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Intoxicating Memories in Leith

A gentle linear walk along the Water of Leith to Edinburgh's ancient port, where claret once flowed in freely.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Wide riverside paths and city streets

Landscape Edinburgh's hidden waterway and revitalised port

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 350 Edinburgh

NT 243739NT 271766

Dog friendliness Can run free beside water, keep on lead in Leith

Parking Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road

Public toilets Near Stockbridge

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1 From the junction of the Dean Bridge and Queensferry Street, turn left to walk down Bell's Brae. You are now in the Dean Village, which dates back to 1128. It was once a milling centre and had 11 water mills producing all the meal for Edinburgh. At the bottom, turn right into Miller Row.

2 Follow this to walk under the impressive arches of the Dean Bridge, which was designed by Thomas Telford and opened in 1832. Your path then runs along the bottom of the steeply sided gorge, beside the Water of Leith, and feels extremely rural. You'll pass an old well on your left, followed by the more impressive St Bernard's Well.

3 St Bernard's Well was discovered by some schoolboys in 1760. The mineral water was said to have healing properties and, in 1789, the present Roman Temple was built, with Hygeia - the goddess of health - at the centre. From here continue along the main path, then go up the steps. Turn left, and go right on to Dean Terrace to reach Stockbridge.

4 Cross the road and go down the steps ahead - immediately to the right of the building with the clock tower. Continue to follow the path beside the river. Where the path ends, climb on to the road, turn left and then right to go down Arboretum Avenue.

5 Walk along this road, then turn right along the path marked Rocheid Path. This runs beside the river and is a popular cycleway and jogging path. Follow this, passing the backs of the Colonies - low-cost housing built by the Edinburgh Co-operative for artisans in the late 19th century. The idea was to provide houses in a healthy environment away from the dirt of the city. Walk to Tanfield Bridge.

6 Go right, over the bridge, go up the steps, then turn left, walking towards the clock tower. At the end turn left along Warriston Place, cross the road, then turn right down Warriston Crescent. This is lined with elegant town houses. Walk to the end where you'll reach the park.

7 Bear right, around the edge of the park, then follow the path as it bears uphill between trees. Turn left at the top and follow the cycle track marked 'Leith 1¼'. Follow this all the way into Leith, where it brings you out near the old Custom House. Bear right then left to walk along The Shore and explore the pubs, before returning to town by bus.

Visitors always forget to come to Leith, yet Edinburgh's ancient seaport is full of history. Even though the docks have been spruced up and become rather trendy, Leith retains an edgy, maritime atmosphere - like an old sea dog who'll spin you a yarn for a pint.

There has been a port at Leith, where the Water of Leith meets the Forth, from at least the 1st century ad when the Romans stored wine for their legions here. The port grew and by medieval times was facilitating valuable trade with France. Ships would leave loaded with dried local fish and return laden with wines, which were landed by the French monks of St Anthony who were based in Edinburgh. One of the main imports was claret, which they sold to wealthy people in the city. It rapidly became Scotland's national drink, whereas the most popular drink in England was port. One old verse sums up its popularity, beginning with the words: 'Guid claret best keeps out the cauld an drives awa the winter soon?' When cargoes arrived, some would be sent on a cart through Leith and anyone who fancied a sample simply turned up with a jug, which would be filled for 6d. It didn't seem to matter how large the jug was.

The quality of the claret imported and bottled in Leith was extremely good. One historian said it 'held in its day a cachet comparable to that which one now associates with Chateau bottled wines.' Claret drinking was seen as a symbol of Scotland's national identity and Jacobites drank it as a symbol of independence.

During the 18th century the British government, determined to price this French drink out of the market, raised taxes on claret. Inevitably traders began to smuggle it into Scotland instead. It was only in the 19th century that claret drinking declined when taxes rose and the Napoleonic Wars made it scarce. While Leith claret was still drunk by the wealthiest people, whisky (a drink from the Highlands) took its place as the people's pick-me-up, going from strength to strength to reach its present state of popularity.

The Port of Leith continued to grow in importance and it was from here, in 1698, that the ill-fated Darien expedition set sail, a venture that was eventually to cost Scotland her independence. The intention was to establish a permanent colony at Darien on the Isthmus of Panama. It cost £400,000 to fund, but it was thought that the venture would give Scotland control of a potentially lucrative trading route. However the terrain was hostile and the colonists rapidly died. The Scottish economy was plunged into crisis and the country was pushed inexorably towards union with England.

What to look for

Leith Links is said to be the real home of golf. The rules of the game were established here, only later being formalised at St Andrews. Golf has been played here since the 15th century. In 1641 Charles I was whiling away his time with a round or two when he received the news of the Irish Rebellion.

While you're there

The former Royal Yacht Britannia is moored at Ocean Drive in Leith. It was launched in 1953 and served the Royal Family until 1997, acting as a floating palace and holiday home. Charles and Diana spent part of their honeymoon on the yacht, and the Queen entertained everyone from Bill Clinton to Nelson Mandela. You can go on board the ship and see the apartments - including the Queen's bedroom, which is surprisingly low key.

Where to eat and drink

Newly gentrified Leith is full of bars and restaurants, many of which are ranged along the water's edge. You can get anything from fish to curry. On sunny days you can sit outside and relax. The oldest pub of all is the King's Wark, which is full of atmosphere and serves good food. Also worth trying is The Shore, a lovely old bar with a separate fish restaurant.

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