Leith Walk is one of the longest streets in Edinburgh, Scotland. It stretches from "the Foot of the Walk" at the junction of Great Junction Street, Duke Street and Constitution Street to the junction with London Road, and then links to the east end of Princes Street via Leith Street. Technically however, none of the properties in its upper half are addressed as "Leith Walk" and the name is simply colloquial in the upper section. These sections are correctly titled Elm Row, Haddington Place, Crichton Place, Albert Place, etc.
However, Leith Walk, as we know it, owes its existence to a defensible rampart which was constructed between Calton Hill and Leith. The northern march of Cromwell's army, in 1650, was halted at this line by the Scots, under David Leslie (who was subsequently defeated at the Battle of Dunbar). The rampart was then developed into a footpath described by Daniel Defoe in 1725 as "a very handsome Gravel-walk, 20 Feet broad, continued to the Town of Leith, which is kept in good repair at the public Charge, and no Horse suffered to come upon it." which explains why the street became known as Leith Walk. At the time of its creation it provided an alternative (and shorter) route to Edinburgh to the pre-existing Easter Road and its then counterpart Wester Road (now called Bonnington Road/Broughton Road) although it did not supplant these routes as the main road to Leith until after the building of the North Bridge in 1769. It is notable that at the building of North Bridge, which was controversial at the time, Lord Provost Drummond wrote on its foundation stone that it was "a new road to Leith".
In 1763, it was clearly a coach route and a regular service existed from Leith to Edinburgh on the hour from 8am to 8pm with each journey taking an hour each way, resting at the Halfway House at Shrubhill (which existed as a pub until its demolition in 1983). At this time it is stated that there were no other coaches in Scotland except the infrequent service from Edinburgh to London.
In 1779, Hugo Arnot the historian of Edinburgh, born in Leith, stated that 156 coaches travelled the route daily, each carrying 4 passengers at a cost of 2d or 3d per person.
In 1799, 40 oil lamps were erected along the street to light the route. This is one of the earliest references to public street lighting.
The road apparently fell into disrepair given its frequent use by coaches and was not repaired until 1810 when the road was rebuilt as a "splendid causeway" raising the road level by around 6 feet. This was "at great expense by the City of Edinburgh and had a toll erected for its payment".
Until the sudden burst of tenemental construction (1870–1880), the street was largely rural in character. The few mansion houses which had grown up along its length in the early 19th century were denser on the west side than the east. When the tenements were built, it was easier (cheaper) to buy up the few mansions on the east side, which is why the two sides have different characters. A huge number were built in a very short time period, between Smiths Place and Brunswick Street, stretching eastwards to Easter Road along Albert Street, Dalmeny Street etc. These are all by John Chesser (architect).
The most interesting buildings have gone. The Alhambra Cinema stood on the end of Springfield Street and was replaced by a Tyre and Exhaust Centre (now a wine warehouse). This Egyptian style building was originally a theatre. It is remembered only in the name of the pub opposite. Halfway House was a coaching inn at the front of the Shrubhill site, dating from the 17th century. The truncated form survived as a pub until 1981 when it was cleared. Its horseshoe bar was salvaged and reused in the Shrub Bar/ Horseshoe Bar to the north.
Also at Shrubhill was the site of the gallows. This appears to have begun life as a dead tree from which bodies were hung, then was replaced by a series of temporary gibbets (there is no evidence of any permanent feature). Most famously Major Weir, the self-confessed warlock, and Thomas Aikenhead, the last person to be executed under Scotland's blasphemy laws, were hanged here.
The Gardener's Cottage at Haddington Place dated from 1765 and originally served the first Edinburgh Botanic Gardens to its rear. It was demolished in 2009 and, subject to funding, is to be re-assembled in the current Botanic Gardens in Inverleith.
The remnants of Leith Central Station still exist at the Foot of the Walk. Although the huge columnless station building was demolished in the late 1980s, the building which housed the station bars and waiting rooms etc. still exists including the Central Bar which is decorated with over 250,000 Staffordshire Potteries tiles, mainly by Minton, Hollins & Co., and a series of tiled murals depicting sporting pursuits including golf.
