Protempore – Issue 62

Posted by in March's Magazine

The 90th anniversary of you know what

How goes it? A comparatively innocuous question posed by James Marshall, in the final chapter of his great book – The Life and Times of Leith – It is an apt one to ask in 2010, which sees the 90th anniversary of the Boundaries Act that incorporated Leith into the city of Edinburgh. The first sentence of that chapter starts with the contention that ‘The new relationship with Edinburgh which was forced on Leith in 1920 did not have the dire consequences that had been feared’. It is contentious because it is still contested. There is still a feeling in Leith that Edinburgh continues to diddle Leith. So, how goes it?


Marshall found ‘signs and portents’ that (in 1986) indicated to him that Leith would remain ‘different and special’. One of these was the formation in 1972 of Port of Leith Housing Association. From humble beginnings in modernising some of the old tenements, it is now a bigger landlord in Leith than the council but more importantly it shows that self-help can strengthen community spirit.

Looking brighter
POLHA was started by a group of local worthies, with one employee, and has grown into a nationally respected housing association with bespoke headquarters on Constitution Street, enabling families to continue to live in Leith. It is a major employer and looks beyond building, to the wider role in addressing some of the problems which still bedevil the area. There is an apprenticeship scheme, TOIL, which has seen local lads and lasses gain skills that benefit them and the community. The painting of the lampposts on the Shore is a great example of the work of TOIL and how community spirit can be strengthened.

Marshall thought that the investment by the Scottish Development Agency marked a change in Leith’s fortunes, he even went as far as to predict that it was an event of great importance. To a certain extent he was right, as some old buildings were cleaned up, beginning in Bernard Street. With Leigh starting to look brighter and thus more attractive to inward investors. The Water of Leith became a focal point for walkers and cyclists, though today it does need a refresh, as not much has been done since that initial investment. This is one of the reasons, along with the neglect of Leith Links and Leith Theatre that resentment towards Edinburgh still lingers. It would not take much to put this right but it will take money and passion to make it happen.
Marshall observed that ‘many of Leith’s needs could only be met through the action of local and central government, but at the same time self-help might strengthen the old community spirit’. This is exemplified by the Leith Townscape Heritage Initiative that aims to link the old and new Leith, so that the dichotomy that is undoubtedly there does not become a schism or even a chasm. It has refreshed and revamped the Gurdwara (formerly St. Thomas’ Church), Dr. Bells, Citadel, Leith Victoria boxing club and shored up the boundary wall of South Leith Parish Church. More, as ever, is still to be done.

There has been investment of over £7.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Council and Scottish Government, amongst others but it also saw for example the Gurdwara and the boxing club invest money, time, labour, and even a little love, in the internal fabric of the buildings. This has strengthened community spirit.
Political power is beginning, and I stress beginning, to return to Leith in the form of Leith Neighbourhood Partnership. I was proud to be the first chair of this body and deliberately chose the former Leith Town council chamber in Leith police station for the first meeting as a symbol of the return of a degree of autonomy to Leith. This body is made up of councillors, police, NHS Lothian, the fire brigade, POLHA and VOLT. This body administers the Fairer Scotland for Leith fund of £450,000, a built environment fund of £100,000, and a small grants fund of £60,000 (all approximates), bringing power and responsibility to Leith.

No animosity
So, ‘how goes it’? Not bad, but there’s work to be done, and it needs all of us citizens, politicians, civil servants, council workers and the huge Leith diaspora to make sure it goes well. Why? I’ll give James Marshall the last words as he puts it very well. Because ‘Leith is different. We know it, and we know it today without any animosity. There is no escaping our heritage, our history, which powerfully influences our attitudes and priorities today. Even for the resident of only a few years the sense of community is strong, so that walking the streets of Leith is walking among friends. Some are personally known and recognised; many more are strangers, but if all that is known of a stranger is that he is a Leither, that is enough to forge a link, for at once we realise many interests and feelings and ideals in common’.

Illustration: Bernie Reid

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