The destination for history

Leith: The creative heart of Edinburgh


Next time you visit Edinburgh don’t miss out on a visit to Leith. You’ll find it by taking an easy meander down Leith Walk from the city centre, past a multi-cultural array of shops, bars and restaurants that service this bustling neighbourhood that’s the most populated area of Edinburgh. Keep walking onwards from the ‘Foot O The Walk’ and you’ll find yourself at the city’s waterfront area – Leith. 

Leith is no longer just about Trainspotting, although there are plenty of dedicated tours and locations to spot from the iconic film and the T2 sequel. Leith is now the creative hub of the city with a concentration of activity from more than 1500 individuals and organisations. This includes film and TV companies, ad agencies, artists, artisans, craft breweries and graphic designers. 

Coburg House Art Studios, which is home to the workspaces of more than 70 other artists, designers and crafts people, was once the warehouse of Bell’s Seed Factory and was built in the early 1800s on what was an area very fittingly called Carpenter’s Land. A beautiful stone carving embedded on the front of the building was taken from a tenement that was knocked down a few streets away at the same time as the warehouse was built and depicts an early version of the Leith coat of arms that was used in the Burgh seal. The words ‘God bless the Carpenters of Leith who built this house in 1715’ are engraved on the stone above the image of a two-masted galley. How wonderful to celebrate the trades people who created the homes we live in.

You can find images of the maritime coat of arms and accompanying motto ‘Persevere’ embedded in many buildings and lampposts throughout Leith. No-one is sure why the word ‘Persevere’ was chosen but it does fit well for Leith. Once one of the most socially deprived areas of the city, perseverance was a necessity for survival and now that creativity is at the heart of Leith - it seems a perfect motto for the artist and artisan to live by too. This is one of the most attractive things in the area - how the old and new nestle so comfortably beside each other. Adjacent to the Coburg House building is a modern block of flats and next to that is North Leith Churchyard, created in 1664. The graveyard holds an incredible selection of ancient tombstones, some downright creepy. The headstones give a little insight into the people from Leith’s past and reveal its sea-faring history – and there’s a few skull & crossbones to make you shiver. ‘Colonel’ Lady Anne Mackintosh, one of the ‘damn rebel bitches’ of the ’45 Jacobite rebellion is buried there. She raised a small army to help fight for Prince Charles at Culloden. After the disastrous defeat she was turned over to her mother-in-law, whose family, including Anne’s husband, had fought for the other side. All eventually forgiven, the family moved to Leith where Anne died in 1784 and was buried in the local churchyard. 

Behind Coburg House Art Studios on Quayside Street is St Ninians’ Chapel. Originally constructed in 1493 by the Abbot of Holyrood, the church went through a checkered history and was pretty much destroyed by English raids before the people of North Leith took back control and built their own church. The distinctive Dutch style steeple clearly bears the date of 1675 when it was extended further and it’s now owned by the Cockburn Conservation Trust who let out the building as offices to another of Leith’s creative companies – an architect’s practice. 

At this point, you’re right down at the Water of Leith – turn right and you can walk the 35km to the river source in the Pentland Hills passing on the way the incredible installation ‘6 TIMES’ by Turner prize winning artist Anthony Gormley. ‘6 TIMES’ is six life-sized figures arranged near to, and in, the river between the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and where the river meets the sea in Leith.  They create a dramatic vision and the depth of the emotional connection to the artwork, I find, is always in direct correlation to the turbulence of the river at the time of viewing. 

But if you turn left…then you’re at The Shore. This picturesque waterfront is a mixture of flats, bars, restaurants and a few shops. From the Michelin starred restaurants The Kitchin and Martin Wishart, and a mouth-watering selection of seafood dining options to the more traditional fayre of Mitchell’s Café and local fish and chip shop Pierinos, there’s something to suit every taste and pocket.

And don’t miss Leith Market every Saturday – locally produced craft beers and gins and artisan butchers and greengrocers, sit happily alongside local crafts people showcasing their work and a mouth-watering selection of street food to choose from. Pop into Custom Lane next door – a collaborative centre for design and making that has its own studio spaces and curates and hosts exhibitions of contemporary art and craftsmanship. It’s also where international fashion designer Kestin Hare has his flagship store with the interior designed to reflect the shipping history of the area. It has a 1960’s speed boat changing room, with paddles and yachting rope prominently used in the interior decoration throughout the store. Kestin Hare is a great supporter of local brands, so alongside his exquisitely made menswear collections there are sunglasses, stationery, homeware, confectionery and grooming products offering a perfect showcase of Scottish talent and contemporary design.

And there’s always more to see - slightly further along is Leith Links, a large green space that hosts the Edinburgh Mela and the Leith Festival each year. Leith also hosts two other festivals – Leith Late and the Leith Jazz and Blues Festival. Lamb’s House, just behind The Shore on Waters Close, is a must-see on Doors Open days.  Originally built in 1610, in the 17 and 1800s it had it all – location, design, interior decoration and royal connections. Most famously, Mary, Queen of Scots rested there in an earlier incarnation of the house on her arrival from France.  But by the end of the 1900s it had fallen into disrepair. In 2010 conservation architects Kristin Hannesdottir and Nick Groves-Raines bought it and a massive restoration project started. It now houses the Icelandic Embassy, the Groves-Raines architectural practice and two luxury flats. 

So when you’re in Edinburgh and enjoying the drama and beauty of the city’s centre, take some time to come and experience the culture and creativity of Leith as well. Walk the cobbled streets, enjoy the architecture and craftsmanship that’s evident all around and refresh yourself with the local fair offered in Leith’s history-laden hostelries. It’s not to be missed. 

By Catherine Aitken

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