A couple of posts ago I wrote about a walk my book group took (http://wp.me/p5FGXY-3h). That post focused on what we talked about, this is about where we went.
The Water of Leith is Edinburgh’s main river, rising from the rocks of the Pentlands to the south-west and running through the city to the sea. For almost thirteen miles of its course the route of the river is followed by the Water of Leith Walkway.
Rivers are most at home in valleys and so the Walkway offers a unique perspective on a city better known for its hills, winding below, through and between the main streets; a wavering thread of blue and green, refusing to conform to the ordered straight lines and right-angled vision of the Georgian town planners.
Although the Walkway passes through public spaces, parks, market places, bridges and fords, it is most often flanked by private houses and gardens. All social strata are on display here and the walker can cast their voyeur’s eye in to grand wood panelled dining rooms, bohemian artists’ colonies and the minimalist furnishings of first homes within just a few hundred metres. The inhabitants of Edinburgh are as visible as their possessions; joggers, dog-walkers, commuters, families, all make use of the path whether they are going a short distance from A to B or walking purely for walking’s sake.
As well as an opportunity to people watch, the Walkway provides a rare window on the secrets of the city’s wildlife, with over eighty species of bird making the trees and bushes along the water’s fringes their home. Besides the birds, the Walkway is a green corridor for foxes, badgers, squirrels and even the occasional deer. The vegetation and the river conspire to drown out the noises of the city. You are more likely to hear the call of a thrush than the thunder of the traffic.
Besides being an attraction in itself, the Walkway is a good way to access some of Edinburgh’s tourist highlights, passing close by the Gallery of Modern Art and the Botanical Gardens amongst others. It is also the gateway to some less well-known, though no less interesting, sights including the survivors of the once seventy mills that made use of the water’s flow, now repurposed as flats and office spaces.
The section we walked features St Bernard’s Well, which can be found between the boutiques and delis of Stockbridge and the civic feat of the Dean Bridge.
Built in 1789 from a design by the painter, Alexander Nasmyth, the domed temple, complete with statue to the Greek goddess of health, Hygeia, caps a pump-room built to allow easy access to a natural spring which was believed to have curative properties. Taking the waters, either by drinking or bathing, was a bit of a British national obsession in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and St Bernard’s Well is just one of many reminders of this that can be found around the country.
Though our Georgian and Victorian ancestors turned the practice in to tourism, belief in the healing powers of water is, of course, much older. Looking at St Bernard’s Well, brought back memories of a place I visited almost a decade ago in the far north-east of Scotland, in a wood on the Black Isle, somewhere in stark contrast to its stylised, sanitized, grandeur. Known as a Clootie Well from the Scots ‘cloot’ meaning rag, it has been a place of pilgrimage for as long as the waters have run. Traditionally a white scrap of material would be offered to the spirit of the well, either in the hopes of a cure for an ailment, a request for protection or guidance or simply in honour of the water itself. The practice has morphed over time and now it is more common to bring an item of clothing belonging to the supplicant or the person for whom they pray. The cloot is dipped in the spring and tied to a nearby tree, one that draws the water through its veins. When the trouble has passed the cloot will fall. It is a powerful place, heavy with the weight of whispered requests.
I am always pleased to be reminded of the continuity of human experience. Whether we dress it up in carved stone or simple rags there are some things that remain unchanged and collective. To me there is a comfort in that and, having taken the waters in my own way, returned home, restored.