A gentle woodland wander in the heart of Edinburgh; follow canal, river and railway to reach a childhood haunt of a famous Scottish author.
Distance: 4 miles
Start and Finish: Slateford Railway Station (NT 22370 71100)
Access: Certain rains between Edinburgh and Glasgow stop at Slateford. Buses 34, 35 and 44 stop nearby. Various parking options in the vicinity.
Part One: Towpaths and Trains
Leave Slateford station via quiet Meggetgate, then turn left as it joins Slateford Road. Climb the steps by the side of the viaduct to meet the Union Canal.
The Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal is a 32-mile long canal connecting Edinburgh in the East with Falkirk in the West, where it joins the Forth and Clyde Canal at the Falkirk Wheel. It fell into disuse with the rise of the railways, but was restored in the early 2000s and now forms part of many walks in the area, including the John Muir Way long distance trail.
At the top of the steps, turn right and follow the canal southwest. You may spot some of the wildlife that call the canal home, but take care for any cyclists that are liable to race past with little warning. The path is at its narrowest as it crosses the bridge high above the Water of Leith, where walkers must proceed in single file and there is little room to pass anyone coming in the opposite direction.
When you come to a footbridge that crosses the canal, climb the short flight of steps on your right and continue onto the other side of the water. You’re now following the course of the Balerno railway line, which once connected Balerno with the city centre via Slateford station.
The Balerno line opened in 1874 and soon became popular with tourists looking to make day trips away from the hustle and bustle of city life. As other forms of passenger travel emerged, the line eventually became used exclusively for freight until it closed completely in 1967. Now stripped of rails, it makes for a popular walking route as part of the Water of Leith Walkway.
Follow the path as it passes by a small residential area to enter the woodland gorge of Colinton Dell. The Water of Leith soon becomes visible below you to your left. The river once powered the many mills on the upper part of the river, including those that produced paper for Bank of Scotland bank notes and that produced the famous Scott’s Porridge Oats. It was these mills that necessitated the construction of the railway line. While the mills are long gone, their influence remains through the numerous weirs that alter the flow of the river.
As the railway approaches the end of the gorge, it passes through Colinton tunnel. Once poorly lit and covered in graffiti, the tunnel has seen a new lease of life as a local community group have been working to decorate it with a colourful mural depicting Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem From a Railway Carriage — although coming from this side means you’ll read the poem backwards.
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,Robert Louis Stevenson, From a Railway Carriage.
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
The tunnel emerges at the site of the former Colinton Station. Above the tunnel was the site of the former station master’s cottage, accessed by a steep flight of stairs known as Jacob’s Ladder. Continue through the station and, before you reach the road bridge, climb the steps on your right to enter Colinton.
The name of Colinton comes from the Gaelic Baile Cholgain, meaning village in the woods — having passed through the wooded dell, it’s easy to see why. Cross the bridge over the river, then bear left onto Spylaw Street. After crossing a smaller bridge, you’ll arrive at Colinton Parish Church.
A church has stood on the site of the current St Cuthbert’s Parish Church for 1,000 years. The original was founded by Ethelred, son of King Malcolm III, though the current structure dates to the early 20th Century.
Outside the church stands a statue of Robert Louis Stevenson as a child. The author would have spent much of his boyhood here visiting his grandfather, Lewis Balfour, who was once the minister. Given its proximity to the dell, perhaps he too found influence beneath the shade of its trees.
Note: At the time of writing in April 2020, the path to the dell after the Parish Church is closed due to a land slip. This route returns via the railway path in order to bypass the closed section.
Part Two: Down in the Dell
Retrace your steps back into the dell and through the railway tunnel (take the chance to read the poem the correct way this time!), then continue to follow the path above the river. Shortly after passing the second of two weirs, the path splits to lead down towards the river on your right (approx. NT 21660 70000). Follow the path here to reach a small stone bridge across the Water of Leith.
Now on the other side of the river, the path leads through the woods. By a small wooden footbridge stands a small stone grotto — these were built in the eighteenth century by Dr Alexander Monro to provide the visitors to his estate with a spot to stop and rest. The interior walls were once lined with shells, but today they are much more austere bare stone.
Continue to follow the path through the Dell until you reach Lanark Road. Across the road is the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, where you can find more information about the river and from where the Water of Leith Walkway continues on its way to the sea at Leith. Turn right and follow the road as it passes under the viaduct where you joined the Union Canal at the start of the walk, and from there back to Slateford Station and the terminus of the Balerno Line — and of today’s walk.