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Tag Archives: Jack Gillon

  • Secret Leith by Jack Gillon

    Having previously written Leith Through Time (2014) and Leith History Tour (2018) for Amberley, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to delve deeper into Leith’s past and some of the lesser-known aspects of its long and distinguished history with Secret Leith (2019).

    Leith from the Firth of Forth, 1820. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    Leith has played a long and prominent role in Scottish history. As the major port serving Edinburgh, it has been the stage on which many significant events in Scottish history have taken place. It 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 The first historical reference to the town dates from 1140, when the harbour and fishing rights were granted to Holyrood Abbey by David I. The early settlement was centred on the area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. It became Edinburgh’s port in 1329, when King Robert I granted control of the shoreline hamlet to the Burgh of Edinburgh. In the early days it consisted of the two independent settlements of South Leith and North Leith.

    Leith frequently features in the power struggles that took place in Scotland and the battles, landings, and sieges of Leith have had an influence on its development. It was attacked by the Earl of Hertford in 1544 during the Rough Wooing – his mission was to arrange a marriage between the young Mary Queen of Scots and her English cousin, later Edward VI. Three years later, it was pillaged after the defeat of the Scottish army at the Battle of Pinkie. Immediately following this, Mary of Guise, the Roman Catholic Regent of Scotland, moved the seat of government to Leith and the town was fortified.

    The Signal Tower - An important Leith landmark at the corner of the Shore and Tower Street. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    The town expanded significantly 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. This contemporary description paints a vivid portrait of the Port at the time – ‘Leith possesses many productive establishments, such as ship-building and sail-cloth manufactories ... manufactories of glass ... a corn-mill ... many warehouses for wines and spirits ... and there are also other manufacturing establishments besides those for the making of cordage for brewing, distilling, and rectifying spirits, refining sugar, preserving tinned meats, soap and candle manufactories, with several extensive cooperages, iron-foundries, flourmills, tanneries and saw-mills.’

    In 1833, the town was established as an independent Municipal and Parliamentary Burgh with full powers of local government. It 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 sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings were cleared away.

    In 1920, despite a plebiscite in which the people of Leith voted 26,810 to 4,340 against the merger, it was incorporated into Edinburgh. The 1960s, brought the final days of the old and ancient thoroughfares in the heart of Leith – the Kirkgate, St Andrew Street, Tollbooth Wynd, Bridge Street and many more would disappear in the coming decade. However, the town retains a passionate sense of individuality and its people a proud sense of identity.

    Mary, Queen of Scots landing at Leith. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    Many of the stories in the book have been told before by accomplished local historians. However, it is hoped that the book, by using early sources; media reports, contemporary with events; and a mix of old and new images, has uncovered some fresh aspects of the long and distinguished history of the town, even for people that know it well.

    On 20 April 1779 the Leith Mutiny, in front of Leith’s Ship Tavern, a fateful clash between soldiers of a Highland Regiment and Lowland troops, ostensibly on the same side but divided by cultures, left the Shore at Leith strewn with the bodies of the dead and wounded.

    In August 1816, Hans Zakaeus, who was known in Scotland as John Sakeouse, a native of Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland, landed at Leith. The curious locals were soon given the opportunity to have a closer look at Sakeouse when he gave a demonstration of his skills with his kayak and harpoon in the Wet Dock at Leith Docks.

    In 1753, it was discovered that a lack of vitamin C was the cause of scurvy amongst sailors. To prevent this it became a legal requirement for sailors on long voyages to receive a measure of lime or lemon juice, as protection against the disease – giving rise to the nickname Limeys for British sailors. In 1868, Lauchlan Rose set up a factory to produce the world's first concentrated bottled fruit juice drink – Rose’s Lime Juice – on Commercial Street in Leith.

    Zeppelin L9, which is identical to the Zeppelin that bombed Leith. (Secret Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    From an aeronautical viewpoint, I was intrigued to discover that Leith had a short lived airport for flying boats and that some of the earliest aeroplanes in Scotland were manufactured in Leith.

    The First World War resulted in a Zeppelin bomber attack on Leith, on the night of 2 April 1916, bringing the First World War to the home front. It caused considerable damage to property and tragic loss of life. In 1918, Julian the Tank Bank arrived in Leith – a unique and novel fundraising project, which tempted the war-weary public to part with its hard-earned cash to help the War effort by allocating a number of Mark IV tanks to tour the towns and cities of Britain, in a campaign which raised many millions of pounds. The German Kultur Panel on Leith’s Pitt Street depicts the alleged atrocities by the German army in the early years of the First World in Belgium.

