Ruth, Jonathan and Martha Ellis

As Greek mythology would have it, the water of Lethe was one of the rivers of the underworld: the river of forgetfulness. It flowed through the lair of Hypnos, god of sleep, where its calm, murmuring waters would induce drowsiness, make travellers forget the troubles of their past . . .

Today, along the Water of Leith (not Lethe), on a brisk, bright afternoon in early Spring, there’s little chance of drowsiness – but it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of a bustling city. Its leafy walkway links Leith with central Edinburgh, by-passing landmarks such as the Royal Botanic Garden, the Dean Gallery and Murrayfield Stadium. Over 12 miles long, it gently winds its way out of the city towards Colinton village and Balerno. 

The river played an important part in establishing Edinburgh as a major industrial town. Its mills – over 70 during its heyday – made paper, flour and textiles for export to the rest of Scotland and beyond, via the Union Canal at one end and the port at the other. The river now serves as a city sanctuary, an urban oasis, for the tens of thousands of people who live in its vicinity. 

For Ruth Ellis, her husband Jonathan, and their three year old daughter, Martha, the Water of Leith is just such an asset, providing a safe, relaxing environment for their regular strolls along the riverside. Martha loves to come and feed the ducks. With her pink wellies and polka dot parka, she’s easily the brightest thing in sight. This afternoon she’s holding a bag full of spent grains and hops left over from the latest batch of her dad’s homebrew.

To attract the attention of some ducks pootling about on the other side of the river, Ruth lobs a chunk of stale loaf in their direction. “You’re not really supposed to feed them bread,” she says. “It makes them fat. Grain’s much better for them.” 

Martha launches a tiny handful of grain at some fast-approaching ducks, who quickly tuck in. Word soon gets out and a peck of pigeons gathers to pick up the spills and spoils that drop at our feet, while a couple of mean-looking gulls hover overhead.

We amble along the river side. The water murmurs its hypnotic magic and the busy city’s soon a distant memory. No traffic noise, no petrol fumes – the only sound we hear is from the squalling gulls behind us.

“I’m always amazed at how much wildlife is supported by such an urban river,” says Ruth. “There’s such a good population of herons and cormorants and all kinds.”

Right on cue, a family of squirrels appears. “What do squirrels eat, Martha?” asks Ruth. “Squirrel food!” comes the reply, quick as a flash. And just as quick, the squirrels are gone.

“What other wildlife can you see along the river?”

“Swans and cygnets,” says Martha. “And foxes, too.”

A bicycle bell pings and we move aside to let an older couple pass with a cheery wave.

“It’s really good to have somewhere like this that’s safe and quiet,” says Ruth. “You can ride bikes and not have to worry about cars. And to be able to walk into town away from the roads is really nice. I couldn’t tell you how many miles I pushed Martha’s buggy up and down here when she was a baby.”

Ruth works for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s flooding policy team, based in Riccarton. “Scotland is in a good position in that there’s generally no shortage of water,” she says, somewhat dryly. “But I think when there’s such an abundance of it we can become complacent, so it’s important to look after what we have.”

Further along the walkway, it becomes clear how well-maintained the path and river are. “Considering it runs right through the middle of the city, it’s in pretty good condition.” says Ruth. “Most people do their bit to look after it. There’s the usual issue with dogs’ mess and stuff like that but they come and take away the wet leaves to make it suitable for people to walk and cycle along.”

The Water of Leith is managed by a Trust, and a number of local community groups actively maintain the river and the walkway. “Every so often there are litter picks, and you see bin bags tied to trees and lampposts to try and encourage folk not to chuck stuff on the ground.”

The Council, too, it seems, is quick to respond and sort things out if anything is reported. “People do dump rubbish there from time to time, but it’s generally dealt with in a matter of days.”

With her role in SEPA’s flooding team, Ruth is more used to dealing with unwanted excesses of water – making her especially well-placed to appreciate the value of Scotland’s water environment.

“We’re pretty lucky here,” she says, “but lots of places in Scotland are just the same. People do value water. It’s part of most people’s lives – everyone lives within reasonable distance of rivers, lakes, lochs and things and we all go out at some point and enjoy them. It’s an important part of what living in Scotland’s about, having these things on your doorstep.”

“You never have to go very far to get to a river in Scotland.”

Or, indeed, any kind of water. Having thrown them the last of the grain, we wave bye-bye to the ducks and head back to the city . . . but not before Martha gleefully puts her bright pink wellies to the test with a quick splash in the muddiest puddle around.