Water of Leith, River of Death

murrayfieldspate
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.

Picture Credits

External links

CYCC – Fire, Freemasonry and the Gaelic novel

CYCC from near Corstorphine Library
CYCC from near Corstorphine Library, Kirk Loan

Located on Kirk Loan, the CYCC/Corstorphine Hub is the former home of Corstorphine Library and probable basis for Gymnippers Diciadain by Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir. The building is currently a burnt out shell, but used to contain a fitness club, youth centre, Masonic lodge, and also hosted the Corstorphine Literary and Geographical Society for a number of years.

The first public library in Corstorphine was founded back in the 1830s, and was a subscription library. In 1892, it moved to the CYCC, and became a council-run library a few years later. In 1936, it moved to its current building, which is next door. It’s curious to think that all of this occurred when Corstorphine was still a proper village and not engulfed by Edinburgh.

View from by Bowling Club
View from by Bowling Club

At the top of the building, one can still see faded Masonic lettering on the walls, which has been damaged by rain and water ingress since the roof fell in. Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed though – before the lettering faded away, it was clearly a noble statement about brotherly love, rather than something about worshipping Satan or trying to establish a global government. (Sorry to any beleaguered Freemasons reading – that was a joke.) Although at one point, as conspiracy theorists might be interested to know, the Mormon Church held branch meetings in the lodge there. The painted lettering looks to have been very fine, and it is a great shame to see it destroyed like this.

The other half of the building still has the sign “Elite Fitness” on it. This appears to be where the fire started, from a faulty heater. Given that children were in there at the time, it is extremely fortunate that none of them were seriously hurt. Since there used to be a children’s club in there, and Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir lives/d in Broomhall/Wester Broom, I suspect it was the basis for his Gymnippers Diciadain*. Certainly I know for a fact his family used Corstorphine Library next door. It concerns a platonic romance between two Gaelic speakers, Caroline and DJ, whose children attend a weekly gym class together. Sorry to be a tease again, but yes there will be a further post on this – with quotes – at some point in the future. I’ll even attempt to translate extracts.

According to Gaelicbooks dot org – “Bha an leabhar seo air geàrr-liosta SALTIRE MAIN LITERARY PRIZE 2005 (comhla ri Kate Atkinson, Ali Smith agus feadhainn eile).” (This book was shortlisted for the Saltire Main Prize 2005 (along with Kate Atkinson, Ali Smith and some others))

For those who are interested in helping getting this building properly refurbished, there is a fundraising shop on St John’s Road inside Lucy’s Café. Personally, I don’t find it one of the more attractive older buildings in Corstorphine, but the fire was still a crying shame.

Across the road can be seen Corstorphine Kirk. In the graveyard can be found relatives of the local poet Robert Cuddie. Unfortunately, the graveyard is very badly maintained and the city council has vandalised many of the stones in the name of health and safety. The kirk and original village are on an old island in a marsh. On one side was the Gogar Loch, which extended from just beyond Featherhall/Ladywell, over Gyle Muir & Gyle Park to Gogar. On the other was Corstorphine Loch, which ran from round about the Paddockholm & Traquair Park, over Carrick Knowe Golf Course to the fringes of Murrayfield. Nearby Sycamore Gardens is named after the great sycamore which was haunted by the spirit of the White Lady (hence the pub name on St John’s Road). The sycamore itself is one of the most overegged symbols of Corstorphine and sycamore leaves appear in some of the railings in the area. Lord knows why, since as larger trees go, sycamores are as good as weeds. Like the castle of the Forrester Family, the sycamore is gone, and doesn’t even exist as a stump. I remember it coming down.

Mystery hole in the wall

The mystery hole on Saughton Road Nth (near CYCC & Bowling Club)
The mystery hole on Saughton Road Nth (near CYCC & Bowling Club)

I’ve put this photograph up so that readers can have a go at trying to work out what this is. Has it got any significance at all? It’s between the end of Kirk Loan and the gate into the bowling club.

We often overlook stuff like this, but since my tour of Kirkcudbrightshire (see the second post), I’ve come to realise that the apparently ordinary is not always so ordinary.

