THE Leith Dockers' Club Christmas tea dance, 2019, and the room is packed to the gunnels with tinsel and chat. Mary Moriarty, 80, has a small boxed item to show me. What she unwraps is a tea cup and saucer, decorated with two portraits – one an Edwardian-looking lady, hair-piled high, the other a woman in a tammy golfing hat – and the words “a present from Leith”.

The tea set is of relevance because we’re meeting to talk Leith history. “I found it in a charity shop in Elgin, ten years ago,” Moriarty says. "It amazed me what it had on it.'”

It’s a hundred years since Leith, once an independent town with its own council, was merged into Edinburgh as part of an extension of the city’s boundaries. That absorption was done after a plebiscite in which Leithers voted, six to one, for it not to happen. But the sense that Leith is its own town, with its own politics and identity, persists to this day.

People here, where I have lived for the last 12 years, mostly regard themselves as Leithers rather than Edinburghers. Some describe us as being “colonised by greater Edinburgh”. Others talk about the “free state of Leith”. More than a few people have said that it might be time for another referendum, a re-run of last century’s plebiscite.

Jemma Neville, author of Constitution Street, a fascinating book that looks at rights through the prism of the street on which I live, believes that Leith is not alone in feeling some sort of democratic deficit. “That's what happens when voices aren’t heard and people aren’t part of the decision-making around a place. I think a lot of things that we’re experiencing in Leith at the moment and perhaps in the last decade are symptomatic of what’s happening at scale elsewhere in the country.”

Leith's recent history, however, tells us about community survival and resilience. The Dockers' Club is still going, though the last of its true dockers died last year. And now, 100 years after that referendum, there is a resurgence of community activism in wider Leith, much of it centred round the Save Leith Walk campaign which has had numerous significant victories in fighting off demolitions and redevelopment. If you are interested in stories about how local communities fight back against developers and corporate powers, this is one.

Leith is also a microcosm, whose issues around identity and self-determination in some way echo the concerns at a national level. “Who decides?” is the big question.

Among Leith’s distinctive local celebrities is Moriarty, former landlady of the Port of Leith, a pub at which punters really did dance on the bar or sway together tearily at the end of a night to the strains of Sunshine on Leith, and which was the destination of many a sailor in town for the night. That she is such a figurehead says a lot. Moriarty is the kind of person that can light up any room, but also has seen, in her time running the Port, her fair share of grit and darkness. Originally from Costorphine, she took up the role as landlady in the 1980s, during some of Leith’s most difficult socioeconomic years, the heroin-flooded era chronicled in Trainspotting.

She recalls that period: "Leith was dodgy. Lots of drugs, working girls… what’s wrong with that? We’ve all got to work. Pity they’ve got to work a street. But that happens, doesn’t it?"

Often the story about Leith focusses mostly on the men. It’s one of deindustrialisation and masculinity in crisis, of Trainspotting, and also The Proclaimers. But that misses part of the tale. A great many of the key figures in Leith are women – from Mary Moriarty, often dubbed the Queen of Leith, through to Evie Murray the activist behind the Leith Croft community garden, Linda Somerville, a key force in the recent Save Leith Walk community campaign, LeithLate's founder Morvern Cunningham, or author Jemma Neville. The voices defining Leith are at least as likely to be women as men.

Save Leith Walk’s Linda Somerville observes that women have been key drivers of many recent campaigns. “Leith in terms of its economy is classically post-Thatcher. All the heavy industry gone. Its industry and manufacture have been overtaken by services. That’s why we have the service economy, all these cafes and bars. Women fit into that. Previously the Leith story was a male story. It was about the men in the industry, a very male dominated environment and there wasn’t a pub on Leith Walk I would have gone into. That’s been changed.”

So, I’m starting my local history lesson with the Christmas tea dance, where the childhood memories flow, and one of the first things any of these ladies is likely to tell you is whether they had an indoor toilet or not when they were growing up.

Cathie Stephen, now in her nineties, did have one. “We were in a top flat in 31 North Fort street,” she recalls, “and we had our own toilet which was something. Oh my God we were rich. My dad used to say, 'Well, if we’ve no got anything else, we’ve got a toilet and running water.' My mother was blind. I was one of 10. I had five sisters and four brothers and I was the baby.”

Margaret Milligan, 73, remembers how she used to visit her grandparents who lived in the corporation buildings. “People stayed in one bedroom, and there was gas lighting.”

