How Music and Community Breathed New Life Into Leith

Leith Walk c. 2012
Leith Walk c. 2012 | © John Lord/Geograph
Harry Harris

It’s no surprise that the Pianodrome found a home in Edinburgh’s Leith neighbourhood. An amphitheatre made from disused pianos that would otherwise have been burnt, it is the latest venture to exemplify the port’s motto: persevere.

Wherever you happen to be walking in Leith, chances are you’ll see a reference to the area’s motto: persevere. On the side of Easter Road, a photo of David Gray and Lewis Stevenson hoisting up Hibernian’s first League Cup in 114 years: persevere. Further on down that road, there’s The Persevere pub, known locally as The Percy. Look up at the old buildings along Great Junction Street, down Henderson Street and toward the Shore, and you’ll see Leith’s coat of arms above the same word: persevere.

The post-war decline of traditional industries in Leith such as shipbuilding and the glassworks led to severe economic deprivation, which in turn led to much of the population migrating to new estates on the city’s edges, leaving tenements and other buildings derelict and in desperate need of repair.

In the 1980s, a process of renewal began. Disused warehouses became office spaces. Traditional boozers started going more upmarket. The Royal Yacht Britannia arrived in the 1990s, the Ocean Terminal shopping centre in 2001, and those old tenements were refurbished and inhabited by a new generation.

How Steads Place became the battleground for local businesses

The manifestation of that process in the 21st century is a Leith that has fostered a strong artistic community. There are the tentpole names whose work has become emblematic of the area, such as The Proclaimers, whose song ‘Sunshine On Leith’ rings out from Easter Road on a match day, and the writer Irvine Welsh, who brought global attention to the area with his novel Trainspotting in the ‘90s.

But the success of these big names has led to a thriving grassroots scene too. It’s in this scene where perhaps we most strongly see that spirit of perseverance living on, epitomised by the recent campaign to Save Leith Walk.

The heart of Leith

Leith Walk is the main artery that connects the centre of Edinburgh with the port of Leith. About halfway down stands Steads Place, a row of buildings that have come to symbolise Leith’s future. Once home to several businesses, the only one that remains is Leith Depot, a pub and music venue that opened in 2015. You can get a pint for under £4, the food is good and reasonably priced, and you can watch gigs from local musicians putting something on off their own back.

Leith Depot’s former neighbouring businesses – a carpet shop, a family-run Indian restaurant, a café – are all shuttered by Drum Property Group who earmarked the sites for student flats. The Save Leith Walk campaign was born in 2018 from a desire to keep these businesses alive, with Leith Depot the centre of it.

If the campaigners needed inspiration for how grassroots community activism can work to save a beloved arts space from the hands of property developers, they wouldn’t have had to look far. In 2004, plans were underway to turn the old Leith Theatre, which stands at the foot of Ferry Road (less than a mile from Leith Depot) into flats. The theatre, originally a gift from the city of Edinburgh to Leith after a decision in 1920 to amalgamate the two previously separate boroughs, had been closed since 1988. The community had other ideas, and the Leith Theatre Trust was duly set up. The trust has since refurbished the theatre, bringing it back into use.

Community efforts and community rewards

During Pianodrome’s month-long residency at the venue between November and December in 2019, they hosted the Pianodrome Resonancy, a programme inviting artists to develop new work using the space.

One performer who benefitted from the Pianodrome was Caro Bridges, a musician, community choir leader and member of Leith’s artistic community, who used the time to develop a solo theatre piece, The Scientist & The Siren. “I was influenced by having seen [the Pianodrome] in action, thinking about work that happens in the round, the really unique way that you as an artist get to connect with audiences.”

Bridges was one of many musicians to take part in the residency programme. He observes how the nature of the space, an amphitheatre made entirely of pianos, fostered its own artistic community: “I’m very confident [at] working with other people to help them realise their creative ideas, but to actually step into the space of creating a show, I don’t think I’d have done it if I didn’t have that community.”

2020 could be a pivotal year for Leith and the arts. The Leith Theatre Trust’s lease of the building comes to an end at the end of the year, having been granted in 2016.

Having prevented the demolition of Steads Place, the campaign to Save Leith Walk has now set its sights on bringing the site into community ownership. But with many of the buildings still owned by Drum Property Group, they’ve got a long way to go.

These three venues tell the tale of the borough – its community, its businesses and its artists. But what Leith Depot, Leith Theatre and The Pianodrome really represent is the spirit of Leith; because what else is there to do but persevere?

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