Leith comes to life

1 Mar 2005 by business traveller

Eleven years ago, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh depicted Leith as a seedy, drugs-riddled dockside town. No one would think of it that way now. Although a few of Welsh's haunts are still standing – the Central Bar, hangout for the book's bad-boy character, Begbie, and the Port of Leith pub, ironically renamed Port Sunshine for Trainspotting in view of its grim surroundings – much has changed since he lived here.

Leith, just two miles from Edinburgh's city centre, is a working class district that was once Edinburgh's primary port. Now the sailors that once filled its pubs are gone and another trendy waterfront development has sprung up, of the type that's all the rage in UK cities – think Liverpool's Albert Dock, Cardiff Bay or The Quays in Manchester. It's an industrial backwater transformed, now offering plenty to do, both day and night.
The heart of Leith is The Shore promenade, which lines the Water of Leith river before it spills into the Firth of Forth. In the summer, The Shore is brimming with tourists who have ticked Edinburgh Castle off their list and want to escape the tartan-touting shops of the Royal Mile to enjoy a steadier pace of life. The cobbled street is lined with grey sandstone-fronted restaurants, mostly dubbed "bistros", or "gastro-pubs", as befits Leith's fashionable image and growing reputation for harbouring Edinburgh's best fish restaurants.

The restaurant credited with igniting Leith's gastronomic scene is Skippers Bistro, which opened 25 years ago opposite The Shore promenade. Its specialty is local fish, which diners eat while surrounded by cosy dark wood surroundings in winter, or in the airy conservatory or terrace in the summer. It was hailed Edinburgh's best fish restaurant in 2002 by The Guardian and is now one of Leith's most popular restaurants (so book ahead).

Shortly after Skippers' arrival, the Leith Agency launched in a converted primary school on The Shore. Now Scotland's leading advertising agency, the firm sparked a renaissance in Leith that sees the area dubbed "the Soho of the North" for its cluster of creative companies.

John Denholm, chairman of the Leith Agency, says he's witnessed a lot of change since founding the company. "When we arrived 20 years ago there was little here
except a rundown dock area and Skippers, which really was the pioneering restaurant for Leith. But even in those early days there was just the faintest stirrings of it being a little bit bohemian and set to become one of these up and coming dockside areas."

A string of nautically themed eateries followed the trail blazed by Skippers, including the Waterfront Wine Bar and Bistro next door, which was bought by the owners of Skippers in June 2004, and The Shore restaurant across the Water of Leith. Several more brasseries and bistros have followed and, between them, Leith's restaurants hold a clutch of awards. These include the Michelin-starred Martin Wishart restaurant; multi-ethnic fusion restaurant Britannia Spice, which won Les Routiers' prestigious "Newcomer of the Year Award" in 2001; and The Shore, winner of the Scottish Chef Award 2004 for Casual Dining.

Latching onto Leith's burgeoning reputation for gastronomy, hotel entrepreneur Ken McCulloch earmarked the area for the opening of his first Malmaison hotel – a turning point for Leith when it opened 10 years ago, and undoubtedly a catalyst for further development. McCulloch took a punt by choosing Leith instead of Edinburgh's historic city centre – the favoured location of rival hoteliers including Rocco Forte and the Eton Group with its trendy Glasshouse hotel. But by that time, Terence Conran's Ocean Terminal, a huge shopping and entertainment complex in Leith, was on its way, the Scottish Executive had announced its intention to relocate to the area, and signs of gentrification were beginning to show.

Malmaison Group chief executive Robert Cook says the area's reputation was on the turn. "Leith was the brothel of Edinburgh", he says. "It had problems like drugs and prostitution."

"Before we came, a couple of restaurants had opened and the area was starting to look up. But in its first year the restaurant performed pound for pound with the hotel, and we just filled rooms with the diners."
From humble beginnings, the Malmaison, which occupies a former seaman's mission at the end of The Shore, gradually expanded from 25 rooms to 100 in 2002 and room rates have shot up from less than £50 a night to £130. The area has developed with it – the walk along The Shore to the Malmaison is characteristic of modern urban developments with sculptures, benches and fresh flowers making for a salubrious environment.
By the mid-1990s, with a boutique hotel and several award-winning restaurants under its belt, Leith was a honey pot for property developers, who began buying up land from local landowner Forth Ports for offices and luxury apartments.

