Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Tag Archives: Leith

  • 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 The first historical reference to the town dates from 1140, when the harbour and fishing rights were granted to Holyrood Abbey by David I. The early settlement was centred on the area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.

  • A-Z of Leith by Lisa Sibbald

    Places - People - History

    Citadel Caption - The remains of 17th century Leith Citadel. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite having visited Leith on many occasions over several decades, and only living a few miles away in another part of Edinburgh, I never really appreciated Leith’s history until I wrote a small piece for my previous book, A-Z of Edinburgh. I spent a short time walking around parts of Leith and taking photographs, and I knew then that I wanted to write a book about Leith. I spent several months researching the area, taking photographs, and talking to Leithers both online and in person, and I learned so much in the process.

    I was always aware that Leithers were very proud of their heritage and their home, and now I feel I can understand why. There are centuries of history still evident in the very stones and streets – the remains of Leith Citadel date back to the middle of the seventeenth century, and Leith Fort to the late eighteenth century. The street names themselves hark back to a bygone time and Leith’s overseas trading connections – Cadiz Street, Elbe Street, Madeira Street, Timber Bush. Leith’s proud history as a port and docks is all around, from the wonderful Trinity House which was the base of the Incorporation of Mariners and Shipbuilders and is now a maritime museum, to the Malmaison Hotel which is in a former sailors’ home, to the Corn Exchange building with its magnificent frieze showing cherubs taking part in sowing, harvesting and transporting the grain which would eventually make its way to Leith. It has survived wars, sieges, bombings, and being amalgamated, against its will, into the city of Edinburgh!

    Swing Bridge Caption - Victoria Swing Bridge built in 1894 to connect the east and west sides of the harbour. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    From the sixteenth century, Leith had been a centre for storage of wine and brandy, and later whisky production and storage. The whisky industry, with its associated trades such as coopering and transporting, employed thousands of people in Leith, and several famous names were created here, including VAT 69 and Highland Queen whiskies, Glayva, Crabbie’s Green Ginger and, unusually, a non-alcoholic drink, Rose’s Lime Juice. Sadly, from there being as many as 100 whisky bonds at the peak of the industry, the last whisky bond closed in 1995, but the buildings still remain, converted into flats or commercial property.

    Shipbuilding was of course another major trade and employer in Leith for many centuries, with the shipyards having built vessels which sailed all over the world. The last Leith shipyard, Henry Robb, closed in 1984 and another great tradition and major employer came to an end.

    Reflections Caption - Reflections of old and new Leith, with modern flats alongside the Malmaison Hotel, situated in the former Sailors' Home of 1885. (c. Authors collection, A-Z of Leith, Amberley Publishing)

    But Leith isn’t all about history. After a decline which saw many sub-standard tenements being demolished in the 1960s and 1970s, property developers began to see its potential for water-front redevelopment. This led to many new properties being built, along with wine bars and expensive restaurants. Old, run-down, historic buildings were repaired and restored, and given new life and a new purpose. This ‘gentrification’ has been, and continues to be, a subject of great debate, as the price of these luxurious new water-front housing developments is far beyond what many long-time Leith residents can afford. The wine bars and restaurants have replaced the pubs and fish and chip shops that had been there for decades. The Shore area in particular has gone from being the haunt of sailors and “ladies of the night” to a place where people arrive from other parts of town or other countries to eat expensive meals and drink expensive wines in Michelin-starred restaurants.

    Despite some of the new developments being given almost a “theme park” image with nautical themes and paraphernalia seemingly randomly dropped in, Leith isn’t just an area looking to its past. Leithers never forget their motto - “Persevere” - and they move forward. There are now many new businesses dealing in design and IT, buildings providing hubs for small businesses, and unique shops and coffee bars serve locals and visitors alike. The area continues to produce writers, artists, and musicians. It remains a vibrant community, proud of its past, but always looking to the future.

    Lisa Sibbald's new book A-Z of Leith is available for purchase now.

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