Edinburgh: The Proclaimers on their city’s new Leith of life

Thomas Bywater takes Leith Walk to Edinburgh’s wildly misunderstood arts borough.

Choose Edinburgh. Choose Auld Reekie. Choose the festival city, the Fringe and Hogmanay fireworks. Choose tacky tartan shops, shortbread biscuit tins and endless looped cassettes of Highland Cathedral.
Choose to walk a little further, follow the walk down towards the sea.

Choose Leith … But why would you want to visit a place like that?

It’s true the Edinburgh docklands have suffered a bad reputation. It’s been 25 years since Irvine Welsh published his breakthrough novel Trainspotting about junkies eking out an existence in the borough. It was here the characters Renton and Begbie contemplated the area’s — and their own — misfortunes from the derelict Leith Central Station.

Over the past century, since the borough was absorbed by the rapidly growing capital city, the area suffered a downturn as precipitous as the drop from the Dean Bridge into the Water of Leith. A centre for trade, industry and shipbuilding, the area saw each of these fall away until the docklands were left to drift. But now, some 98 years after officially becoming part of Edinburgh proper, Leith’s Star of the Sea is once more in the ascendant.

It is a regeneration led by the films of Danny Boyle and the beating rhythm of the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, the band whose songs soundtracked the 2014 hit Sunshine on Leith. When your borough is at the centre of an award-winning musical, the gentrification bandwagon has well and truly arrived.

Last year it featured on TimeOut’s list of coolest neighbourhoods alongside the likes of New York’s West Village and Barcelona’s Sant Antoni.

The area is now full of artisanal coffee shops, gastropubs and the repurposed Biscuit Factory — an industrial building turned events space serving gin from its own distillery. It’s a far cry from the dangerous demi-monde of Edinburgh which tourists were once steered away from.

However, this tough, fiercely independent township still wears its gritty post-industrial identity as a mark of pride. Expressive, sometimes tersely so, Leith is the perfect antidote to the city of Edinburgh, which can come across at times as a bit stuffy, reserved and a little humourless. Even if many of the freshly settled families can’t remember the bad old days.

At some point the hardships undergone by real Leithers have fused with the fictional ones.

On a row of houses a Haddaway fan has scrawled the words “What is Leith? Begbie don’t hurt me.”

Begbie — the bogeyman anti-hero of many of Welsh’s novels — has become something of a mascot for the borough.

But not far from this scrawl, at the corner of North Junction St and Ferry Rd, is a far more impressive mural. The depictions of shipbuilders, families in cobbled streets — most striking the red banner being carried by striking dock workers. The painting covers the entire end of a gable. Put there in 1985 by street artists Chalk & Grime, it was painted by those who knew the history of Leith.

It is here in an art deco public building that the Leith Theatre has just been given a new lease of life.

The 1500-seat auditorium has already become a bastion for the Scottish arts.

Leith Theatre trust treasurer Richard Garven tells me how central it is to Leith’s place in the city.

The conception of the theatre came about after that most Scottish of pastimes: a general referendum.

When in 1920 Leith was threatened with being officially absorbed by Edinburgh the locals held an unofficial vote of independence for the port. That vote was overruled and, like many referendums since, it left a large part of the population disillusioned and angry.

As well as cross-generations, the Proclaimers’ music manages to speak across the country’s many cultural divides: Edinburgh vs Glasgow, Highland vs Lowland, Hibs vs Hearts.

“It’s nice to be associated with Scotland,” Craig Reid says.

“We’ve lived all over Edinburgh but I see the whole of Scotland as a part of our identity.”

The Proclaimers are rarely home in Edinburgh but when they are, they make the most of living in the capital.

The festival city is a great place to be a performer. It’s even better to be an audience member, when every August the world’s closeted stand-up comedians, performers and musicians arrive in Edinburgh en masse.

For Edinburgh natives, the festival has a love-hate relationship.

“On balance I think the festival is a good thing,” says Reid. “It’s still a fairly small city, and the numbers that come at the height of the festival almost swamp the place.

“It’s about as big now as it can get now. Though we’ve been saying that for 20 years.”

Then there’s Leith. The place where the twins were born and the latest place in the crosshairs of trendy redevelopment.

“You wouldn’t have to be a local to understand where the gentrification is happening,” he says.

Reid worries the very things that have made it popular with tourists, may be its undoing — the cheap accommodation, the arty shore, the distance from festival madness on the Royal Mile.

“It’s a small area. To get a good idea, head down Leith Walk, go into the pub, go into the cafes. People are always ready to talk. And that’s great about places like Leith.”

His sentiments seem to echo those of Sunshine on Leith, the song he and his brother wrote for the borough in 1988.

“While I’m worth my room on this Earth,” carries a new meaning while Airbnbs creep into the portside apartments, pushing up the rent.

“You can’t stand in the way of progress. But when you get a massive rise in the popularity of a place — it’s not particular to Leith — people who were born there can’t afford to move back.”

Sunshine on Leith, which became the anthem for the local football club, then a stage play and now a film, has put the town on the world stage. The Reid twins might soon be some of the few Leithers not priced out of their city. There’s something bittersweet about that kind of success.

● The Proclaimers tour New Zealand from May 3, including Auckland’s ASB Theatre on May 11. For full dates and tickets, go to the.proclaimers.co.uk/the-gigs



Emirates flies Auckland to Edinburgh, via Dubai, with return Economy Class fares from $1909, and Business Class from $7939. emirates.com

The Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe take place from August 2-26.

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