Editor at Large
No 4 on the Planet
Time Out magazine has lately published its annual list of the Best 49 Neighbourhoods in the world. Somewhat improbably wee Leith is there with its chest puffed out at number 4. Narrowly missing out on a medal and a podium place to Norrebro in Copenhagen, Andersonville in Chicago, and Jongo-3ga (phew) in Seoul.
Once Scotland’s main trading port, linked by trade to the Hanseatic cities and France, Leith has been looking outward to the world since the 12th Century. It has for many of those centuries been a great big melting pot of nationalities and races – the ventricles that feed the very heart of Leith today, making it a particularly cosmopolitan proposition for any newcomer or visitor.
To paraphrase the peerless William McILvanney, speaking at a EU summit ‘up the hill’ in 1992: “We gather here like refugees in the capital of our own country. We are almost 700 years old and are still wondering what we want to be when we grow up”. Adding, “(Ours is not…) some pedigree lineage. We are a mongrel nation.” He was referring to the Scots but those sentiments could run through a stick of Leith Rock, so true are they of Leithers.
At the time of the speech, Leith’s industrial heritage was laid waste, not it must be said, unique to the area. Thatcher had been waging an increasingly rancorous war with the unions throughout the previous decade. So what started with The Anchor Soap works on Water Street in 1680 came to an end when Henry Robb’s shipyard, and all it’s dependents, ground to a halt in 1983. Leith did not have a good 1980s; the advent of Aids and industrial quantities of heroin almost brought the old port to its knees.
And so, like many other places the world over, the old order stepped aside to make way for the creatives. Stuart Hislop, formerly of the Doric Tavern led the charge hoovering up some of the many empty/derelict industrials spaces Leith had to offer, initially turning them in to offices and living spaces.
Property developers inevitably followed. Loft apartments accumulated.
Many of those office spaces were taken over by the creatives. The likes of Green Room Films, Smarts Advertising, The Leith Agency and photographers, animators, printmakers, fashion designers, architects, publishers, writers, artists, proliferated.
Time Out’s criteria for what makes a neighbourhood cool includes edgy bars, we’ve certainly got a few of them, in fact quite a few have been turned into hipster haunts, purveying steam punk beers and bao buns. Nice, but edgy? Hmmm.
Offbeat architecture? Well, Leith ticks all the boxes here, it even has architecturally important tower blocks of the Brutalist School, in Cables Wynde House – colloquially known as the Banana Flats – and Linksview House. Both enjoy A listed building status.
Innovative food and drink hubs? We are blessed to have a shed load of them. Martin Wishart, a Leither, paved the way at the high end of the market albeit that the great Silvio Praino smoothed his path, with his eponymous restaurant on the same site in the 1980s.
Mention here too for The Shore Bar & Restaurant, a beacon of light for over forty years. Which could be uprooted, lock, stock (and, importantly, John Danskin) to fin de siècle Paris tomorrow and the left bankers wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
The self- same Mr Danskin was Mary Moriarty’s lieutenant when The Port of Leith pub – with the likes of The Jim Rose Circus propping up the bar – was named one of the top five bars in the world in the Sunday Times in the early 1980s.
Leith more than passes muster on the arts front Coburg House, Leith Art School, Out of the Blue, the wonderful LeithLate, The Biscuit Factory and many others.
Markets abound; the Leith Market, the Ink Market (curated by the force of nature that is Kevin Harman), Leith Community Croft, the spectacular Arches, and all of the art hubs mentioned above.
I’ve just returned from Leith Links with the dog. Where a full Brass Band was rehearsing Jesse Glynne’s Hold Me Now in the open air at the Community Croft while it was absolutely pissing down.
And that is Leith. Right there.
The Port o’ Leith, among The Times’s Top 5 Bars in The World in the 1980s