6 Times, Adam and Eve, American Crayfish, Antony Gormley, Colinton, Colinton Dell, Colinton Kirk, Dean Bridge, Dean Village, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Tourism, Flaneur, Gorgie, Hygieia, Leith, Leith Docks, Love, Lovers, Mortsafe, Rocheid Path, Roseburn Park, Saughton Park, Saughton Rose Garden, Saughton Skatepark, Spylaw Tavern, St. Bernard's Well, St. Mark's Park, Stedfastgate, Stockbridge, Summer, Walk, Walking, Water of Leith, Water of Leith Visitor Centre, Water of Leith Walkway, Well Court, William Nelson
We should not have begun at the sea. It would have been basic narrative competence to pick up the “silver thread” of the Water of Leith somewhere in the sticks, and to follow it, marvelling as the city stacked up, until we arrived dramatically at the land’s end. Tourist Review would conclude with us gazing out into the raging emptiness, buffeted by North Sea spray, our hearts soaring gratified.
But we instead begin at the docks, at the “end” of the Water of Leith walkway. I was initially sceptical that arriving in clapped-out Leith would provide a suitable climax for this review, and I gambled on finding something more exciting at the walkway’s designated “start” in Balerno. As it happened, the walkway would sputter out rather unspectacularly beside Balerno High School, leaving the walker to stand and look at this building for twenty minutes whilst waiting for a bus back to Edinburgh. There will be no climax to this review.
There is a sweet mystery to Leith’s Shore which is capable of throwing the true historian into a wistful little fury. It virtually beats at your face: the great roars of industry resounding down the centuries, the customs officials swaggering on the quayside, the rats darting in the corners, that ominous feeling as a new ship swings brilliantly into view and nerves around the whole port tighten at the prospect of work. If it seems so completely ghostly in the daylight, you would never dare to show your face here at night.
But just as my impression of this ghostly port is associated with no specific historical period – a merry jumble of medieval burghers and eighteenth-century buccaneers – the flotsam of various ages has now washed up in the dead dock: yuppie pads; grimy antique pubs; the offices of something called “Pro Net Expert” planted on a boat; a grand old sailors’ home which has been shod for pasture as a hotel; all facing each other around this eerie pool of black water, silent aside from the shuffling of pigeons and the lonely footsteps of inspecting tourists.
They have installed a number of things for the tourist to look at, and they are all very polished and clever. Shining cannons stand outside the yuppie flats, as if fortifying them against the plebs. A hefty bronze statue of the local nonentity Sandy Irvine Robertson has sat down for a rest on a waterfront bench. There is a giant lump of volcanic magma, which was “brought here from the Water of Leith river near Dunedin, New Zealand,” although this notice fails to indicate whether the sea carried it here naturally. Yet to thus adorn such a depleted industrial landscape is rather like putting jewellery on a corpse.
Immediately out of the docks, the river becomes wide and silent and the riverside vegetation stirs, now slightly unruly. In a restless wind, butterfly bushes swing over the water like monkeys. Those who walk dogs and children, each on their daily circuit like a milkman, here seem to be as established a feature of the river as the gulls. Two young mothers throw crusts of bread to some bobbing ducks, but gulls are immediately descending, cutting up the air like scythes. The mothers are relaxed and they stroll on, leaving a complete bedlam down in the water.
There is a digression away from the water into a shady tunnel of trees. One wonders what the river is doing whilst we are away – perhaps, unwatched, it is somersaulting and looping the loop. One arrives at something called “Stedfastgate” which sounds like a Victorian tabloid scandal, although it turns out to be a little garden which commemorates the centenary of the local “boys brigade.” Above the flowers, a salutation in stone: “A blessing on the liver.” Thanks!
A dilapidated weir hisses its gentle melody, but beforehand the water has crept back into the coolness under some trees. This heralds a sudden plunge into delicious Gothicism: a dank bleached bridge, an abandoned smokestack in brickwork of the same hue, branches meeting overhead to imprison you like a beetle cupped in hands, and weird little paths down to watch the river, which one would never follow for fear of finding a body lying at the end, transfixed and stinking. Yet we emerge into St Mark’s Park: a bright and rather vacant patch of greenery. People are sitting about, as if waiting for a dentist.
