Take a tour of Leith's iconic history mural with artist Paul Grime

FOR 34 years, through rain shine and snow, Leith’s History Mural, on the gable end of a tenement at the corner of Ferry Road and North Junction Street, has dominated what was once the approach to the port’s bustling heart.

By Liam Rudden
Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 29th September 2020, 2:26 pm
Leith History Mural by Tim Chalk and Paul Grime
Leith History Mural by Tim Chalk and Paul Grime

Painted by Tim Chalk and Paul Grime over four months in 1986, the iconic work is now as much a part of Leith’s history as the snapshots of life it depicts. As it is currently being brought to life each evening through a series of projections as part of the Leith 100 celebrations, co-creator Paul Grime is happy to cast his mind back to take us on a tour of the mural, panel by panel.

First though, he recalls the origins of the piece. "In 1986 we got together with members of the Leith History Project to talk about the industrial and social history of the area in order to extract the things that they saw as important to Leith.”

From those first meetings to adding the last brush stroke, the mural took nearly two years to realise. Today, it remains an impressive sight although, as Paul acknowledges, time has taken its toll on some panels.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“Quite a lot of the mural on the left hand side is rather faded now and there is not much to see,” says Paul. “It's a bit sad to see but at the same time it was painted 34 years ago. That there is still something there is quite impressive in a way.”

He explains, “It was supposed to last for much longer but there were technical problems with the render that was put on that we thought we'd sorted, but I'm not sure we did. There's also a lot of atmospheric pollution and as it's pretty much south facing, getting all the UV that there is; the sunshine during the day is generally hitting the mural, which has faded out some colours. You'll find that reds will disappear quicker than any other colour when there's a lot of UV, but there is still a lot to see.”

Beginning the tour with those panels to the left of the main gable end, Paul says, “Those four panels are all pretty much faded away. One depicted a football match in a back-green. To the right of that was a boxing match, some kids with a home-made go kart and somebody doing the Highland Fling, so a bit of community life against a backdrop of tenements.

“Then we have a scene showing a bit of night life. There's a dance, a couple of women by a pram, a policeman and street games going on and then, as we approach the main block, there's the Leith Pageant, which was a fund-raiser for Leith Hospital in the days before the NHS – there was also a person lying in an infirmary bed with a nurse in that panel, but these sections are in a pretty poor state now."

Moving to the main image, the artist points out, “In the next panel, the first of the main body of the work, we see a naval architect designing a boat and just to the right of the table is a protest march from when they were trying to save Henry Robb's shipbuilders – people taking action to save jobs."

For generations Henry Robb’s was one of the port’s biggest employers and the impact it had on the community emphasised by the fact that it is featured more than once in the mural.

Moving anti-clockwise from the protest march, the early gentrification of industrial Leith is captured in a panel which depicts a flitting and a couple sitting in a wine bar.

"We were trying to look to the future in that one, people moving in, offices, a wine bar. There's a derelict building and new high-rises,” recalls Paul, adding, “Then, the panel to the very right of that is, in a way, where the mural finishes, it's like a big jigsaw piece, trying to slot in a vision of the future into the history of the past.”

Above that jigsaw piece, that history continues to be told in a panel that shows a political rally at the Fit o’ The Walk, the Kirkgate’s Queen Victoria statue gazing down on a red union banner.

"It's about political action, trade union action, a stirring left-wing rally reflecting the strong politics of Leith at the time,” confirms Paul. “There’s quite a lot going on there, we've also got a rowdy Friday/Saturday night street scene. You can just see a drunk being taken away in a barrel, and a poster for the Gaiety Theatre - a reflection of letting your hair down at the weekend.

“Next we see dockers waiting at the dock gates to see if they have any employment for the day, then a guy with his docking hook and a woman involved in the industry and then, continuing anti-clockwise, you've got a boat in the docks.

"The whole top of the mural ends with a view looking out over the Firth of Forth and then an image of men carrying heavy loads on their backs, people on the cobbles stones at the dockside, a trolley and below that a woman rubbing balm into the back of her docker husband - this was a particular memory of one of the group who remembered his mother doing this for his father after he’d spent a shift lifting bags that were two-hundred weight.”

Leith’s famous blue swing bridge is also represented, just one of the many memories incorporated into the complex design. Explaining how they decided what to include, Paul recalls, “After the first meetings my colleague Tim would draft something out so we had a big plan of the piece. We would take that back to the group and see how they felt about it. Gradually he built up that finished design.”

The next panel, capturing a scene in which a man appears to handing over a house to a family, is now a bit of a mystery to him, admits the artist.

"The guy with the house has a hat on and below that is a depiction of family life with children playing in the street, a mix of social and family life, the only thing I can think of is that it is about Friendly Societies, but it was 34 years ago and I really can't remember.”

To the left of that screen, a large propeller brings us back to Henry Robb’s. “It's a boat being constructed and, with the propeller on, it is near to launch.”

Further left still, kilted soldiers stand in honour of the victims of the Gretna rail disaster of 1915, in which soldiers from the territorial 1/7th (Leith) Battalion, the Royal Scots were killed as they were heading for Gallipoli.

“It is a remembrance of the funeral procession after the Gretna disaster, that whole section is a rather sombre scene,” says Paul quietly, as we end our tour of the work.

He adds, “What we depicted there, in 1986, are the things that were still strong in people's memories at the time. We were just coming to the end of ship-building, the docks were changing, there was gentrification going on, the SDA [Scottish Development Agency] who funded the mural were instrumental in trying to upgrade certain areas and bring in different types of business, so it is a reflection of that time.

“When we were creating it, this was the last significant mural of any size that we worked on, so there was a definite attempt to make something that would last, what we didn't anticipate was that it would become a piece of celebrated art in the way that it has. It is very gratifying.”

With the mural currently being brought to life by Leith Late and Double-Take Projections, Paul is candid when asked if anything can be done to restore the panels that have suffered the most wear and tear.

“There is some talk of what might happen to the mural now in terms of preserving it, restoring it, or whatever,” he reveals. “So there is talk of redoing the areas that are quite badly faded. Rather than restoring them, the question might be should they be redone in a way that talks about what is happening in the Leith of now and in the future. I think that would be quite exciting and support the idea to keep the mural alive, not by slavishly copying what was there before, but by adapting it to current cultural concerns and ideas.”

Light-Up Leith History Mural runs until Sunday 4 October, 8pm-10pm, free but ticketed

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

The dramatic events of 2020 are having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive. We are now more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription to support our journalism.

Subscribe to the Edinburgh Evening News online and enjoy unlimited access to trusted, fact-checked news and sport from Edinburgh and the Lothians. Visit https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.

By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Joy Yates