The History of Leith

December 20, 2003

Story of Leith

On the Firth of Forth near to Scotland’s Capital city is the Port of Leith. Not a large Port by international standards but despite this one of the most famous ports not only in Scotland but also in the United Kingdom. Within its small compass the story of Scotland can be told. It has seen war and death, times of plague, battles on the Forth, Kings and Queens of Scotland, days of high adventure, the Reformation of the Church of Scotland started here and was completed in Leith in 1560 decided on the battle field between Leith and Edinburgh at the Siege of Leith, it has seen Trials for Witchcraft, The Knight Templars (Crusaders) and the Knights of St John from Torphican, The Industrial Revolution which brought wealth to a few and misery to the many (the industrial Revolution was the period from the late 18th century to throughout the 19th century which saw people move from the countryside into the large towns and cities to find work in the new factories driven by the newly invented steam engines, it also seen the development of steam trains, the replacement of wooden hull ships by steam ships (eg the Sirius which was built in Leith in the 19th century was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic), the list of famous people and events in the history of Leith is endless. So where to begin the Story….

Imagine in you minds eye a river running through a thick forest. Within the forest are deer, wolves, foxes, bears and the Great Elk. On the banks of the river is a small village of the Votandini these are a Celtic people who covered their bodies in Tattoos from head to foot. In battle they would cut of the heads of their enemies and drill holes in the skull (Trepanning) after which they were buried around sacred wells. The idea was that the spirits of the dead warriors would protect the sacred wells from evil spirits because in Celtic Mythology the wells were gateways to the other world. The world of Ghosts and spirits such as the earth spirits, the spirits of the nature. This was Leith almost 3000 years ago before the Romans ever saw our district long before the district was ever called Leith. Near to the village was a clearing in the forest and the people decided to hack a path from the village to the clearing and the clearing became the village Graveyard. The path from the village to the clearing became in time the “Kirkgate” and for centuries chapels were built along the Kirkgate. The Graveyard in time became the Churchyard of South Leith Parish Church. It is known from archaeology that South Leith Parish Church sits on an ancient Celtic sacred site.

The name Leith itself comes from two possible roots. If you look at old maps of Leith the spelling of Leith Changes in several different ways but the main spellings are “Leeth” and “Lyth” the meaning of “Leeth” is a crossroads and Lyth means fish in short Leith was the town which could be approached from the east or west along the coast or from the South and it was possible to catch a ferry to go north across the Forth it also had a fish market. The people paying their tithes (a tenth of their earnings were paid to the church) in fish, which was eaten on the many holy days of the Roman Catholic Church.

The first mention of Leith is in founding charter of Holyrood Abbey in 1128 in which it is called “InverLeith”. The word “Inver” meaning from the Gaelic, the mouth of a river. Leading to the assumption that the river got its name from a family called Leith. The only problem with this is there was never a family called Leith connected to Leith to give it its name. Also Leith was never a Gaelic speaking area it became Anglo- Saxon and formed part along with Edinburgh of Northumbria, which was made up of two Kingdoms Bernica and Deria with its capital at Bamburgh.

The first important family connected to Leith was the de Lestalric family who were Normans invited into Scotland by David I and they built a castle at Lochend giving the district around it the name in later years Restalrig. This family died out in 1382 and passed onto the Logan family until 1609 when James VI disinherited the Logan family for high treason. After which it was held by the Balmerino family until 1746 which because of their adherence to the Jacobite cause (ie supporters of the Stewart cause to claim the throne of Great Britain) Lord Balmerino was not only disinherited but was beheaded for treason. Leith was passed to Lord Murray until the 1920’s when all the remaining land at Restalrig and Lochend was passed to the Edinburgh Council.

The main trades in the past were Shipbuilding, the Wine Trade, flour milling, biscuit making, rope making and the Timber Trade. In Leith Ramage and Fergusons, Hawthorns did shipbuilding. Cran and Somerville, Robb and Mortons. Rope making was done at the Roperie at Salmander St. Along with these was sugar refining and Glass making.

So how did Leith become the Principal Port for Scotland? This happened in 1296. Edward I of England realised that the only way to defeat the Scots was by destroying the economy of the country. At this time wool from the Border Abbeys such as Melrose and Kelso was exported to the Low Countries (Belgium and Holland which were part of what was called the Hanseatic League) through Berwick. So in 1296 Berwick was destroyed, something like 7-9000 people were killed, and the trade was destroyed. The monks had a problem, which was solved by putting the wool on the backs of horses over the hills, up the Old Dalkeith road, around Arthur Seat, and into Leith and so from 1296 to 1707 Leith was the Principal Port for Scotland. In 1707 due to Union of Parliaments Glasgow gradually superseded Leith due to the Clyde being deeper and because of Trade with North America.

Some dates of importance:

AD 80 Agricola marches through Leith from Inveresk

AD 208 The Emperor Severus encamps at Cramond

AD 1128 David I founds Holyrood

AD 1296 The Abbot of Holyrood. Sir John de Lestalric, and the
Parson of Restalrig swear fealty to Edward I

AD 1314 Edward II camps on Leith Links before Bannockburn

AD 1335 The English occupy Leith

AD 1434 James I builds the Kings Wark (Armoury for Scotland)

AD 1493 Robert Ballantyne Abbot of Holyrood builds St Ninians
Church. This later becomes North Leith Parish Church

AD 1511 The Great Michael launched at Newhaven (this was the
Largest warship of the Tudor age)

AD 1544/47 Leith burnt on the orders of Henry VIII during the “rough

AD 1560 The Siege of Leith

AD 1593 Trials and executions for witchcraft

AD 1631 Balmerino House built in the Kirkgate

AD 1650 Battle of Dunbar. Leith occupied by Oliver Cromwell

AD 1698 The Darien Expedition leaves from Leith

AD 1751 Turnpike Act. Bonnington Toll erected

AD 1806 The Old Dock opened. The Queens Dock built 1817, The
Victoria Dock 1852, The Albert Dock 1869, The Edinburgh
Dock 1881 and the Imperial Dock 1904

AD 1822 George IV lands in Leith

AD 1833 Leith becomes an independent parliamentary Burgh

AD 1915 The Gretna disaster

AD 1920 Leith is amalgamated with Edinburgh

Leith has an extensive history going back several thousand years. The above is just a very small sample of what is available and known about Leith. For example the history of South Leith Church goes back several hundred years, The Preceptory of St Anthony founded approximately 1380 and was demolished in the Siege of Leith, Writers and Painters connected with Leith, The Templar connection the list goes on and on and is too large a subject to cover in this brief introduction.

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