Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

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 The first historical reference to the town dates from 1140, when the harbour and fishing rights were granted to Holyrood Abbey by David I. The early settlement was centred on the area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

1 Item(s)