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"Trams to Newhaven": Scottish Region Outing on saturday 18 November 2023

The £200M Edinburgh Trams 3-mile extension to Newhaven which opened on 7 June with eight new or relocated stops proved ideal for an adventure in Leith because it enabled us to hop of and on for visits to various fascinating locations.

Essential purchases in Harburn Hobbies, Scotland's best-known model railway shopd

Essential purchases in Harburn Hobbies, Scotland's best-known model railway shop!

© John Yellowlees, 2023.

Our visit began improbably when we found ourselves sharing the platform at the St. Andrew Square tramstop with a former Secretary of State for Transport Douglas Alexander, but he looked preoccupied with restarting his political career so we didn't trouble him.

First feature of note on our journey was the relocated statue of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle near his birthplace at Picardy Place whose reinstatement marked completion of the Newhaven project.

Our first stop was at McDonald Road where the new tramstop is just opposite Harburn Hobbies, Scotland's best-known model railway shop which prompted a few essential purchases.

At Iona Street we admired a spectacular piece of public art, recently-reinstated pulley-wheels which commemorate the Pilrig Muddle. An interpretive panel recalls that although Edinburgh and Leith had been connected by horse-drawn trams since the 1870s, Leith Burgh Council decided not to join Edinburgh's cable-tram system.

Instead in 1905 Leith pioneered electric traction under the Leith Corporation Tramways. However, the use of two different tram systems meant that passengers travelling between Leith and Edinburgh would have to change tramcars at the Leith Walk/Pilrig Street junction. Known as the Pilrig Muddle, this lasted until 1922 when the route became fully electric allowing passengers to travel without having to change.

Then it was into the heart of Leith's ancestral railways. A 1930s property development by the London Midland and Scottish Railway in front of the old Leith Walk West Goods Depot has recently been refurbished and named after its distinctive building material The Red Sandstone. At its end can be seen the stone abutments of a girder bridge that once carried the Caledonian Railway's ill-fated Leith New Lines which owing to tramway competition never opened to passengers.

Arches of the adjoining viaducts have however found new uses for example as an Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue, and nearby we visited one of the taprooms for which Leith is becoming noted. Then we passed the clocktower and prominent façade of another white elephant, the rival North British Railway's Leith Central Station, opened in 1903 and closed in 1952 for conversion to a diesel depot, after which in dereliction it hosted the drug-taking that gave rise to the title of the film Trainspotting.

The tram journey alongside the Port of Leith enabled us to see the former lighthouse service ship MV Fingal, now a luxury floating hotel, and the Victoria Swingbridge which is at present under restoration by Forth Ports. Glimpsing the former Royal Yacht Britannia at the rear of the Ocean Terminal shopping centre, we made a quick turnround at the Newhaven terminus to head back to the Port of Leith, where we strolled past a sculpture of local lad John Hunter, Governor of New South Wales from 1795 to 1800. A harpoon-gun mounted nearby commemorates the whaling industry and a panel recalls Christian Salveson, who had sailed to Scotland from Norway in 1851.

The end of the Journey at Newhaven!d

The end of the Journey at Newhaven!

© John Yellowlees, 2023.

Together with his sons, he built on his experience of running cargo ships to expand into whaling. Their main fleet hunted the cold seas of the Antarctic, but had a link to home: the land base on South Georgia was called Leith Harbour, which was active until the company ended its whaling business in the 1960s (but would achieve fame in the run-up to the Falklands War of 1982).

Christian Salveson moved on from shipping, and today concentrates on logistics, managing an international supply chain of a wide range of goods and materials: in 1997 the company's links with Leith finally ended as its corporate headquarters moved to Northampton. Lorries instead of ships now carry the Salveson logo, but the harpoon-gun is a reminder of where it all started.

Another taproom claimed our attention. Then behind another former North British railway terminus North Leith, that closed in 1947 (but survived as a boys' club), we found a vaulted trance which is all that remains of the Citadel built in 1656 by Cromwell's troops to regulate the port traffic. From there it was a short walk to The Shore and the tram back to the city-centre.

Report and photographs by John Yellowlees.

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