    I also took the opportunity to describe in detail the events depicted on the People’s History of Leith Mural. It was painted in 1986 and is an evocative celebration of Leith’s maritime, social and industrial heritage.

    Jack Gillon's new book Secret Leith is available for purchase now.

  • Aberdeen in 50 Buildings by Jack Gillon

    Marischal College. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Aberdeen has all the appearance, and is furnished with most of the attributes, of a wealthy metropolis. It has all the public buildings which distinguish a capital. The streets possess the proper degree of regularity and elegance. It has busy crowds, in which the stranger soon loses himself; and its inhabitants, when inspected individually, are found to possess the dignity, the wealth, and the enlightened views, which are never to be found but in towered cities.

    The visitor enters the city by a long, spacious, straight, and regular way, denominated Union Street, which, when completed to the utmost of its designed extent, must turn out decidedly the finest thing of the kind in the kingdom. Previously to the opening of this way in 1811, the town was entered by a series of narrow tortuous streets.

    The most remarkable thing about Aberdeen in the eye of a traveller, is the stone with which it is built. This is a grey granite, of great hardness, found in inexhaustible profusion in the neighbourhood, and of which vast quantities, fashioned into small blocks, are annually exported to London, for the paving of streets. Though not polished, but merely hewn into moderate smoothness, this forms a beautiful wall, of a somewhat sombre colour it is true, but yet strikingly elegant.

    The Music Hall. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Aberdeen is a flourishing port, and is the seat of a set of active and prosperous merchants. It is the place where commerce first took its rise in Scotland. Having thus got the start by many centuries of every other commercial city, it has maintained all along to the present time a certain degree of advance; it is certain that in no other place is the mercantile science so thoroughly understood, or the commercial character carried to a pitch of such exquisite perfection.

    Aberdeen originally developed around St Katherine’s Hill, a prominence that stood in the middle of the present-day Union Street. The town was given royal burgh status in the twelfth century and the Castlegate, or Marketgate, was the historic heart of the medieval burgh. The harbour was fundamental to Aberdeen’s prosperity and the town’s economic importance.

     

     

    The Sir Duncan Rice Library. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The rapid growth of Aberdeen in the eighteenth century resulted in its expansion beyond the tightly confined medieval streets around the base of St Katherine’s Hill. A number of new streets were formed during this period of planned expansion.

    In 1794, Aberdeen town council requested the engineer Charles Abercrombie to provide plans to rationalise the muddle of old unplanned streets of an increasingly wealthy and self-assured Aberdeen to connect the town to the surrounding countryside.

    Abercrombie’s bold plan proposed a significant Georgian rebuilding of the city with two major new thoroughfares – one running westwards from the Castlegate to the Denburn, and the other north. An Act passed on 14 April 1800 approved the construction of the new streets – the road to the west became Union Street and the road to the north was King Street. These new roads represented major engineering enterprises and set the context of modern Aberdeen. Union Street was a particularly challenging project – the street had to cut through St Katherine’s Hill, required a series of arches and a bridge over the Denburn. The generous scale of Union Street allowed the construction of buildings of substantial size and importance, and established Union Street as Aberdeen’s main thoroughfare. The street was named to commemorate the union of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1801. John Smith (1781–1852), Aberdeen’s City Architect, and Archibald Simpson (1790–1847) were the leading architects involved in this great remodelling of the expanding city.

    The Town House and Tolbooth. (Aberdeen in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The predominant use of locally quarried grey granite up to the mid-twentieth century is a distinguishing feature of many of the city’s most important buildings, which gives them a distinct glitter in the sun and earned Aberdeen the sobriquet of the ‘Granite City’. The quality of the Aberdeenshire granite was internationally recognised and it was used for buildings around the world. The excavation of granite from the quarry at Rubislaw, which opened in 1740 and closed in 1971, created the biggest man-made hole in Europe.

    Aberdeen is a thriving city which has been synonymous with oil ever since the discovery of North Sea reserves in the 1970s. It has a proud and distinctive identity, a wealth of fine heritage buildings and more recent developments of outstanding quality. This has made the task of selecting fifty buildings to represent the best of the city’s architecture immensely difficult. This book takes the development of this rich and vibrant city as its broad theme, and includes buildings which seem to best represent the city’s long history.

    Jack Gillon's new book Aberdeen in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Falkirk by Jack Gillon

    Robert Buchanan. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    Robert Buchanan – Falkirk’s Bard

    Falkirk in Central Scotland is a small town with a big history and, unlike many other towns, its own bard.

