This month the heritage blog takes another chance to look wider than the Ouseburn to better reflect on where it sits in the world order. Heritage Officer Heather recently took a walk along part of the Water of Leith in Edinburgh and was taken by the number of similarities to our own little river enclave.

If you know your Ouseburn heritage, you will be aware that the Ouseburn is a relatively short river of only 11 miles (17.5km). It rises to the North of the city at Callerton near the airport and runs through South Gosforth, Jesmond Dene, Jesmond Vale, and the Lower Ouseburn Valley before flowing into the Tyne. By comparison, the Water of Leith rises at Colzium Springs in the Pentland Hills South West of Edinburgh and runs for 24 miles. Only the final 13 miles however, from the village of Balerno, make up the Water of Leith walkway running to the Port of Leith and into the Firth of Forth.

The walkway follows the route of the old Balerno branch line, which opened in 1874 and closed in 1968. It is one of a group of villages along the river which grew up through industrialization in the 18th-century, particularly through milling, using the river as a source of power. In the late 1700s, there were 76 mills along the 24 miles of river. Continuing downstream the walk passes through Currie and onto the romantically named Juniper Green, first mentioned as a village in 1707. A little further and you pass the site of Inglis Grain Mill, the last working electric mill to close on the Water of Leith in 2003 and since demolished to create housing. Next, you pass Upper Spylaw Mill built-in 1682, one of Scotland’s earliest paper mills, but today a private residence.

Reaching Colinton village, the walkway continues to follow the former railway line into the Colinton Railway Tunnel. In 2016 local residents were looking for a way to encourage more people to their village and came up with the idea of using the 140m long tunnel to create the longest mural in Scotland. The imagery was created by professional artists working with over 500 local schoolchildren and is based on the poem From a Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stephenson. The tunnel is now one of Edinburgh’s newest tourist attractions, averaging 3000 visitors each Saturday.

Colinton Tunnel

Next up is Slateford, the site of an ancient river crossing with a steep gauge upstream and the marshy flat downstream, it is an important hub where the Union Canal and the Caledonian Railway still cross the river. The Slateford aqueduct built in 1822 and the railway viaduct built in 1847 pass close to the Water of Leith Visitor Centre (coffee break!). The Centre is home to the Water of Leith Community Trust who coordinate a large team of volunteers to look after the river and surrounding habitat, and this section could be your chance to spot a Kingfisher.

Slateford

Onwards as we draw nearer to the city. Past Murrayfield Rugby Stadium, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, and the site of Bells Mills, owned by the Walker family and dating from the 11th Century, one of the oldest milling sites on the river. In 1972 it was grinding flour to make linoleum when it exploded, destroying the mill and injuring many workers.

Arriving at Dean Village it is hard to imagine this was once Edinburgh’s industrial slum, home to eight grain mills, a brewery, distillery, chemical works and skin factory. This is the location of the original ford crossing, used since Medieval times by those heading north out of the city. A little further along brings you to Old Dean Bridge a toll bridge built by the Baxter’s in 1643 who owned all the mills and granaries in this area. Towering 32m above here is Thomas Telford’s Dean Bridge built at a cost of £30,000 in 1831 to cross the steep sided valley. The former industrial buildings in the village began to be converted to flats as early as the 1970’s and the area is part of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site.

Dean Village from Old Dean Bridge

Continuing through Stockbridge, formerly a quiet village which became a popular retreat for city dwellers in the 19th Century and is now one of the most desirable (read expensive) places to live in the city. The Stockbridge colonies on the opposite bank are unique to Edinburgh but similar to our own Tyneside flats. They were built as double flats, upper and lower, with the upper flat’s front door on the opposite side to the lower flat’s front door, allowing each dwelling to have a front door and front garden. Built between 1861 and 1911 by the Edinburgh Building Cooperative, what was designed as low-cost housing to encourage skilled workers and artisans to a healthier life is now very desirable (read expensive).

As you pass though Cannonmills the Royal Botanic Gardens are off to the left. Further along was once the home to an athletics stadium, laid out in 1869 and eventually demolished for housing in 1995. Continuing downstream you pass under another disused railway line and emerge at Redbraes Weir formerly the site of a complex of mills and a skin works. A small but stately brick chimney remains. If like me you find a landscape enhanced by a chimney, don’t get any romantic ideas about this one, it served as the air vent for the main sewer.

The walk becomes more industrial from here as it reaches Bonnington. The large Bond building on the right bank was built as a sugar refinery in 1870 and has recently been converted into accommodation. The area is undergoing a considerable transformation from an industrial landscape to a residential one as the re-development of Leith creeps upriver. This was once a village between Edinburgh and Leith and, lying in a natural flat plain, it was ideal for milling which can be traced back to the 12th century.

At Coalie Park the river widens and the banks are landscaped following use as a coal depot and railway yard. Historically, this marked the tidal extent of the river and was used for repairing ships. The water here is slow moving as a result of the docks at Leith preventing the natural ebb and flow of the river. During industrial times, the river was grossly polluted and silt accumulations and rubbish can be seen more here than upstream. The built landscape too sees more graffiti along with signs of vandalism and people struggling with substance abuse are all too familiar. These things do not deter the wildlife however and the area has a resident pair of nesting swans.

Coalie Park

We have finally arrived at Leith, the mouth of the Water of Leith where it enters the Firth of Forth. Forming a natural harbour there have been settlements here since Roman times. There was first a ford, then a ferry and the first bridge in 1486. It was an industrial hub for shipbuilding, sail and rope making, bottle making, soap and sugar factories. Leith was a separate burgh from 1833 until it was incorporated into the City of Edinburgh in 1920 – resented by Leithers to this day. A downturn in the traditional industries in the 20th Century saw Leith in a slow decline before public and private investment in the 1980s started to turn the tide. Regeneration can be seen everywhere with restored buildings, busy waterside bars, and restaurants, and new-build housing further out on the sites of former docks built in the 19th Century. Look carefully and some ‘real’ businesses remain though, but with their facades ‘poshed up’ so as not to let down the look of the place. The Victoria Bridge marks the end of the walkway. It is the last of Leith’s swing bridges built in 1874 and constructed of riveted wrought iron, wood and steel. The original Grade B listing was raised to Grade A in 2014 and it was added to the Buildings at Risk register in 2018. Just a few days ago it was announced the bridge will be fully restored for a six-figure sum over the next two years.

Now we reach the end of the walk and the end of this post, how much of the Ouseburn did you see mirrored in the life of the Water of Leith? The types of industries, bridging of the river valley, industrial accidents, redundant railway lines, a World Heritage Site, regeneration of former slums to desirable (read expensive) housing, tunnels, graffiti and murals, bars and restaurants, even down to the thriving natural environment along the river itself with its pair of swans and the occasional spotting of a kingfisher (yes, you can see them in the Ouseburn Valley, promise). Was there anything the Water of Leith has that we don’t? From the Scottish Museum of Modern Art to the tip of a ramshackle pier in Leith there are a set of six human sculptures by Antony Gormley, taking you by surprise emerging from the water when you least expect them. So, does anyone have the contact details for Antony Gormley? Surely this anomaly needs addressing.

If you didn’t know about these details of the heritage of Ouseburn you need to get yourself on a Saturday morning Back to the Future walk.

References for this blog post

Images

  • Colinton Tunnel. Image: Scotland off the beaten track
  • Slateford with the aqueduct and viaduct in the background. Image: Water of Leith Community Trust
  • All other images by the author