The Detective of Light
When we moved to Leith in July 2020, people warned us how cold Scottish summers could be. Packing up our home in Bath, I reluctantly stowed away a collection of wafer thin dresses, grateful that I’ve always had a fondness for jumpers and woollens.
Bath is a Georgian city of golden stone, nestling among green hills and shaped like a huge shining bowl. Known for its microclimate and honey-coloured buildings, it seems to catch every available drop of light.
Our last farewell involved packing things into a microscopic car and bracing ourselves for the dog days of summer to be filled with biting winds and murky greys.
Instead August offered cool mornings and muggy afternoons. September brought sunburn and people improbably comparing Edinburgh to Bath.
Bath is a young woman, with glowing peachy cheeks, wearing floral things, dripping in turquoise jewellery, indulging in cakes and jams. Edinburgh is Bath’s great aunt, jewels hidden in drawers under dried rose petals – the scent of nostalgia and earth.
I document time through light, placing invisible markers onto buildings, trees, walls and pathways. A light detective, I have to know how the light gets in, for how long and when. A cartographer of light, if you like, it must be mapped out. I need to know where I can drink it in after days of slate skies.
When we moved into our Leith flat we woke to great long limbs of light stretching across our floorboards, a little pool of liquid warmth to bathe in with a morning coffee.
Each day I watched streaks of luminous white became shorter and shorter as the months unfolded. By early October all that remained on our walls and floors was two brilliant shards of gleaming glass.
Autumn makes sense in Leith, practically a film set, with dry ice swirling down the back streets. Cobbles gleam grey, saturated in frost and dew, the atmosphere shifting, coppery light seeps between the slates. I know now that in the darkest months it is best to walk around
At this time of year, Leith Links is at its best in the late afternoon; denuded trees, roots carpeted green against the cobbled shadows. Wind whipped up into a waking frenzy. When you reach the end of the Links and turn you will often be met by a brilliant orange blaze, which kisses you unexpectedly.
Sometimes, on those blue-sky, low winter sun, days, it felt like stepping into a painting – one of those illusions lockdown proffered.
Little pools and pockets of light appeared out of nowhere, colouring the very air. The water mirroring the glowing rose lamps on The Shore into the inky blue, gave us much comfort. As did the warmth of strangers, rubbing shoulders, exchanging humours in snug pubs, embers burning, masquerading the darkness with a glass of merlot.
Our Sunday ritual was to dance in the light of Portobello beach, a light that rolled like sheets of baby blue silk, breathless and brilliant but never quite satisfying our need for gold. Best, if you are particularly thirsty for light, is to wrap up warm and bask on the top of Calton Hill in the darker months.
Up in the gods you now have the advantage of seeing the angles, the shadows and the places of refuge. In the gloaming the grand finale: the death of another day.
I’ve grown fond of certain buildings, not just for their architecture but also for how the light lands on them. There is a particular building on Constitution Street where the dappled glow and shimmer of branches moving, turns the auric sandstone multifarious shades of yellow.
The lighter months come back eventually, impossibly, the weather-beaten ribbons of Leith Links are transformed, puddles of purple and yellow crocuses line the way and lacy shadows return. The Water of Leith pathway blooms into a dense green cloister, cathedraled in shadows.
And the long limbs of light returned once again to our home this year. Softly, slowly, gently stroking our white walls again, making us smile and making me cry. And now, as I write, the blue crucible of Leith sky makes a midnight walk permissible.
We go down to the Fingal boat hotel and gaze across the burnished Forth. I imagine climbing aboard and trying to touch the rose madder and burnt sienna sky. And too to reach down and touch the tiny, fingernail crescent moons, reflected in the lilac satin water.
Another light detective discovery of mine offered itself up on The Shore on a balmy late September evening. If you sit with legs dangling by the Jersey barge around 7.30, you’ll see a pool of glitter emerging and dancing before you, moving inch on inch towards the Forth.
You pick up your shoes and tins of summer beer and you follow this dancing twinkle. You cannot believe this sparkling lustrous dance will ever end until you blink and it’s gone. A sharp intake of breath, a gathering of belongings, and a brisk walk home.
Today the building opposite us is blessed to soak in the sunset of every day, drenching our home in a cherry-coloured glow. And today, not for the first time I am made acutely aware of the infinite ways Leith attracts the light.
And it sings to me. It sings.
A spot by The Shore bathed in the light of Leith