Parks, Recreation & £625

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Cromwell’s siege of Leith may have been martial but at least it was straightforward compared to the scheming of Edinburgh.

For centuries Leith was aggrieved at those rogues and rascals in the Town Council at ‘the Top of the Hill’, who gave grazing rights, and received income from, those they granted pasture rights to. Said income being used to benefit Edinburgh, not a penny going to the coffers of Leith.

Shaking off the shackles of Edinburgh when it gained independence in 1833, one of Leith’s first acts was to purchase The Links – the City Improvement Act of 1838 (section 33) empowered Leith Town Council to buy the park, or pay an annual sum of £25 to Edinburgh.

Improvements were made; the open pestilential ditches that ran across the common were filled in and levelled. Leithers immediately started erecting drying poles; an act that was legally challenged by the golfers as an infringement of their rights – which of course the court upheld – and they were swiftly removed.

The experience of several hundred years of dealings with Edinburgh and the various court challenges encouraged Leith Council to make sure it was Leith owned, paying a sum of £625 in 1853.

Brilliantly, in the words of the Act this meant that; ‘…the said Links being so purchased shall be preserved and remain as an open area in all time coming for the use of the public…”

Locked in, was any change of use could be halted by the objection of two house owners in Leith or Edinburgh, a cast iron guarantee and an indication of the value of this open space not just to Leith but also its noisy neighbour.

With title deeds completed, further improvements were made, levelling taking place for the purpose of forming a bowling green and a cricket pitch - Leith Franklin Academicals Beige are rightly proud that they are older than either of Edinburgh’s football clubs, their formation in 1852 precipitated the provision of cricket on the Links.

To make sure that there was no further contestation over use of the Links, a Provisional Order was obtained in 1886 enabling Leith to enact bylaws, making the space worthy of the town. This included a new tennis pavilion in April 1914, which is shortly to be improved by Earth in Common, formerly Crops in Pots, in Leith Community Crofts.

Other enhancements, including the return of public tennis courts, have been made in recent years: the children’s play area on the site of the old bandstand; recreational exercise equipment; a six figure sum for flood prevention drainage work on East Links; the children’s orchard; and the Rattray statue which marks the place where the first rules of golf were ratified – in a bar as it happens, very Leith.

But much more has to be done if the park is to gain a Green Flag award, like many others in the city.

Edinburgh is also falling into bad habits again, the sudden unexplained appearance of newly planted trees on the East Links being an example.

It transpires this is being done in conjunction with the Royal Botanical Garden but everybody seems to have been blindsided by the initiative, which is said to include an Arboretum - a good yes, but, at the very least, some form of local involvement should have been co-opted so that it didn’t simply become ‘a mystery to be solved’.

A more collaborative approach could have involved local schools such as St Mary’s or Leith Primary, who actually helped to plant the bulbs that give us the explosion of colour in the Links every January in the first place.

Taking this further, The Inch nursery workers could have been involved with the schools and staff from the Botanics in the maintenance and care of the children’s orchard. And the introduction of new trees could have been part of the curriculum work, as well as an outdoor extension of the schools.

A win-win situation for all, providing real environmental studies which offer a real environmental impact.

Taking this collaborative approach further suggests more exercise equipment in and around the Links which would help the training programmes of local amateur clubs such as Leith Fab, Leith Victoria Boxing Club, Leith Athletic, and their primary school feeder teams.

A refresh of the Manpower Services exercise equipment on the Lochend/Restalrig railway path and a running track around the Links linked to the path. Would provide the opportunity many sought during lockdown to keep fit, but also encourage improved health in Leith.

Once the old tennis pavilion is restored to its former glory, it has to be the turn of the former bowling pavilion and changing rooms (which are not dissimilar to those I used as a laddie), so that they are fit for purpose the 21st century.

The Council designates Leith Links as a Premier Park, which is the same status given to Princes Street Gardens. So, whilst Edinburgh may believe it has repaid the £625 Leith paid for the Links in 1853, there is still a long way to go to make it an open area that deserves the title of Premier Park.

Opening of Leith Link’s Tennis Pavilion April 1914, the author there in 1961

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One of Leith’s first acts after gaining independence from Edinburgh in 1833, was to purchase The Links for the princely sum of £625

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