The largest development of its day and a turning point for Leith was the opening of Victoria Quay, a vast office building that was completed in 1995 on land formerly between two docks. It now houses Leith's biggest employer: the aforementioned Scottish Executive, Scotland's devolved government, which employs 2,000 civil servants. The decision by the Scottish Executive to move to Leith cemented the area's reputation as Edinburgh's fastest growing district in the mid-1990s.

Another major development was Ocean Terminal, which opened in 2001 with half a million square feet of shopping and leisure on three floors. Under proposals disclosed by Forth Ports in autumn 2004, the terminal could be doubled in size and a casino complex and 5,000 auditorium for rock concerts added at Britannia Quay, which, since 1998, is home to the Royal Yacht Britannia, a magnet for 400,000 tourists a year.

Between the office and shopping complexes, apartment blocks are springing up, including one next to the Malmaison, which was finished in December 2004 with flats that will sell for up to £300,000. This has not been greeted with enthusiasm from all concerned. "We used to enjoy uninterrupted views from the hotel across the Firth of Forth", says Malmaison manager, Lizzie Kelk. "But this latest development of flash pads has changed that."

Many of the executives filling the flats come from companies hoping to emulate the success of the Leith Agency, and have based themselves in "incubator units" like the
Bourse Business Centre in Timberbush, Leith, where young start-up firms are supplied with fully serviced offices and broadband internet access until they are big enough to branch into their own space. Inhabitants include a fifth European base for PR agency Firefly Communications. The company was listed as one of the top 50 best small companies to work for in 2004 by The Sunday Times and has clients including Motorola and Fujitsu. It shares the offices with graphic designers, architects, publishers and other creative outlets.

Trendy flats and businesses aside, Leith still has its local characters, like Mary Moriarty, landlady of the Port of Leith pub. Adorned with ships' flags, mannequins, caps, naval paraphernalia, postcards and banknotes brought by sailors from around the world, the Port of Leith has always been the first stop for visitors to the area.

Moriarty says: "When I first came here 20 years ago the area was a bit run down, but now all these new houses and young people have changed all that – it's very exciting."
She says that like her, most Leith residents welcome the change. "Leith people have always been welcoming. We used to get sailors from all over the world when this was a busy port, now its young professionals who are coming in."

Leith Agency's John Denholm remembers the sailors with less fondness. "The pubs along The Shore were pretty rough 20 years ago, like the Tower Bar, which was full of drunken sailors smashing up the place. Now it's Fishers, one of Edinburgh's best fish restaurants."

He says the change was exactly what Leith needed. "People throw around these arguments that young professionals are pushing out Leith's older residents and changing the character of the place, but I don't subscribe to that. The counter argument is to have left Leith as a rundown derelict dock – it was one of Edinburgh's unloved districts."
Visitors wanting to unearth the "old Leith" of Trainspotting can do so courtesy of local man Tim Bell, who narrates two-hour walks around Leith with extracts from the novel – it's an adult-only affair as Bell sticks religiously to the colourful language used by Welsh and his characters. The tour winds up with a chat with Leith's most colourful character, Moriarty, who doesn't pander to the bistro and brasseries crowd. "Don't bring the kids and don't expect a meal. This is a real pub", she says.


Skippers bistro
1a Dock Place, tel 0131 554 1018, www.skippers.co.uk

Waterfront Wine Bar and Bistro
1c Dock Place, tel 0131 554 7427

The Shore
3 The Shore, tel 0131 553 5080, www.theshore.biz

Brittania Spice
150 Commercial St, tel 0131 555 2255, www.brittaniaspice.co.uk

Martin Wishart
52 The Shore, tel 0131 553 3557, www.martin-wishart.co.uk


THE Irvine Welsh Tour www.leithwalks.co.uk, tel 0131 555 2500


Edinburgh is served by British Airways from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City, by Bmi from Heathrow, and by Easyjet from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted. Scotairways also has flights from London City.
Rail services offered by GNER depart from London Kings Cross, with the fastest trains taking just over four hours.
Return fares with BA and Bmi start at £63, Easyjet at £36 and Scotairways at £107. GNER charges between £39 and £91 for standard and £59 and £282 for first class depending on how far ahead you book and the degree of flexibility you need.

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