Coastwalk #25 – Port Seton to Leith

START: Port Seton, East Lothian

FINISH: Leith, Edinburgh

DISTANCE: 11.9 miles (Total – 293.2 miles)


OS MAPS: OS Explorer 350

ACCOMMODATION: Arden Guest House, Musselburgh 



Despite the previous day’s long walk from North Berwick (see Coastwalk #24), I was fresh as a daisy when I woke up on the morning of day two of my Firth of Forth coastal journey. A hearty cooked breakfast courtesy of the fantastic Arden Guest House further buoyed me, so by the time I got off the bus at Port Seton I was raring to go. The weather was beautiful and even at this early stage of the morning it was pretty warm. 

After stocking up on supplies for the day at the local Co-op, I made the very short journey to Port Seton’s harbour (above) where I had finished off the previous day’s walk. I was following the John Muir Way (JMW) once again, so I headed off alongside the harbour before turning down a narrow concrete path which ran between back gardens and the shoreline (below).



A quarter of a mile later I came to a natural bay (below) which looked like it had an entrance cut through some jagged rocks just off the shoreline. According to an interpretation panel next to the bay this was in fact the Old Harbour around which Cockenzie grew. It is believed that Cockenzie gets its name from this cove as it was known from its Celtic name of Cul Cionnich meaning “The Cove of Kenneth”.


The fishing community which grew up around the harbour was very close knit as it was made up of only a few extended families. This community spirit led towards the foundation of the Friendly Society of Cockenzie and Port Seton in 1813. Members paid towards a fund which was used for the relief and maintenance of those struck down by illness. The Society’s books and documents were kept in a box which had two separate locks, with the two keys being kept by members of the Society’s Board of Management.

The money collected throughout the year was then shared out amongst the needy at the annual Box Meeting which took place in September. Unsurprisingly this was a cause of celebration in the community which began with the burning of a fishing boat, followed by the Fisherman’s Walk, a procession involving traditional costumes, banners and singing and dancing. The Box Meeting was discontinued in the 1950’s, although a special one-off celebration took place in 2000 to mark the Millennium. The Old Harbour was replaced with a new harbour (below), a short distance to the west, built in 1834 to service the increasing demands of the burgeoning coal industry.


I continued on the path along the shore, soon closing the short distance to the new harbour at Cockenzie, which had a couple of boats in it that were sat low in the water. Like Port Seton, Cockenzie is still an active fishing port, being one of only a few left on the East Lothian coast. 

Both harbours at Cockenzie and Port Seton were serviced by Scotland’s oldest waggonway, the Tranent to Cockenzie Waggonway. Built in 1722, the two-and-a-half mile long wooden horse-drawn waggonway connected the collieries at Tranent with the salt pans at Cockenzie and the harbour at Port Seton. Salt panning (the extraction of salt from sea water in metal pans heated by coal fires) had taken place at Cockenzie for many years, with a significant number of people in the village being employed in the industry. The wooden waggonway was converted to iron rails in 1815, eventually connecting to the main line network in the 1880’s, although the northern half of the railway line around Cockenzie eventually fell into disuse as the harbour declined. 

“The Jacobite Highlanders advance” (from British Battles on Land and Sea, Vol 2 by James Grant (1873)

The Tranent and Cockenzie Waggonway has another claim to fame. Not only was it the first waggonway to be built in Scotland, but it also became the first railway in the world to be used in warfare as it was used to transport troops to the Battle of Prestonpans. The Battle, which took place on 21st September was part of the Jacobite Rising of 1745. The battle involved a Jacobite army loyal to James Francis Edward Stuart (who was attempting to claim the British throne) defeating the government’s army loyal to King George II. The battle took place alongside the waggonway, with the railway’s embankment being used by Sir John Cope, leader of the government forces to hide his army’s cannon.  Whilst the waggonway at Cockenzie has long gone, it is still possible to follow most of the original route to Tranent. A heritage group, the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group, has attempted to study and preserve what remains of the waggonway, promoting the history of the line. The group uncovered the remains of old sleeper blocks and a turntable near the harbour in an archaeological dig undertaken in 2017. The remains of old salt pans were also discovered. 

20170912_101639I edged my way around the harbour before following West Harbour Road to the main street through Cockenzie. A short hop later I followed a path which led back towards the shoreline and the remains of Cockenzie Power Station which was demolished in 2015. The path followed the perimeter of the site of the old power station along a concrete walkway, passing by a crumbling pier (right), access to which was blocked off by metal gates. 

Leaving the site of the old power station behind, the JMW continued to hug the shoreline, curving around the edge of a small hill before dropping down a little into a car park. There was a fantastic view up the coast towards Edinburgh and I could clearly make out Arthur’s Seat looming above the city.

The JMW headed a little inland along the High Street through Prestonpans, however I decided to continue following a path which went along a concrete promenade on the edge of Prestonpans as it gave better views of the coast.



As the tide had not long been out the promenade was still quite wet and was pretty slippy. I nearly lost my footing a few times so I decided to head up a ramp cut into the sea wall and continue along Prestonpans’ High Street, rejoining the JMW. 

Prestonpans was originally one of three separate villages, the other two being Prestongrange and Preston, however over time the villages merged to become one large settlement. Preston was for some time the most important of the three, as it was the centre of estates belonging to Newbattle and Holyrood Abbeys. Indeed its name ‘Preston’ means ‘Priest-town’. 

Prestonpans itself has more of an industrial history, with its name coming about because of its links to the salt industry. As far back as the 11th century, thanks to its proximity to a supply of coal and sea water, there were numerous salt pans in place.  Salt panning had a long history in Prestonpans and the last one in the town (and indeed the last one in Scotland) closed in 1959.

During the short walk along the High Street I noticed a number of murals which highlighted Prestonpans’ heritage, namely its salt panning and coal mining history (below). There are about 35 murals in the town (listed here) which form part of a mural trail.


Soon the path headed away from the High Street and back towards the coast. I climbed up a small hill which was man-made and sitting on land reclaimed from the sea. The path then descended down into an area dotted by lumps and bumps in the ground which an interpretation panel noted as being all that remains of a harbour called Morrison’s Haven (below).

Built in the mid 1500’s by Alexander Acheson, Morrison’s Haven soon became a very busy port and was at one stage one of Scotland’s principal ports, even rivalling that of nearby Leith. The harbour was used to import a variety of materials including timber, rock salt and stone, and export coal mined at the nearby Prestongrange Colliery. I could clearly see the old winding gear from the colliery across the other side of the road. There has been mining on this site since the 12th century, however the ‘modern’ colliery was first sunk in 1830 and closed in 1962. The colliery was re-opened as a museum in 1984, to preserve not only the remains of the colliery but also that of 17th century glassworks, 18th century pottery kilns and 19th century brickworks which also exist on the site. 


Alexander Acheson also built a fort nearby the harbour as there were real concerns that the harbour could be captured by English soldiers and used to supply an English army marching on the Scottish capital. It is believed that Oliver Cromwell destroyed the fort in 1650 following his victory at the Battle of Dunbar, however there is evidence of the fort still standing in 1727, although by the mid 1750’s the fort was no longer recorded on maps so may have disappeared by this point. Indeed, there is very little that remains of the fort today.

The same could also be said for Morrison’s Haven. The harbour went into decline after the Second World War and was eventually filled in with colliery waste in the 1960’s. All that remains is the outline of a tidal basin and a couple of crumbling walls. In fact if it wasn’t for the interpretation panel I would have been none the wiser that one of Scotland’s busiest ports once existed here.


Continuing along the JMW the path reached a small car park before heading along a disused road. Up until recently this road would have been busy with huge wagons dispensing thousands of tonnes of ash from Cockenzie Power Station into lagoons. Prior to the 1960’s the area between Morrison’s Haven and the River Esk at Musselburgh was natural foreshore home to huge mussel beds, which lent its name to the nearby settlement of Musselburgh, literally “Mussel Town”. Following the construction of Cockenzie Power Station a sea wall was built and the lagoons behind the wall were gradually filled up by deposits of thousands of tonnes of ash.


As each lagoon filled up, they were landscaped over and passed into the hands of East Lothian Council who managed them for nature conversation and leisure purposes. As a result the lagoons have become home to a variety of wildlife, some of which I got a glimpse of as I worked my way along the disused road alongside the sea wall. There were hundreds of birds gliding about including ducks and gulls, which were pleasant to walk especially as I took a break on a handily placed bench alongside the disused road.


After a short break I continued to follow the road as it curved towards the River Esk and Musselburgh. The path headed alongside the river which was very attractive in the early afternoon sunlight and it wasn’t long before I was in the pretty town of Musselburgh, which had also been my home for the past couple of days.


Musselburgh could very well lay claim to being Scotland’s oldest town. The Romans were the first to arrive here in 80AD, not long after their invasion of Scotland. They built a fort a little inland from the mouth of the River Esk along with a bridge across the river, providing a link to Edinburgh which has been used in some shape of form for almost 2000 years.


The original Roman bridge was rebuilt in the years before 1300 on the original Roman foundations, before being rebuilt again in 1597 with a new arch being added. The Old Bridge (also known as the Roman Bridge) is still in use to this day, although it is now a pedestrian footbridge across the Esk. A new bridge (unsurprisingly called the New Bridge) was built in 1806 to replace the Old Bridge, which is still in use today to link the two sides of Musselburgh.

In the centuries following the Romans’ departure from the British Isles, Musselburgh became an important settlement, largely due to its proximity to Edinburgh. The settlement was known as Eskmouth in the 7th century. By the early 11th century the name had changed to Muskilburgh which highlighted that the settlement had become a ‘burgh’ meaning it had been granted a certain status by the King. In fact Musselburgh may have been the first settlement in the whole of Scotland to be granted this status. 

During the 14th century the Regent of Scotland, Thomas Randolph died in Musselburgh following a long illness during which he was cared for by the inhabitants of the town. When his successor offered to reward the people for looking after the Regent, they refused stating that they were only doing their duty. As a result, the town and its people became famous for its honesty, becoming known as the “Honest Toun”, a tag which the town still proudly displays. 


Musselburgh became an important upmarket leisure resort thanks to its seaside location, good transport links and most importantly its proximity to the capital. Golf has been played at Musselburgh since at least 1567, as it has been said that Mary, Queen of Scots played a round here during that year. The current Golf Course (called the Old Course) dates back to 1672 and is recognized as the oldest golf course in the world. The course hosted the prestigious British Open six times in the late 19th century.


I crossed the River Esk on a footbridge before following the footpath on the western bank of the river.  The path headed back towards the shore but just before it got there it swung hard to the left and ran parallel to the sea alongside some sports fields. The path certainly seemed to be a popular one, as there were plenty of people out for a stroll whilst enjoying the sunny weather. The path was lined by a string of benches so I decided to sit down on one for a while and enjoy the view and the sun.


With refreshed legs I continued on my way, soon coming to the scenic Fisherrow harbour (below). The current harbour dates from the 17th century, and is very close to the site of the Roman harbour which existed at the mouth of the River Esk. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the harbour at Fisherrow was deemed unsuitable for foreign trade and so didn’t have to its own custom post or excise men. As a result a fair amount of smuggling took place here.


The village became an important port and was home to the legendary Fisherrow fishwives. Dressed in their distinctive striped skirts and aprons, the fishwives worked long hard hours whilst their husbands were out at sea. Fishing tended to be a family occupation so mothers and daughters would often clean the fishing lines and attach new bait including mussels to the lines. Once the catch was brought in the fishwives set about gutting and cleaning the freshly caught fish. This was hard work and the women would stand in icy salty water for hours on end gutting and cleaning up to 20,000 fish over a single day for 11 shillings in pay plus their board and travel.

Fisherrow fishwives at market c. 1900

Once the fish were gutted and cleaned, they had to be carried into Edinburgh for sale. The fishwives would often work in teams of three, carrying the heavy basket of fish together, in a journey which took about 45 minutes. It was often a common sight to see women carrying these heavy loads just days after giving birth. In later years the fishwives would make the journey by bus, tram or train. As the fishing trade declined, so to did the need for the fishwives and it is believed that the last of the Fisherrow fishwives passed away in 2000. 

Leaving the harbour behind I joined the A199 which led through a residential area along the coast and into the suburb of Joppa. For the remainder of the walk I had to make my way through heavily built-up areas as I headed further into Edinburgh. A little way along the A199 another road diverged away which followed the coast more closely so I decided to follow this until I reached Portobello’s promenade. 



The sun had gone in by the time I reached Portobello, however the heavy clouds which threatened rain neither deterred myself nor the multitude of people from walking along the promenade. Portobello is known as ‘Edinburgh’s Seaside’ and is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Indeed, whilst walking along the promenade I could hear a variety of different languages and dialects, both domestic and foreign.


The area in which Portobello sits was known for a long time as Figgate Muir. The name ‘Figgate’ means ‘cow road’ which probably stems from the time when the land was used by the monks at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh for their cattle. Figgate Muir remained empty of any housing until 1742 when a cottage was built on what is now the High Street by a seaman called George Hamilton. Mr Hamilton served under Admiral Edward Vernon during the capture of Porto Bello by British forces in Panama in 1739 and so named this new cottage Portobello Cottage. By 1753 there were multiple buildings around Portobello Cottage, which later became a hostelry for foot travelers and was known as the Shepherds Ha’. 

In 1763 the lands of Figgate Muir (which was then known as Figgate Whins) was sold to Baron Mure for a sum of £1500. The Baron sub-letted the land to an Edinburgh builder named Mr William Jamieson, who discovered large deposits of brick clay at Portobello. Soon after a brick and tile works were built, followed by an earthenware pottery factory. By 1779 three million bricks were produced at Portobello, many of which were exported across Europe and North America. Unsurprisingly Portobello became a thriving settlement in the late 18th century. 

In the early 19th century Portobello became a fashionable bathing resort with the opening of saltwater baths in 1807. A visit by King George IV to Portobello in 1822 which included a review of troops on the sands further boosted the popularity of the developing resort. Further leisure facilities were opened throughout the next 150 years to accommodate the growing number of tourists, including a lido, a permanent funfair, and a large open-aired swimming pool, where the Scottish actor Sean Connery was once employed as a lifeguard before becoming a world famous actor.

Like the majority of coastal resorts around the British coast, Portobello suffered a decline in the latter half of the 20th century as a result of people heading abroad for their holidays rather than to the local seaside resort. However Portobello has been able to arrest this decline in the 21st century and visitor numbers are on the increase.


I had another quick break on the promenade, pausing to get an ice cream from a conveniently placed ice cream van. A little further on I had to take another unscheduled break as I headed for cover whilst a sharp heavy shower passed over. 

I continued along the promenade until it ended and merged into a long wide traffic free road which headed between the shore and an industrial estate. A quarter-of-an-hour later the road climbed up to join the main road into Leith. I will admit that the next couple of miles weren’t very scenic at all, as I passed through a large industrial estate and commercial area along the busy A199 road. 



After a bit of a drag I eventually reached a crossroads surrounded with old Victorian buildings (above). I headed right down Constitution Street which took me took back towards the docks. The road was lined with an interesting mix of old and new buildings, which highlighted the massive regeneration project that has taken place in Leith. The area suffered social and economic in the late 20th century, developing a reputation as a ‘rough’ part of Edinburgh. This was further cemented in the 1993 novel Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh which was set in Leith, followed by its movie adaptation in 1996. The Leith depicted in the book and film has largely disappeared with whole swathes of derelict housing and warehouses cleared to make way for luxury residential and office complexes. 


As I headed towards the dock area I passed derelict old warehouses waiting for the bulldozer which sat right next to brand spanking new apartment blocks. A little further on was a new casino, next to which was the rusting hulks of three giant dock cranes (above). Away from the casino I followed another road which took me towards an old dock, still lined by old railway lines cemented into the cobbles (below) which once served the dock but now lead to nowhere. I took a little break here just to take in the sights and sounds. I could see ships being loaded up on the other dock and so I started to imagine what this area would have been like when it was in full swing. 20170912_144608

Leith first developed as a port in the 12th century, becoming Scotland’s principal port in 1296 when the English captured Berwick-upon-Tweed, cutting it off from Scottish hands. The important and lucrative wool trade from the Scottish Borders now had to come through Leith. With Edinburgh being so close by, the capital’s money and influence greatly helped the expansion and prestige of Leith throughout the next few centuries. Such was Leith’s importance that it became a pawn in the ongoing struggles between England and Scotland, regularly changing hands between the two sides. Leith’s position as the primary port in Scotland ended in the 18th century when the trade routes opened to the United States meaning that ports on the west coast, particularly Glasgow had better access to these lucrative routes. 

Shipbuilding was also big business in Leith from the the 14th century onwards. The first steamship to cross the Atlantic, the SS Sirius was built in Leith in 1837 which became the first ship to hold the prestigious Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic in both directions. The main shipyard in Leith, Robb’s contributed greatly to the war effort during the Second World War, building forty-two vessels for the Royal Navy, fourteen ships for the Merchant Navy, and repairing  and refitting almost 3000 ships belonging to both the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy (an average of one ship very day throughout the war). Sadly shipbuilding came to an end in the late 20th century when the last ship left Robb’s shipyard in 1983 which itself closed in 1984, bringing to an end a 660 year shipbuilding history.


My break finished, I decided to make the final push to the finish line at the Ocean Terminal, which I could now easily make out just over the other side of the dock. To get there I had to cross the Water of Leith (above) via an old bridge – the Victoria Swing Bridge (below). Built in 1874, the bridge allowed ships to pass easily, and carried both rail and road across the Water of Leith. Last used by rail and road traffic in 1964, the tracks were removed and is now used as a pedestrian footbridge.


At the other end of the swing bridge I followed a road around some new apartment blocks and alongside a disused quay. The quay was lined by Victoria Quay, a Scottish Government building built in 1996 on the site of the Old East Dock. This new building effectively kick-started the regeneration of Leith. 

20170912_150602.jpgIt was now just a short walk along Ocean Drive to the Ocean Terminal, which I admittedly thought was going to be a dropping off point for ocean liners, but actually turned out to be a very large shopping centre built on the site of the old Robb’s shipyard. Just before I finished the walk I decided to take a short detour around the side of the Ocean Terminal to check out the HMY Britannia, the Queen’s former Royal Yacht. 

The Royal Yacht is berthed next to the Ocean Terminal and is now a museum, allowing visitors to get a little taste of what life was like for the Royal Family who used this ship to travel over a million miles around the world during its 44 year service. The yacht was decommissioned in 1997 and soon made its way to Leith where it is now permanently berthed.

I walked back round to the front of the Ocean Terminal where I ended the walk just in time as the heavens suddenly opened and rain poured down. Luckily for me the bus into Edinburgh arrived so I didn’t get too wet and on the journey back into the capital I got a good taste of the sights of Leith as the bus wound its way through the streets. It was a very good end to the day and the walk which had had plenty of variety in it. I was looking to take a break the following day just to rest my legs a little, before making the final push from Leith to North Queensferry on the last day of my walking holiday. I was really looking forward to it as the walk promised so much, with a tidal island to explore and the three magnificent bridges across the Firth of Forth to view. 




Levenhall Links





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