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The cultural spaces breathing life into Edinburgh’s coolest neighbourhood

Local creatives are transforming Leith’s industrial buildings into arty hotspots

Arusa Qureshi
Written by
Arusa Qureshi

What makes a neighbourhood cool? It could be any number of things, from edgy bars to offbeat architecture, big annual festivals to super-fashionable restaurants. In the case of Leith, Edinburgh’s northern port area and officially one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world, innovative new food and drink businesses have increasingly made it a must-visit on any trip to the city. But what ultimately makes Leith Edinburgh’s funnest place to be is the incredible creative community that calls it home.

Since the early 2000s, artists, designers, musicians and more have transformed the area, in many cases taking over derelict buildings and dockyard areas. In doing so, they’ve helped preserve (and build) a strong local identity. As is the case in cities all over the world, the neighbourhood’s popularity has meant that many of these spaces continually face threats from developers. But with the pride, perseverance and creativity of Leith’s people – and its many thriving venues – these guys are going nowhere fast. Here are six of the institutions we cherish most (plus a brand-new one we can’t wait to step foot in next year).

The historic theatre with a snazzy new look

When Leith was officially incorporated into Edinburgh in 1920, Leith Theatre was gifted to the people of Leith from the people of Edinburgh. Over the years, the art-deco building hosted the likes of AC/DC, John Martyn and Thin Lizzy – until it closed its doors in 1988. Since 2004, the Leith Theatre Trust has been working to bring the theatre back to its former glory as a vibrant cultural space, with a number of festivals and events like Hidden Door and the Edinburgh International Festival having made excellent use of the main auditorium in recent years. The refurb is ongoing but the trust is hoping to secure the theatre’s future with help from the local community.

Leith Theatre
Photograph: Leith Theatre

The biscuit factory packed with innovative start-ups

Built in 1947 by Crawfords Biscuits, the Biscuit Factory today houses some of the city’s most innovative start-ups. Alongside a cavernous performance and exhibition space with regular cultural events, the building is used by Edinburgh Gin, Hemp Eyewear, The Bearded Baker, Santu Coffee and many more. It has also become a pretty popular wedding venue in recent years, thanks to the rustic decor that retains many of the original warehouse fixtures.

The huge railway-arch venue

One of the area’s newer hotspots, Leith Arches can be found under a brick railway arch on what used to be the Caledonian Leith Line. The multi-level venue hosts live music, theatre and even spin and yoga classes. There’s a weekly pop-up market, a pub quiz every Thursday, a café and a wine bar, which is co-run by Edinburgh charcuterie box firm SprEHd.

Leith Arches
Photograph: Leith Arches

The military drill hall-turned-performing arts space

Built as a military drill space in 1901, the Dalmeny Street hall was sold to the Out of the Blue Arts and Education Trust in 2003 and redeveloped as a community arts centre soon after. As well as its artist studios, rehearsal rooms and performance spaces, the building holds events throughout the year  – think markets and yoga classes, but also large-scale Fringe productions.

The dockside design hub

Right on The Shore, Custom Lane is a design centre that places a big focus on community. The neoclassical Custom House was designed by Robert Reid and built as an administrative centre for the collection of dues on goods traded through the Port of Leith. It had been neglected for 30 years until the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust leased the building in 2015 to provide studio space for artists. It now holds a café, shop, gallery and events space, as well as co-working spaces upstairs. In the adjacent car park, you’ll also find the Leith Market on Saturdays.

The granary providing work space for creatives

Coburg House is a former granary on Leith’s Coburg Street that’s been home to creatives for more than 20 years, with around 80 artists, makers and designers using the space today. This creative community includes painters, silversmiths, knitters, comic artists and more, with studios spread over four floors. There’s also an exhibition area and gallery shop that are open to the public.

The massive distillery set to open in 2022

A sort-of homage to Leith’s history as Scotland’s main trading hub, the Port of Leith Distillery is one of the area’s most exciting new projects – nodding to the long legacy of distilleries in the neighbourhood. Co-founders Patrick Fletcher and Ian Stirling, who already produce Distillery Port and Distillery Sherry, came up with the idea to create a new landmark on Leith’s waterfront. It’s also Scotland’s first ‘vertical distillery’. Due to open in 2022, the purpose-built operation overlooks the Firth of Forth, spans five floors and will produce up to a million bottles of single malt per year.

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