Guest blog: Welcoming the terns back to the Forth

Colin Brown, of Dudley Gardens, took a walk around Western Harbour after the recent storms, and was kind enough to share his thoughts with us. We’re delighted to publish this as his first guest post on Greener Leith. We’ve illustrated it with a great picture of a Common Tern in Leith Docks, taken last year by DaveH

Common tern


A couple of days after the storm of last Monday, I took a stroll past the Western Harbour developments. Residents surely enjoy wonderful views the length of the Firth, but my reaction to these buildings is one of environmental shock. They seem to stand as a testament to planners’ hubris.

It’s as though someone has seen a science fiction movie – say, Metropolis – and thought “hey, I can do that for real!” Massive assemblages in shiny steel and glass, like a children’s construction kit rise up to a giddying range of heights, adopting a scale well beyond the human; for me, these intrusions in the landscape, taken together, lack aesthetic or structural coherence. 

With the passage of time and the inevitable reduction in financial capacity to continue to support their construction, now stand as a forlorn monument to municipal madness. The metalwork is, already, showing signs of the onslaught of the sea air, becoming tarnished with corrosion.  The area feels devoid of human life or activity.

The number 10 bus turns up, every ten minutes, empty. And leaves again – empty. The tract of land between the new follies and ASDA is crossed with optimistic half completed roads to nowhere – well, nowhere yet. I wondered if Edinburgh’s new town, when it was being constructed, had been seen by detractors with the same sort of alienation as I was feeling.

Where building has not, as yet, continued, the ground is being reclaimed by buddleia,clover, ranunculus and litter. It has become, in spite of itself, an unwitting nature reserve. Unintended ponds have formed, providing a resting place for two pairs of mute swansand a small family of mallards. Goldfinches are to be seen and heard chirruping merrily through the trees and enjoying the seeds. Leave it alone, and it seems nature will flourishin circumstances which feel quite incompatible with our romantic view of what, andwhere, nature should be.

To the East, a brave attempt has been made to landscape a small part, close to the harbour mouth. A path has been prepared, and curious benches installed. It was here that my spirits were lifted. Offshore I heard, then saw, dozens of terns – whether arctic or common I couldn’t tell. I hadn’t seen these elegant fliers for a couple of years – at least not in any numbers. 

High in the sky they were circling and swooping, making inelegant noises, quarrelsome and sharp, quite out of keeping with their slender, fluid appearanceand movement. At lower levels, they were to be seen in fast, straight and determined flight, often with marine vegetation, no doubt to serve as building material, grasped firmly in their bills.

It was hard to work out just where they were heading to do their building, as they sped eastwards across the water of Leith docks, but presumably they have found somewhere that pleases them as a home. It was good to be able to watch their purposeful activity, and to welcome them back for their season on the Forth. 

The Common Terns that Colin saw were probably nesting in the Imperial Dock. Their nesting site has been designated as a Special Protection Area, and it estimated that 5% of all the breeding Common Terns in the UK nest there each year. You can find out more on the City of Edinburgh Council Wildlife and Biodiversity pages.