More Tramspotting than Trainspotting: Leith has reinvented itself as a music and countercultural hub

Edinburgh’s port district has shaken off its seedy rep and is having a cultural renaissance, writes Robin McKelvie

Thursday 10 August 2023 15:20 BST
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Leith has cleaned up its act
Leith has cleaned up its act (Robin McKelvie)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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On 7 June 2023, the first tram for well over half a century soared down Leith Walk, marking both the end of a tortuous journey and the promise of rebirth for Edinburgh’s long-forgotten old port district. The first passengers arrived in a Leith unrecognisable from even half a decade ago; the tram’s impending arrival has already fuelled a new wave of independent businesses, alongside a full-on cultural renaissance.

The 2.91 mile, eight-stop extension from the centre to meet the waters of the Firth of Forth at Newhaven had become a symbol for frustration: Leith was axed from the initial 2014 project, just as the supposed rebirth of the district after hosting the MTV awards in 2003 fizzled out. It was another in a long line of blows, with Leithers ignored in two referendums: first in 1920, voting 26,810 to 4,340 against amalgamation with Edinburgh, and more recently in the EU referendum, when it had the highest support for Remain.

“There is real rebirth this time,” says Vic Galloway, BBC DJ and proud Leither. “Just look at Leith Walk outside. It is emerging as Edinburgh’s La Rambla: the pavement has already been widened and it’s becoming a bustling boulevard that sweeps down to the sea. This is already the best part of town to go out in, and it’s just getting better.”

Hipster craft-coffee joints have sprung up in Leith
Hipster craft-coffee joints have sprung up in Leith (Robin McKelvie)

Vic has a point. Passenger numbers on the tram network have already doubled with the Leith extension, and Leith Walk is clearly enjoying a boost. We’re sharing lunch in an apt cultural venue: Leith Depot. “Leith’s motto is ‘Persevere’, and we’ve had to. Leith Depot is only here after the local community came together to stop it being turned into flats,” says Vic. He is celebrating by manning the decks at new monthly residency Vitamin C.

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There’s a palpable cultural energy surging through Leith. Mercury Prize-winning band Young Fathers live in Leith and recorded their (Mercury-nominated) new album here. As did Edinburgh singer Hamish Hawk at Leith’s Post Electric Studios. I meet the Scottish capital’s band of the moment Redolent, who have just finished their first album at the studio. “This was the place we needed to record. There is just so much going on. And it keeps coming, we’ve not even talked about Leith’s remarkable Callum Easter,” says frontman Robert Herbert.

Italian bakery Polentoni does ‘the best arancini this side of Palermo’
Italian bakery Polentoni does ‘the best arancini this side of Palermo’ (Robin McKelvie)

Leith’s vibe reminds me of East London a couple of decades ago, or Glasgow’s Finnieston a decade ago, with abandoned industrial buildings being reborn. The most striking sleeping giant is Leith Theatre. AC/DC once played this stately 1930s balconied venue, but it needs serious reinvention. And investment; it doesn’t even have running water. Chief executive Lynn Morrison feels the trams have a part to play: “Leith Theatre will become Edinburgh’s Barrowlands, and the buzz around the trams is giving us renewed impetus, reawakening so many things.”

The music many people still associate with Leith is from the Trainspotting soundtrack, mired in the dark, decayed days of Thatcher-era Leith. I meet guide Paul Stewart, whose recent pivot catches the Leith zeitgeist. “Leith today feels more Tramspotting than Trainspotting, and that is becoming the theme of my tours,” he says happily. “I used to live homeless on these streets. I’ve moved on, and so has Leith.”

Leith’s vibe reminds me of East London a couple of decades ago

Stewart shows me a dizzying array of hipster bakeries, coffee roasters and vegan delis. Catching the eye are Ecosse Eclair’s fine patisserie, Edinburgh Honey Company, Polentoni Italian deli, with the best arancini this side of Palermo, and the massive new Edinburgh street food market, which acts as a gateway to Leith Walk at the top of the tram extension. I ask Stewart where booze emporium Cornelius Beer & Wine is. “Which one? They’re doing so well they’ve just opened a second branch.”

The tram has lifted Leith’s craft brewers, too, with the cheeky social-media-savvy Pilot making impossible-to-ignore waves. Co-owner Patrick Jones enthuses: “Leith has always been different. During Covid, Leithers snapped up 10,000 cans of our experimental peach melba beer. There is a real sense of community, and it feels like, with the trams coming, we are all moving on forward together.” Pilot has been joined by the likes of Campervan and Newbarns, with breweries and taprooms reviving streets that once flowed with 80 bonded whisky warehouses.

Leith Malmaison
Leith Malmaison (Robin McKelvie)

Leith’s restaurants are booming, too. I dine at Heron, where culinary upstarts Tomas Gormley and Sam Yorke are challenging the Michelin-starred Leith legends Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin. They snatched their own Michelin star this year. Meanwhile, Borough has been namechecked by Michelin, The Little Chartroom recently moved into a new Leith home, and Eleanore was named Restaurant of the Year at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards in 2022 (with head chef Roberta Hall-McCarron also a finalist on the BBC’s Great British Menu). By the time you read this and get to Leith, I would wager there will already be another opening.

Also opening this summer is a literally towering symbol of new Leith. The Port of Leith Distillery, the UK’s first vertical distillery, soars over the Forth and the Royal Yacht Britannia, the latter now open as a museum. “Britannia has always felt more like a spaceship than a ship,” says co-owner Paddy Fletcher. “It just plonked down in 1998 promising to help Leith’s regeneration, but in reality, tourists have just parachuted in. We want people to come here by tram to dram, tour and stay on to explore Leith.”

‘Persevere’ is Leith’s motto
‘Persevere’ is Leith’s motto (Robin McKelvie)

I make it to the Newhaven waterfront and join the Forth’s squawking seagulls, who are trying to sneak chips from the tram passengers newly disgorged into the busy restaurants crowding the harbour. All journeys carry risk, but Leith’s future route looks positive. I recall what Vic told me back at Leith Depot: “We don’t want Leith to change to the point that local people can’t afford to live here. Leith has learned the lessons of East Berlin and Montreal, who changed too quickly. People haven’t been forced out. In my stairwell there is a real mix of people: new creatives, alongside lifelong Leithers.” I’ll tram – and dram – to that.

Travel essentials

Getting there

LNER runs trains to Edinburgh from London’s Kings Cross station.

Staying there

Malmaison Edinburgh offers well-placed contemporary digs in the bustling waterfront neighbourhood, housed in a maritime building from the late 1800s.

More information

Find out more about visiting Leith at Forever Edinburgh.

Read more of our best Edinburgh hotel reviews

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