Sharing silence in Leith

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

As I look at the sailors in the black and white photograph, I think of all of the lives lost in conflict over the years. My eyes fill with tears. I didn’t mean to end up in this room of memories on Armistice Day, but really where better to remember the fallen, the brave, the scared, the lonely?

It’s November and I’m staying at my cousin’s in an area North of Edinburgh. He’s left me with a promise to post his flat keys through his letterbox. I wake to find sunshine streaming through the high sash windows and onto the bubblegum pink bookshelf, laden with books and decorated with autumn leaves. I pretend I live here but I’m not sure what ‘here’ looks like. It’s time for me to explore Leith.

I venture out across Leith Links, a former golf course and ancient plague burial ground, then up Queen Charlotte Street and past its Georgian police station. I walk past construction workers in orange high-vis digging up Constitution Street. They’re extending the tram from Edinburgh all the way along Leith Walk, the long strip of independent shops, bars and restaurants that connects the two burghs. Soon, the tram will take tourists and Scots from Edinburgh airport all the way to Newhaven and the mouth of the river Forth.

I take a right down Maritime Street, a left down Maritime Lane and cut onto Water Street – the road signs tell of Leith’s importance as Scotland’s biggest port since the 12th century. To this day ships sail from here to trade Scottish wool, salmon and cattle across the world. Finally I reach the Shore, a historic landing point for Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, King Charles II and King George IV.  Historic maritime buildings, like the Custom House, rub shoulders with modern residential blocks along the cobbled waterfront. I get a whiff of coffee as I walk past a cafe serving cake slices at London prices. A man photographs the S.S. Explorer ship against the clear blue sky, and I stop to photograph him. 

Then I cross the bridge into Commercial Quay. Old dockyard buildings have been converted into open-air restaurants and architect offices overlooking a trickling water feature. No one is around but I hear dramatic clangs coming from the working dock on my right. It takes me a long while to walk around it, a hidden hive of industry protected by a tall metal fence. My destination – the Ocean Terminal shopping centre to visit Royal Yacht Britannia, which was Queen Elizabeth II’s official ship for many years. My cousin said this is where buses terminate and new build residential blocks are popping up, an ugly part of Leith which is not worth a visit. I protect my ears from the incessant drilling as I walk to the mall’s entrance and I think he may be right.

As I enter the Ocean Terminal, it’s oddly quiet after the cacophony of progress outside. I notice a huddle of security workers, cleaners and staff are milling around the bottom of the escalator. At first, I think something has happened. A fire drill? A staff meeting? An incident in the mall itself? No one seems panicked. If anything, the group seems subdued. I walk past them and straight into Leith’s Wee Museum of Memory which has an exhibition on the Spirit of Leithers. I am curious to find out more about this place, which seems so different to Edinburgh despite it being less than three miles away.

My footsteps are muted by the well-worn grey carpet as I peruse the old photographs recounting the port town’s history. On closer inspection, the mostly black and white images are a collection of formal portraits and group shots, alongside candid snapshots – West Indian jazz musicians playing in the Eldorado Ballroom in the 1940s; kids running round the area’s tenement buildings in the 1950s; a pipe band clad in kilts parading down Leith Walk in the 1960s. So many lives intertwined.

My eyes rest on a photo of young sailors looking out at a boat setting out from Leith’s historic dock. Suddenly, a voice on the shopping mall intercom pierces the quiet to announce the start of two-minutes collective silence to mark Armistice day. My heart swells as I look out into the mall’s atrium, at the staff who stand stock still. I feel we are sharing more than silence in this Scottish shopping centre on the edge of the North Sea. We are sharing sorrow for humanity’s thirst for conflict. And a shared promise of peace.

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