The History of Leith

November 13, 2004


Conservation Areas
Section 61 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland)
Act 1997, describes conservation areas as “… areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. The Act makes provision for the designation of conservation areas as distinct from individual buildings, and planning authorities are required to determine which parts of their areas merit conservation area status

There are currently 38 conservation areas in Edinburgh, including city centre areas, Victorian suburbs and former villages. Each conservation area has its own unique character and appearance.
Character Appraisal
The protection of an area does not end with conservation area designation; rather designation demonstrates a commitment to positive action for the safeguarding and enhancement of character and appearance. The planning authority and the Scottish Executive are obliged to protect conservation areas from development that would adversely affect their special character. It is, therefore, important that both the authorities and other groups who have an interest in conservation areas, and residents are aware of those elements that must be preserved or enhanced. A Character Appraisal is seen as the best method of defining the key elements that contribute to the special historic and architectural character of an area. It is intended that Character Appraisals will guide the local planning authority in making planning decisions and, where opportunities arise, preparing enhancement proposals. The Character Appraisal will be a material consideration when considering applications for development within the conservation area and applications for significant new developments should be accompanied by a contextual analysis that demonstrates how the proposals take account of the essential character of the area as identified in this document. NPPG 18: Planning and the Historic Environment states that Conservation Area Character Appraisals should be prepared when reconsidering existing conservation area designations, promoting further designations or formulating enhancement schemes. The NPPG also specifies that Article 4 Direction Orders will not be confirmed unless a character appraisal is in place.