A little past the next bridge, I spot one of Antony Gormley’s “6 Times” statues: a stark naked aborigine, alone with the landscape, probably washing off the grime of the hunt. Perhaps he is the first man to arrive at this river – Edinburgh’s Adam, before Eve and the serpent – or else the water remains his beloved, for this solitary arrival, who is spotted at various junctures on his journey down to the sea, is the city’s oldest possible ghost and long wed to the river. Both of them were here before the hurly burly began.
One halts abruptly on the Rocheid path, where, on the opposite bank, they are building what appears to be some sort of motorway. If it is a new walkway, then there is no room for it – indeed, we are standing on one which is already in existence – and, at a loss for space, they have been forced to lay this new road down in the river itself. In some places, the water is now so narrow that a child could step over it. It transpires that this surreal vandalism can be explained by the words “flood defence”: a harum-scarum “health and safety” project which will spare the new housing estates overlooking the water from a negligible risk of flooding. [NB: At the time of writing, the failure to fulfil the more basic and inexpensive obligation of clearing drains has led to dramatic freak flooding in Morningside.]
By the time we reach Stockbridge, the water has become a bourgeois plaything – the dearest little darling – and looking up at the houses overhanging the river, one catches glimpses of plump burghers saluting passing boats with port from their dinner tables. Only the Gormley remains lawless, and if a teenager with his jeans slung too low would receive frosty looks in this part of the city, the completely naked statue presumably enjoys a royal protection like the swans and nobody can lay a finger on him.
Does the river’s heart remain true through this civilisation, like a woman wild under her ballgown? There are pockets of untidiness here and there, fringing the water and in the shade of a bridge.
If the Gormley is conceivably Edinburgh’s Adam, then we find a counterpart to this savage at St Bernard’s Well, where a pagan Eve, complete with a flagon of wine and a serpent, stands imprisoned behind Doric columns in a sort of huge ornamental cupcake stand. It transpires that this is the witch Hygieia and that she is rather misleading consumers, for the waters of the well have no discernible health benefit. Those amongst our forefathers who were unfortunate enough to take a sip from the mineral well described the taste as being akin to “the washings from a foul gun barrel”. Perhaps they should have erected a statue of Medusa instead.
In the shadow of the well is a memorial to the Edinburgh bookseller William Nelson, which is capped with a line from the King James: “The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things.” If he had devised socialist ones, the Water of Leith might not now be a post-industrial ruin.
It begins to rain and the river gurgles merrily. Stray raindrops tap at me like a cat prodding an object which it is not convinced is dead. It is the wrong day to be out on the Water of Leith. One should come here when the river is drowned in sunbeams and a thousand flowers are singing.
Down in the Dean village, the mill cottages are now replaced by sleepy yuppie offices, which have been probably lost or forgotten by the corporations which first established them. I stop to eye the headquarters of an outfit called “Medicalternative,” which prescribes only herbs and aromas, and this flavour of the medieval seems very in keeping with the spirit of the ancient settlement. If ever I contract a dose of the Black Death, I’ll have to come here for a poultice. Well Court is a jolly Victorian caprice, although one pausing to admire its towers is nearly sent packing by an angry sign which warns “loitering and football playing strictly prohibited.” I then realise that “prohibited” almost but not quite means “illegal,” and so I wander about gazing aimlessly at the Court for twenty-five minutes.
The water has more space to itself under the magnificent Dean Bridge, and it roars and sprays and swirls around fat boulders, until reaching a weir of arresting drama. As we approach the Dean Gallery, I shiver in my skeleton at ever so briefly disturbing the couples who sit hand in hand on the riverbank, but the river grows sweet here – it is a summer’s day even in the rain – so that I almost fall to my knees and whisper my true love into the water. Perhaps the river would wash news of my love out with the tides and into the oceans and all around the world. Under the waves lobsters would snap and whales would frolic and mermaids would blush, whilst in the mangrove swamps elephants would raise their heads from the water and trumpet the name of my true love to the vultures circling overhead.
