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Leith’s independent spirit…


Big anniversaries provide perfect opportunities for thinking on our journey to date, the changes we’ve seen, and our hopes for the future.

So as well as paying tribute to the success of this glorious periodical, I’m sure many scrievers in this edition will be commenting on the transformations we’ve witnessed in Leith itself since 2004.

Now discussions about Leith’s evolution can often spark strong opinions, whether it’s on the return of the trams, the changing face of Leith Walk, the housing market, or the undeniable gentrification in parts of the area. That’s what I’d expect from Leithers - for all that Leith has changed, its independent spirit undoubtedly perseveres.

We see it again in the robust opposition to recent Boundaries Scotland proposals to remove Leith’s name from the next Scottish Parliament elections, echoing the “Keep Leith” campaign begun around the time of this magazine’s beginnings when a similarly ill-advised proposal was mooted. The Boundaries Commission backed down then – hopefully, in the face of determined resistance from Leithers, they’ll see sense and back down again.

The year of The Leither’s birth also marked the symbolic start of a new era for Scotland. After five years in its temporary home at New College, the new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood was formally opened in 2004 with trumpets, Burns and a ‘Riding’ procession of a thousand folk, a tradition first held in 1520 to mark the opening of each session of the old Scots Parliament.

Devolution though was in its infancy and the Scottish Government was still called the “Scottish Executive”, led by a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in what became known as the “rainbow parliament” of seven parties and three independents across the chamber.

Labour were also in power at Westminster, but with Tony Blair’s second term increasingly overshadowed by the decision to join the US invasion of Iraq the previous year. By 2004, an inquiry was underway to examine the reliability of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, infamously used to justify the invasion.

There’s a rather depressing parallel with today, as an election looms amid scrutiny of the UK’s role in the Middle East. UK foreign policy is once again at odds with public opinion; history hasn’t been kind to the decision on Iraq and it won’t be to Westminster’s response to this crisis either.

While the UK was fixated on the ‘special relationship’ across the Atlantic in 2004, there were geopolitical shifts happening across Europe as ten new states joined the European Union. Seven of these were part of the former Eastern Bloc, three of those from the former Soviet Union. The EU’s expansion was a key milestone in post-Cold War politics, reuniting two sides of the continent and signifying a new era of stability.

That created new trade opportunities for Scottish businesses and perhaps most significantly allowed citizens of new member states to live and work in the UK. This has hugely enriched the cultural and social life of Leith, Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland, as we welcomed arrivals from across Central-Eastern Europe and the Baltics, especially Poland.

It’s a trend that Brexit – which Leithers overwhelmingly rejected - has sadly somewhat reversed. While some EU residents secured EU Settlement Scheme status or applied for British citizenship, others have returned home. The parochialism of Brexit certainly doesn’t represent Leith – waves of immigration and exchange with the outside world have been a part of our story not just in the last two decades, but for centuries, and I hope that will continue for a long time to come.

A fairly recent development I find striking and most welcome is the blossoming of our creative industries. Leith has always been a bit of a magnet for free spirits, but in the past twenty years it’s become the creative heart of Edinburgh and, I would argue, of Scotland itself (well I would say that, wouldn’t I?).

Film and TV companies and studios, graphic designers, ad agencies, art galleries, artisans, craft breweries, and Michelin starred restaurants all call Leith home.

Events like the Leith Jazz & Blues festival and Leith Late have arrived on the scene, and of course the re-opening of Leith’s much-loved theatre has been a magnet for performers, musicians, artists and audiences alike.

Leith’s rise as a centre for green energy is also significant. To name just a couple of examples, Nova Innovation, started right here in Timber Bush, now leads the world in marine renewables and tidal energy. And over on Pitt Street there’s Gravitricity, a company specialising in the storage of renewable power, so that we can use clean green energy even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

We also can’t ignore the innovations in tech and communication that have, in many ways, defined the last twenty years - whether at a local, national or global level. Social media, in particular, has profoundly shaped our society and politics.

2004 saw the launch of Facebook and in 2024 we could be standing on another precipice with the arrival of generative AI. You can read more about that in my article in last month’s edition - in fact, why not take a trawl through some of the many diverse contributions you’ll find in the archives on the magazine’s website?

On that note, it would be really remiss of me not to mention the phenomenal team that keep this particular show on the road, including all those contributors over the years, so a hearty thanks to them all! And a very happy birthday to our braw Leither mag – and here’s to the next 20! ■

Twitter: @DeidreBrock

Crowds on Royal Mile, opening of new Scottish Parliament 9th October 2004

Brexit’s parochialism doesn’t represent Leith, immigration and exchange has been part of our story for centuries



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