The year ended dramatically on the Water of Leith as the river surged. On 30 December, the height of the river shot up more than two metres in a matter of hours. Despite the massive programme of flood defence works in recent years, concern built as the foaming brown mass drove on, thundering past houses and racing under bridges.
Antony Gormley's figures, swathed in debris, struggled to keep their heads above water. Walkways were inundated; impassable, impossible. Flood gates closed. The water, well above normal levels, seeped into basements around Canonmills. Fire engines were called to pump out the flood water. Freshly formed sculptures of twigs, grass, and flotsam and jetsam enfolded those railings that dared to jut out. Several weeks later, the scars are still evident. The Water of Leith Conservation Trust and others have been working overtime to get the walkway cleared and repaired.
I recently picked up a faded pamphlet on the Water of Leith, written by Robert Croall. Well written, it eschews excessive detail, focusing on the river and its 'environs'. Though with a particular focus on the baking industry (Croall's other works included A Short Account of Baking in Edinburgh
), the pamphlet remains of general interest. Published in July 1960, it's punctuated by some lovely evocative adverts from the time; for yeast, chocolate couvertures and other catering related products.
Though, as Croall admits, the Water of Leith can't compare with the 'great and noble rivers' of the world, it does have special qualities. Rising first from Colzium Springs into Harperrig Reservoir, the river flows for 24 miles before it joins the Firth of Forth at Leith. Most visitors are charmed by the way it winds through the city, offering tranquillity. As Croall remarks: 'there are many places where extreme beauty lurks along its banks'. These places were previously outside the city but have been swallowed up as the city has grown. They have retained their rural feel.
The text takes the reader down the length of the river, which 'flows feeble in summer but rather grand in spate'. The torrents that rushed down in late December were a reminder of the power of the river when in spate. To catch a glance of thundering ferment, onlookers peered over ledges and bridges, and inched towards precipices. Where was it all going? It battered and severely damaged the metal bridge at the Britannia Hotel, Belford, and engulfed Gormley's metal men in Stockbridge, Powderhall and Bonnington. Repair work on the bridge has now been completed by Edinburgh Council, re-opening this busy stretch of the walkway. Antony Gormley's 6 Times
figures have now lost most of the debris that attached itself just before the turn of the year.
I recall venturing out on 30 December and trying to use the Rocheid Path to get to Inverleith. I was met with the sight of a man forced to use the fence as his means of keeping clear of the inundated walkway. There was no way through. In the days after, the amount of debris and damage along the river was startling. The footpaths were smothered in silt. Particularly impressive was the area around Tanfield in Canonmills, where it looked as if an abstract artist had been at work, sculpting assorted twigs and grass into something quite startling.
Croall's description of the river and its environs remind us that, at that time, the river still retained a highly industrial character, with several mills still active. At one time, 70 mills were located on the river. Croall pays particular attention to Chancelot Mill which features in an elegant advert for SCWS Flour 'milled and packed by the banks of the Water of Leith', in a building which, apparently, had 'no equal in Scotland for architectural beauty and structure'. The area around St Marks Park, where it stood, is currently in the process of radical change as Powderhall Waste Centre site is developed. The arts organisation Out the Blue will be playing a leading role in the rebirth of this section of the city.
Croall's narrative is nicely punctuated with slivers of poetry and literature. This enriches the narrative and emphasises the number of writers who have been drawn to the river and inspired by it. When it nears Canonmills on the fringes of the New Town, the narrative gets stranger and the recollections darker.
Croall talks of the 'very pretty sequestered' village of Silvermills, which was apparently 'much favoured for many lovers' trysts and rambles'. Silvermills is another area being redeveloped, with piles of bricks peppering the area around Henderson Place Lane. I wouldn't imagine this is an ideal place for the trysts Croall speaks of.
On to Canonmills where the loch was, in 1682, the 'scene of spulzie, and riot'. apparently 'the tacksman of Canonmills, Alexander Hunter, not only destroyed the paper mill belonging to Peter de Bruis, but [also] flung Peter's wife into the dam'. The 17th-century version of Edinburgh Live
would be pumping out clickbait articles on this for weeks.
Croall goes on to recount a 'great tragedy' at Warriston House (demolished in 1966). It involved the beating to death of the Laird by his servant, 'prompted by the Laird's selfish and cruel wife' and her nurse. The nurse was subsequently 'burnt at the stake on Castle Hill' and Lady Kinnaird beheaded in the Canongate. Again, I sense that were this to happen today, a four-season Netflix series would be forged from this dramatic story.
I certainly hadn't expected to be transported in this way when I picked up the slim, faded pamphlet. One change the pamphlet illustrates is the way that the walkway has been developed since the 1980s. Croall talks of the area near the Gallery of Modern Art and Donaldson's as being 'practically unknown to the general public'. With the moving AIDS Memorial Park, this area has become a popular spot along the river. It's a place of reflection as you watch the water tumble over the waterfall. You can stand there and feel like you are in the Scottish countryside, though large buildings and busy city streets are nearby.
What the pamphlet also reminds us of is the rich history of the Water of Leith and what it adds to the city. As Croall concludes: 'the good folk of Edinburgh and Leith, will always hold the water dear to them through the ages'. The future of the Water of Leith 'is assured, because men cannot successfully efface Nature, and stop her progress'.
The river levels are now normal, the damage done during the spate has now healed. Early on a deeply dreich Saturday morning, the sense of threat has long passed and a calming atmosphere has returned to the river.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics