Much of old Leith may be gone but photographers have helped preserve the memories – Steve Cardownie

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Reading about artist Paul Duke’s exhibition, “No Ruined Stone” (currently on at The City Art Centre in Market Street), featuring 38 large black and white photographs of the city housing scheme Muirhouse, where he lived from the mid-60s to the 80s, I was reminded of the time when I spent a pleasant couple of hours at a small exhibition currently housed in the former Debenham’s store at Ocean Terminal admiring black and white photographs of Leith and Newhaven.

Born in a tenement flat in Burlington Street before moving to Cannon Street at the age of four, many of the images were familiar to me and brought back childhood memories which had, until then, faded and I am sure that fellow Leithers of a similar age will no doubt also be reminded of their formative years in ‘Sunny Leith’, if they pay a visit to this modest exhibition.

I well remember attending Fort Street Primary School before moving on to Leith Academy and, somewhat surprisingly, I still bump into former fellow pupils when meandering along Great Junction Street. Of course, life was somewhat tougher then, inside toilets were a luxury and a tin bath in front of the fire was the order of the day. But before I sound like the well-worn Monty Python Sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball, I should add that living and growing up in Leith was a boon and not a drawback.

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Of course, there were hardships to be endured and life expectancy was shorter than it is today, but that was just how it was back then. For instance, my father, Archie, died at the age of 55 of a heart attack. After serving in the Royal Navy during the war, he returned home to work on building sites in and around Edinburgh and the United Wire Works in Granton. A long-term smoker of Capstan full-strength and Senior Service, he unfortunately paid the ultimate price. His daily piece of two cold Mason’s mince pies only added fuel to the fire but a healthy lifestyle was not a major concern then and many of his workmates suffered a similar fate.

Girls playing skipping ropes in Lapicide Place, Leith, in August 1957Girls playing skipping ropes in Lapicide Place, Leith, in August 1957
Girls playing skipping ropes in Lapicide Place, Leith, in August 1957

“Greasy spoon” cafes and pubs were in abundance at the time, and I well remember dockers in Leith spilling through the gates at 5pm, making a beeline for The Station Bar across the road to enjoy a well-earned few drinks, some lingering until “last orders” were called just before 10 and the “walk hame” beckoned.

Of course, much has changed in Leith since then and it bears little resemblance to the town of my youth. But as time marches on and as people’s expectations change about what the standard of life in a thriving port in modern-day Scotland should be, it was perhaps inevitable that the character and face of Leith and Newhaven would be affected.

However, the exhibitions’ featuring of scenes when lives were lived to the full and communities were strong and commonplace before they were lost to the bull-dozer and wrecking ball should be prized as a testament to our past. They are well worth a visit.

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