The History of Leith

December 20, 2003

The pestilence continues…

The plague of Leith started in April 1645 with a brief mention in the records of the Kirk Records of South Leith Parish Church. All it says is Desyn Jon Kellas to furnish James Thomsone and Jon Dinlop till this day 8 dayes being inclosit for fear of ye plague” it also mentions Desyrs Jon Aldinstone to furnish (ie give provisions to) ye women at ye Yarde heads who is steeket up for feare of ye plague”. This is the 3rd April 1645 and by the time the plague ended in November 1645 2736 people would have died an agonising death.

When anyone fell ill everybody in the house was shut in and white sheet or cloth was hung from a window. If this wasn’t done then it could be punished by death. Soon the family or individuals were moved to Booths or wooden Ludges” which were huts set up on Leith Links. In the meantime, all bedding was burnt and clothes boiled in great cauldrons set up on the links. The houses were then fumigated by burning heather in it. This heather was brought into the town by Alexander Abercrombie who as the plague spread wider and wider had to travel for miles to collect the heather as Edinburgh at this time was also infected. His grave can still be seen at the Kirkgate side of South Leith Parish Church. He was without doubt a very brave and Courageous man, as not only did he collect the heather he also helped to fumigate the houses.

The Church also organised the removal of rubbish and middens from the streets and the removal of all infected material. The cleaners and sledders (Carters) were paid for this work but it was unpleasant and dangerous work. There is one reminder of all this in Lochend Park and it’s the conical shaped building near to the loch and the entrance into the park from Lochend Road which is called the Doocot. However this isn’t a doocot as there is no pigeon boxes in the inside in fact it was erected in 1645 to boil clothes for wealthy patrons.

As the disease was so dangerous and infectious, it spread and the death rate started to rise steeply. The first burials took place at South Leith and gradually as the Churchyard became full burials started to be made at what is now St Anthony Street and Great Junction Street. During the building of Great Junction Street between 1817-1820, numerous skeletons from this period were found. Eventually burials started to take place at Wellington Place and onto the Links. In fact coffins were found during the last century near to the present day Cricket pitches (I wonder if the present day cricketers realise they are in a sense playing on top of a graveyard!)

The next thing which the Church organised was the supply of food and drink for all the victims out on the links and due to the death of the husband of a Mrs Cochrane the Kirk Session got the use of a house near to the links to put all the town supplies into. This house use to belong to a Lady Fyfe and that is why the hill on the Links nearest to Restalrig Road is called Lady Fyfe’s Brae. All the money found in the houses was used to help everyone in the town but mainly the poor who really suffered at this time. The harvest that year was poor and hunger was ever present and so when plague came it was the poor who were infected first and so were the first to die.

This went on for day after day exhaustion was starting to take its toll among the healthy and the death rate kepted on rising ,the streets were starting to fall silent and empty. People could not be found to remove the corpses. So, bodies were buried where they dropped. This was due to a mixture of fear and exhaustion. In the records of the Scottish Parliament the following entry is found:

“the number of dead exceeds the number of the living, and amongst them it cannot be decernit quha (who) are clean and quha are foulle: and to make the calamatie greater, they are visit with ane lamentable famine, both for penurie and also for laicke of means”.

One of the reasons for the high death rate was due to the nature of the houses themselves. The houses were built partly of wood, partly of boulders gathered from the seashore. There were no ceilings, ventilation or drains. The windows were filled by moveable boards, which in cold weather was kepted shut. The fire was in the middle of a dirt floor which was never swept and so accumulated all sort of rubbish and filth and really it comes as no surprise that death abounded in the dark and filthy closes and wynds of old Leith.

The plague ended in November of that horrible year by the worst storms and rain ever seen in Leith for many years. However, it was the best thing that could have happened as it cleared the epidemic out of the town. This was the last time in the history of Leith that bubonic plague was to be seen as an epidemic (although there was a single case in 1902). It took a long time for the town to recover from the plague, the senior minister James Sharpe dying soon after the plague finished.

This plague brought in its wake a different attitude to health and hygiene in the town and for the first time ever people washed which up to this time was unheard of. In fact, no one was allowed to attend public worship until they had!

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