History of Leith, Edinburgh

December 20, 2003

The Killing Times Revisted

This was the period when episcopacy was re-established in Scotland after the Cromwellian period and the restoration of the Monarchy all legal rights for Presbyterianism being removed. The records of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston give us a brief grimpse into life during theis turbulant time.

In looking through some old records recently I came across the records of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston who was the nephew of Lady Pilrig of Pilrig house. In these yellowing pages we find descriptions of the annual horse races on the Leith Sands which are now concreted over with the development of Leith Docks in the late 19th and 20th centuries it was from Leith that the musselburgh race course was developed, of his Golf matches on Leith Links and of him playing tennis at the Kings Wark (this is where the name “Catchpell” comes from in the “Catchpell Business Centre” the name “Catchpell”being the Scottish form of Royal Tennis. He also mentions his dinners at Mrs Kendall’s fashionable tavern in the Kirkgate. It would appear from this that life in Leith was peaceable and tranquil and not much was happening but this would be far from the truth. This was the 17th century and the period was called the “Killing Times” This was the period when episcopacy was re-established in Scotland after the Cromwellian period and the restoration of the Monarchy all legal rights for Presbyterianism being removed. This led in turn to three rebellions in Scotland in 1666,1679 and 1685. For twenty-five years the Covenanters suffered brutal persecution and were cruelly suppressed. However in1688 an ecclestical settlement re-established the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.

Among the last to be prosecuted for holding what was called a Conventicle which was a prayer meeting of committed Presbyterians was William Wishart he was related to George Wishart who was executed at the Reformation for his Protestant beliefs He had been persecuted for his beliefs and had come to Leith to Leith to live. However in 1683 he was caught by a group of Soldiers while conducting morning prayers. He was thrown into the Canongate Tolbooth although he was “Ane aged and infirm person, broken and disabled with many diseases” which can still be seen in the High Street of Edinburgh to this day. He was to be sent to the Plantations but was sent free conditionally and under heavy sureties.

When in 1688 Presbyterism was re-established in Scotland Thomas Stark of Leith Mills and Robert Douglas of Coatfield formed a congregation and set up a meeting house at the Sheriff Brae and appointed the aged William Wishart as minister this later proved to small and a larger meeting house was rented in Cables Wynd. He continued until his son could take over after his studies in Utrecht in Holland. It was from here that the Presbyterian congregation re-established ltself in South Leith Church. The area near to Cable Wynd well known in the 1920’s was called Meeting House Green. This was because in the 17th century the area was open country with Gardens and grassland between the Meeting House and the Town. However by the 1920’s it had became a slum and obscure yet it had one of the most historic names in Leith history and reminds us that freedom of Religion and holding a personal belief comes with a cost and it never comes cheap. That the freedoms we enjoy today, which we all take so lightly, came at the price of many people’s lives.

Leith has an incredible history which still effects not only ourselves who lives in the town but it reaches out around the World. It is with this thought in mind that I have joined up with Mrs Wardlaw and the “Leith Museum Trust” along with South Leith Church, Trinity House, the Edinburgh Museum trust and others. To not only put on an exhibition about Leith at the Ocean Terminal in August but also to have a visitor centre come Museum at Lambs House so this story could be told. It would be a Leith Museum, done by Leith people for Leith People.

It is unfortunate that Lambs House couldn’t be saved for the frail elderly and that is what I would have liked to have seen and others thought the same way but it just wasn’t possible to do. However out of this painful tragedy a Museum for Leith can be developed especially if the help and support from the People of Leith was there as this project won’t be cheap. It will need financial support and Leith artefacts to show. The question is do we want this to happen or not remember we have waited for over sixty years for this to happen do we really need to wait another sixty years for it to be achieved. The opportunity has arrived and the challenge and its up to all of us to respond. Do we want Leith’s story to be told to an international market or just ignored. Are we Leithers, a Community or not it is as simple as that. Or are we just all talk and no action. We are all supposed to be proud Leither’s let us show our pride by supporting the Leith Museum project. Its over to you now how do you want to respond.

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