History of Leith, Edinburgh

December 20, 2003

Roman Leith

I recently got a phone call from my good friend George Scammel who has made many of the ship models which are now in the Ocean Terminal and was interested in Roman Leith as he was interested in building a model of a Roman Galley for the Ocean Terminal and required some information. As I didn’t have the information to hand I had to do some research on this.

The first source that I looked at was “The Story of Leith” by John Russell although written in a very romantic style is a useful source of information on Leith. However he states on page 15 “In the year 208 the great soldier emperor Severus set sail for the Forth….when he sailed from Cramond on his return to York…the shores of the Forth saw the Roman Legions for the last time” which is in fact wrong as the Romans did return in 382 under the command of Magnus Maximus. Although in passing he mentions about the discovery of Roman Samian ware which were the best china of the Romans and the discovery of Roman bricks on the Castle Rock. Along with Roman coins found on Leith Walk and also mentions that the Fishwives Causeway was of Roman origin. This he thinks isn’t proof of Roman settlement but of commercial activity which grow up between the Romans and the local Votadini and this trade continued long after the Roman legions had retired

Another source that I looked at was “Post-Severan Cramond: A late Roman and Early Historic British and Anglo-Saxon Religious Centre?” by Craig Cessford of the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge. Although this paper is based on the archaeology of Cramond it could well throw light on the archaeology of Leith. The reason for thinking this is because a Roman road exists under Bernard Street and would have connected the Roman Fort at Inveresk with the Roman Fort at Cramond. However the Fort at Inveresk was only in existence from 140-165 and that is why Severus used Cramond as his base of operations in Scotland. Also Mr Cessford in his paper mentions ” there is evidence for trade between the eastern Mediterranean and western Britain and Ireland” based on the discovery of a bronze coin of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-65) found at Cramond. He also mentions that the original name for the Firth of Forth was “Merin iodeo” which means “sea of Iodeo” and appears in the Gododdin poem. The Gododdin is the Anglo-Saxon form of Votadini. The name itself appears in the tenth century ” Historia Brittonium” According to Bede Cramond is possibly also referred to as Urbis Giudi and in the “Historia Brittonium” as Iudea. Although as Mr Cessford mentions iodeo is probably Iudea/Urbis Giudi couldn’t be Cramond because Cramond has a substantial Roman History and would have been called a Civitas and certainly would have been defensible. I think Mr Cessford is right I don’t think Iudea/Urbis Giudi was Cramond I thnk it could have been Leith.

The reason for thinking this is based upon the fact that the Votadini were allies to the Romans and so there would have been a lot of trade between the two peoples and evidence for this has been found in Leith. Further evidence for this has been found at Trapian Law the great hill fort of the Votadini in east Lothian. It also goes some way to explain the sudden rise of Leith in 1296 after the sack of Berwick by Edward I especially if Leith was already a port trading with the eastern Mediterranean. What has puzzled a lot of people was how leith could have arisen as the principal port of Scotland in such a quick time. The only reason for this is that its trade was else where and so as the parliamentary records are only interested in goods that raised taxes for the country such as were being traded at Berwick which dealt in wool from the Border Abbeys exporting it to the low countries which raised a lot of tax for the Scottish exchequer this is mentioned in the Scottish records. Leith trading in different commodities probably didn’t raise as much revenue for the exchequer as Berwick so wasn’t deemed to be very important to have a mention in the records. There is also evidence from the medieval hospital at Soutra where it has been discovered that opiates had been used. The Opium plant comes from Asia and opium would have come into Europe via the Silk route by Constantinople through which Leith could well have traded. Furthermore if the Roman Fort at Inveresk ended its life in 165 and the Roman base was a Cramond certainly at the time of Severus then Leith could have been not only have been a trading centre but a supply base for Cramond and this could well explain the lack of Roman Graves in Leith. The simple fact is that there were probably very few Romans in Leith at the time if at all as all the work of loading and unloading of ships and transporting material from leith to Cramond was probably done by local labour and would explain the maintenance of the Roman road connecting Leith with Cramond. Certainly Roman tombstones may have existed in Leith but removed long again as Leith has been built and rebuilt so many times in the past that a lot of Roman remains could well have been removed ages ago. However it would explain the Roman coins found in and around of Leith.

Perhaps even St Triduanna entered Scotland by Leith which is pure speculation on my part however it seems strange that if Leith didn’t have a connection with the eastern mediterranean then why according to legend is she buried at Restalrig it certainly makes you think

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