Why the Water of Leith is one of Edinburgh's best kept secrets

  • Edinburgh Guide
  • 16 February 2011
Off the beaten path: the Water of Leith

The 12-mile stretch of walkway through the heart of the Scottish capital

Take a stroll along the Water of Leith and you’ll feel as if someone is watching you. That’s because they are. It’s not the occasional posse of feral youths but, rather, naked men standing knee-deep in the water, staring. Before you dial 999, however, take a closer look and you’ll see that they all bear a striking resemblance to the celebrated British artist Antony Gormley. The six life-sized figures that stand at various points from the Dean Village near the city centre down to Leith are part of 6 Times, a landmark sculptural project.

‘For me, it’s about using the Water of Leith as a living bloodstream. I’ve always been very affected by the river because it’s untouched,’ says Gormley.

What a contrast to 2000 when people fished out the bulk of the rusted items such as shopping trolleys and opened up a 12-mile stretch of walkway, from Balerno to Leith, as part of the the Millennium Project.

It all started with the river, running from the hills to the sea, a life source that helped bring Edinburgh commercial success in the days when the water’s power was harnessed to run the mills and factories that lined the river’s banks. Later, the city turned its back on the Water of Leith and its tarnished associations with industry as commerce took an upper hand. The river flowed on, regardless, waiting, rejuvenating itself until it was rediscovered and celebrated once more. Nowadays it’s a haven for wildlife, where herons and kingfishers can be seen again hunting in the shallows for trout and stickleback, where otters splash in the shade, and where humans walk and cycle along the pathways through the surrounding woodland.

At 24 miles long, the Water of Leith rises south-west of the city in the Pentland Hills and flows all the way to the port of Leith, where it spills into the Firth of Forth at Leith docks. On the way, it passes through woodland and suburbs into the heart of the city at Dean Village, where the old watermills have been transformed into aspirational housing and the ravine is spanned by the Dean Bridge, a dramatic 1832 masterpiece by Thomas Telford. It then flows on through Stockbridge and Bonnington, past more mills, and eventually down to Leith docks, where cruise liners and cargo ships still throng the port.

Designated an Urban Wildlife Site, the wooded river banks are covered with carpets of wildflowers and dramatic trees, including patches of ancient woodland, while the peat-stained river is home to 11 species of fish and 80 varieties of birds, all overseen by the City of Edinburgh Council Ranger Service.

The Water of Leith visitor centre is packed with information, as well as being a good place to stop for a drink mid-stroll, before hitting the path once more on the lookout for roe deer, badgers and foxes. And if you’re really lucky, you might even spot an albino squirrel.

The Water of Leith Visitor Centre
24 Lanark Road, 0131 455 7367, www.waterofleith.org.uk. Open daily 10am–4pm (closed Dec 24–Jan 3)