Day out: Water of Leith, Edinburgh

A wildlife-rich riverside corridor runs through the heart of Scotland’s capital city. As winter gives way to spring, the river and its overgrown banks buzz with colour and life, offering ample opportunity for discovery

Winter river

The Water of Leith in Scotland is a small but powerful river that flows from the Pentland Hills above Edinburgh, down through woods peppered with old mills and historic villages, then on through the city.

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In winter, the peaceful banks of the Water of Leith are often dusted white with frost and snow, and in spring daffodils burst with colour under birch and alder catkins.

The river and it waterside footpath – once trodden by Robert Louis Stevenson – offer Edinburgh locals and visiting tourists an escape from bustle and toil of city life. It’s a place to slow down and be close to nature – something there is plenty of, no water what time of year visit.

River in spring
Water of Leith offers a quiet escape from the bustle of Edinburgh/Credit: Alamy

Water of Leith walk

A clearly signed 20.5km walkway follows the river from Balerno at the foot of the hills down to the sea at Leith. Between Balerno and Colinton, at the city’s edge, the waterside woods are dotted with snowdrops in spring, while in the river, 11 species of fish, including salmon, sea trout, brown trout and lamprey, provide good feeding for resident otters; dusk and pre-dawn are the best times to spot these elusive creatures.

You’ll notice “the smell of water rising from all round”, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it; the novelist and travel writer used to visit his grandfather at the manse in Colinton. Today, you can follow a poetry trail alongside the water dedicated to the Edinburgh-born wordsmith. The river runs on down through the thickly wooded Colinton Dell to busy Slateford, where the excellent Water of Leith Visitor Centre and café is located. Here you can learn about the 80 or more species of bird that live along the restored waterway.

Water of Leith wildlife

Between Slateford and Gorgie, close to the city centre, is an important wildlife link, home to Daubenton’s and pipistrelle bats. The ‘water bat’ (Daubenton’s) swoops to grab insects above the surface with its large feet. It emits a machine-gun-like echolocation rattle. It roosts in trees or bridges and always near water.

Daubenton's bat (Myotis daubentoni)
Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentoni) can be seen at night/Credit: Alamy

Look out, too, for heron and dippers, and even kingfishers. The waters wind past the hallowed Murrayfield Stadium before flowing north-east along a scenic stretch just a short stroll from Princes Street, below Edinburgh Castle.

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The river valley, designated as an Urban Wildlife Site, is an ideal place to unwind. Take a detour to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art and the Royal Botanic Gardens, then continue on through ancient Dean Village and upmarket Stockbridge down to Leith to join the Firth of Forth.