making the water of leith navigable

the water of leith 
Mills, greyhound racing, ship building, trading, and home to artist Antony Gormly’s 6 TIMES project - the relationship between humans and the Water of Leith has been rich throughout history. As such, the configuration of the urban fabric and subsequently, the topography of the landscape, have altered, shifted, morphed, in response to human activity along the river. 

Cartographers have had to alter their map designs quickly and efficiently to allign with and document these changes. Human alterations and intervention along the river occured so frequently that each cartographic edition was titled the Plan of the Water of Leith and its Environs with Intended Improvements - whereby the ‘Improvements’ were all the infrastructural proposals that would be started or completed before the next edition. Cartographers were essentially tasked with assuming the future configuration along the Water of Leith, such was the speed of development.

Rapidly rising rates of trading commodities such as soap (using whale oil from extensive whaling), whiskey, wine, timber, glass bottles, and lead established the Port of Leith as one of the most important economical assets in Scotland. Though Leith is in close proximity to Edinburgh, transporting commodities along roads was demanding, and a rather ambitious proposal was outlined in an attempt to increase the efficiency of trade to the centre of Edinburgh. 

The proposal stipulates the widening of the river to 120ft, and increasing its depth to 50ft up to Stockbridge. In doing so, trade would flow in and out of the city more fluidly, and the 70 mills dotted along the river banks could load and transport directly from their place of supply.

It is at this point, that the focus of the drawing exercise emerges - the fantastical depiction of the process of making the Water of Leith navigable, imagined in the contemporary context.

an 18th Century proposal


To make the Water of Leith navigable, the river must be dredged. Given that the project is an excavation and exploration of the site through the representation of drawing, the dredging process was not bound to convention or possibility. Rather, it diverges toward the fantastical, an opportunity to evoke the industrial motion inherent to the history of the river. As such, the Victoria Swingbridge has been reactivated for the dredging process. Once pivotal in controlling the flow of trade further inland, it would now control the navigable improvements.

To do so, and to function in the manner its name suggests, the bridge needs points in which to pivot. Chimneys belonging to the mills along the river provide the verticality, rotational possibility and proximity in which the bridge could pivot from. These chimneys, sometimes excavated from cartographic edition, sometimes the remnants still present today, further incorporate the character of the river. It is only through the scaling, migration and rotation of the Victoria swingbridge on the chimneys along the river that the scale of the dredging process can be imagined and the navigable ‘improvements’ can occur. As this process occurs, reality, or at least, the contemporary urban composition, is allowed to limit the rotational potential of the bridge - the material properties of existing buildings along the river resist the bridge’s motion in accordance to their structural characteristics.

river monsters

For the final drawing, the river was split up according to characteristic specificities extracted from historical records. These three segments of river were:

For each of these, the monstrosity of the dredging process is depicted as the Victoria Swingbridge rotates around its axis.