The History of Leith

May 12, 2004

Some Historic buildings of Old Leith

The recovery of the town from the effects of years of invasion and destruction as these of Hertford would have been long delayed if it wasn’t for the Reformation and the peaceful reign reign of James VI. A period of comparative prosperity began and many new buildings were erected.

The nobles and gentry who had been given church lands found themselves richer then before and spent freely on erecting Town Houses like Balmerino house in the Kirkgate and a large mansion built in 1615 in Queen Street. One opposite to it in the 1860’s was thought to be the residence of Mary of Guise the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots and to that mistake the street owed its name

Balmerino House and the Mansion mentioned above are entirely different in style from the earlier architecture of Lambs House in Burgess Street with its pointed gables so well adapted to a snowy climate. And with their straight eves, there string courses or decorative mouldings and dormer windows surmounted by the thistle and rose finials show the renaissance or new style that came into fashion from Italy.

A very fine example of these Renaissance mansions in which alterations had displaced the gable finials of the thistle and rose for two chimneys stood on the Coal Hill until1883 when it was demolished. It was a building of some historic importance as it was associated with the leaders of the party which belonged to the Kings party of James VI after Mary, Queen of Scots had fled to England. The supporters of Mary, Kirkcaldy of Grange, Maitland of Lethington, the Lairds of Restalrig and Drylaw held Edinburgh Castle for the Queen and a very bloody civil war ensued. Called in history the Douglas Wars.

Another important building now unfortunately demolished was a Tavern called the Cant Ordinary which stood in the Kirkgate. It was here in 1578 that a reconciliation was effected between Morton who was the Regent of Scotland and his opponents including the Earls of Argyll, Montrose, Arran and Boyd.. The Tavern was owned by William Cant whose family had lived in Leith for centuries and had mostly been seamen. The building was in a sense built in two sections the upper part dated from the 16-17th century and the lower part was probably Norman with its entrance being a series of archways of very solid masonry.

Unfortunately none of these buildings now exist. Balmerino House became part of St Mary Star of the Sea and later a Roman Catholic Sch

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