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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 103 - All at sea in a tidal wave of commercialism


WELL, shiver my reminiscent timbers and pour me some five-star recollection grog. The memory mist has lifted and I see myself as helmsman for a Docks’ Topics column in the old Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, tacking towards a Leith Docks-berthed, sea-stained, British coaster with a salt-caked crew.

All the romance of mercantile marine life was in my thoughts as I beat towards the bridge to interview the fine old sea dog of a captain who was glaring at me with the mien of Captain Bligh encountering the Bounty mutineers.

"You rascal," he bellowed in a voice doubtless honed by Cape Horn gales, "look at the deck."

I turned and saw on the newly-scrubbed planks, the dark outlines of my footsteps (I had walked across a partially-unloaded coal barge to board his vessel) which resembled foxtrot dance spoors in a Victor Sylvester ballroom instruction book.

"Get off my nice, clean ship," ordered the captain. He regarded me as something inimical to nautical life, like a weevil in a ship’s biscuit. I quickstepped briskly ashore.

When I go down to Leith these days to the occasional pub and the pie, where all I ask is a tall glass and a hand to steer it by, I tend to get the same feelings of that shipboard alienation as I view the docks’ area continually undergoing a land change into something developer-rich, investor-profitable but to an old Leith lover, strange, although doubtless inevitable.

As the old locals, sink their pint shanties, a modern chorus might go:

As I was a-walking down Commercial Street,

To me way hey, down the gin neat,

A handful of yuppies I happened to meet,

Haul out boys haul, a new expense sheet.

IT WOULD melodically acknowledge the relentless transformation of Leith Docks from an history-rich, commercial and industrial enclave into an architectural Xanadu and entrepreneurial Elysium.

For about a decade, the port, which was privatised in 1992, and owned by Forth Ports, has seen docks filled in and an upsurge of housing, hotels and seashore-chic restaurants, as well as a casino, the former royal pleasure boat, black-hulled and burnished Britannia, not to mention, but one must, the cavernous Ocean Terminal shopping mall.

By Golden Fleece- chasing Jason and Midas’s 24-carat touch, there is more to come. A recently-unveiled £2 billion, ten to 15 years’ plan of joint action by Forth Ports and the City of Edinburgh Council includes constructing of up to 18,000 homes, new schools, shops, bars, restaurants, a major "cultural icon" to rival Bilbao’s Guggenheim gallery, a new entertainment complex at Britannia Quay, new walk and cycleways and - is there no faltering of this visionary gleam? - water taxis and a park situated on an island.

All will create "a second New Town" as unlike traditional Leith in looks and character as the Empire State Building to a Mongolian yurt.

AND THE shipping? Oh that? Leith will stop functioning as an industrial port within five to ten years - freight operations are already being wound down, a termination that a Forth Ports’ spokesman insisted to me six years ago would not happen. Cruise liners, however, will still be accommodated. According to a company spokesman, present road links, with no direct access to a motorway, would not allow Leith to develop as a modern port.

So, a working port, steeped in history - Mary, Queen of Scots landed there, the ill-fated Darien Expedition sailed from Leith and adiposal George IV set foot on a quay - and once significant in Scotland’s industrial landscape, is set to be submerged in a tidal wave of entrepreneurism that tends to leave older Leithers marvelling at the commercial cornucopia, but with a feeling of "them and us".

As one who had often wandered around the docks - an access denied nowadays because of security considerations - and saw ships with far-away names from strange-sounding places and heard the hum of maritime Leith - I have much sympathy for those who regret the passing of this fine old port in favour of champagne commercialism.

Nevertheless, the imaginative enterprise and operational zest of Forth Ports and partners must be admired. Leith is boomtown-on-sea with some reclaimed land reputedly worth around £1 million an acre.

If some captain of commerce regarded me as a wandering weevil and shouted, "Get off my nice, expensive development", that would take the biscuit.


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