Articles - Water of Leith
Where five roads meet outside Haymarket Railway Station in Edinburgh a small forest of traffic lights controls the comings and goings of people and vehicles. From somewhere underground the wail of a train adds to the noise.
Yet minutes away from this kaleidoscope of activity, Palmerston Place offers an escape. St. Mary’s Episcopalian Cathedral dominates this part of Edinburgh’s New Town and immediately draws the eye. Two ladies, the Misses Walker, heirs of Sir Patrick Walker on whose land this part of the city was developed, left their fortune to the Episcopal Church on condition the money had to be used to build a cathedral for the diocese of Edinburgh. Twin spires at the western end of the building are accordingly named Barbara and Mary in their memory.
At the main entrance, intricate stone carvings are worth a close look while inside the church a daily choral service has been a tradition since 1879. The choir perfects its music in the nearby Song School, a modest building which blends with the surroundings to give little indication of the richness of the murals enlightening every inch of the inside walls by the artist Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852 – 1936).
Carry on down Palmerston Place to the bottom of the hill then turn left onto Belford Bridge. From here you can enjoy views over the river, the Water of Leith, before rounding the bend into Belford Road to seek out the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art housed in a former school building. It’s well worth finding the paintings by the Scottish colourists Francis Cadell, John Duncan Ferguson, Samuel John Peploe and G.L. Hunter .
Outside, the lawn in front of the gallery has been landscaped to a design by Charles Jenks. Called Landform, the stepped grass mound winds a way round pools of water that mirror the passing clouds overhead.
Across the road, the Dean Gallery is home to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two. Here there are works by surrealist artists Pablo Picasso and Robert Penrose but most arresting is the sculpture entitled Vulcan1990 by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. This shiny metal figure standing nearly 30ft tall portrays a half man, half machine – a monument to the modern age. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and blacksmiths, forged weapons for gods and heroes.
A path by the side of the lawn in front of the art gallery leads to an exit and, partially hidden by ivy, a doorway with steps leading down to the Water of Leith and the walkway which follows the course of the river. Though the city centre is only minutes away this is a green oasis enlivened by birdsong.
At Dean Village, new houses compliment the original stone buildings. Some of them, with crow stepped gables, were once meal mills, woollen mills or tanneries powered by the Water of Leith.
In turn, the river was used as an open sewer for waste. Now the mill buildings have been converted into sought after waterside homes and offices with something of the character of a rural hamlet remaining.
The Water of Leith also receives lots of attention. Work is on-going to improve the water quality, remove rubbish, protect wildlife and maintain the walkway from Balerno, south of Edinburgh, to the sea at Leith.
From Dean Village, a sign points out the continuation of the path under Dean Bridge built in 1829-31 to a design by Thomas Telford. Bridge traffic is constant but far below, beneath a supporting arch, little can be heard.
Further along the river bank, a Roman temple, an open rotunda, has pillars enclosing a statue of Hygeia, Greek goddess of health. She holds a large jar in one hand and in the other, an urn, tilted in the direction of a serpent that curls up the stump of a tree. This is St. Bernard’s Well.
From the late 1700s the supposed healing powers of the mineral waters were an attraction on the tourist trail. Though the well waters are not in use today, Stockbridge, hardly any distance from here, still caters for visitors.
This is a thriving area of the city with an air of confidence and the feel of a self-contained village. As well as a choice of cafes and pubs, there are fish, fruit and vegetable shops, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, a cheesemonger and florists all within a few yards of each other. Browse in a book shop before setting off up Glanville Place and further into the New Town of Edinburgh.
On reaching Howe Street turn right.
Like much of the New Town streets it is wide and handsome with the added bonus of a view northwards across a city roof- scape to a blue strip of River Forth and the coast of Fife.
Catch your breath half way up before turning left and walking along Herriot Row. Here the grey stone facades have not changed a great deal since Robert Louis Stevenson moved to No.17 as a boy in 1857.
Electric lighting has long since replaced the gas lamps Stevenson mentions in his poem The Lamplighter, yet it’s easy to imagine the sickly child peering out of his window at the lamp before the door as “Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more.”
Turning right onto Queen Street Gardens East leads to Hanover Street which continues over George Street where, in the intersection, a statue of George 1V on a pedestal commemorates the King’s visit in 1822 – the first by a British monarch to see his Scottish kingdom in 171 years.
The King had been sensationally dressed in flesh coloured tights and kilt and many others were impressed to follow his lead. Sir Walter Scott was the impresario behind this event and has since been celebrated and blamed for the popularity of tartan, bagpipes and clans.
From here on Hanover Street there is a splendid view of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture and on the skyline, the towers of the New College of the Free Church of Scotland.
Before weaving through the crowds on Princes Street, grin or grimace eastwards in the direction of the monument and statue commemorating the writer Sir Walter Scott (you may like to climb to the top) then cross the bottom of The Mound with care to descend the steps down to Princes Street Gardens.
Pause at the Floral Clock then spend time enjoying the gardens and the best views of the great lump of volcanic rock topped by Edinburgh Castle.
First published in the Glasgow Herald
Further Information: www.cathedral.net
For Phoebe Traquair Song School Murals Tour
Cathedral Chorus Services with the Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral