My father was always adamant that he didn’t hail from the port of Leith, but immediately to its west, at “the quaint fishing village of Newhaven”, as he was wont to call it. It’s been a long time since that district of Edinburgh could rightfully be described in that way, the only remnant of its past being the old harbour and the lighthouse.
This stands at the end of the breakwater at the harbour mouth, looking out over the cold, black tidal waters of the Forth estuary. Local youths would, usually after a few drinks, dare each other to walk around the ledge that tapered down to a few inches as it circled the tower, its beacon now long-defunct. Many fell into the river, with the occasional calamitous outcome.
My dad once told me a story about his courtship of my mother. One night, on about their third date, he got it into his head that if she could negotiate the lighthouse ledge, then she would be the one for him. When I asked her about this story, my mum, who can’t swim and who has a pronounced fear of heights, ruefully confirmed it, adding that she was wearing stiletto heels at the time. “Somehow, mug that I am, I trusted him that I’d be okay, and that he’d be able to save me if anything went wrong.” Fortified with gin, she didn’t look down and successfully completed the walk. They tied the knot a year later.
My old man was pretty fond of ‘tests’ that involved heights and the river. When I was a small boy, he took me up to the top of Chancelot Mill, on an industrial estate overlooking the Forth, where he and his buddy, Benny Morton, made me go to the ballustrade-free edge of this towering building’s roof. They then proceeded to hold me over by my ankles, and I recall being suspended upside down, watching the river and Fife from my perilous vantage point.
I recollect being excited, but not scared; I knew that my dad would never drop me. At that time, however, I was too young to be acquainted with the tendency men on his side of the family had towards extreme recklessness. Few of them have enjoyed long lives; his own grandfather died in relative youth close to the Forth at Leith docks, walking through a tunnel in front of an oncoming goods train whilst drunk.
Perhaps it was the river that inspired such madness and tragedy. The Gaelic translation of River Forth is Abhainn Dhubh, which means ‘black river’. Stretching for some thirty miles, the Forth is the uncelebrated pantomime villain of the major British rivers.
You’d be hard-pushed to find much evidence of the romance that’s occasionally lavished on the Thames, Tyne or Mersey, and even the Tay can boast William McGonagall’s wonderfully awful poem about the disaster on its bridge.
The Forth certainly doesn’t command the affectionate relationship with my home city of Edinburgh that its counterpart, the Clyde, enjoys with nearby Glasgow. This is primarily because the Forth doesn’t bisect the city, it merely defines its northern border. For most people in Edinburgh, the river is something tucked away behind housing schemes, industrial estates and marginal communities that they’ll never have the occasion to visit. It’s largely seen as this mysterious entity that separates us from Fife, and many citizens, particularly those who hail from south of Princes Street, probably wouldn’t be able to find it without the aid of a good map.
"My dad once told me a story about his courtship of my mother. One night, on about their third date, he got it into his head that if she could negotiate the lighthouse ledge, then she would be the one for him."
Being brutally honest, as it reaches the city limits, this dull, manky stagnant-looking stretch of water lives up to its gaelic name. Long turned tidal, and widened into an estuary, even on a good day the Forth can still give off a positively sinister vibe. Rendered filthy by the petrochemical refinery up at Grangemouth, it seems so still, yet somehow treacherous by the time it hooks up with Edinburgh. It’s a bit like the jakey uncle who suddenly shows up at a family wedding, fresh out of prison following a long stretch for a nefarious crime nobody can quite bring themselves to talk about. We know that it’s connected with us in some way, but we can’t quite muster up the enthusiasm to celebrate this fact.
I’ll admit, however, that I’m basically seeing the river from a ‘schemie’ point of view. In the north Edinburgh council housing developments, few things were at their best by the time they made it out our way and the Black River was no exception. One of my first memories as a kid was the ‘THESE MUSSELS ARE UNFIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION’ signs that adorned my local rock beach at Silverknowes on the banks of the estuary. The scarcely less-hazardous alternatives were the ‘treats’ proffered by the Seashell café, a building seemingly modelled on the World War II pillboxes which litter the islands of the Firth of Forth. These I can still list, as my school took them as house names; Inchkeith, Inchcolm, Inchgarvie, Inchmickerie. There were not enough islands for the purposes of our would-be educators, so the river gave the last house its title: Inchforth. Hitler’s U-boats, in the event, never made it as far as the Black River. Whether the deterrent was provided by those military defences or the aesthetic qualities of the river and its environs, is a secret that has died with the Third Reich naval strategists.
The Romans got as far as the Forth, staying long enough to construct – then suddenly abandon – their most northernly British settlement on the banks of the Almond, a nearby tributary that flows into the estuary at Cramond. It’s possible to catch flounders here, that strange, flat fish whose eyes move across to the side of their heads. Perhaps the Romans took a few sideways glances and decided that there were other things in life besides imperial expansion.
But it was the Scots’ decision to jump on the colonial bandwagon that possibly constitutes the saddest chapter in the history of the river. Before the union with England, the independent kingdom of Scotland opted to invest in the concept of empire, and two boats set out from the Forth at Leith to establish a Scottish colony in Panama. When I inform English friends about this not-so-well-known historical detail, it often illicits gasps of stunned anticipation from them. It’s like they sense what’s coming next. Yes, the would-be settlers prepared in true Scottish fashion, carrying supplies of whisky, wigs, bibles and woollen blankets; ideal essentials for survival in the tropics. They were wiped out by disease within a few months, and the tartan imperial adventure died, losing half the nation’s wealth in the process, thus precipitating the unloved and unwanted Union of the Crowns. So even history seems to exacerbate the Forth’s sense of shame and failure.
To be fair, in its pre-tidal and pre-city youth, the Forth is an impressively picturesque river. My favourite view of it is from the top of the Wallace Monument on a clear day, as it meanders like a silver snake down from the Trossachs, through Stirling and the surrounding countryside. But I just can’t equate this River Forth in any way with that dark and dirty firth that I grew up alongside. The Black River can be crossed for the last time before Edinburgh city limits at the town of Kincardine, where it turns tidal from North Sea flowback. By the time it passes Grangemouth it’s been corrupted by industry.
Industrial and post-industrial blight seem to define the river from then on in; the defunct shipyards of Rosyth and Leith, the former trawler port of Granton, the old fishing village of Newhaven, the oil refinery at Methil. Portobello beach, Edinburgh’s Bondi or Copacabana, is and remains, the Forth’s one concession to leisure. To this day it still attracts weedgie (Glaswegian) day trippers, even if the journey all too often ends up in the district’s adjoining bars in order to escape the omnipresent drizzling rain and biting winds that tear down the estuary from the North Sea.
While it’s true that the river does facilitate a certain magnificence as it reaches the city, this is solely due to the impressive bridges that span its length. The Forth (rail) Bridge is one of the genuine wonders of the world. A magnificent piece of Victorian engineering, it looks like two rust-coloured armadillos sniffing at each other before they start shagging or fighting, and it makes the adjacent road bridge come over as a pretty scabby affair. Actually, this suspension bridge should be as magnificent as the Golden Gate in San Francisco. When I lived in that city, it was the comparison between those bridges that illustrated for me the essential difference between California and Caledonia.
One constructs a large suspension bridge, does it in vibrant colour, calls it the Golden Gate and declares it a major tourist attraction. The other builds a large suspension bridge, paints it grey, saddles it with the humdrum moniker ‘The Forth Road Bridge’, and stoically informs us that it should make getting from Edinburgh to Fife easier. Some blame Calvinism for this crippling conservatism, others cite over three hundred years of London rule. Personally, I think the weather has a lot to answer for.
Returning to my own first close encounters with that mundane stretch of the river, which I got to know at Silverknowes, my scheme of Muirhouse’s local beach, the best part was the adjacent forested area. Here we would go to swing on ‘Tarzans’ or collect wood for bonefire nights. Unfortunately, we lived at the top end of the scheme and had to navigate back home through most of those unforgiving streets, encountering the inevitable raiders’ who would batter you with cudgels and take the wood off you. We were usually lucky to make it back with a few twigs.
This relatively-concealed forest usually held imaginative dominion over the open, desolate, boulder and pebble beach, where our childhood cruelties resulted in the smashing of poor crabs trapped in rock pools, or unfortunate jellyfish ran aground. In those woods above the River Forth I had my first clumsy gropes, and while I didn’t lose my virginity there, those maraudings paved the way for that imminently forgettable yet too-easily-recalled event. When you eventually found your feet in the romance stakes, there was Cramond Island, the one closest to the Forth’s Silverknowes shore. You could walk out there with the object of your desire, then get ‘accidentally’ cut off by the incoming tides, and thus be compelled to spend the night on the island. The serious shaggers studied the tidal charts in the Evening News like the most dedicated Old Salts, and never left home without a sports bag containing a jumper and blankets. What was a liability in Panama in the seventeeth century remains a decided asset at home.
As with so many other things, it was Acid House that opened up the river to the people. An old passenger ferry called The Maid Of the Forth, which used to cross from Granton to Kirkcaldy, decided to install a sound system and throw parties. These were great fun, though even in the high summer it could get bollock-freezing cold down on that estuary, again reminding you that the river being cut off from the people might not be such an intrinsically bad thing. One abiding memory was of the boat being moored on the Fife bank, near some field outside Kinghorn. Half the ravers were loved-up on those really good ecstasy pills, the other half were on some pretty strong acid. In the field a farmer was firing a crossbow at a target mounted onto a tree. The e-heads were going: ‘Wow, that’s so cool, I’d love a shot at that’, while the acid heads were running off the deck, heading below, screaming: ‘Some psycho cunt’s got a fuckin crossbow!’
The rave boat seemed to herald in the winds of change. I recall, as a boy, having to cycle through a load of industrial estates on a Sunday, in order to pick up a parcel of fresh meat from a big warehouse by an abattoir in Granton. It wasn’t far as the crow flies, but it took ages through an inhospitable warren of dead-end roads and diversions, with barred wire fences and Securicor guard dog signs proliferating. I remember thinking more than once: why did the shoreline on the Forth estuary have to be so cut off from everybody?
Other people evidently thought along the same lines. Now on this north side of the city, the Black River, once inaccessible and hidden from sight, has been opened up by developers. This area is now pompously referred to (by them at least) as Edinburgh’s Waterfront. It reeks of a total scam. The first wave of gentrification was one thing, with the sympathetic conversion of the old warehouses and whisky bonds at Leith. These renovated homes at least had a bit of style and substance. The new-build apartments that have proliferated in the last ten years, however, are poorly designed and badly constructed, with scant social amenities in the locality. There’s a strong suspicion that they will be slums in ten years’ time, and only about one in five of them actually faces onto the glum, oily prairie they call the River Forth. What is it with yuppies and water?
So I have mixed feelings about the continuing redevelopment of this part of my city. But I have to say that I had an uplifting experience at the Terence Conran patio bar at Ocean Terminal, a Forthside shopping centre in Leith, and resting home of the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was at this bar that I proposed to my wife, who thought (as did I) that I was going to pop the question in Paris, where we were heading that weekend. As I looked across the water, and loads of memories flooded back, I had a sudden surge of inspiration. Waiting till she’d gone to the ladies, I ran into the nearby Samuels jewelers, purchased the ring, and had it in my pocket by the time she’d emerged to rejoin me in the bar. Switching my gaze from those still grey waters to her pale blue eyes, I slid down onto my knees and did the deed. The bar was empty, except for two tattoo-covered wideos who’d obviously been out on a sesh all day. I heard one guy pronounce in mocking sneer, ‘Fuckin wanker’, but lost in the moment, I wasn’t at all bothered.
The next thing I recall, after we broke off from the engagement snog, was that one of the boys had sent over a bottle of champagne. They gave us the thumbs up as they exited, one guy shaking his head sternly, pointing at our drinks and saying, ‘Fuckin lager? You’re a comedian! Get him telt’, he urged my bethrothed. It was true Leith class; he wasn’t upset at me for making a romantic guesture, as I had thought, but sitting with a pint of lager. I’d broken protocol by going cheap on my bird and not doing things the right way. This perfect moment made me glad that I’d picked Leith over Paris, and yes, that the minging old Forth was there to share it. Stifling a tear, I looked over at those waters and I swear, that just for a moment, they were was as blue as my beloved’s eyes. It struck me then, that perhaps that ‘filthy old oil slick’, as my dad used to call it, really could inspire romance. And I hadn’t even asked her to walk around Newhaven’s lighthouse.
Taken from 'Caught by the River - A Collection of Words on Water’ (Octopus), compiled and edited by Jeff Barrett, Robin Turner and Andrew Walsh. Published by Cassell Illustrated, £17.99. Buy a copy here