A way of life overtaken by modern times

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THE narrow lanes and decrepit tenements, raggedy children on cobbled empty streets are captured forever in a series of fascinating images that show the port of Leith as it once was.

Now a bustling scene of regeneration, Leith of yesteryears is barely recognisable. A new exhibition compiled using images from the Central Library's Edinburgh Room reveals the port on the cusp of change – captured before massive redevelopment ripped apart crumbling slum homes and the picturesque Kirkgate shops, all paving the way for the high-rise flats and bustling business of today.

And, of course, the development of the port continues apace even now, with workers once more laying tram lines and a swathe of new buildings stretching from the waterfront to the city boundary.

The striking photographs have been sourced from extensive archives at the George IV Bridge library and digitally scanned.

A selection has been compiled into Leith Lives – A Photographic Portrait 1880-1930, running at Leith Library to herald the beginning of the library service's first Family History Week. Library officer Susan Varga says: "There are some fantastic photographs such as one showing workers laying the tram lines – rather ironic given what is happening today.

"But perhaps what is very striking is the faces of the people and in particular the children – they all look so happy and it shows you what a real community spirit there was there, something that may well have been lost when they pulled down all those old tenement homes."

Many of the images were taken by the city authority's own photographers, appointed to capture scenes of the Port before redevelopment in the early 20s. Whole streets were torn down, families who had lived side by side – many in discomfort and poverty – were rehoused, yet for many it meant a move away from Leith forever.

What's left are these grainy images revealing streets inhabited by gangs of barefooted children and the people of Leith going about their daily business. Others give a rounded picture of life in Leith showing the shops, schools and factories of the area.

"This was also fairly early days of photography, these photographers would be carrying around very heavy equipment and using extremely long exposures – so just getting the images was a feat in itself," adds Susan.

Among the most atmospheric results is a ghostly image of a deserted stretch at The Shore. Taken in 1884 it reveals the Water of Leith passing under a bridge with gas lamps leading into Constitution Street. An ornate building with a clock tower houses an art dealer and a wine and spirit merchant; huge sacks lie in the street between the shops.

"The long exposure time means that although the street looks deserted, carts and people would have been passing by – so you can just make out a ghostly kind of image of a cart in the foreground," Susan explains.

The photographs are among the first 1000 images contained within the Library's Edinburgh Room to find their way on to the internet. Dozens more are being added every month as part of a massive project aimed at transferring the entire 100,000 plus collection to the Capital Collections website.

The exhibition is part of Family History Week, a city-wide series of library-based events aimed at unravelling the mysteries of genealogy through talks by experts and exhibitions.

Leith Lives – A Photographic Portrait 1880-1930, is currently running at Leith Library. The venue is also hosting two events as part of Family History Week – an introduction to genealogy online and a Leith Local History Society event – "A street in time: Great Junction Street 1892". For more information go to www.edinburgh.gov.uk/familyhistory.