The History of Leith

December 20, 2003

The Port of Leith

A brief history of the Port of Leith itself, looking at how Leith developed into the commercial center it is, and how various industries impacted on the development of the port.

If you ever think of Leith, the first thought may be, is that Leith is a port and you may know that the “Queen’s Dock was opened in 1817, The Victoria Dock in 1852, The Albert Dock in 1869, The Edinburgh Dock in 1881 and the Imperial Dock in 1904. You may also know that the Port now comes under the “Forth Ports” and that extensive redevelopment is now taking place. So where ships from around the world used to berth is now housing, shops, fancy restaurants or the Scottish executive. Not only this but the Ocean Terminal is being built in the Docks for Cruise liners.

You may think with all this redevelopment the Port really is finished and that because of this Leith will change completely from the way that we all knew it in the past. However, if a lesson can be learnt from history it is this that things do change. The nature of society and even life is to encourage change, development and evolution. Unless we embrace change or at least accept change then we are finished.

It is because of change that Leith became a major port and the principal port of Scotland until 1707 when Glasgow took over that role. So over the next few months we will be looking at seamen, ships and the trade of Leith. The pilgrimages that left from Leith in the Middle Ages, the “Sirius” built in Leith, which was the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, the Leith ship that was the first to go through the Suez Canal, The “Kobenhavn”, which was a five masted sailing ship and one of the largest in the world was Leith built. Advances in ship repairing, building and dry-docking were made in Leith. Not to mention safety at sea and the care of retired seaman by Trinity House and the Sailors Home. The largest Whaling fleet in the World was based in Leith and at Leith Harbour at South Georgia in the South Atlantic.

If you really think things never change then read the following from “The Story of Leith” by John Russell ” Leith used to possess a flourishing cane sugar refining business, but it is many a day since the last of the Ports sugar refineries closed down. This was the sugar-house in Breadalbane Street, which in its palmy days carried out an extensive trade, turning out two hundred and fifty tons of refined sugar every week. Another industry which flourished in Leith for over two hundred years was glass-bottle making. One record shows us that in 1777 there were almost sixteen thousand hundredweights of bottles made in Leith. The remains of one of the old cones or furnaces may still be seen at Salamander Street, which owes its name to what was once its chief industry…Leith’s leading industries in our own day are ship building, the wine trade, flour milling, biscuit making, rope making and the timber trade.”

From the piece above which was written just after the First World War. The Glass Cone in Salamander Street is long gone, ship building building/repairing is gone. The only thing remaining from this period is Flour refining. Firms like Hawthorns, Cran and Somerville, Henry Robb and Morton’s have all past into history. Now there is no distilleries or Breweries in Leith. The rectifying, blending, bonding and exporting of spirits are gone. The Timber trade, which was huge in Leith, has disappeared as if it never existed. Towns change through time. They develop expand or die, industries rise flourish and die and new ones come in to replace them. It must be remembered the days of the large employer or of the factory employing hundreds of people is now in the light of New Technology a thing of the past. The new industries in Leith are now things like Graphic Design and Computer software writing and are all small scale and so employ fewer people. However before we get too depressed more people are coming into the area and the town is more up market, cleaner and the demand for housing is huge with house prices increasing every week. There is a new spirit of hope around and more people are taking a interest in the area through organisations like the “Civic Trust” and the “Leith Community Councils” and people are encouraged to demand higher standards of services.

So what we are looking at is a slow progress of change over a long period of time, which will continue while people live in Leith. The question to ask “is it possible to pin point when Leith became a important Port?” and the answer is yes.

It was in the year 1296 when during the Scottish Wars of Independence against the domination England the Town of Berwick was destroyed by Edward the first. His idea was and it was quite logical as Berwick was the principal port for Scotland, a large portion of the Scottish economy depended on the export of wool from the Border Abbeys to the low countries and which paid for the Scottish army. Destroy Berwick and you destroy the ability to fight. So in 1296 the English destroyed Berwick killing it has been estimated 7-9000 people. The trade in wool through Berwick stopped and the monks at Melrose and Kelso had a problem thousands of sheep and no way to export the wool. So what they did was to put the wool on the backs of horses and sent it to Leith. From this point Leith became the principal port and commercial centre of Scotland. By the 19th century ships from Leith circumnavigated the globe and exported goods to the world.

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