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Small Talk on the Walk


Leith Writings edition 103 was launched in November at Out of the Blue, on the anniversary of the amalgamation of Leith with Edinburgh in 1920.

The collection takes its title from Mike Cowley’s poem. He says:

“I was reflecting on those cumulative acts of rebellion that take place during a thousand everyday exchanges on Leith Walk. Key to the neo-liberal project has been the forced atomisation of people and communities. Every act of connectivity, no matter how momentary, can be seen as an act of resistance in a world where collective endeavour has been in retreat for too long.”

So let’s walk the Walk, talking as we go. Almost everything we see now is around 200 years old.

We’ll head Leithwards from Pilrig church, the old municipal boundary, leaving behind Albert Street, named by Tory minded Edinburgh in honour of the Prince Consort.

In contrast, Leith Burgh re-named Iona Street and Dalmeny Street as a compliment to Lord Rosebery, owner of the Dalmeny estate, and the Duke of Argyll, owner of the island. Both prominent Liberals.

The magnificent church on the corner of Pilrig Street is not Pilrig: Pilrig Street is the road to Pilrig Park, Pilrig House, and Pilrig Heights to the north.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s maternal grandparents, the Balfours, lived in Pilrig House. Spey Street, Spey Terrace and Arthur Street were all built as a housing scheme on the Balfour estate. Balfour Street is aligned as an approach to Pilrig House from Leith Walk.

Jameson Place was named in honour of Dr Leander Jameson, very ambitious and well connected in the hierarchy of Empire. After Edinburgh university he became a clever medical doctor who made himself a favourite of a local king in South Africa. He betrayed the trust by aligning himself with Cecil Rhodes and gave his name to a botched military adventure. He was the model for Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.

Smith’s Place is a simple description of the ownership: Mr Smith lived in the villa house at the end, and his garden was later built on.

Jane Street was named in 1869 to honour the wife of a relative of the owner of the land. Manderston Street was probably named as a compliment to Sir William Miller, MP for Leith 1857-68. He was from a Leith family, and he acquired the Manderston estate in Berwickshire.

Kirk Street is not so named because of a church, as you might expect, but to commemorate a prosperous Mr Kirk, who lived nearby.

Charles, 4th Duke of Buccleuch, rented a house to the east of the Foot of the Walk so he could be close to his beloved golf on the Links. The street it was on became known as Duke Street.

In the early 1800s, when John Rennie’s docks were built on the west side of the rivermouth, north of Constitution Street, a roadway to Edinburgh was needed to avoid passing through the town centre. North Junction Street, Junction Bridge, and Great Junction Street delivered traffic to the foot of Leith Walk.

Lots of shops quickly spilled out of the crowded Kirkgate into the west end of Junction Street which is now a centre of small shops.

We can’t miss how the wealthy and powerful have their names profiled for future generations. It doesn’t mean that the ordinary people were deferential – what we have just passed and talked about shows who was powerful.

On Leith Walk now, corridor for trams, buses, motor cars, cyclists and, most vulnerable of all, we the pedestrians, let’s ask who is powerful now. Is it the oil giants and the car industry? Is it the corporate chain stores, the same everywhere you go? Who or what would we honour and celebrate in this generation?

The theme for Small Talk on the Walk was PERSEVERE. We have Dave Gilhooly’s good-humoured complaint about being heaved around by the physio at the Treatment Centre, the last line saying he’s off to watch the telly.

We have two teenage girls, just arrived from Germany and Ukraine, finding their feet at Trinity Academy. There’s a drama script of a conversation between Nellie Gladstones, buried in North Leith cemetery, and her son John, in which she upbraids him for profiting from the slave trade.

The last word on the last page is ‘Indomitable.’ The blank space below is not empty. It’s full of potential, waiting for you to make your mark.

You can pick up a copy of Small Talk on the Walk at Argonaut Books, near the Foot of the Walk. It’s free, but the shop will take donations (much needed), to go towards the next edition. And it’s in Leith and McDonald Road libraries. (You can also read it online.)

Later this month you can log on to to find the theme for this year’s edition. Send your entry to the link by the end of June, the launch party will be on 2 November.

Communities are built, truths are found, resolutions are formed, conversations are had, whether on the street or on the page.

So, Leithers,

write the word.

Talk the talk.

Walk the Walk. ■

Tim Bell


A view of Leith Central Station by Norman Oyoo


Dr Leander Jameson gave his name to a botched military adventure, and became the model for Rudyard Kipling’s poem If


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