Leith lies on the coast, some 1.5 miles north east of the centre of Edinburgh.
The Leith Conservation Area was designated in 1998. It comprises the former Madeira and Old Leith Conservation areas with extensions at Leith Walk, Kirkgate, Albert Dock and the Citadel. The Old Leith Conservation Area was designated in 1977, with a number of subsequent amendments and the Madeira Conservation Area was designated in 1975. The Conservation Area covers the extent of the historic town, including the Madeira area and Leith Walk, the town’s main link with Edinburgh city centre. The Conservation area falls within Wards 12, 19, 20, 21, 22, and 37.
As the port of the capital and a gateway to Europe, Leith has played a conspicuous part in the history of Scotland. It retains a strong sense of individuality based on its long history as a thriving and independent burgh, and Edinburgh’s rise to importance can be attributed in part to the success of Leith as Scotland’s primary port for a long time. Leith was first established on the banks of the Water of Leith, at the point where the river entered the Firth of Forth. The tidal mouth of the river would have afforded a haven for ships long before any artificial harbour was constructed. The first historical reference to the settlement dates from 1140, when the harbour and fishing rights were granted to Holyrood Abbey by David I. At this time, it was known by the compound name ‘Inverleith’ (meaning ‘Mouth of the Leith’).
There is little archaeological evidence of the early settlement, which is assumed to have been centered on the area bounded by the Shore, Water Street, Tolbooth Wynd and Broad Wynd. The built-up area was known as ‘the closets’ (or small closes). The natural harbour formed by the mouth of the Water of Leith became Edinburgh’s port in 1329 when King Robert I granted control of Leith to the burgh of Edinburgh. Further restrictive Royal Charters during the 15th century gave Edinburgh the rights to land adjoining the river and prohibited all trade and commercial activity by Leithers on the ground owned by Edinburgh. Despite these restrictions, the settlement grew through the 15th century and a chapel was built in circa 1490. Leith expanded in wealth as Scotland’s main port and its prosperity was reflected in its substantial merchants’ houses and warehouses. Development of the west bank began in 1493 when the first bridge over the Water of Leith was built, connecting North and South Leith for the first time and St Ninian’s Chapel was founded. Leith constantly features in the power struggles that took place in Scotland throughout the period and the battles, landings and sieges of Leith have had an influence on its physical development. In 1548, the Regent Mary of Guise moved the seat of government to Leith and the town was fortified. The fortifications ran from the west-end of Bernard Street south-east to the junction of the present Maritime and Constitution Street, south to the foot of Leith Walk, returning to the Shore along the line of what is now Great Junction Street. The siege of 1560 resulted in the subsequent partial demolition of its defensive walls. However, Leith continued to develop as a merchant port. In 1645, Leith was struck by an outbreak of bubonic plague which wiped out twothirds of the population. The Civil War was the next significant event to influence the town. Leith’s fortifications were rebuilt; and an entrenchment was constructed between Edinburgh and Leith, the right flank of which was defended by Calton Hill, and the left flank by the newly constructed fortifications of Leith. This resulted in the development of the Leith Walk route as the principal road between the two settlements. Previously access had been via Easter Road along the east of Calton Hill or down the Water of Leith valley through Bonnington. In 1656-7 a large Cromwellian fort, Leith Citadel, was built west of the river; a gateway of which still survives in Dock Street. By the end of the 17th century, Leith had developed from its original nucleus by the Shore to fill the area which had been enclosed by the line of the 1548 fortifications. One of the few developments outside the line of the walls was a short row of tenements and a windmill, now known as the Signal Tower, built by Robert Mylne in about 1686 at the north end of the Shore After Edinburgh’s North Bridge was completed in 1772, Leith Street and Leith Walk were firmly established as the major route to Leith. Market gardens developed
along the length of Leith Walk to meet the needs of the growing population of Edinburgh during the first half of the 18th century. In 1764, Professor John Hope developed 13 acres of land on the west side of Leith Walk at Shrubhill as Botanic Gardens. The two storey gardener’s house still survives and its single storey appearance from Leith Walk provides evidence of the extent to which the level of the street was built up in the 19th century. The Foot of Leith Walk was still almost entirely rural in 1785 when John Baxter prepared a scheme for development east of the street. Scattered development followed in the late 18th century and the first years of the 19th century on both sides of Leith Walk. James Smith, a merchant, bought the site of Smith’s Place in 1800 and by 1814 he had laid out a cul-de-sac and the next year built a large house at its end. By the mid 19th century, Leith Walk was an important public transport route. Horse drawn trams were introduced in the 1870s, cable cars in 1899, and electric trams a few years later. Expansion of the railways resulted in redevelopment at the Foot of Leith Walk and the formation of large goods yards at Steads Place and Brunswick Road. The railways provided work for large numbers of people and resulted in major speculative developments that extended along the east side of Leith Walk and the adjacent streets towards the end of the 19th century. These streets form a herringbone pattern meeting Leith Walk at offset junctions. In the second half of the 18th century, regular streets (Bernard Street and Constitution Street) were formed on the edges of the town, Queen Charlotte Street (then Quality Street) cut through the medieval layout, and Constitution Street was extended south to the foot of Leith Walk. At the same time, villas were built nearby and Leith became a fashionable seaside resort which, as early as 1767, included a golf clubhouse built by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at the west end of the Links. Leith expanded substantially during the 19th century, associated with railway building and the growth of the docks; port related industries and warehousing also grew rapidly during this period. The following description of some of the activities in Leith during this period is given: “Leith possesses many productive establishments, such as ship-building and sail-cloth manufactories … manufactories of glass … a corn-mill … many warehouses for wines and spirits … and there are also other manufacturing establishments besides those for the making of cordage for brewing, distilling, and rectifying spirits, refining sugar, preserving tinned meats, soap and candle manufactories, with several extensive cooperages, iron-foundries, flourmills, tanneries and saw mills”. The railways that were built to serve the expanding industries and the docks, eventually formed two elaborate and competing systems. The first line was a branch of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith railway (later absorbed by the North British) which was opened in 1838 to South Leith. In 1846, a branch line from the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee Railway was built along the Water of Leith valley, but was isolated form the growing network of new lines converging on Edinburgh until a new connection joined it to the North British system in 1868. The Caledonian Railway had built a line to the North Leith Docks in 1864. The opening of the Victoria Swing Bridge across the harbour linked the systems and an elaborate network of dock lines and yards were laid. In 1903, the Caledonian Railway built a new line to the South Docks and the North British a line to the new terminal at Leith Central, which was to be closed only 49 years later. New docks west of the harbour were begun in 1800, and in 1810 Great Junction Street was formed, leading to a new bridge over the Water of Leith, as a road to them from the foot of Leith Walk. The large parklands of the 18th century houses surrounding Leith were laid out for terraces and villas, beginning in 1800 with land south of Leith Links and continuing in 1807 with James Gillespie Graham’s plan for a large area north of Ferry Road and Great Junction Street. Robert Burn laid out a scheme for land south of Ferry Road in 1808 and later the feuing plan for Great Junction Street. However, building was sporadic, and these ambitious schemes were only completed (in significantly revised form) in the late 19th century. These first decades of the 19th century also witnessed a period of major civic building reflecting Leith’s growing power and wealth. A number of Leith’s finest remaining buildings date from this period, including the Leith Bank, the Customs House, the Assembly Rooms, Trinity House, and North Leith Parish Church.

