Edinburgh may not have the Thames or the Clyde, but it does have a fine river all of its own if you know where to look. Join me on a walk along the Water of Leith, taking in the sights of this hidden pathway through the heart of the city.
Distance: 13 miles
Start: Bridge Road, Balerno (NT 16345 66855)
Finish: The Shore, Leith (NT 27150 76725)
Access: Bus 44 from Edinburgh stops at Balerno. From Leith, a number of buses can be taken to return to the city centre.
The Water of Leith emerges from its source in the Pentland hills and eventually reaches the sea at the bustling docks at Leith. On its way it passes through the heart of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. Though too small for boats, the river has played an important part in Edinburgh’s industrial history by powering the many mills that once lined its banks.
This walk mostly follows the Water of Leith Walkway, which is maintained by The Water of Leith Conservation Trust – check their website for updates on path closures. I’ve included a few diversions here and there to visit some of the sights that you might miss along the way.
Given the large number of points of interest on this walk, I’ve split it into three parts:
Part One: Balerno to Slateford, 5 miles
Part Two: Slateford to Stockbridge, 4 1/2 miles
Part Three: Stockbridge to Leith, 3 1/2 miles
You can move between each part by clicking the links above, or by using the numbers at the bottom of each page.
Part One: From Balerno to Slateford
You’ll start the walk in the Balerno, a commuter suburb to the south-west of Edinburgh. Balerno was once a small farming town on the edge of the Pentlands, but its importance grew with the development of nearby mills that were powered by the river.
From Bridge Road, you can join a path that takes you down to the water. You’ll know you’re in the right place as there’s a long metal relief of the river set into the ground in front of you; by passing the relief here, you can say with a smile that you’ve walked the length of the Water of Leith twice in one day!
As you might have guessed by now, the walk doesn’t actually take in the whole length of the river – its source is around 13 miles to the south in the hills beyond the Haperrig reservoir.
Follow the path past Graham’s Garden, which was built in memory of Dr Graham Priestly. Dr Priestly was one of the founders of The Water of Leith Conservation Trust, who look after the river and take care of the path we’ll be using for much of today’s walk. After continuing along a tree-lined avenue, you’ll soon find yourself high above the river.
You’re now following the course of a branch line of the old Caledonian Railway. This line opened in 1874 and connected the then-bustling town of Balerno with the main line at Slateford. With the decline of the mills that it once served, the line was closed in 1967. You won’t have to worry about meeting any trains today, but with picturesque views and tranquil scenery, you’re more likely to find yourself competing for space with cyclists and dog walkers.
As you proceed downstream, there are a number of well-worn paths leading down towards the river. While it might be tempting to follow them to catch a closer glimpse of the water, you may be best to ignore them as they’re quite overgrown, have a tendency to be quite muddy, and all rejoin the main path after short distance.
As you follow the river out of Balerno, it can start to feel rather remote and you might be forgiven for thinking you weren’t on the outskirts of Scotland’s capital city. Open fields to your right offer views of the Pentland hills and birdsong fills the trees around you, and it can be easy to see why the Victorians of Edinburgh valued this railway as a picturesque way to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
Follow the path over the former railway bridge at Currie (NT 18270 67710), from where you have a fine view of the 18th Century church. There has been a Christian community here for at least one thousand years, and the area was once a favourite hunting ground for knights based at Edinburgh Castle.
On a farm just outside of Currie lived the poet James Thomson (not to be confused with the poet of the same name from the Borders). His poems were written in Scots, with many depicting the local area.
You’ll leave the river for a short while here to pass by some modern housing developments, but it will be flowing by your side before long. Further ahead, you’ll walk by some more houses before passing below the City of Edinburgh bypass.
After crossing the river, you’ll soon meet a road; follow it across a small bridge ahead of you, then bear left at the entrance to the housing at West Mill to join a path. This leads to Spylaw Park, which in the 18th Century was the site of the first snuff mill in Edinburgh.
The snuff mill in what is now Spylaw Park was built by the merchant James Gillespie, who also built a mansion house next to it – while the mill is long gone, the house still stands and can be seen as you pass through the park. Gillespie was notoriously thrifty and amassed a great fortune, becoming one of the richest men of his day. Never marrying and having no children, in his will he requested that his money be used to found a school and a hospital for the poor. Though the hospital was demolished in the 1970s, James Gillespie’s High School continues to educate the children of Edinburgh to this day.
At the other end of the park, a short flight of steps leads back to the railway path. Pass under the high arches of the road bridge to arrive at the site of the former Colinton Station. Continue into the tunnel ahead; its walls are decorated with colourful murals depicting the poem From a Railway Carriage by the author Robert Louis Stevenson.
“And here is a mill and there is a river:From a Railway Carriage, by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!”
You’ll emerge from the tunnel into the peaceful Colinton Dell. Follow the path above the river, taking in the views of the various weirs below that were built to control the flow of the water used to power the mills.
After around half a mile, leave the railway line onto a path signed for Slateford via Dells (NT 21670 70020) which leads down to the river. Cross a pretty stone bridge, then immediately turn left and follow the path along the side of the water, bearing left at a junction then continuing until you cross a small footbridge over a stream.
By the side of the path stands a small stone grotto. This was built in the eighteenth century by Dr Alexander Munro to act as a resting place for visitors to his estate. From here, the path continues to meet Lanark Road. Cross the road here to reach the Water of Leith Visitor Centre (NT 22110 70750).
This makes a good spot to take a break – you can visit the Visitor Centre to find out more information about the river, and about the trust that maintain the walkway. Once it’s time to move on, head to Part Two to continue on to scenic Dean Village and Stockbridge.