Sunshine on Leith

If you go down to Leith today you’re in for a big surprise. Teddy bear picnics aside, there is a fast-growing ecosystem of tech startups that have abandoned Edinburgh’s city centre for a work life on the shore. While lower rents and rates are part of the story, as one prominent tech investor told me recently, “there’s more grit about Leith, it’s more like Glasgow than Edinburgh and that suits some people better.”  

Well, we know grit and grind are essential for every startup so there’s undoubtedly something in this. Neither should it be forgotten that two of our most successful digital success stories of recent times - Skyscanner and Bigmouthmedia - began their corporate lives in Leith, on Timber Bush. Less well known is how some of the search engine optimisation (SEO) specialists Skyscanner hired from Bigmouthmedia helped the flight search specialist to really take off.  

Going even further back, Leith Agency co-founder John Denholm says, “back in 1984 when we decided that Leith would be a great place to start an ad agency, it was the sense of bohemian dereliction that appealed to us, to give us a creative edge in contrast to agencies in Edinburgh’s West End that looked like accountants. The Malmaison was a hostel for the homeless, Commercial Quay was still a whisky bond and there was only one eating place, the Waterfront.”  

The executive search and headhunting agency that John Denholm now runs with his wife Nicki, Denholm Associates, recently struck up a partnership with a Leith-based tech startup who many see as having the form to be one of Scotland’s next big tech stars. Amiqus, whose compliance software product Amiqus ID is making waves across the legal and professional services sectors, has an equally fancied CEO at its helm in the form of Callum Murray and Sir Sandy Crombie as its chair.  

One of Scotland’s first bona fide tech accelerators, Seed Haus, was partly born out of iZettle acquiring Intelligent POS and its founder Robin Knox going on to launch what is already one the most important fixtures on Scotland’s tech map. Entrepreneurial leadership group FutureX is also key to Leith’s growing tech credentials and the team shares office space with film production company, Campfire, on Constitution Street.  

Kate McKay, a former Saltire Fellow and associate partner at angel firm Galvanise Capital, who are based in the Round the World studios in Leith, identifies the strong focus on creative industries and a new generation of entrepreneurs who reflect the changing nature of work. McKay says, “there’s nothing too flashy going on but it does feel like there is a growing population of like-minded people who have their heads down and are getting on with interesting work.” Some of that interesting work includes recently launched peer-to-peer, blockchain enabled sports betting platform, mungoparc, a prime example of the innovation taking place in EH6. 

At the top of Leith Walk, Edinburgh Greenside, formerly known as Blenheim House is winning awards with 50 per cent of the space pre-let to Scottish fintech player Nucleus Financial and other tech businesses expected to follow. While the site is arguably more city centre than Leith, there is a growing swell of optimism that stronger links between Edinburgh and Leith are in the making and will be for the greater good.  

Nick White of property consultants Cuthbert White, who were involved in the sale of Greenside, is seeing a lot of commercial activity in the city going east, a trend he thinks will markedly increase with the extension of the tram line. White says, “Leith is still seen as dislocated from the city but the tram will be a catalyst for change and its new spine should see a significant ripple of development.”

Edinburgh architectural firm 7N produced a white paper last year titled “What If?” that reimagines Leith Walk as Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, although admittedly with a cafe culture more akin to Copenhagen than Catalonia. What seems certain is that Leith Walk is an underrated boulevard that has still to punch above its weight. Champs-Elysees? What about Champs Eh Leithie? Perhaps the next few years will help to cement its revival and, with it, that of Edinburgh’s twin city on the shore.