Leith: A World Apart?


Posted by in July's Magazine

Over the last month I’ve spoken to many Leithers, asking this question: Is Leithdifferent, and if so how?

Many compare Leith to Glasgow – “It’s like Glasgow. We’ve got the friendliness, without the insincerity.” Others see Leith in terms of gender – “Never mess with her. She’d do anything for you, but you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.” Our own MSP describes being a Leither as “a state of mind; more heart and less head.” New Leithers from Germany and Poland say, “Friendly and helpful. I don’t go up to Edinburgh anymore. Everything I want is here”, and “where ever I go I say I’m from Leith, not Edinburgh. It’s like nowhere else. I love it here and would never think of living in Edinburgh.”

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Leith is clearly different from the rest of Edinburgh. No other part of the city, with the possible exception of Portobello, talks about ‘going up into Edinburgh’. For Bruntsfielders, Libertonians, even those right on the edge of the city in Wester Hailes or Barnton, there is talk of “going into town” – their town. My town is Leith. Edinburgh is, and will always be, the vibrant centre in our part of Scotland a part of the same urban mass. But in my view, we are as different from Edinburgh as Musselburgh or Dalkeith, arguably more so – so why are we not treated differently?

We have our own unique challenges, hopes and grievances. Our population is growing faster than any other part of the city. We are the most diverse and the most densely populated area that developers are greedy to exploit. Yes increasing parts have been gentrified and turned into a tourist destination for Edinburgh day-trippers. The Shore on a sunny weekend is more akin to the Ramblas than any city suburbs I can think of. But the mix remains. Minutes away from Michelin star restaurants and Victoria Quay, home to the nation’s civil servants, are areas that house some 5% of the poorest families in Scotland.

In previous pieces I’ve made a speculative comparison that the relationship between Leith and Edinburgh is in some ways akin to Scotland and England. Scotland is different in a national sense; Leith is different in a civic sense. The days are well gone when Unionists used to argue that Scotland was no different to any other region of England.

No one seriously thinks that our national difference is just the same as Yorkshire’s regional difference. Yorkshire is of course distinct from East Anglia in the same way as Gorgie is from Stockbridge. Yet they are all part of the same bigger collective. England and Edinburgh respectively. No one argues that Yorkshire should have the same autonomy or devolution as Scotland. The general consensus, whether you want full independence or not, is that Scotland has a right to be seen and treated as different in the only tangible way that matters: to have power (albeit limited) over its own destiny, and to have the right to shape, or at least have first call, on influencing the decisions that affect it and its people.

So why, when developers descend to rip out Leith Depot at the heart of our main boulevard, do we have to beg the powers on the hill to pause and ‘consult’ before they push through their fine plans anyway? Just because they’ve used up every other spare piece of land in the city to house ‘their’ students, why do they think they have the right to change the very demographic of Leith to pander to the needs of ‘their’ university? We don’t want what happened in the Isle of Dogs in London’s east end to happen to us – indigenous Cockneys being ‘cleansed’ into Essex and Kent and replaced by web designers and stockbrokers with house prices to match.

There are 34 wards in the City of Edinburgh; only two of which could be described as representing Leith (with Newhaven and Lochend pitched in with Granton and Meadowbank respectively). Our representation in the city chambers is in fact proportionally less than Scotland’s representation in Westminster. In the days before devolution we had to depend on the largesse of English MPs to get Scottish issues given the consideration they deserved. The Edinburgh Civic Unionists are not so generous. Every area is treated (or mistreated) equally as one indivisible City State.

The Local Authority system of governance is surprisingly rigid; wards of roughly equal population electing councillors to a single chamber. But the City of Edinburgh Council could be pioneers for something ground breaking that gives Leith the particular recognition that we rightly deserve. And they could use a very traditional model as their template.

In the days before devolution the Scottish Grand Committee operated as the forum for bills before the UK Parliament that affected Scotland. Imagine if the councillors who represented the wards in Leith formed a similar Leith Grand Committee; a constitutionally recognised forum for debating and recommending on matters that matter to Leithers: the Leith Depot development, the tram extension, the blight of litter in our tenemented streets, roadworks carving up Leith Walk, Easter Road and Ferry Road (at the same time!), the sewage works and whatever Forth Ports might have up their sleeve.

Of course my own views on Leith are pretty similar to my views on Scotland: outright independence. If the neighbouring London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth can have separate councils and things work just fine, why not Edinburgh and Leith. So each time the City Chambers hatch one of their schemes that are going to affect us, and only us, I get carried away:

“But we can still rise now, and be the Leithers again, who stood against them, Auld Reekie’s Masters, and send them up the Walk, tae think again.”

98 years is enough. As the centenary of our 1920 colonisation draws closer is it not time to take back control?

Mother Leith

Leith is different. Those of us squirrelled away here know this to be the case. Different though from whom, what or where? Perhaps any manner of comparison is irrelevant – different all on its own – perhaps that’s enough.

Curiously I see Leith as female: a wise old, bosomy matriarch with outstretched arms, always ready to embrace newcomers, regardless of colour, class, culture or creed, and clasp them close to her big beating heart. A sassy, edgy, outspoken, often outrageous, wild-child. All spiky hair, towering heels and finger-in-your-face defiance. Challenging well-worn notions of east coast chilliness.

Whoever she is, this Leith of mine, she has, at her hearth, a vast tasty melting pot of vitality, diversity, historic influence and modern attitude. Warm, colourful and copious. Nobody is turned away from her table. Catherine Wood

Picture:AfterEugène Delacroix‘s Liberty Leading the People (1830), by Sandy Campbell

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