work on the improvements at Iona Street, including the installation of the wheels, will begin today (Tuesday, 11 April) and is expected to be complete in the next few months.

The Trams to Newhaven project remains on schedule for completion by spring 2023 and within the £207.3m budget, with all major construction now finished. A specific date for when the route will be open for passengers will be announced in due course.

As part of the commissioning process every aspect of the new infrastructure is currently being thoroughly tested to ensure it meets the required safety standards.

Published: 11th April 2023