The City Limits Bar, formerly the Boundary Bar, stands on the old dividing line of Leith and Edinburgh. Prior to 1920, when Leith and Edinburgh merged, it was necessary to use both entrance doors because Leith and Edinburgh magistrates set different licensing rules. The main effect of this was that the bar on the Edinburgh side served until 9.30pm and after that the customers could adjourn to the Leith side to enjoy additional drinking time.
Pilrig Church (correctly Pilrig St Paul's Church) dates from 1861 and is visible along the entire length of Leith Walk. It was designed by Peddie and Kinnear architects and constructed 1861-3. It has a fine interior including early examples of stained glass by Daniel Cottier and a historic organ by Forster and Andrews (1903). The hall to the rear blends in perfectly but is a later addition of 1892
Harder to spot is the former Victoria India Rubber Mills (just north of Balfour Street) of which only the front building remains, with a fine but broken ornate cast iron gate. This used to specialise in hot water bottles.
Other recent losses include "Craig and Rose" paint and varnish works, on Steads Place/Springfield Street, famous suppliers of the red paint for the Forth Rail Bridge (which was their company logo). This site is now redeveloped as housing.
Today, Leith Walk remains a vibrant street with historic feel, having retained scores of small shop units, pubs and restaurants. It terminates (in colloquial terms at least) at the Omni Centre and St. James Centre at its south end. The lower, north end terminates opposite the Kirkgate Shopping Centre.
Leith Walk was to be on the new Edinburgh Trams route (Foot of the Walk tram stop), which was scheduled to open in 2011. However this part of the tram line was cancelled in June 2011after delays and cost overruns. Coordinates: Ironically, Leith Walk was previously one of the first and last places to have a tram. Leith had Scotland's first electric tram, running from 1905. On Leith Walk this terminated at Pilrig Church and passengers had to change to Edinburgh's cabledrawn cars. This messy exchange was known as the "Pilrig muddle". Edinburgh did not electrify its system and smooth out this problem until 1925. The last tram in Edinburgh ran in 1956 and terminated at Shrub Hill works on Leith Walk. At that time trams were removed due to their "inflexibility" and the advantages of a bus-based system.
Shrubhill is a distinct area on Leith Walk just south of Pilrig. It was the site of a gibbet known as the Gallow Lee, literally the "field with the gallows", where several infamous executions took place. Bodies were buried at the base of the gallows or their ashes scattered if burnt. A small church, the Rood Chapel, stood nearby.
1570- Two criminals strangled and burned to death.
1664- Nine witches strangled and burnt
1670- Major Thomas Weir for witchcraft (almost the only self-confessed witch executed).
1678- Five witches strangled and burnt
1681 (10 October)- Covenanters Garnock, Foreman, Russel, Ferrie and Stewart hanged and beheaded. Their headless bodies were buried on the site and their heads placed on the Cowgate Port. Friends reburied the bodies in the West Churchyard (St. Cuthberts). The heads were retrieved and placed in a box then buried in garden ground at Lauriston. They lay there until 7 October 1726 when the then owner, Mr Shaw, had them exhumed and reburied near the Martyrs' Monument in Greyfriars Kirkyard.
1752 (10 January)- Norman Ross, a footman, hanged for the murder of Lady Baillie, sister of Home, Laird of Wedderburn. The body was left to hang in a gibbet cage "for many a year" and became a local ghoulish tourist attraction.
- Grant, p. 150.
- Defoe, Daniel. A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain...... p. 86. Retrieved 2012-09-07.
- "City Limits Bar". Retrieved 2012-08-14.
- Buildings of Scotland;Edinburgh, by Colin McWilliam
- "Edinburgh trams: Councillors vote to continue project". BBC News. BBC. 30 June 2011. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
- archive film footage
- Grant, James A. Cassell's Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its people and its places V. London: Cassell & Company. pp. 150–. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- Keep Bleneheim Place Open Steering Group Residents of a side road affected by the implementation of the tramway on Leith Walk
- Leith Walk news from Greener Leith - an award winning local charity set up to champion better public spaces in the area.