I’m guessing the wall is late 19th/early 20th century in origin, and the fact that the stone is near the bottom means it is likely to have been there since the wall got built. It’s not unlikely the stone came from elsewhere, so it could be stone that came from the castle, or even a prehistoric cup and ring stone (there are some of those up on Corstorphine Hill). If it’s part of a cup and ring stone, this would be pretty fantastic – these are about the nearest things that we have to writing from our own Stone Age.

Or is it just somewhere a bolt was put?

Notes

* “Gymnippers” pronounced as in English. “Diciadain” as “Jeekee-ahdun”, which means “Wednesday”.

External Links

Gymnippers Diciadain (in Gaelic)

Corstorphine Youth and Community Centre/Corstorphine Hub

Auld Reekie oot west

Submission (1997), a novella by Paul Reekie, in the Children of Albion Rovers compilation.

Kelly got her degree. Replying to an advert in the paper she was a salesperson in a car showroom in Corstorphine. She got the punters interested… aye you know… Old Rab comes around later and gets them to sign. Teamwork. How was the parlance? ‘Close the dead’.

While there is no car showroom in Corstorphine proper these days, there is one up on the Glasgow Road, between St Thomas Episcopal Church and the Marriot Hotel. This is a Jaguar showroom. This is not necessarily the showroom in the novella, but it could be the inspiration for it. I gather from certain sources that Submission was the problem piece in Children of Albion Rovers and had to be altered for legal reasons. However, I doubt the contemporary Jaguar car showroom was the legal reason. Some of the more delicate readers of this blog will doubtless be horrified by some of the language in the volume, but you can’t say you weren’t warned. This blog aims to discuss all the writing from this part of the world, not just the stuff from the “easy reading” section.

Glasgow Road, Maybury - looking towards Corstorphine. The Jaguar showroom is behind the nearest bus stop.
Glasgow Road, Maybury – looking towards Corstorphine. The Jaguar showroom is behind the nearest bus stop.

There used to be another briefly, on St John’s Road where the sign salesroom is now. But as I understand it, that was a place where one could rent classic cars, rather than buying them. This probably post-dates Submission anyway.

Paul Reekie was really a Leith writer, well Fife originally, and the obligatory Hibs fan. He was also what you could call a “difficult person”. Not in a bad way, but stubborn, and holding fast to his beliefs.

Difficult people often remain difficult after death. They can remain thorns in the sides of the people who disowned them. Or those who try to co-opt them after death. Memory is a tricky thing, but a written output helps keep that going a little longer.

Paul Reekie’s name has appeared in print a number of times more recently. And why? Austerity kills. Not just the body, but the soul too. Reekie appears regularly in lists of people who have been killed by vicious austerity policies. The fact that he was known by Irvine Welsh, Kevin Williamson and Alan Bisset etc. means that he has had a higher profile than some of the other victims. Photographs of him a few years apart show a shocking physical decline, aging much quicker than he should, partly the result of government inflicted stress.

“Paul Reekie is definitely seen as the ‘one that got away’, probably the biggest talent in a gifted group of Edinburgh writers that emerged in the 90s, but the least known, and one whose influence on the others has only become more apparent through his absence.” – Irvine Welsh

Reekie’s output was tiny, but he just won’t go away. The name “Reekie” puts you in mind of the whole city, both Auld and “Neu”. In a tribute to Paul Reekie, Welsh wrote that it was not surprising how little Williamson got out of him, but how much. The fact that he had champions like these, and appeared in Children of Albion Rovers anthology alongside better known writers means he won’t just scarper off and fade away like certain forces wish he would. In fact, I’ve talked about him several times recently with various groups of people. I never got to meet Reekie, but I know of him through friends and acquaintances we had in common. And that is how the collective memory works.

A memorial event to him at the Book Festival turned into pleasant anarchy. In one corner you could see generic festival goers, who had obviously seen it “on the programme” and wondered what they’d stumbled on. In another football fans who may have never attended any other events there before or since. In another friends and relatives. And then on stage, writers who came all the way from Japan next to Leith characters. One minute it was poignant, with folk practically in tears. Then drunken football songs, which somehow managed to avoid sounding as tribal as they normally do. The staff themselves looked even more confused.

