Urban regeneration is a bit of a buzzword these days. Taking old, run-down, disreputable areas (which are conveniently inexpensive, a cynic would say) and transforming them into ‘trendy’ and desirable parts of the modern city. This is nothing new, of course (look at the Dean Village if you don’t believe me), but it seems to be constantly in the news right now. Over the years a lot of the Water of Leith has been upgraded from its commercial past, and there are few places where that is more evident than where the river parts with the land: Leith.
Although historically governed by Edinburgh’s Town Council the outlying Port of Leith was given its own status as a ‘municipal burgh’ in the 1830s and only became an official part of Edinburgh (geographically and politically) in the 1920s – something that was contentious then and remains a bitter point to some locals to this day. Despite this its port has always been recognised as that of Edinburgh. When I was little Leith was (and had been for some years) in a bit of a fix. The cranes on the docks had long ceased moving, the area was decaying and its reputation was going down faster than a scuttled ship. What had been a very busy port had been spiralling downwards since the end of the war, however, the main catalyst had been the end of Whaling.
Leith was of major importance to the Whaling industry. What started out as a hunt in local waters grew to become an enormous industry for the port; leading on to many others, such as the soap industry. Such was the importance of the port that when focus moved to the South Atlantic one of the principal whaling stations of South Georgia was named Leith Harbour.
Since its dark days Leith has come a long way. The end of the 80s saw the start of the change to the area’s fortunes when some old industrial areas were demolished to make way for affordable housing. Since the building of the Scottish Office near the old East Dock (now ‘Victoria Quay’) in 1994 there has been a constant (and continuing effort) to bring up the area’s reputation. It is now home to Ocean Terminal, the Royal Yacht Britannia as well as an ever-increasing population through the various residential waterfront developments.
If you look closely it’s not difficult to find traces of the area’s unglamorous past, but walking around the base of the river you are greeted with a plethora of cafes, restaurants and bars. Since 2004, when it was officially announced that the port would be closed, some docks have been shut off and a large number of flats have been constructed, but the ongoing stipulation is that some of the character and the heritage must remain. This has led to paths being made across some of the old docks (one corner even has a floating outdoor eating area for the adjacent restaurant), and parts, like the old port gates and the old iron and wooden bridge, being incorporated into the area’s layout. Whilst the work is ongoing (and will be for the foreseeable future) Leith has come on leaps and bounds since the dark, post-war years and is now definitely well and truly part of 21st century Edinburgh – despite what some might say. Leith truly has had a Facelift.