Steering its own course

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SHIP AHOY: A float in the parade in Duke Street during the Leith Pageant of 1954

THE name of Leith conjures up images of a bustling working-class dockyard. It is a part of Edinburgh that has its own distinctive character and is a place where there is a great deal of local pride.

But as locals will be quick to tell you, Leith was originally a separate burgh that only merged with Edinburgh in 1920, despite protests from locals who, in an unofficial referendum, showed they were five to one against the decision.

The Leith of today is a very different place to that of yesteryear when its shipbuilding industry thrived. That era ended when the last shipyard closed for business in 1984.

Henry Robb Shipyard - known to locals as Robb's - was one of the most important shipyards in Leith and a number of large warships were built for the Royal Navy during the Second World War. After shipbuilding was nationalised in 1977, business at Robb's steadily declined in the 1980s and, despite a protest march by 850 shipyard workers in 1983, the yard finally closed the following year.

Now instead of the hard working flat-capped dock workers there is a new set of Leithers which include the professionals who enjoy the many smart wine bars and restaurants which now flank the Shore.

But despite this modernisation, some things have not changed in Leith. Last week saw the 100th anniversary of the ten-day Leith festival, which will culminate in a colourful pageant today.

Year after year, the decorated floats have paraded down the streets of Leith for what is a vibrant and much anticipated event which was saved from folding in 2000 when businesses showed their support.

Leith is also no stranger to drama. When a car crashed into the Water of Leith in 1954, a crowd gathered to watch it being pulled out by a crane. Perhaps this was yet another opportunity for the community to do what it loves to do and gather together.

Another regular event which saw the community of Leith gathered together was the Leith Boys Brigade's Church Parade. The Battalion of 1959 would march along Great Junction Street past all the small family-owned shops, most of which are long gone in Leith today.

Gone too is Leith Central Station, the largest station built from scratch in Britain in the 20th century. The first train departed from there in 1903 and the station became the hub for industrial and passenger traffic for almost 50 years. Passenger services ceased in 1952 and the station was completely demolished in 1979. In its place now stands the Waterworld swimming pool and a Scotmid supermarket.

Leith has certainly been transformed over the years but it is perhaps a comfort that some buildings, such as the Kirkgate Church, have remained as a continued sign of Leith's rich heritage. And of course, more modern architecture, like the Scottish Executive headquarters, is also now a feature of the Leith skyline and this distinctive building has been there since the mid-1990s.

The area is also now attracting increasing numbers of tourists. Drawing the biggest number is the Royal Yacht Britannia, where four Royal couples, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana, spent their honeymoon. Docked outside Ocean Terminal, the historic ship certainly occupies a grander spot than the North Carr lightship in 1945.

The lightship was used for guiding Atlantic convoys into the Clyde during the Second World War in areas where it was impossible to place a fixed lighthouse. While it fell into disrepair in the post-war years, the ship was given a new lease of life three years ago when a 44,200 grant was awarded by the Heritage Lottery fund for its restoration.

Leith is thriving and, as the 100th anniversary of the Leith festival has demonstrated, it still has an enduring character.

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