Paul Reekie may well have the last laugh. And I hope he does.

Update

Given that we had quite a few common acquaintances, and even friends, it’s amazing I don’t remember meeting Paul Reekie. Yet I’m coming to think that I probably did, at a Burns Supper at the former Postal Worker’s Union near London Road. Given that he was apparently sitting at a table with friends of mine, I must have spoken to him. Given that I remember relatively little of the proceedings, I must either blame the alcohol, early onset dementia, or some kind of extra-terrestrial encounter. (All of these are apparently common causes of memory loss.)

I find this kind of thing frustrating. I’ve met a good few writers through one thing and another. Still I would prefer to remember Paul Reekie, than my brief encounter with Robin Jenkins at a Waterstone’s book signing many years ago. I’ve never been able to bring myself to read any of Jenkins’ work since. A shame since Ionce enjoyed it!

Would a memory of Reekie have the same effect? Nah, I suspect something of himself came over in his work…

External links

The Paul Reekie Blog

This lost genius: The legacy of the late Scottish poet Paul Reekie

Claim welfare reforms drove writer Paul Reekie to suicide

Picture Credits

Glasgow Road (Thomas Nugent) / CC BY-SA 2.0
(Apologies, this is the best picture I could find. Some time I’ll try and replace it with one of the actual showroom – if people are interested!)

Elizabeth Gaskell (and the Screws)

Saughton Winter Gardens, rose garden.
Saughton Winter Gardens, rose garden.

The name “Saughton” is associated in many Edinburgh people’s minds with a prison. Seeing as the local winter gardens (pictured) are getting a revamp/refurb, you’d think this might be a good chance to commemorate the area’s connection with a famous English writer. I put out this idea in the consultation, but seemingly the council has little interest in doing so. (I’m always suspicious about a lot of these so called consultations, and suspect that they mainly serve to reinforce what was intended beforehand by the supposed consultants.)

Elizabeth Gaskell, née Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson (1810-1865), was a popular English novelist in the 19th century and is still read today. She’s best known for works such as Mary Barton ((1848) which I own as an audiobook!) and North and South (1854). The Reader’s Encyclopedia (1965) by Benét says:

“She is known for her depictions of English country life and for her pioneering studies of conflict between capital and labor in Victorian industrialism… friend of many literary figures in England, including Charlotte Brontë… and George Eliot whose work she influenced.”

Thus her social conscience puts her in the same bracket as Dickens, i.e. someone who fought to improve the disgusting conditions that the poor had to put up with at the time.

So what are Gaskell’s connections to Saughton?
Elizabeth_Gaskell
• Her father, William Stevenson farmed at Saughton Mains (mains being the Scots for a home farm). He too was a writer, and edited the Scots Magazine for a while.
• Her middle name, “Cleghorn”, probably relates to someone of that name in the area.
• Street names in the area such as Stevenson Road. (I am yet to verify the connection, but it’s likely.)
By the time Elizabeth was born, the family was living in England, but these are still three quite interesting links. Saughton also turns up in the work of Irvine Welsh. I shall post more on these subjects on due course.

So, like I say, it’s about time that Saughton was remembered for a bit more than “porridge”.

Place name stuff
• Saughton – The “saugh” bit rhymes with “loch”, and is Broad Scots for a willow tree (seileach in Gaelic).

• Balgreen – 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.

• 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.

Picture Credits

Rose gardens, Saughton Park Edinburgh (Jim Barton) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The picture of Elizabeth Gaskell originates on the German version of Wikipedia, and is public domain. The portrait was painted by George Richmond in 1851.

Hello world!

Test post.

This blog has been set up to promote western Edinburgh’s literary history. It’s not just a mass of boring houses, retail parks and charity shops, we’ve actually got history here too! We hear a lot about the writers of central Edinburgh, but not much about their connection to the suburbs.

If I can work out how to use it.

In the meantime, you can have a look at the blog of my friend, Alan Wilde –

https://alanwilde.wordpress.com/