    Robert Buchanan was born in Falkirk’s Steeple Land on 22 June 1835. His father was a baker who worked in and later owned the Pie Office at the steeple. Robert attended Falkirk Parish School where he was ‘not noteworthy for either his regular attendance or overwhelming love of his studies’. On leaving school he was apprenticed as a currier in his Uncle John Gillespie’s business at the foot of Bell’s Wynd. However, his ‘constitution was delicate’ and he did not have the ‘bodily strength necessary for such laborious employment’. At the age of twenty-two Robert was nominated to Her Majesty’s Customs and was appointed to a position at the port of Grangemouth.

    After ten years at Grangemouth, Robert was promoted to a position in Dublin and later to Londonderry. Although Robert’s career prospered in Ireland, he was homesick for Falkirk – his ‘dear auld toon wi’ grey spire crowned’. His wife, Margaret Rankine, a fellow Bairn of Falkirk, passed away from consumption in July 1874 and her remains were returned to Falkirk for internment. The loss of Margaret was a severe blow to Robert and despite plans to return to his native town, he passed away in Londonderry on 31 December 1875.

     

    The Pie Office, High Street. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    Robert was known at school as a ‘ready rhymer’ and, from 1856, contributed poems to the local paper on a regular basis. His poetry is noted as being distinguished for its ‘light, fanciful grace and airy turn of thought and rhythm.’ A collection of his poems was published in 1901. These feature a number of works dedicated to Falkirk and the ‘Glories of Grangemeouth’.

    His poem ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’ was written for a reunion of the Bairns of Falkirk living in Glasgow. It was set to music composed by John Fulcher, and was first performed by the local singer Michael Rennie at the Glasgow Trades Hall on 26 January 1866, where it was ‘warmly applauded by the assembled Bairns of Falkirk’. The tune was arranged for the Falkirk Iron Works Band and played at most of their public appearances. It was for a time Falkirk’s anthem (the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ of the Falkirk Bairns); for many years it was sung at ‘all convivial gatherings held in the ‘dear auld toon’ and wherever the Bairns of Falkirk congregated. It was even introduced into the curriculum of Falkirk board schools.

     

    ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’:

     

    The dear auld toon, wi’ grey spire crown’d

    In happy langsyne days,

    We wandered, sun and tempest browned,

    Amang they glens and braes;

    We were bairns then, we’re bairns yet,

    Our hearts beat aye the same,

    And time can never memory flit

    Frae thee, our dear auld hame.

     

    CHORUS

    For we canna forget the dear auld hame,

    Gae wander where we will;

    Like the sunny beam o’ a simmer’s dream

    That lingers near us still.

     

    We mind where Carron silvery flings

    Her white spray o’er the linn,

    And dashing doon the woodland sings,

    Wi’ bubbling, brattling din;

    And love blinks o’ a bonnie e’e

    We won by Marion’s Well,

    Twines every round life’s stormy sea,

    A fairy plaited spell.

     

    Wha wadna lo’e thee? Dear auld hame!

    Wha round thee hasna shared

    That sacred fire that laid De Graeme

    Within the auld kirkyaird?

    And strewed thy field wi’ horse brave,

    Wha focht in Freedom’s name,

    And bleeding won an honoured grave

    In building Scotia’s fame.

     

    Oh, dear auld hame! tho’ toiling years

    Hae left us sere and grey,

    A glimpse o’ langsyne ‘mid our tears

    Turns dark’ning nicht to day.

    We were bairns then, we’re bairns yet,

    Our hearts beat aye the same,

    And time can never mem’ry flit

    Frae thee, oor dear auld hame.

     

    The unveiling of the momument to Robert Buchanan. (Secret Falkirk, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1899 a proposal to erect a monument to Buchanan to ‘perpetuate his memory’ was suggested in the columns of the local paper. In less than three months, £38 and 10s was raised by subscription for the proposed monument. The subscriptions were

    donated by those that ‘had the privilege of personal acquaintance with Buchanan, and who admired him for his poetic gifts and his qualities of head and heart’ and ‘those of a later generation who were happy to support one who had sang so sweetly of the dear auld toon’.

    The ‘chaste and imposing’ monument to Buchanan was unveiled in Falkirk Cemetery on 30 September 1899. Despite torrential rain a large crowd gathered for the ceremony, including one of Buchanan’s daughters, who had travelled from Liverpool to attend the event. The unveiling ceremony ended with a rendition of the ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’, which it was reported ‘touched the hearts of everyone that attended’.

    Perhaps a recital of ‘The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)’ should be revived for present-day events in the town.

    Jack Gillon's new book Secret Falkirk is available for purchase now.

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