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