Even in 1970, one in four Scots was still sharing an outdoor toilet. The rise of the private indoor toilet has been a significant revolution. Yet, the story of people getting their homes with indoor toilets is also one of loss – frequently of tenements pulled down. Many people will tell you that one of Leith’s great tragedies was the tearing down of the vibrant shopping street that was the Kirkgate and its replacement with modern social housing and a shopping centre.

“There were several demolitions,” Tim Bell, Trainspotting walking-tour guide and author of Choose Life, Choose Leith, tells me. “They were probably necessary and inevitable demolitions. In 1963 BBC Panorama did a programme on poverty in Scotland and they found most of it where they expected it, in and around Glasgow. But there was a small pocket of very acute poverty in Leith. The city fathers, who had long seen Leith as a problem rather than an asset took the high-handed decision to demolish the Kirkgate, which tore the heart out of the community. Tearing down the Kirkgate was vandalism. It was a very busy street with shop keepers who owned their own premises.”

Another local historian, Iain Dick, had his home knocked down. “The house I was born in was an old Victorian tenement,” he recalls. “We had no hot water in the house, no bathroom, but we did have a toilet – we were posh. Everybody wanted a house with a bath in it, and hot water. That was their dream. But they regretted it later on. And even John Crichton who was the head of the council regretted it and wrote into the papers saying it had been a big mistake knocking down the Kirkgate. We should have renovated it.”

Dick describes how work used to be plentiful. "My dad was a boilermaker. His father was a boilermaker and his grandfather too. I remember Leith as a very industrious area and among most people that I knew, the ambition when you left school was to get a trade. Look at the kids now. They don’t have that opportunity.”

Such was the decline in Leith that in 1980, John Crichton, then Secretary of State for Scotland, identified it as in need of urgent rescue, and launched a regeneration programme, The Leith Project.

Tim Bell summarises the decline that led to that. “When Irvine Welsh was born in 1957, I think 80 per cent of Scotch whisky was matured and held in bonded warehouses in Leith, and they all got sucked out to Broxburn. In the 1980s Henry Robb’s shipyard closed. It was the Harland and Wolff of Leith. Then Leith Central station and all its potential was demolished. At the end of the 1980s, the motto was that if you want a future, get out of Leith."

Post-industrial job loss, of course, happened in many places. But was there something extra that Leith lost at the point of its merger with the city? “Its self-determination,” says Bell. “Gordon Donaldson, the historiographer for Scotland – Leith Academy boy – said that Leith suffered more in the 20th century at the hands of Edinburgh than it had in any previous century, and that the form of suffering was being ignored, demolished and sidelined.”

Leith still has pockets of acute poverty – mostly around its social housing. The pattern is visible there in last week's newly published maps of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.The area around me is a patchwork of colours of blues, pale blues, yellows and oranges, each block almost a different shade, but some of them a deep, dark red that marks deprivation. When people say that Leith is mixed that fact can be seen on this map. It can be seen from my window too, which looks out on the glowing stainless-glass windows of St Mary’s Star of the Sea, a tower block and, if I twist my head to the right, a smart restaurant, The Chop House, serving up dry-aged beef. Head a few blocks down my street and you’ll find the offices of former Rockstar North’s Leslie Benzies’ new games company, and wander round to the Shore and you find the Michelin-starred restaurants for which Leith is now famous.

“One of the great strengths of this street,” says Jemma Neville, who has made Constitution Street the focus of her book, “is the diversity. It’s the mix of residential and commercial but also the mix of different types of houses and therefore the people. Constitution Street has a high rise tower block, a lot of social housing, tenements, new build developments, Georgian townhouses. Why the pace of change can seem quite threatening to a lot of us at the moment is that we’re a little bit under siege from developers who want to do that homogenous, mono-cultural style of living, for instance 500 student units on a single site. Nothing against students, but it is a little bit odd to have all one type of lived experience in one place.”

One of the things she sees in Leith, as in other places, is a lot of "leaning into the local". I see that too. In a time in which global challenges like climate change seem dauntingly huge, this is where many are putting their energies into grassroots change.

A repeated theme if you talk to anyone about Leith is that change is the one constant. Even the Dockers' Club is moving with the times. Back in the hall at the Christmas tea dance, 20 ladies have taken to the floor to do the slosh. Tracey Fisken, the caterer behind the tantalising array of profiteroles and cakes laid out for the dancers, describes how this working man’s club has transformed as the town around it has.

