We went to Trinity House expecting to find some treasures of Leith maritime history, but we were both equally surprised to find some local railway history hidden round the back too.
So let’s go on a little #NowAndThen visual trip down memory lane to South Leith railway station, which closed to passengers as early as 1903. The view is taken from Constitution Street looking east along the trackbed, what is now Tower Street. The tall remnant of buildings behind were part of the first Leith gas works, before they moved to Granton with the Edinburgh gas works. The station building is on the right, with the single platform behind it.
This was the first railway station in Leith, and was originally named as such when it opened in 1832 as an extension of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway. This line ran from St. Leonards in Edinburgh to Midlothian, Leith being accessed by a reverse junction near Niddrie. This was the so-called “Innocent Railway”, in Scotch Gauge of 4ft 6in and horse drawn throughout.
Looking the other way towards the Shore (and a prime example of that dreadful noughties architectural fad for oversized and inappropriate corner rotundas) we see Leith’s old Tower in the distance down Tower Street. Notice that the railway was not quite aligned with the modern Tower Street, but parallel. This continuation of the line beyond Constitution Street gave access to the east side of the port and its industries.
The station was on the sea front when it was built, with Leith Sands beyond and the high tide line beyond that. The railway providing a new boundary between land and shore as Leith crept northwards into the Forth. This station was handy for the Shore, where the steamers left from at the time, but was quickly swallowed up by seaward extensions of the docks and became increasingly inconveniently positioned. In 1845 the North British Railway bought over the Edinburgh & Dalkeith and set about converting their new possession into standard gauge and steam power. However, they were not interested in passenger traffic here – it was routes South from Edinburgh that had caused them to buy the E&DR – and closed South Leith to passengers in 1846. The line remained open for dock traffic, always it’s primary purpose as it had been built as a direct connection to the Midlothian Coalfield.
The naming of Leith’s railway stations was always a bit confusing. For a relatively small place, it had a lot of various stations and they were often duplicated due to the competing nature of the North British (NBR) and Caledonian Railways (CR), who fought petulantly with each other for access to the lucrative docks and industrial traffic. To add confusion, when most of these stations were first named, Leith was two distinct municipal parishes; South Leith and North Leith. These are ancient names, referring to the banks of the river of Water of Leith on which they lie, geographically they are more east and westerly of one and other than south and northerly. At various times there were stations called Leith, Leith Central, South Leith, North Leith, Leith North, Leith Citadel, Leith East, Leith Walk, Leith Walk West and Leith Walk East!
The next station to open in Leith was North Leith in 1846. It was opened as a branch of the Edinburgh, Leith & Granton Railway, which ran from Canal Street Station (at right angles to the present day Waverley), through the Scotland Street Tunnel to Trinity and on to a rail ferry at Granton Docks. The NBR bought this railway too, in 1862 and experimented with calling the station variously Leith Citadel or Leith North, before settling back on North Leith. They re-opened the old Edinburgh & Dalkeith Leith station in 1859 as a single platform called South Leith.
The next arrival was that of the Caledonian Railway, who opened a station called Leith in 1869 on a rather circuitous line around the North and West of the city from Princes Street Station via Roseburn and Newhaven. It would be renamed North Leith in 1903. To get around the confusion of two rival North Leith stations being a few hundred metres from each other on the same street, most maps stuck with Leith for the CR station and North Leith for the NBR. To locals it was just the Caley and North British stations.
The North Leith muddles would be solved in 1947 when the ex-NBR station, by now 24 years in the LNER grouping, was closed to passenger traffic. Rather pointlessly, 5 years later the ex-Caley North Leith was renamed Leith North, and the ex-NBR North Leith goods station became Leith Citadel!
The renaming of the Caley station was not the only change on the Leith railway map in 1903; this was the year the North British opened their vast folly of a station at Leith Central – which of course was well to the south of South Leith… It’s arrival resulted in the closure of the latter station for the second and final time. Leith Central was on a fairly short branch from Waverley via Abbeyhill, but could never match the electric tramway on speed, frequency, convenience and on proximity to destinations, so it always struggled for patronage. Leith Central was the last major railway terminus built in Scotland, and had a short life, closing in 1952 after a fairly unintense life. It had been built more as a symbol of the NBR’s dominance and a blocker to the Caley opening a passenger station in the centre of Leith than anything else.
Those grand Caley plans were the Leith New Lines, a very expensive and winding route around Leith to connect the eastern and western sides of the Docks. Large goods stations were opened at Bonnington, Leith Walk, Restalrig and South Leith; where it caused confusion with the NBR South Leith goods station.
The Caley had wanted to provide passenger stations too; the platforms and some other structures for these were actually built, at Victoria Park in Trinity and above street level on Leith Walk on the Gordon Street railway arches. After Leith Walk, the intention was a costly branch to Princes Street station from a junction near Lochend via tunnels under Calton Hill and cut-and-cover tunnelling of Princes Street itself. None of these plans came to fruition though, the NBR’s massive Leith Central meant it would have been a costly folly (which Leith Central admittedly also was).
The two parallel, neighbouring South Leith Goods stations of the NBR and Caley happily co-existed side-by-side into the 1950s, when British Railway in their wisdom renamed the ex-NBR station Leith South and ex-CR station Leith East. The latter closed in the 1970s, the former lasted into the 1990s, its yard (South Leith Yard) is still technically in use, but has not seen any traffic in the best part of 10 years.
The last set of Leith-named stations were those of Leith Walk – none of which are actually in Leith by any definition later than the 18th century! Leith Walk passenger station was opened by the NBR in 1869 when they built a diversionary line from Waverley station to Trinity via Abbeyhill to avoid the awkward Scotland Street tunnel. Passenger stations were added along the line, including where it passed under Leith Walk at Shrubhill. An enormous goods yard was provided. When the Caley opened their Leith New Lines in 1903, they also provided a goods yard for Leith Walk, further to the north. Both were called Leith Walk (goods) so inevitably were referred to as the North British or Caley to differentiate them.
The passenger station closed in 1930, another victim of competition from the electric tramway. After nationalisation, the ever wise British Railways decided to rationalise matters and renamed the ex-NBR station Leith Walk East and the ex-Caley station Leith Walk West. This makes perfect sense in principle to a naming committee in a far off office, except it results in Leith Walk East being more westerly than Leith Walk West on account of Leith Walk not running on a north-south axis! Nothing is ever straightforward when it comes to the names of Leith’s railway stations!
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[…] new branch had to pass under the Caledonian Railway, which in 1864 had built a line to North Leith (a station usually referred to as Leith North!) around the north of the city from a junction at Dalry Road […]