After Haymarket, one floats over a luscious, tangled wildflower meadow, and the Gormey standing in the river is now cast as an impromptu Puck. The river glides lazily along; the gardens on the far bank are laid out in eye-catching detail like shop windows.
Yet the river puts on a little spurt in its haste to get through Roseburn Park, where Murrayfield crouches on the horizon like a vast apocalyptic crab, elderly residents traipse stiffly about like brainless zombies, the park noticeboard is plastered with police news about dangerous cycling and disrespectful teenagers, and even the graffiti seems lacklustre. Some public information about a bridge has been amended to declare, “This Bridge is Gay.” Presumably in the dead of night, when everybody at Murrayfield is asleep, the bridge gallops off to hump fellow bridges, rather than cooling towers as nature had intended.
But at every bridge, somebody is gay. Craig is gay, or else it is Rab. We reach a message about Chris and, guess what? Yes, he’s gay too. Foreign visitors to the Water of Leith would probably conclude that homosexuals were obliged by a local by-law to notify the public about their sexuality on the walls of the nearest bridge.
Yet Saughton looks a fine place. A small piece has dropped out of the moon to land on Saughton Park, and teenagers are zipping amongst these lunar craters on skateboards. It is as busy as a beehive. A gentler age of chivalry reigns across the park, however, in the Saughton rose garden: an eerily-desolate dreamland of Tudor flower displays. There should be lovers in period costume peeping from behind fans and stealing kisses in the shade of the topiary peacocks. As it happens, there is nobody here. One’s senses float upon a sea of roses and, nodding in the perfume, it is impossible to snap out of one’s wonder at these flowerbeds, even when the Christian faith cuts through the loveliness with the sundial inscription “How Quickly the Pleasant Days Have Passed Away,” like a waspish mother-in-law trying to ruin a wedding. In a world of such philistine devastation, this rose garden’s survival is truly an audacious miracle.
After Gorgie, the walkway pads past industrial estates and a jail and it seems to fade away somewhat, but the greenery and the rust coloured water do not change, a heart remaining true through dereliction. As we pass the allotments, some tender soul has trained raspberries up against the wire fence, so that you can reach inside and pluck a ripe raspberry to sustain you on your way.
One does not stop for very long at the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, which contains half a tearoom and some educational games for children. On a notice board over the road, there is further juvenile anti-Americanism from the bourgeois liberals – a tirade against the latest incursion of the American crayfish, which is photographed looking more sinister than Robocop. The American crayfish is apparently a ruthless killing machine, which leaves blackened landscapes in its wake. They can probably only kill these creatures by dropping them from helicopters into nuclear furnaces.
The landscape takes heart in Colinton Dell and it is back to itself again: a grand and spacious valley which, at the bridge before Colinton, forms a natural theatre of utter majesty. Treetops soar far overhead like stars, one could almost imagine dinosaurs crashing amongst those huge undisturbed elms, whilst the weir sings tenderly like a grandmother rocking a crib. For an apocalyptic moment, my vision detonates over the landscape like a bolt of crystalline vapour, and I am everywhere like dew.
It is pleasant to get distracted in the graveyard at Colinton Kirk, which contains an original mortsafe and a wonderful collection of tombstones from the last four centuries. The specimens from the eighteenth-century tend to be decorated with chunky skulls and crossbones, making you wonder whether Colinton had been once a community of pirates. The mortsafe is a sort of materialist’s purgatory: an iron coffin in which corpses were stored temporarily until they were so decomposed that “body-snatchers” would turn up their noses at them. The oldest headstone which I spotted had been erected in 1690, whilst the oldest resident had reached the magnificent age of 91. There must have been something in the water.
I am not quite so sharp after enjoying some refreshments in the Spylaw Tavern, and I lose the thread of the river for half a mile. By now the walkway seems to have become an unremarkable country lane. Bridge after bridge, weir after weir, washes over me with a sweet monotony, rocking my soul to stupefaction. But, alas, I tore myself unfaithfully away. At some point, as the water was singing to itself, I slipped from its side, and by the time that I should have reached its source, somewhere up in the lonely Pentlands, I was once again in the heart of Edinburgh.