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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Ghosts, UFOs and other such things

pubsignThe one, and possibly only, Samhainn post.

An old area always has ghosts. The White Lady is the most famous local one – giving her name to a local pub. She is said to roam the area around Saughton Road North and Dovecot Road. Despite having walked, run, cycled and driven these roads, at all hours of the day, for a number of years I have never seen her. You’re more likely to see the Legless Drunkman of a night. I suspect she’s a bit shy, and appreciates neither the bright orange street lighting nor the twenty four hour traffic of the modern age.

Her tale is a run-of-the-mill ghost story. According to the sign on the pub, it is “named after Lady Christian Nimmo, known as ‘the White Lady’, who killed her lover, James, Lord Forrester, in August 1679, with his own sword. On the day of her execution, she wore a white hooded gown [as one does]. It is said that the ghost of the White Lady could be seen under the sycamore tree where the murder took place.”

The sycamore is no more. But its leaf has become a kind of a logo for Corstorphine.

According to some people it was supposed to be a cross-class relationship, so I doubt whether it would have worked out. (Which would mean Christian Nimmo was not a “Lady” but a “lady”, if you get my meaning). Other people say she was married, and others that she was his niece! Like a lot of ghost stories, one gets a sense of “haven’t I heard this somewhere before?” and you’ll hear the same kind of thing up and down the country.

The Forresters were actually a very dull family, and this ghost story is one of the few stories of interest about them. Despite this, they gave their name to Forrester Road, and a couple of miles away, an area called locally “Forresters” (home to Diane in Trainspotting no less), which in turn is next to Forrester High School.

Sculpture in the White Lady
Sculpture in the White Lady

Old Corstorphine does indeed seem to be doomed to destruction. The old castle got knocked down, leaving behind the doocot, and the Dower House. The sycamore whose leaf can be seen on railings around the area was blown down some years ago. Many of the old graves in the old kirkyard have been smashed up and flattened by the council. And of course the CYCC is now a burnt out shell. (I could list various other commercial and architectural mistakes in the area, particularly on St John’s Road!)

In some cultures, the desecration of graves (whether for “safety” or not) would be considered enough to bring down a curse on an area, and would explain such events.On one of the few occasions I’ve actually been inside Corstorphine Kirk, it rained tiny bits of plaster dust every time the organ was played. I had to brush my shoulders and scalp every few minutes as if I had a severe case of dandruff. No idea whether this problem has been fixed or not, but it was not endearing. I can’t imagine this makes the local spirits happy either.

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The Lady Well, to be found to the back of Dunsmuir Court.

Ladywell House, and the streets nearby, take their name from an old holy well (pictured). It’s hidden behind a small council estate, but to be honest, there isn’t much to see anymore. Featherhall may also take its name from this water source. The lady in question here is the Virgin Mary, and presumably before that some local pagan deity.

But if you want genuinely eerie – try Corstorphine Hill in the dark. The street lighting peters out there, and the trees close in…There are many rumours of sinister nocturnal ceremonies up there. The hill also features in a book on Scottish UFOs – and eldritch lights and objects continue to be seen up that way by various people. But it is worth mentioning the flight path to Edinburgh Airport does pass near there. Just as creepy – and in this case indisputable – is the former nuclear bunker to be found on its northern slope, now masquerading as a roads depot. It has, however, gained a bit more notoriety in recent years – and I include a link about it below. It features in one of Charles Stross’ novel, Rule 34.

Further Reading

  • Ron Halliday – UFO Scotland (discusses Corstorphine Hill etc)
  • Charles Stross – Rule 34 (novel featuring nuclear base and Clermiston)
  • Sue Walker – The Burning (novel set around the area of Dovecot Road)

Links

A Cuddie and an Ass

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Robert Cuddie (1821-1876) was a minor poet – more unkind folk might say poetaster – from Corstorphine. His work is mainly of local interest and published posthumously in 1878. I have been unable to track down any of his collections, and the only reason I know of him in the first place is that he gets a mention in several of the local history books.

His poems include The Corstorphine Games, and The Rival Bellman. Cuddie worked locally as a postman taking letters from Corstorphine up to Gogar. He also worked in the local library. I believe he still has relatives in the area.

When someone once made fun of his name, his retort was:
Though baith the twa o them are in
A rather stupid class:
A line micht still be drawn atween
A Cuddie and an Ass.

“Cuddie” is a nickname for a donkey, due to their pre-Reformation connection with St Cuthbert. “Cuddie” is also used to refer to racehorses, either in irony or in ignorance. The name “Cuddie Lane” (and variants) is often used for narrow roads and can be found in suburbs such as Colinton and Morningside.

As a point of interest, it shows that Broad Scots was still in strong use in the 19th century in Corstorphine, not something that can be said today.And just because we’re all Americanised now, don’tassume “ass” here means someone’s backside.

The Rival Bellman is about a spat between the ringers of Corstorphine Church and what is now the United Reformed Church.

Sadly, Cuddie seems to be one of the few Corstorphine poets to be noticed in the local history books. More’s the pity, since he’s not the best. Helen Cruickshank is much better, and underrated. She gets some attention in some of these books at least. William Neill – perhaps more South Gyle – is also much better and doesn’t get mentioned at all AFAIK. Both Cruickshank and Neill wrote in Scots – Cruickshank in the dialect of Montrose, and Neill in that of South Ayrshire and Galloway. Unlike them, perhaps, Cuddie was local born and bred.

Place name stuff

A few of the old street names in western Edinburgh are preserved intact, such as Kirk Loan (church lane), but most are semi-Anglicized, such as

* the Paddockholm (i.e. Puddock Holm, frog marsh/island), the location of the old Corstorphine railway station.

* Redheughs (Reid Heughs), in South Gyle, former HQ of the Royal Bank, before they went to Gogarburn.

Others have been completely anglicised, such as Dovecot (Doocot) Road and Coltbridge (originally Coltbrig). Bucking the trend, some modern developments have made an effort to use Scots elements e.g. East Craigs(rocks/cliffs), South Gyle Mains(home farm), Gogarloch Syke and Hill Park Brae(slope/hill). However, it is questionable how many younger locals would know what any of these terms mean. Many Edinburgh folk have started to pronounce “loch” as “lock” in the last decade or two, so would probably say Cuddie’s “micht” as “mict” or “might”. A number seem perplexed by the likes of “haugh” or “heugh”. These are words that appear in local place names, and were used by ordinary people in the Lothians for centuries. That is, until the BBC came along, and so called “education” – both of which have worked hard to destroy Scottish culture deliberately, and largely succeeded.

Picture credits

Church of St John the Baptist (M J Richardson) / CC BY-SA 2.0