Water of Leith, River of Death

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In spate, near Riversdale and the ice rink.
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What’s up ducks?

How much do you know about the Water of Leith? Edinburgh is unique among Scotland’s major cities in not having a major river running through its centre. But Edinburgh does have its own river. It wends its way quietly through the suburbs, an provides a corridor for wildlife and an inspiration for poets. It is also a river which shares its name with some surprising places.

“Oh, Water of Leith! Oh, Water of Leith,
Where the girls go down to wash their teeth;
And o’er the stream there is a house right knackie,
Of that grand old man, Professor Blackie.”

McGonagall? Possibly since some folk say this is apocryphal, but as we shall see later, William McGonagall (1825-1902) actually did write a poem about the Water of Leith. A pity since the image of women washing their dentures in the water is such a striking one.

How about this excerpt from Walter Savage Landor?

“On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.”

Again, this is not quite what it might appear, but more on that later.

Name

“Water” in the name is Scots for a medium sized river e.g. Afton Water or Douglas Water, somewhere in size between a “burn” (as in “Roseburn”) and a larger river such as the Esk, Almond or Forth. The “Water of X” form is a calque from the Celtic word order, and tends to be more common in northern Scotland.

At first sight, the Water appears to take its name from the port of Leith. Or does it? Numerous towns in Scotland are named after rivers, or more especially their mouths, which make for good harbours. Amongst these one might mention Aberdeen, Inverness, Ayr and smaller places like Inveresk. Leith itself is outwith the scope of Literary Corstorphine, but hopefully this article will be of interest to some of the folk down there.

The name “Leith” itself is a bit harder to interpret – it is almost certainly from Brythonic (old “Welsh”), and may mean either “grey” or “flowing”, or something else entirely. It is probably related to the name of the Leithen which flows down to Innerleithen.

Lethe

Edinburgh has been nicknamed “the Athens of the North” from time to time, but the Leith certainly sounds a bit like the “Lethe” (Λήθη – roughly “Lee-thee” or “Leh-theh”), one of the famous five rivers of Hades, the ancient Greek world of the dead. These were:

  • Acheron – Joylessness
  • Cocytus – Lamentation
  • Lethe – Forgetfulness, drinking its waters would wipe your memory.
  • Phlegethon or Pyriphlegethon – Burning, similar to the western view of Hell.
  • Styx – The river which shades were famously ferried across by Charon.

So when people say we live out in the Styx, they are certainly not far wrong. If you drank the waters of the Lethe, you would end up forgetting everything. As Fenton Johnson (1888–1958) wrote:

“Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around.
Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) wrote in his poem, Spleen:

“II n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé
(“He failed to warm this dazed cadaver in whose veins
Flows the green water of Lethe in place of blood.”).

If you think none of this is relevant to our own Water of Leith, you would be far wrong. At least one person of note has associated places in Edinburgh with classical and biblical locations – literally – but you’ll have to buy my book to find out about that.

William McGonagall

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McGonagall!

Ah, McGonagall, what can I say about him? The worst poet in the world? I don’t think so, but he was pretty bad-in-a-good-way. Now, again, I stray a wee bit out of our area – but his River of Leith is damn good:

“The water of St. Bernard’s Well is very nice,
But to get a drink of it one penny is the price.
I think in justice the price is rather high,
To give a penny for a drink when one feels dry.”

Apparently, said spring water tastes like the finings from a gun barrel, but since I have tasted neither, I can’t comment on this comparison. And if you are molested by the bother of “dull care”, be minded that:

The scenery is so enchanting to look upon
That all tourists will say, “Dull care, be gone.”
’Tis certainly a most lovely spot,
And once seen it can never be forgot.

“Then away! away! to the River of Leith,
That springs from the land of heather and heath,
And view the gorgeous scenery on a fine summer day.
I’m sure it will drive dull care away.”

Down Under

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Upper reaches of the Water of Leith, Woodhaugh, Dunedin

If Edinburgh is “Athens of the North” and Dunedin is “Edinburgh of the South”, what is the relationship of Dunedin to Athens? Or the Lethe?

As you may know, quite a few places named after our Fair City. The best known one is Dunedin in Otago, New Zealand on the South Island. They went to a lot of trouble trying to remember the Old Country and there is a Corstorphine there and a Water of Leith to boot. Edinburgh, in return, has named an industrial estate in Canonmills after the city.

New Zealand’s Water of Leith was originally called Ōwheo and is culverted along much of its length. (Edinburgh appears to be trying to do much the same with the section of the Leith in Murrayfield.)

A comparison:

  • Edinburgh’s Water of Leith – 22 miles/35 km long, flows north east into the Firth of Forth (North Sea)
  • Dunedin’s Water of Leith – 9 miles/14 km long, flows south east into Otago Harbour inlet (Pacific Ocean).

This is not the only Leith in the southern hemisphere. The icy island of South Georgia, once famous for its whaling stations has its own Leith Harbour. Leith Harbour has a brook running down into it, but I haven’t been able to find out what it’s called.

Corstorphine Loch and a few other names

You may remember from a recent post that the ending of Stevenson’s Kidnapped mentions:

“We came by-way over the hill of Corstorphine; and when we got near to the place called Rest-and-be-Thankful, and looked down on Corstorphine bogs”

These bogs were the remains of the old Corstorphine Loch, which used to run from by near the Leith, over to the village of Corstorphine. Jamie and Ailean Breac walk over Corstorphine Hill to avoid these bogs, and also unwanted attention.

This loch would have fed into the Leith, and the Leith too would have returned the favour by feeding it with the occasional flood. The ancient Water of Leith seems to have been fairly sluggish, a situation which has been rectified by a series of weirs.

A few of the names along the water of Leith.

  • Balgreen – Baile is a common place name element, meaning a farm or village e.g. Balerno, Ballingry. Nothing to do with “ball green”, although that’s probably appropriate with the playing fields being there now. It’s actually a Gaelic name, meaning sunny (Baile na Grèine) or gravelly farm (Baile Griain). The element Bal- (baile) can be found down the road in Balerno, and turns up as Bally- in Ireland, and Balla- in the Isle of Man. The exact same name crops up near Ecclesmachan and Murieston in West Lothian.
  • Coltbridge – Originally refers to Cotts or Cottages that were built in this area. Cotts can also refer to parcels of land.
  • Riversdale – a modern ersatz name meaning merely “river valley”.
  • Roseburn – Apparently just “rose” (the flower) plus “burn” (as in small river) e.g. Blackburn.
  • Saughton – The “saugh” bit rhymes with “loch”, and is Broad Scots for a willow tree (seileach in Gaelic).
  • Stenhouse – The last bit “house” doesn’t appear to refer to a “house” at all. Older records call the place “Stanhope Mills”. Stanhope was the surname of the folk who held land there in the 16th and 17th centuries.

All three names are possibly connected to water – saughs (willows) like growing by water, gravel turns up near rivers, and “mills” speaks for itself.

Cors in Welsh means a marsh (in Gaelic, the word is còrrsa or càrrsa), which fits the bill well. This word often becomes “carse” in Scots.

Dean further down means a sunken valley. It is often “den” in Scotland and comes from the Anglo-Saxon denu.

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