All things must pass after all be it for the better or the worse, change has to happen.
|Old Leith from the ediburghs-war.ed.ac.uk website|
As Time Goes by: the Changing Face of Leith’s Shoreline
Although the shipbuilding traditions of Leith Docks generally resides in the shadow of the traditions of the Clyde, the East Coast shipyard has just as proud a history that is as much a backdrop to north Edinburgh’s present as it ever has been in the past. Initially a hub of the British Empire’s wine trade, secondly a world power in steamship construction and now, as Leith rises out of the more home-grown shadow cast by the so-called ‘trainspotting generation’ of the 90s, the shipyard’s image is once again being reimagined as an important, iconic reminder of Leith’s history and a symbol of Scottish growth and prosperity.
Leith Shipyard’s Proudest Moment
Perhaps the proudest moment in the history of the shipyard's of Leith at the old Menzies yard on the Water of Leith was the construction of the legendary steam boat, Sirius. Built at Leith in 1837, the Sirius was intended to run the London to Cork route for the Saint George Steam Packet Company. However, proving itself early on to be a masterpiece of craftsmanship, the Sirius was chartered to cross the Atlantic by the British and American Steam Navigation Company. By arriving in New York a day ahead of the Great Western, a ship designed by none other than the great industrialist Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Sirius became the first steamship to make the Atlantic crossing. Legend has it that in the last two days of the 18 day crossing, the Sirius ran out of coal and had to be powered by timber and resin. 
Nearly 200 years on, the achievements of the Leithers that built the Sirius are still talked about in the pubs on the Walk and the stands of Easter Road to this day, highlighting the reverberation of spirit and community that the shipyard inspires.
Leith Docks and the Wine Trade
Long before paddle steamers, the port at Leith was one of the UK’s great trading ports, and though many of the later problems that were associated with the ‘trainspotting generation’ came from alcohol, the alcohol trade was a key factor for the areas early growth. As early as the twelfth century, all the wine for the Stuart kings that resided at Holyrood palace was brought in through Leith Docks and in the days of Mary Queen of Scots, the famous French wines that she became fond of during her time there were imported through Leith. This trade increased over the next 200 years and Sherry from Spain and Port from Portugal were added to the haul.
Leith became one of the biggest importers of the finest qualities of wine in the whole of the United Kingdom. The mass storage of wine in Leith was even noted by Sir Walter Scott who talks of coopering (the art of barrelling alcohol for storage) at Leith’s docks:
“Peter Puncheon that was cooper to the queen’s stores at the Timmer Burse (or Timber Bush) at Leith.”
By the Time of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the early 17th century, the list of wines coming into Leith included claret, burgundy, champagne, sherry, port and even some wines from as far afield as Australia.  With the export of whisky and the import of wine you could well say that Leith’s was built on alcohol, and though that might have been a proud thing to say a couple of hundred years ago, it could well be a source of shame given the recent stereotype of the area that came out of the 90s.
The More Recent History of the Leith Shipyard
The shipyards recent image was summed up in the Proclaimer’s music video for ‘Letter from America’ in 1987, lamenting the closure of industry across Scotland and the migration of once proud industrial workers to America and Canada in search of work. In the video, Henry Robb’s Shipyard, once a bustling hive of activity, looms over Leith, rendered desolate by mass unemployment and the destruction of industry. Though still a symbol of community pride, that pride was slipping as alcoholism and drug abuse began to tarnish the reputation of the region leading to the stain of the character of the ‘trainspotting generation’ of the 90s. The young heroin addicts that Irvine Welsh’s bestselling novel is based on were the sons and daughters of proud shipbuilders at the Henry Robb yards, the unemployment of the closure of industry, coupled with Leith’s history of importing opiates led to this near epidemic. Aida Edemariam and Kirsty Scott recently pointed out that this generation, though now in their forties, are still dying younger than their peers from other parts of the UK. 
Released in 1993, the harrowing story of Trainspotting drew attention to the drug and alcohol problems that were rampant in Edinburgh , and in particular Leith at this time and the derelict Shipyards became a depressing symbol of this social degredation.
Back on track
Though this generation changed the image of the shipyard throughout the 90s to one of decay, in the last decade it has managed to brush its self off and rise like a phoenix from the flames again. With world class drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres and community groups  helping more and more people with problems of addiction back to their feet the problem is beginning to show signs of decline.  Alcohol abuse, though still a problem across all Scotland, is under some degree of control and the Leith shoreline is home to modern gastro-pubs, restaurants and wine bars that are using alcohol to restore a pride to the shipyards more reminiscent of the booming times of the alcohol trade in the 17th century.
Looking to the future of Leith Docks
With new industries in computer software design and a solid reputation as an area for the burgeoning industry of game design, employment is beginning to creep back into the area. As well as the government building at Victoria Quay,  Leith Docks are also managing to keep the proud maritime traditions going by earning a strong reputation as a supporting dock for offshore development and acting as an important destination for the northern European cruise industry.  After a difficult few decades, the shipyards at Leith are once again becoming a modern icon of regeneration and pride.
- "Sirius." Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed on 20/07/2014, http://www.
- "The Story of Leith," Electric Scotland, accessed on 20/07/2014, http://www.
- Aida Edemariam and Kirsty Scott, "What Happened to the Trainspotting Generation?" The Guardian online, August 15 2009, accessed 20/07/2014, http://www.
theguardian.com/society/2009/ aug/15/scotland-trainspotting- generation-dying-fact
- "Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse," Helpguide Scotland, Accessed on 20/07/2014, http://www.
helpguide.org/mental/alcohol_ abuse_alcoholism_signs_ effects_treatment.htm
- "Turning Point Leith," Turning Point, accessed on 20/07/2014, http://www.
turningpointscotland.com/what- we-do/substance-misuse/ turning-point-leith/
- "Treatment Programs for Alcohol Abuse," Treatment4Addiction, accessed on 20/07/2014, http://www.
- "Victoria Quay," The Scottish Government, accessed on 20/07/2014, http://www.
- "Port of Leith," Forth Ports, accessed on 20/07/2014, http://www.
This more modern photograph is from 2011 and not so much has changed really as far as the architectural look of the Shore anyway.
Find all the books you will ever need at the E-Library Ships and the Sea