“It has become more of a community hub," she says. Fisken is, herself, a kind of Leith royalty, a long term feature of the Dockers'. Her father was the club steward and secretary, then later he ran the catering, which she took over three years ago.

“My mum and dad were both from Leith. Always Leithers. Both of them passed away this year. The request was Sunshine on Leith at both funerals.”

“I think Leith has gained more than it’s lost," she observes. "Leithers have always been really welcoming. The fact that the community has expanded hasn’t been a bad thing. You get all sorts of people. I never thought I would see the day when we would have a celebration of a same sex marriage in the club. And we’ve had several.”

But Leith's recent story is also about resistance to change – particularly that foisted from the outside. A key moment has been the success of the Save Leith Walk campaign in preventing the demolition of a block of buildings, which was slated for development as student accommodation. The battle for Stead’s Place began at a community council meeting, to which, Linda Somerville recalls, around 70 people turned up after news about the plan touched a nerve.

A key issue for Somerville and others, was she says, “who decides”. “That was the question people asked. People felt a real lack of agency. They kept saying, who decided this? Who gets to choose? It raised questions around land ownership. People felt that decision was made 'up the toon, hen, nothing to do with us'. ”

The closer the decision-making to the community, she believes, the better. “If you devolve decision making down,” she says, “then you’re going to get more participation.”

A central focus of the Save Leith Walk fight was The Leith Depot, a pub and live music venue, which is still open after most of the shops and cafes around it have closed. Partly it has survived because it was one of the latest leases to end. The battle here has been music fuelled, with countless protest gigs. Pete Mason, one of the trio that runs the pub, believes that if there were another referendum on Leith’s merger, the vote would be to leave. “If we were to put a vote out tomorrow, overwhelmingly people would vote to separate from Edinburgh. Particularly with all the Disneyfication and the Christmas market that is going on up in the town."

The success of a community campaign like Save Leith Walk has ripples outwards. Somerville says: “It forges those bonds within communities which are really important.” It also emboldens others at a time when countless similar battles are taking place. “What we’ve done here," Somerville says, "is the same fight that has been going on across Scotland, because of the failure of our planning legislation to protect and consult communities.”

Right now it’s feeding into a wider campaign network across the city, titled Citizen, which is launching the fight to make Edinburgh, "a place for people rather than profit". Leith is the cauldron in which some of this energy has been generated.

Somerville talks about "old Leithers and new Leithers”, when she talks of the community. I would describe myself as one of those "new" Leithers. But the problem with being a new Leither is that it’s an identity that comes with a whiff of gentrification. Of course, not all new Leithers are gentrifiers – the influx of new residents is diverse and multicultural – but I probably am one.

A great deal of the problem around gentrification relates to housing. There is, across Edinburgh, a housing crisis and people are being priced out of many areas. One of the sad features of my sons' childhoods has been watching kids disappear from their classes because either the social housing they have been allocated is over the other side of town, or their parents found Leith unaffordable.

Some who move out of Leith are those who have lived here all their lives – who love the town but find that it's too expensive. Among them is my friend Nicky McKiernan who grew up in Leith, in the Brutalist council banana flats, but has flitted to Duddingston, because she wanted a home big enough for her family, and that kind of space wasn’t affordable in Leith.

McKiernan is a reminder that there are many Leiths. “There’s Leith," she recalls, "and there’s Leif [with a shortish th that sounds almost like an f] – and I grew up in Leif, with that pronunciation – so the banana flats would be Leif. That’s the rougher parts of Leith, the part where a lot of crimes happened but they were never big news. What we saw on a daily basis was never in the news.”

Jemma Neville echoes this observation that people's experiences of Leith are diverse. There are multiple Leiths. She talks about how she was a trustee for the Citadel youth centre for eight years. “You see there the reality of young mums who had to make decisions over food or clothing or basic family support issues. That wasn’t my day to day experience and I didn’t see that walking about the Shore, going for cappuccinos. Foodbank use is on the rise. It’s up 25 per cent here. But we have Michelin starred restaurants. It’s a tale of two cities.”

Leith shares that with many places. It is many different cities in a small area. How we view the changes that go on in our environment depends on our perspective. One person's great new restaurant, is another person's exclusion. But the more the community is involved in decisions, the more local views are considered, the more likely it is we all feel a share in positive change. Let that be what the next century of Leith is about.