Leith Walk is the longest street in Edinburgh, Scotland. It slopes upwards from "the Foot of the Walk", where Great Junction Street, Duke Street and Constitution Street meet, 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", the name being simply colloquial. The sections here are correctly titled Elm Row, Haddington Place, Crighton Place, Albert Place, etc.
There was a rough pathway in the vicinity of modern day Leith Walk in the time of James II in the mid 15th century. However, Leith Walk, as we know it, owes its existence to a defensive rampart which was constructed between the Calton Hill and Leith in the middle of the 17th century. The northern march of Cromwell's army, in 1650, was halted at this line by the Scots under David Leslie (whose army was subsequently defeated at the Battle of Dunbar). The rampart developed later 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." The fact that it was forbidden to wheeled traffic explains why the street became known as "the Walk", the name by which it is still known locally. At the time of its creation it provided an alternative (and shorter) route to Edinburgh compared with the older Easter Road and its counterpart Wester Road (present-day Bonnington Road and Broughton Road) although it did not supersede these routes as the main road to Leith until after the building of the North Bridge, completed in 1772. It is notable that the foundation stone of the bridge, laid by Lord Provost Drummond, bore the inscription that it was part of "a new road to Leith".
It is clear, however, that as early as 1763 (when work began on building the North Bridge) the Walk had become a coach route with a regular service running from Leith to Edinburgh, departing on the hour, from 8am to 8pm. The journey took an hour each way, with a rest at the Halfway House at Shrubhill (which existed as a pub until it closed in 1981). 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 installed to light the street. This is one of the earliest references to public street lighting in Scotland.
The road apparently fell into disrepair because of its frequent use by coaches and was not repaired until 1810 when it was relaid 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".
Before the sudden surge of tenement construction in the 1870s the street was largely rural in character with several nurseries along its length. The separate mansion houses which had been built in the early 19th century were more numerous 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 still have different characters to some extent. A large number of tenements 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 McDonald Road Library is arguably the architecturally most distinguished building on the Walk. Originally a Nelson Hall, funded by its benefactor, the publisher and printer Thomas Nelson, it is now a public library run by Edinburgh District Council. It was built in 1902 in a Baronial Renaissance style to designs by H Ramsay Taylor.
Several notable buildings have disappeared in the past half century. The Alhambra Cinema, which stood at the end of Springfield Street, was replaced by a Tyre and Exhaust Centre (now a wine warehouse). This Egyptian style building was originally a theatre. Now it is remembered only in the name of a pub on the opposite side of the street. The Halfway House was a coaching inn at Shrubhill, dating from the 17th century. It survived in truncated form as a pub. At the time of its demolition in 1983 the central horseshoe bar was salvaged and reused in the Shrub Bar/Horseshoe Bar to the north.
The Gardener's Cottage at Haddington Place dated from 1765 and originally served the first Edinburgh Botanic Garden to its rear. It was demolished in 2009 and, subject to funding, is to be re-assembled in the current Botanic Garden in Inverleith.
The main station building of Leith Central Station still stands at the Foot of the Walk. Although the huge columnless railway shed was demolished in the late 1980s, the building which housed the station bars and waiting rooms survives, 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 such as golf.
The City Limits Bar, formerly the Boundary Bar, stands on the old dividing line between 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 (now Pilrig St Paul's Church) is visible along the entire length of Leith Walk. It was designed by architects Peddie and Kinnear 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 from 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. The company used to specialise in making hot water bottles and gym plimsolls.
Other recent losses include the "Craig and Rose" paint and varnish works at Steads Place and Springfield Street, famous suppliers of the red paint used on the Forth Bridge (which was used as their company logo). This site has been redeveloped as housing.
Today, Leith Walk remains a vibrant street with a historic feel, having retained scores of small Victorian shop units, pubs and restaurants. It terminates (in colloquial terms at least) at the Omni Centre and St. James Centre at its southern end. The lower northern end terminates where Great Junction Street meets Duke Street.
Leith Walk was intended to be part of the new Edinburgh Trams route (see Foot of the Walk tram stop), scheduled to open in 2011. However, this section of the line was scrapped in June 2011 after major delays and cost overruns. Coordinates: Ironically, Leith Walk was one of the first and last places in Edinburgh and Leith to see trams. Leith had Scotland's first electric tram in 1905. On Leith Walk this terminated at Pilrig Church and passengers had to change to Edinburgh's cable-drawn cars. This messy changeover was known as the "Pilrig muddle". Edinburgh did not electrify its system and smooth out this problem until 1925. Edinburgh's "last tram" of the earlier tram era ran in 1956 and terminated at the Shrub Hill tram depot on Leith Walk. At that time trams were discontinued because of their "inflexibility" and the advantages of a bus-based system.
Shrubhill is a distinct area of Leith Walk just south of Pilrig. It was once 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.
1570- Two criminals strangled and burned to death.
1664- Nine witches strangled and burnt
1670- Major Thomas Weir, the self-confessed warlock, strangled and burnt 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 at the site and their heads placed on the Cowgate Port at the foot of the Pleasance. Friends reburied the bodies in the graveyard of the West Kirk (St. Cuthberts). The heads were retrieved, placed in a box and 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.
1697 (8 January)- Thomas Aikenhead, a 19-year-old theology student at Edinburgh University became the last person to be executed under Scotland's blasphemy laws (and the last in Britain to be executed for that crime).
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.
- J Gifford, C McWilliam, D Walker, The Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh, Penguin 1984
- "City Limits Bar". Retrieved 2012-08-14.
- J Gifford, C McWilliam, D Walker, The Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh, Penguin 1984
- "Edinburgh trams: Councillors vote to continue project". BBC News. BBC. 30 June 2011. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
- archive film footage
- Bartholomew's Chronological map of Edinburgh (1919)
- The burial of the heads of the Covenanters hanged at the Gallow Lee]
- Descriptions of Leith Walk in the 19th century
- Leith Walk news from Greener Leith - an award winning local charity set up to champion better public spaces in the area.