When, 50 years ago, I read out of curiosity the entry for Edinburgh in an ancient edition of the Larousse dictionary, I was astonished â€“ â€œcapitale de lâ€™Ã‰cosse, situÃ©e sur la Leith.â€ Nowadays, more realistically, it is â€œsur lâ€™estuaire du Forth.â€ Yet at one time the role played by Edinburgh’s River, the Water of Leith, in the economy of the town and its surroundings was vital.
Something like 100 mills and factories depended on its waterpower and by the time it reached Leith, any resemblance between clear Pentland springwater and the stuff that flowed into the port was long gone. Stevenson wrote, â€œDark brown is the river…â€The Water of Leith Walkway runs from Balerno to the heart of Leith, well signposted most of the way. A series of very good guide-leaflets can be had from the visitor centre at Slateford (24 Lanark Road). Never far from the stream throughout its 15 miles, it is easy to do in a day â€“ not even a long day at that.
The water runs fast and clear, with trout again, even a few sea trout run upstream sometimes, but the weirs, lades and former mill buildings still tell of its past importance for industry and Edinburghâ€™s economic life. Although it starts just off Lanark Road near Balerno High School, those first 12/13km or so, along the old railway, can be claustrophobic, unless in winter, when the leaves are off the trees.
What are the â€˜bestâ€™ bits of the Water of Leith Walkway? Colinton Dell? Craiglockhart? Dean Village?
Most people would probably go for at least part of this arc across the west and north west of the city. The whole distance from Colinton to Stockbridge is only about 8km â€“ it is hard to be exact when measuring a winding river. That would be my choice. Most of this stretch would be quite suitable for buggies â€“ the steps would be quite negotiable with a co-operative toddler. However, there are probably too many for wheelchairs at certain points, such as Colinton or Roseburn.
Linear walks make a good case for public transport. Take the 9 or 10 bus from the city to Colinton. Find you way down Spylaw Street or by the steps at the Colinton Inn to the river. Robert Louis Stevensonâ€™s grandfather was minister at St. Cuthbertâ€™s Parish Church a century and a bit ago.
Take care at the start to go uphill round the church (or you will just have to go back!) The main path is obvious, with its alternative strands from time to time; there is even the old railway tunnel for a bit, if you wish.
As far as Slateford, the Walkway is a delightful woodland walk, generally close to the true right bank. A stretch on hard paving follows; left when you come to Slateford and right into Inglis Green Road, then under both railway and Union Canal. 700m along this road, turn right into a narrow passage by the Longstone Inn to go round the perimeter of Saughton Prison.*
This is the untidiest part of the walk. However, signposting has recently been improved and it is now easy to follow the brown signs with waterwheel logo through both Saughton Park and Roseburn Park, while staying close to the river.
We pass the Ice Rink and Murrayfield on the flat ground before returning to scenery such as we saw between Colinton and Slateford. The river is back in its steep-sided valley. There are even a few open meadows. We go under Belford Bridge to Dean Village, under Telford Bridge and past St Bernardâ€™s Well to Stockbridge. While Colinton keeps an almost rural feel in some ways, from Roseburn to Dean there is a succession of interesting buildings to admire as well.
This section, which I have opted to call my â€˜bestâ€™ bit, goes as far as Deanhaugh Bridge, or perhaps past the Colonies, along the Rocheid Path to Canonmills. From either point there are frequent buses up the steep hill and back to the city centre.
*Since this walk was planned, a new path, which avoids the hard walking, but which I have yet to try out, has been opened after Slateford.