The Madeira area was conceived as a comprehensive design prompted by the
success of James Craig’s New Town in Edinburgh. Beginning in 1800 with land
south of Leith Links and continuing in 1807 with James Gillespie Graham’s feuing scheme for a large area of north of Ferry Road. The grid pattern of streets was developed sporadically through the 19th century with Georgian buildings set back behind front gardens. By the turn of the century these basic rules were abandoned and Victorian buildings were inserted in the gaps taking there building lines directly from the heel of the pavement. This is most noticeable on Portland Place where a curved Victorian tenement projects forward from its Georgian wings on either side. The most important building in the area is William Burn’s North Leith Parish Church (1816). In 1833, Leith was established as an independent Municipal and Parliamentary Burgh with full powers of local government. In 1920, the town was amalgamated with Edinburgh. Leith’s architectural development of the time reflected its new
status and a number of substantial buildings – a Town Hall, Burgh Court, Police
Office – appropriate to its burgh status were built in the centre of the town
throughout the 19th century. Leith expanded as massive warehouses and
additional docks were built: the Victoria Dock in 1851, the Albert Dock in 1881; the Imperial Dock in 1903. Leith’s rapid growth during the 19th century and its role as a focus for Edinburgh’s manufacturing industries resulted in a rapidly expanding population and a dense environment, with tenement housing, industrial and commercial uses all served by the dock and railway network. Typical of such areas during the Industrial Revolution, this rapid growth brought environmental and social problems, such as air pollution and poor housing. After the passing of the Leith Improvement Act in 1880 many of the slums and most of the 16th and 17th century buildings were cleared away and replaced with tall tenements. Henderson Street was also forced through the old pattern of closes and wynds. Concurrent with the improvement schemes were programmes of major tenemental development, most significantly the building of dense tenement blocks over the fields between Leith Walk and Easter Road. Leith Links were part of a larger area of common land which stretched along the coast including part of Seafield. Links is Scots meaning sandy ground with hillocks and dunes, and the present artificial flatness dates from about 1880. The Links were significantly remodelled at this time and brought, more or less, into their present form. A formal park, enclosed by railings with extensive avenues of trees, replaced the former rolling landscape of grassed dunes. These improvements removed the majority of the world’s oldest golf course, which is mentioned as early as 1456. The Links were an important recreational centre, hosting horse racing and athletic meetings, and still contain bowling greens and cricket pitches that date from the 19th century.

Following the First World War, the number of shipyards was reduced from six or seven to one, and the stream of pre-war trade dwindled significantly. Through the inter-war years, Leith had high unemployment. However, the population of Leith was still around 80,000 at the start of the Second World War. Leith was the focus of slum clearance programmes between the 1950s and 1970s that resulted in the loss of the historic Kirkgate and the construction of a number of large public housing schemes. The demolition of large numbers of sub-standard houses resulted in a housing shortage, and many younger people were forced to move out of Leith to find accommodation. This distorted the community profile, with a bias towards the elderly. In more recent years the emphasis has moved to urban regeneration, community needs and the conservation of Leith’s historic environment. The Leith Project Initiative of 1980-85, incorporated an industrial and environmental programme directed at cleaning up buildings; helping to renovate and convert properties for quality housing, offices and workshops; developing industrial units in disused gap sites; consolidating key industries and encouraging new business to develop in the historic centre. The Vaults, the Cooperage and buildings along the Shore were converted to housing from redundant industrial buildings with assistance from the Leith Project Initiative. An important factor in Leith’s revitalisation was the large stock of solidly built warehouses, usually with plenty of natural daylight making them suitable for conversion. The King’s Landing (1985) was a substantial new private housing development on a former gap site. This more recent approach has resulted in the central shore and basin areas of Leith taking on new identities as important centres for high profile and innovative business, quality housing, and high quality restaurants and bars. Redefinition of the operational dock area has also provided a large area of potential development land on Leith’s northern fringe, which is now the focus of the majority of redevelopment proposals. Leith is also now the permanent home of the former Royal Yacht Britannia and its importance will be further strengthened by the opening of the Ocean Terminal development.

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