Choose Leith: How Edinburgh changed between Trainspotting movies

Stefan Pape
·Contributor
Danny Boyle shot both 'Trainspotting' films on location (Sony Pictures)
Danny Boyle shot both ‘Trainspotting’ films on location (Sony Pictures)

Danny Boyle’s return into the squalid world of ‘Trainspotting’ – ‘T2 Trainspotting’ – transpired in a sequel overcome by nostalgia. But while Renton (Ewan McGregor), Begbie (Robert Carlyle), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewan Bremner) were all so concerned with looking back, the film’s primary location of Edinburgh is very much a city focused on the future, which has seen multiple changes in the two decades that separate both movies.

It’s something of a cliché to say that the setting of a film is like a character in the movie, but where this franchise (if you can call it that?) is concerned, it’s a statement of fact. Shining a harsh light on on the Scottish capital, initially locals were upset over Irvine Welsh’s original novel, for we become embroiled in the grotty, bleak underbelly of society, inhabited by drug dealers and users alike. Yet across the past 20 years the films have established an identity, injecting a sense of local pride into the community. In line with the narrative arc of our protagonists (well, most of them), during this time Edinburgh has been on the rise; evolving, developing and regenerating.

Trainspotting v T2 (Sony Pictures)
Trainspotting v T2 (Sony Pictures)

Though as the film preaches, to appreciate the present we do need to cast our eye over the past, and Edinburgh has quite the historical heritage. Home to some of the most esteemed and creative wordsmiths of all time, Welsh joins an illustrious list also containing Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie, while J.K. Rowling penned some of Harry Potter’s adventures in this very city. It’s a place drenched in imagination and steeped in culture. Even Sean Connery used to adorn the indelible, almost sepia-tinged streets, as a milkman no less (‘schkimmed, not semi-schkimmed’).

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The immersive feature gives such a flavour of the city, and few locations more so than Cockburn Street – a famous, serpentine link between the Royal Mile and Waverley Station. The tall buildings meant that the tenants used to throw their excrement from windows to avoid the long walk downstairs. To let passers-by know what was incoming, they’d shout ‘gardyloo’. Perhaps Spud should’ve just done that in the first movie and saved himself a lot of embarrassment. Used as a location in the sequel (where Renton and Begbie clash in public), it has since been used for ‘Avengers: Infinity War’. It’s a good thing Iron Man wears armour, just in case anything falls out of a window from above.

Renton returns home (Sony Pictures)
Renton returns home (Sony Pictures)

But how does Edinburgh now compare to what we saw in the 1996, seminal masterpiece? In the new movie there’s an instantaneous, notable difference, for Renton returns back to his hometown from the airport via a tram – which had only been introduced in 2014. He’s safer on transport too, for when running down the street he has a habit of almost being run over. The setting to the aforementioned, iconic scene is also seen briefly in the sequel, and is now undergoing an £850m development, with several cranes looming in the landscape. They’re so disruptive that Boyle had to ask for them to be lowered to get his shot, leaving a very short window of time to do so.

In the sequel Renton again tests his own mortality outside King’s Stables car park during Begbie’s unrelenting pursuit. It’s a setting Boyle was adamant about including, with an art deco design, and a staircase the director adored. Talking of unique architecture, the scene when our protagonists apply for planning permission takes place at the Parliament building, designed by the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles – who died before its completion in 2004.

The past catches up with Renton (Sony Pictures)
The past catches up with Renton (Sony Pictures)

Another location is The Cav, the setting for the film’s memorable poster campaign – as the toilets the four lead actors stand within are situated in this very arena. What isn’t quite so obvious from the marketing however, is that it’s the ladies. The Cav is also benefiting greatly off the back of the movie’s success – with an ongoing 250k refurbishment.

Then there’s the glorious Arthur’s Seat – home to one of the more profound moments in the sequel concerning Renton and Spud, offering cinema goers a wondrous visual experience as it peers over the entire city. From here you can see Leith, and this area has undergone the most significant changes of anywhere between the two films, which seems fitting given its so closely connected to the ‘Trainspotting’ franchise. Not only was Welsh born there, but it’s where the characters grew up.

Renton and Spud take in the city view (Sony Pictures)
Renton and Spud take in the city view (Sony Pictures)

Leith is an area that has struggled across the last few decades, suffering from the drug problem we see depicted in the two films. The closing of Leith Central Station set the area on a downwards spiral, with Welsh claiming it ripped the heart out of the place, taking away its means of connection and distribution – perhaps even influencing the film’s title. Now where the station once sat is a gigantic supermarket – emblematic of an area that is going through a period of gentrification, at times almost unrecognisable to the Leith we saw depicted in the 1996 endeavour.

Gentrification and cosmopolitism can of course be a good thing – there’s a new medical centre built to accommodate the ever-expanding neighbourhood, not to mention the Michelin star restaurants that have opened up. By the docks there’s one establishment in particular that used to be a dingy stopover for naughty sailors, and is now a rather high-class brasserie. There are warehouses in Forth Ports currently being turned into a film studio, while popular watering hole Port O’Leith is to be given the gastropub makeover treatment – much to the locals’ disillusionment (just don’t tell Begbie).

This local revival is reflected both narratively and emotionally in T2 – a film that’s about getting older, looking back and still moving on. Yet like our dear old Spud, there are still pockets of Leith left in the past, with a perfectly placed scrap heap opposite a nice block of flats, that just so happen to be the location where Sick Boy lives. A fitting juxtaposition, and one that reminds us that though the sequel thrives in its modern landscape, there’s still a touch of industrialism that the films would be so lost without.


‘T2 Trainspotting’ including 30 deleted scenes plus commentary from Danny Boyle & John Hodge, is available now on Digital and on DVD, Blu-ray™ & 4K Ultra HD™ June 5. Plan your visit to Edinburgh with help from visitscotland.com.

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