Leith Reflections by Jack Gillon and Fraser Parkinson
Leith was first established on the banks of the Water of Leith, at the point where the river entered the Firth of Forth. The first historical reference to the town dates from 1140, when the harbour and fishing rights were granted to Holyrood Abbey by David I. The early settlement was centred on the area bounded by the Shore, Water Street, Tolbooth Wynd and Broad Wynd.
Leith became Edinburgh’s port in 1329 when King Robert I granted control of the town to the Burgh of Edinburgh. Further Royal Charters during the 15th century gave Edinburgh the rights to land adjoining the river and prohibited all trade and commercial activity by Leithers on the ground owned by Edinburgh.
Leith constantly features in the power struggles that took place in Scotland and the battles, landings and sieges that have had an influence on its development.
In the second half of the eighteenth-century regular streets, including Bernard Street and Constitution Street, were built on the edges of the town and Queen Charlotte Street was cut through the medieval layout. It became a fashionable seaside resort which, as early as 1767, included a golf clubhouse built by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at the west end of the Links.
Leith expanded greatly during the nineteenth-century, associated with railway building and the growth of the docks. Port related industries and warehousing also grew rapidly during this period.
In 1833, Leith was established as an independent Municipal and Parliamentary Burgh with full powers of local government. The area expanded as massive warehouses and additional docks were built: the Victoria Dock in 1851, the Albert Dock in 1881 and the Imperial Dock in 1903.
After the passing of the Leith Improvement Act in 1880 many of the slums and most of the sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings were cleared away. This coincided with programmes of major tenement development – in particular the building of dense tenement blocks over the fields between Leith Walk and Easter Road.
In 1920, the town was amalgamated with Edinburgh. By the time of the amalgamation, Leith contained its successful port, significant industrial enterprises, shipbuilding yards, warehouses, bonds and a population densely packed into ageing tenements and housing stock.
Following the First World War, the number of shipyards was reduced to one, and the stream of pre-war trade dwindled. Through the inter-war years, Leith had high unemployment. However, the population was still around 80,000 at the start of the Second World War.
The 1950s brought the final days of what older Leithers would describe as the heart of Leith. The brimming tenements, shops and small workshops of the 1950s along the old and ancient thoroughfares in the heart of Leith were destined for redevelopment. The Kirkgate, St Andrew Street, Tollbooth Wynd, Bridge Street and many more would disappear in the coming decade.
After decades of industrial decline, slum clearance and depopulation in the post-war era, the area gradually began to enjoy an upturn in fortunes in the late 1980s. The emphasis moved to urban renewal, community needs and the conservation of Leith’s historic buildings.
The town retains a passionate sense of individuality and its people a proud sense of identity. Today, Leith is a thriving port and cruise line destination with many excellent hotels, restaurants and bars. It is also the base of the Royal Yacht Britannia and the home of Scotland’s Civil Service at Victoria Quay.
Leith Reflections features an exciting collection of historic and modern pictures that are individually merged to reveal how the area has changed over the decades. Each of the 180 pictures in the book combines a recent colour view with the matching sepia archive scene. Through the split-image effect, readers can see how streets, buildings, the docks and everyday life have transformed with the passing of time. The book presents a fascinating visual chronicle that ingeniously reflects past and present glimpses of the area. This book will be of interest to residents, visitors, local historians and all those with links to the area.
Jack Gillon and Fraser Parkinson's book Leith Reflections is available for purchase now.