Photo: Ian Sane

Cycling Guide to Edinburgh's Water of Leith Path

Edinburgh Student Work Insider Guides Cycling
by Natalie De Winter Aug 18, 2014

“I woke up in hospital after six days in a coma, my eye socket broken in so many places the doctor said it was like putting a jigsaw back together. I had seven skull fractures, brain fluid dripping out of my nose for two months, and they had to put a titanium plate in my head here,” Kristian explains, pointing to his forehead. “It was a hit and run.”

I’m at my neighbour’s door with my new bicycle, ready for a ride but, as he points out, missing a helmet. “I know, I know,” I say, finally able to speak after taking in his list of injuries. “But the day I find a helmet that doesn’t make me look like I belong in a LEGO set is the day I’ll wear one,” I continue, trying to look less stupid than that sounds.

Kristian raises his eyebrows, and looks at me sternly. “Safety first kids,” he says, then grins and wags his finger at me.

Kristian has offered to show me the Water of Leith Walkway. Starting south of Edinburgh in Balerno, and ending at the North Sea in Leith, the walkway runs for 20 of the River Leith’s 37km. Kristian disappears into the kitchen to get his helmet. I expect one of those sleek, aerodynamic affairs, but he returns with a bright green “lid,” the type skateboarders and BMX riders wear. He grins at my reaction and I laugh because, as I’m sure he knows, he suddenly looks as though he belongs in a LEGO set.

I’d only met Kristian briefly before this, and know little about him, other than he’s a bicycle enthusiast. I give his outfit the once over and begin to wonder just what kind of ride I’m in for. He’s wearing shorts, trainers, gloves, a bright camouflage shirt, and a backpack rigged with water. I’m in jeans and a North Face jacket, more suited to skiing than the Tour De Scotland I’m beginning to fear he has planned. Kristian is an experienced mountain biker who can often be found hurtling down the sides of Highland mountains with his friend, an ex-Olympic skier.

With the safety lecture over, I make sure he knows I’m no athlete. He promises to think of me like his granny who’s just out of hospital with a hip replacement. We set out along back roads to Roseburn, the closest entry point to the Water of Leith from our apartment block in Dalry.

* * *

“Edinburgh’s brilliant for biking.” Kristian says. “You can get almost anywhere you want in the city on a bike track, and the Water of Leith path is beautiful, almost hidden. Not many tourists know it’s here,” he says, looking back to check I’m still behind him.

We turn down a side street and he waits for me at the entrance to the river path, while I pedal up the small hill, trying not to look like I’m having a stroke. Telling me to walk my bike down the wooden steps to the river, Kristian flies down on his and patiently waits for me at the bottom.

“Well done, Grandma,” Kristian praises me. “You only had to get off and walk twice. Pretty good for someone who’s just had a hip replacement.”

The shift from urban to outdoors is immediate. Trees overhang the path on both sides, blocking out much of the light. The track stretches into the distance, dark and mysterious. I pedal into the blackness and it feels like being swallowed by nature, like traveling down a giant, green esophagus. The plant life along the Water of Leith is extensive. Among others you’ll find sycamore, oak, birch, elder, willow, yew, Scot pine, and rowan trees. The air is cool and fresh, as though nature has taken a deep breath and exhaled it all over me.

I settle into the ride, which is gloriously flat for the most part. The kid in me whooshes down the few hills in excitement, but the embarrassingly unfit grownup panics, knowing that what goes down must surely have to come up on the way back. Kristian meanwhile becomes my personal tour guide, pointing out the wooden bridge leading to the Gallery of Modern Art, the much photographed Dean Village, and Stockbridge, “where the snooty Edinburgers live.” He points out swans and a heron and tells me about the family of otters that live along the river.

“It shows you how clean the water is for a city river,” Kristian says. “Otters wouldn’t be living here if it were dirty. There’s also ducks, brown trout, and kingfishers if you keep an eye out.”

The most popular section of the path is from Stockbridge to the Gallery of Modern Art, which passes through beautiful Dean Village, an World Heritage Site and formerly the center of the industrial milling boom. In the late 19th century, there were over 70 watermills operating along the river producing paper, flour, fabric, and beer. There’s even part of an original mill stone that the walkway takes you past at Dean Village.

The Water of Leith Walkway is a mixture of dirt track, paved path, and cobblestones. At certain points the track ends and you need to cross the river along small bridges, and at others there are posted diversions due to conservation. Whilst the path isn’t busy, we pass by people out for a stroll, walking their dogs, or simply taking a break and enjoying the surrounds. We also come across five sweaty middle-aged men determinedly lifting weights by the ruins of an old railway bridge. They strike me as the kind of big men you’d expect to find hanging out at a boxing gym, the evidence of a lifetime of punches visible on their remolded faces.

* * *

We make it to Leith in 40 minutes, but that’s because I stop to take photographs a few times as a ruse to catch my breath. Riding straight, you could easily make it in half that. But why would you?

Leith Shore was the site of a thriving boat-building trade in the late 1800s, but is now a good place to find a restaurant or cafe and relax by the water. It’s almost deserted in mid-afternoon, so we loop around from the promenade to the docks and back to the bike path. Kristian points out a pub he says does great food, Teuchters Landing, before taking the lead for the trip home.

A little over 20 minutes later we’re at Kristian’s door on the first floor of our building, and I attempt to lift my bike to my shoulder for the climb to my apartment on the next floor. Not so easy when your muscles are noodles.

“Well done, Grandma,” Kristian praises me. “You only had to get off and walk twice. Pretty good for someone who’s just had a hip replacement.”


If you want to hire a bike in Edinburgh, there are several choices:

  • Grease Monkey Cycles is located the closest to the Roseburn entry of the river path. They have half-day rentals from £19 or full day from £26. As their location isn’t right in the center of town, you might want to take advantage of their free delivery.
  • If you’re starting in Leith, the Leith Cycle Company has half-day deals from £12, or from £17 for a full day.

Download a basic map of the Water of Leith Walkway. For up-to-date information on the path, check out the Water of Leith Conservation Trust website.

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