Yes Leith Can! The rise and rise of Edinburgh's place to be
Is Leith fast becoming the capital's new cultural hub? David Pollock explores the music venues and events spearheading the burgh's resurgence
Leith's long journey from the neglected Thatcher-era suburb of Trainspotting infamy to emergent cultural hotspot has been talked up with a sense of pregnant expectation for some time now, but the final months of 2016 bear more evidence than ever that it's nearly complete. As a greater range of new venues put on an ever-increasing range of high-profile events – from the party for the launch of Pictish Trail's Future Echoes album through his Lost Map label to the return of DIY performance event the Golden Hour (formerly of the Forest Café) and the coup of a Hogmanay warehouse DJ set by the Black Madonna – the sense is of critical mass getting closer in a neighbourhood which has enjoyed low-level grassroots activity for a number of years now.
Few outlets have done more to make things happen in joined-up fashion across Leith in recent years than the annual LeithLate festival. 'There's a vast amount of potential for Leith to host gigs and become a cultural destination for music fans,' says its driving force Morven Cunningham. 'At the moment it's a question of being creative with the space that's available. For example, we used the Hibs Supporters Club for our LeithLate16 Afterparty this year, it's a great space which holds around 200 folk. Leith Docker's Club is a similar space, we launched a John Knox Sex Club album there in previous years.
'The thing is, we need more folk doing exciting things in Leith in general, like Braw Gigs, who recently started doing gigs at Leith Depot, and Neu! Reekie!, who regularly conduct events across local church halls like Pilrig Church. And we need a mid-size music and performance venue too, similar to the Glad Cafe in Glasgow.'
There are regular bar gigs through Sketchy Beats Café, the Chan Bang Club at the Mousetrap and the Critter Session at Woodland Creatures, while Leith Depot itself is a new pub and restaurant on Leith Walk with a 60-capacity function room upstairs, which is used by the three musicians who started the place for community meetings, workshops, plays and poetry, as well as live music.
'The Depot's intimate and loud,' says Nick Herd of Braw Gigs, who recently put on Ben 'The Rebel' Wallers, ex of the Country Teasers, there, and was so impressed he arranged a show for sound artist Jason Lescalleet immediately after. 'I booked shows a number of years ago in Leith and at the time I found it hard to get folks to come along, but the Depot is cool and from the couple of things I've been to in the Biscuit Factory, it seems it could be a great spot for medium to larger-sized clubs and gigs.'
The Biscuit Factory, off both Bonnington Road and the beaten track (although it's a stone's throw from hipster industrial estate street food market, the Pitt), opened in April 2015 as a creative studio with space for 850 over two floors, a gin distillery and occasional music events, including that Black Madonna set. 'We believed that we could build something to meet the demands of the community, that urban regeneration doesn't have to be a tear-down-and-build-up affair,' says the venue's Neill Connell Forgie, 'We also couldn't bear to see the building transformed into yet another 'contemporary housing development', especially after finding out the site was actually one of Crawford's original biscuit factories in Leith. You can imagine our surprise when the building's owners chose us to develop the property over other bidders.'
Forgie says the Biscuit Factory is about indoor markets, outdoor gatherings, exhibitions and pop-up cinema, as well as music events like this month's Landing Festival. Youth Juice, the creative agency behind the venue and other studio spaces in Leith, are also planning a large open-air arts space, another mid-sized arts venue and a sustainable start-up business hub in the area. Yet as anyone who went on a hard-hat tour of the grand but ill-cared-for Leith Theatre during August's Edinburgh Art Festival or saw Pictish Trail's gig at the adjacent Thomas Morton Hall will testify, the area already has one great concert venue.
'The Theatre can play vital roles as a creative hub for the community, and as somewhere to bring local, Scottish and international artists,' says Jack Hunter, chair of Leith Theatre Trust, who are currently fundraising to restore the building. 'It offers Edinburgh a great mid-scale music venue and is a good, flexible space. We're beginning to programme a range of events across music, theatre, dance and spoken word, poetry and parties, and we hope to be able to stage some performances in the main auditorium in the next few months.'
He doesn't comment on rumours the Theatre may once again become an Edinburgh International Festival venue, but he does say that between £8-10 million is needed to fully restore the building. Yet already new developments and student blocks are springing up along the Walk, and Herd bemoans the fact you can't even get a cheap pint there now.
'There's a new influx of creatives choosing Leith as their home, which can be traced back to the turn of the millennium with the crash in house prices and the sudden affordability of vacant shop units and unusual spaces,' says Cunningham, 'but the subsequent rise in rents and house prices has already started to edge out this sort of grassroots activity. The truth is that Edinburgh doesn't have a great track record when it comes to supporting live music, but Leith could potentially become the breeding ground for a new cultural renaissance on the east side of the Central Belt, if it's supported at this crucial stage in its development.'