Edinburgh Walks – The Water of Leith

Here is a fantastic jaunt through some of the prettiest areas of Edinburgh, recommended for any time of year, almost completely flat, and lasting from 4 to 6 hours for the whole course, at a leisurely pace.  From my experience, this might be the finest city walk in the world.  Indeed, you’d hardly think you were in a city for much of it.

The Water of Leith is aptly described as “a silver thread in a ribbon of green”, and trickles out from the rolling green hills and reservoirs of the Pentland Hills.  The river cuts a meandering, and sometimes deep, route through the city’s southern suburbs into the Western End, flowing from the south-west before exiting into the Firth of Forth at the Port of Leith, north of the city center.  The walk itself is best begun in the satellite town of Balerno and is about 14 miles to its end.  A walk description of the Pentlands will come at a later date, but for a one day walk, the stretch from Balerno to the river mouth is really enough to get the full city-walk experience without the need for any major preparations.  To get to Balerno, take the number 44 bus (cost at time of writing is 1.40 GBP) and take a wee stroll around the old village.  Be sure to stock up with a Mars bar and a Lucozade while you’re here.  A visit to the nearby Malleny House and Gardens is recommended if you’re in no hurry.  Cross the bridge and go north to Balerno High School, the start of the trail is marked by a metal and wood sculpture.

A small stone bridge over a tributary near Balerno.
Currie Kirk.

The first five miles of the trail follow a former railway track which once served the mills and outer commuter suburbs of Edinburgh.  Rich with foliage and surprisingly peaceful, the river flows almost therapeutically towards your mutual destination.  You are bound to see fishermen along the banks in any weather.  Switching sides via footbridges on a number of occasions, the north side with its huddled houses of Currie and Juniper Green overlooking, while the south side gives out to an expanse of farmland rolling up to the hills, the trail is well signposted with little chance of straying from the river.  Among the many sights to be encountered are the Currie Kirk and Bridge, a gorgeous little village.  Clustered with ruins of abandoned mills and weirs, the feeling is very much of countryside until one reaches the overpass of the ring-road and enters the city-proper.

Entrance to the railway tunnel after Colinton.
The railway tunnel.

Colinton is a relatively posh suburb and a good layover for a pint or lunch on the south side of the river, either at the Spylaw Tavern or further up the village at the Colinton Inn, both of which offer food and ale.  The former Spylaw estate and mill offers an old walled garden explore, while the main street of the village and the kirk are worth a small detour. The river takes an abrupt turn northwards after the village and you’ll want to stay on the western bank to pass through the old railway tunnel, which is fortunately lit.  After the tunnel there are a number of possible trails to take, each as pleasant as the next, though I opted to cross back down over the weir and watch the herons at work.  The weir seems to be a popular site for lovers holding hands and gazing out over the water, which I have spotted here in all weathers. The dells are where you truly start to see the Water of Leith as an Edinburgh garden, its citizens making full use of the space, with tents, barbecues, children playing, students smoking and reading, braver men stripped to their y-fronts wading out into the cold water, and teens playing football.  Weaving its way between the suburbs of Kingsknowe and Craiglockhart, the pathway comes out onto the busy Lanark Road, surprisingly the first asphalt interruption in the pathway since leaving Balerno, some 7 or 8 miles behind.

On the opposite side of Lanark Road you will find the Water of Leith Walkway Visitors Centre and Trust, prominently advertised upon a stone arch.  It is worth a short stop here, either for a sambo or a cup of tea and a look at their dioramas. I unfortunately found the staff not too helpful, as I endeavored to catch their attention to buy a map, they were more involved in gossiping with one another than to notice me or inform me about the detours I would encounter ahead, despite my asking.  I imagine they work on a voluntary basis, otherwise they might have been more attentive when I said “I started in Balerno, I’m heading for Leith, is there anything I should watch out for?”  I received a shrug, and later would find myself cursing them as I wound and backtracked to negotiate the extensive water works in the last stages, causing me an extra hour or more of walking.  The corner where the center is situated is nonetheless fascinating for its representation of old industrial Scotland.  The great arches of an aqueduct and a viaduct looming overhead, the former for the Union Canal going to Falkirk (itself another fantastic city walk) and the latter a much used railway link.  It’s worth climbing the steps to the canal for the view.

Visitors Center at Slateford.
Slateford Aqueduct.
Slateford Viaduct.
Bells Mills.
A heron at work near Bells Mills.
Bells Mills.

