Through a glass darkly – 46

The Water of Leith

The Water of Leith is a small river that flows from the outlying village of Balerno to the south-west of Edinburgh, on the edge of the Pentlands, down to the Forth at Leith. Leith most probably derives from the Brittonic word meaning ‘damp’, while ‘Water’ here indicates a large stream, something between a burn in size and a full-grown river. There were once some eighty mills on this stretch of water, producing flour, paper, woollen and linen cloth, spices, and snuff, none of which survive. The Water of Leith rises at Milestone Rig in the Pentland Hills. From Balerno down to Leith there is a walkway beside the river for walkers and cyclists. It is a little bit more than thirteen miles. Last week as the lockdown restrictions ease, it seemed good to go back and walk it again.

Getting started, near Balerno

Balerno to Slateford

After changing buses in an almost deserted Princes Street, I took the 44 bus out to Balerno. Access to the walkway is next to the High School. The early miles are quite rural.  The water runs between wooden banks a bit below the A70, the Lanark road, but largely hidden from the road itself. The first landmark is Currie Kirk, an eighteenth century building in a delightful setting, with Calvary crosses and a Knights’ Templar gravestone in the graveyard.

Currie Kirk

Beyond Currie new housing is much in evidence. A dense estate of new houses with miniature gardens has been built right to the water’s edge. A further development with a decorative water wheel sits below a thundering bridge which carries the southern bypass across the water. 

At Colinton the remains of the station are visible. The station was opened in 1874 by the Caledonian Railway, offering mainly a freight service for the local mills but also carrying passengers in and out of Princes Street. Access to the station was by steep steps known as Jacob’s Ladder. The last passenger train ran in 1943, and the station officially closed after nationalisation in 1949. Beyond the rains of the station a curved tunnel is liberally decorated with graffiti.

Spylaw Park on the right contains the rather grand Spylaw House, built by a wealthy mill-owner, which was briefly a youth hostel before being converted into [luxury] apartments. Steps on the right lead down into Colinton Dell and Craiglockhart Dell. But two bridges in Colinton Dell are currently closed, so I carried on to join up with the Grand Canal. Turn right along the canal, cross the aquaduct, and you arrive at the Water of Leith Visitors’ centre at Slateford. Roughly halfway. The centre sells maps of the Water of Leith and good coffee. But is currently closed.

Slateford to Stockbridge

Beyond Slateford is a relatively dull patch, the pathway flanked by a graveyard and some extensive allotments. You leave the water briefly to cross Saughton Park, and then recross to the east bank as the new-ish stretch of path skirts west of Murrayfield stadium. I look at the stadium wondering how Scotland managed to beat both England away at Twickenham [for the first time since 1983] and also France in Paris [for the first time since 1999], but then lose, very narrowly, at Murrayfield to both Wales and to Ireland, games which they could [and perhaps should] have won.


The pathway crosses the Corstorphine Road at Roseburn, and the Water of Leith then runs through a deep, wooded ravine that skirts round the west end of Edinburgh’s New Town. It is one of the most attractive sections of the walk. The bronze figure in the water below the National Gallery of Modern Art is one of six installations by [Sir] Anthony Gormley. They are called Six Times; I don’t know why. Shortly afterward a boardwalk leads into Dean Village, a higgledy-piggledy collection of odd-shaped houses with grey slate roofs that fall down a steep slope to the river and then up the other side. Expensive cars parked on double yellow lines hint at gentrification.

Dean Village

The water pours noisily over a broad weir while Dean Bridge, built by Thomas Telford in 1823, carries the road 100 feet above the water. One of the characters in the Peter May Lewis Trilogy is forced as a young boy to risk his life squeezing vertiginously across the outer parapet of the bridge. A little further on is the elegant St Bernard’s Well, built in 1789, a miniature temple on Doric columns; and then a flight of stone steps leading you up to Stockbridge.

St Bernard’s Well

Balerno to Stockbridge is about ten and a half miles, and Leith is only another three miles further. But the sky had turned dark grey and the wind was cold and gusty, so I bought two pieces of banana cake from Soderbergs [excellent] and came home on the bus. Leaving the rest for another day.

Stockbridge to Leith

I re-started two days later at Rosewell again, a bright and sunny Good Friday. There were more people and more dog-walkers on a bright morning. Beyond Stockbridge you can see the backs of elegant, stone-built New Town terraces.  Across the water there are views of The Colonies, eleven parallel terraces laid out in 1861 by the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Association, with the intention of providing affordable home ownership for respectable artisans. Each terrace consists of two stories with outside stone stairs leading to the upper ‘cottage’. I don’t think that there are many artisans living there now.

Near Stocbridge

At Canonmills the pathway rises to cross another busy road. A south-facing bench in St Mark’s Park was a good place to stop for a coffee break and to ring Susie. The final mile or so takes you through a light industrial area past the backs of some scruffy buildings in Bonnington. And then opens out into a broader riverside walk. Leith has been reinventing itself for a long time, and may shortly be further connected to the city by an extension of the tram system. People formed distanced queues for carry-out coffees and sat dangling their legs over the water on The Shore. It all looked very attractive in the sun. One of these days it will be possible to eat there again.

Nearing The Shore, Leith

April 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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