The History of Leith

April 24, 2004

Shipping in the Past

In the first years of the 18th century there were the occasional ships between Leith and London. In 1720 the Bon Accord, Captain Buchanan, is advertised to sail to London on the 30th June and to “Keep the day, goods, or no goods” and a similar notice appears in 1722 concerning the Unity, Ship of Leith. The Master to be asked for in the Laigh Coffee House. In 1743 one of these ships only reached Holy Island after twenty-eight days sailing because of bad weather.

Previous to the introduction of the Smacks which were large and beautiful Cutters, carrying a huge amount of sail fore and aft. The passenger and other trade was carried out between Leith and London by means of clumsy , bluff bowed ships ranging from 160-200 tons burden and having not very good accommodation and so many people preferred to use the ships carry salmon from Berwick to London.

In those days the traders would advertise for 12-14 days before they intended to sail and interim arrangements were always made with the Captain at the “Forrest’s Coffee House” or in the “The Scot’s Walk” in London as the case may be. When civil usage was suggested was promised the number of guns carried by the vessel was usually stated. The following is an advertisement from the “Edinburgh Chronicle” of the 2nd June 1759 “ For London, the ship “Reward”, Old England built, William Marshall Master, now lying at berth at Barnes Nook, Leith Harbour, taking in goods and will sail with the first convoy. The said Master to be spoken with at the “Caledonia or Forrest’s Coffee House, Edinburgh, or at his house in the Broad Wynd, Leith. Remember the ship is an exceeding fast sailer, has good accommodation for passengers and good usage may be depended on.”

In 1771 the smack Edinburgh was advertised in the Mercury to sail on a fixed date, that she had “neat accommodation for passengers and that good usage may be relied on”. The Success, lying at New Quay (which was at the Shore, Leith), is advertised to sail by the canal for Glasgow, weather permitting.

The passenger traffic increased to such an extent that in 1791 the Leith and Berwick Shipping Company Company established their Head Office in Leith, the smacks in there southward voyage merely touching at Berwick for their cargoes of Salmon.

By 1802 the merchants of Leith founded “The Edinburgh and Leith Shipping Company” which started with six armed smacks, the crews of which were protected from the Press Gang.

On the 23rd October 1804 one of those smacks the Britannia under the command of a Captain Brown and another named the Sprightly under Captain Taylor were attacked by a large French Privateer which attacked the two ships with cannon and muskets. But the two Leith ships stood to their guns and engaged the enemy causing considerable damage to the French ship to the extent that it broke of the engagement. This sort of thing was very common at this time up to the end of the Napoleonic period.

However by 1831 the Smacks were gradually replaced by powerful Steamers. By 1844 the smacks were replaced by either steam ships or by clipper schooners and so the days of the smacks ended and completely disappeared from the harbour with which they were for so long and exclusively identified.

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