From this point the walk has a much more urban feel as the the river winds through some allotments, past a prison and an industrial estate and turns westward again towards the city center.  The pathway narrows significantly until opening out again at Saughton Public Park, a wide expanse of playing fields.  On the southern end of the park are the walled rose gardens, I recommend going through here.  Crossing Balgreen Road, the path continues on the eastern, left, side of the river.  It is shortly after this point I ran into my first difficulties – some construction which had closed the path with no detour sign posted.  It was a 50/50 choice, to the left up a suburban street, or the right over a small footbridge into an industrial estate.  I chose the latter.  I made the wrong choice.  A not so nice walk down a busy road around the eastern side of Murrayfield stadium where signposts, and eventually even pavement, petered out,  but eventually brought me back onto the path at Roseburn.  I should hope that at the time of writing they have fixed this and everything is properly signposted.

Bells Mills.
Dean Village.

What follows is perhaps the most fascinating stretch of the walk, as the river closes in to a leafy gorge with a deep bend. A crossing here at Bells Mills leads to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art on the opposite bank, and then comes a weir which seems like an utter urban paradise, as small houses gaze out from the most enviable situations upon this idyllic scene.  Crossing to the northern bank and another impressive weir, the path passes Dean Gallery and Cemetery around another sharp turn and descends to the large Damhead Weir, which once supplied many mills. The view here opens out to the Dean Village itself, with its stunning variety of architecture of the centuries. As you pass through, the scene is dominated by the lordly and tall Dean Bridge, designed and built by Thomas Telford, Scotland’s most prolific civil engineer credited with bringing the nation into the industrial era.  This stretch is nothing short of breathtaking, and must be experienced chronologically, so to speak, following the path and its history to its crowning moment, in order to fully appreciate it.  Following into the stately Deans Gardens and pausing at the St. George’s and St. Bernard’s Wells, one is reminded of the broad civil-mindedness, brought from the Scottish Enlightenment, which made Edinburgh a model world city in its time.  Surprisingly, this stage is the closest the path comes to the city center  being a mere ten minute walk up the right bank to Princes Street, but you wouldn’t think it for the peacefulness.  Passing through here, I somehow felt sorry for the tourists huddled along this section, who had not delighted in the serenity of the river before or after this point.  (I’m even starting to sound like one of those enlightenment poets rattling on about the place).

Dean Village.
Dean Bridge.
Dean Bridge, looking up at Rhema Church.
St. Bernard’s Well. (My namesake!).

At Dean Gardens I stopped to say hello to a park warden who was enjoying a fag near some flowers.  Edinburgh is a genuinely friendly place where you can get away with this kind of informality, like my native Dublin, and we stood and chatted for a few minutes about the weather, and how wonderful it was to have such sunshine before the kids were out of school hogging it all to themselves.  It was at this point I discovered that there was trouble ahead on the walk as I made to take my leave, the warden asked “Are ye headin down to Leith?”  “I am, yes.”  “Well, ye’ll have a hard time of it with all the waterworks, most of it’s closed up!”  This was part of a flood prevention scheme to protect nearby low-lying residential areas from a repeat of the river bursting its banks.  Only 50 meters ahead, the river was completely drained, and diverted, as major excavations were underway.  Unable to follow the river, I walked through the quite pleasant borough of Stockbridge and up and down the quaint parallel streets of “The Colonies”,  an area of which much ado is made for its history as artisan’s cottages from the late-Victorian era.  I was reminded very much of Dublin’s Portobello neighbourhood near the Grand Canal, which has a similar two-level style of houses.  Same architect perhaps?  (If anyone is familiar with both areas, contact me.  The Dublin houses to which I refer are on the city side of the SCR from Portobello).

Crossing back to the north side of the river (to the left of the Colonies), there are options to enter either Inverleith Park or the Royal Botanic Gardens which lie adjacent and would merit a leisurely afternoon to explore both in tandem themselves.  Further waterworks diverted the path through some quite unspectacular suburbs until meeting the river again at St. Mark’s Park, an unimpressive public space with playing fields, but with a rather special vista of both Leith and Edinburgh City Centers from the upper parts.  Keeping to the north bank, the leafy path widens following (presumably) an old rail line or carriageway until the smell of Leith industry first meets the walker, and later the rather ugly buildings of the town center come into view.  Leith, barely three miles from the center of Edinburgh, distinguishes itself as a separate entity and retains a distinct character.  Despite massive urban renewal, the place is not without charm.  The harbour, marking the end of the trail, is ringed by pubs and restaurants and to celebrate the end of my hike I climbed aboard one of the pub-ships on the docks for a cool beer.

Approaching Leith.
Leith Harbour.

In conclusion, I would recommend the Water of Leith walk in any weather for anyone who has already seen the key sights of the city and wants to explore it more in depth.  The time would be well spent.