The History of Leith

August 15, 2004


Extracts from Burgh of Edinburgh Records indicated that a communiqué had been received, in 1589, from King James VI requesting that ‘’ane gude shippe be sent to conduct him safely from Denmark to his Scottish
kingdom’’. The Lord Provost, Magistrates and Council contacted the Master of Leith Trinity House, and arranged for the hire of a vessel, manned by twenty four experienced sailors, at least six being qualified as Pilots in Scottish waters.

In 1654 William Robertson was designated as Chief pilot ‘for the better service of the Edinburgh Merchants and all strangers frequenting the Roadstead and Haven of Leith’ dues were fixed – ‘of ilk ship bearing the marks of seven feet of her deeping’, ten shillings Scots per foot, pro rata to those of fourteen feet at thirty shillings.

The Leith Harbour Bill of 1788 included a clause that a sufficient number of Pilots should be examined and certificated, the Pilots were to be supplied with boats, with crew always ready, ship masters in general were liable to pay pilotage fees but the ship-masters of Leith were exempt, except where they signalled or employed a Pilot to bring their ship into port.

Seventeen candidates were duly examined and certified as being competent to act as Pilots, all of whom were fishermen from Newhaven, except the Master of Leith Trinity House.

Pilots had to be of ’good character, maintain `Temperance – Sobriety and Civility`, to exercise due care for the safety and well being of the ship, all souls on board and to avoid damage to other vessels or property, and must refrain from the use of disrespectful language.

Alteration, attempting to sell or lend his license with a view to aiding a brother mariner to escape H.M. Press Gang, was under pain of recall of license and public exposure, and be branded as unacceptable amongst honourable men.

Masters of ships were prohibited by law from taking a Pilot to sea beyond the outer limits of the Pilotage District, except under extreme stress of necessity, in which case very heavy compensation was awarded to the Pilot: The Pilotage Act ensured by law that fees had to be paid, and, if not instantly forthcoming could be recovered against the ship or agent, all rates were fixed from the Mull of Kintyre to Leith, including the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

This old photograph depicts the Forth Pilot Cutter No. 3, later to be re-named Largo Law, LARGO LAW, this vessel was built 1924 by William Miller of St Monans, her original Master, John Gowans, served for over forty years, it was ultimately sold out of service as a private yacht to Cockenzie in 1969.

(I remember seeing this event happening in the late 30`s, at North Berwick though understood it was not popular with the crew, rather like a compulsory `fire drill`) – I also have a copy of an old Forth Pilotage Authority By-Laws, in which a chapter directed towards the employed crew in general and the Master of the Cutter in particular, to the effect that, every endeavour must be constantly exercised with regard to fuel economy, the full use of sails, whilst cruising in search of ships requiring a Pilot, to be utilised, the propulsion engine should only be brought into use for the purpose of manoeuvring or in the absence of sufficient wind power to afford steerage-way, a written log of every voyage undertaken shall be kept by the Master and submitted, upon request by the Pilot Master, for scrutiny and verification – in common with most regulated work little attention was given to the theoretical aspect of such duties, common sense usually prevailed and the service ran without much problem.

So much for what the By-Laws should have said, after so many years of almost faultless service it can only be assumed that the authors of such regulations acted in good faith without having too much knowledge of the practical operational difficulties encountered with such onerous duties: The same By-Laws stipulated equally rigorous conditions upon the Pilots themselves, in spite of being self-employed, beholden to no one, they were obliged to carry at all times, their License, (a somewhat large artistic parchment document written in beautiful Copper Plate with a large red seal and accompanying ribbons indicating the authority vested in the holder – these were considered too valuable by all Pilots, therefore never carried in practise), a properly printed invoice (Bill) and a copy of the Authority By-Laws – quite a thick bulky book – upon further investigation it was revealed that the only documentation Forth Pilots ever carried were a Bill of service carried out, for signature of the Master of the ship so piloted, and a Murray`s Time Table, a handy little book which gave all train times from all the Ports in the Forth area, as Pilots had to make their own way back to station as quick and expedient as possible overland, unless hitching a lift on a ship going the other way, in the present climate of travel helicopters are not unknown.

A bit drawn out perhaps , but that is how they used to do it in days gone by, there are many stories, as with most older professions and trades of hair raising tales, such as in the early period of 1912, a large foreign vessel arrives, unexpected, at the May Island, the duty Pilot on his cutter had no other crew to help him with handling his sailing cutter, upon boarding the large pilotage prize going to Leith he motioned that a ship crew member be transferred to his cutter and a tow line attached in order that he, the Pilot could conduct the new arrival to a safe anchorage at Leith, rather than lose a lucrative fee.

Who in this day and age would have trusted a valuable family asset to a totally unknown, untested, untried, Arab sailor…….these were the things that did occur and helped create the local worthies of Newhaven who were amongst the fore-runners of the renowned body of men entrusted to be Firth of Forth Pilots.

The photograph below shows the ex Pilot Cutter Largo Law as a private yacht, at North Berwick harbour, where two thirds of its working life was spent.

All of the Pilot Cutters from 1914 until 1970`s have been sold out of service as private yachts, and still functional, which must indicate a tremendous vote of confidence to the builders, particularly James Miller of St Monans in Fife and William Weatherhead of Cockenzie, these craft were created and designed, not on a drawing board but from the eye of the men who sailed in them every day, of they looked right they were right, never known to be beaten by stormy weather and always trusted to get you home.


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