The History of Leith

December 6, 2004

Final act after decades of drama

It has survived bombs and played host to celebrities and locals. But the end looms for Leith Theatre, as the city plans to sell the site.


BUILT in 1929, the B-listed Leith Theatre sits proudly alongside Leith Library. The grand and imposing building, which was opened to commemorate the joining of Leith to the city of Edinburgh, had been a centre for entertainment, housing countless shows – local and national – throughout its history.

It attracted performers such as 1950s heart-throb Frankie Vaughan and Rod Stewart during its heyday, and became a popular venue for the International Festival Fringe. The Queen Mother visited and former prime ministers Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan delivered speeches there.

During the Second World War, a parachuted mine caused extensive damage, particularly to the north side, and all the windows were blown out.

One set of renovation was complete in June 1952, with more restorations beginning in 1959. The whole complex was reopened in 1961.

However, after 54 years, the famous performance venue closed in 1983, and subsequently fell into disrepair, being used as storage space and not as the entertainment venue it was designed for.

Now, despite a campaign to revive Leith Theatre as a multi-arts venue once again, the building is due to be sold to rescue the cash-strapped King’s Theatre.

But, for many people, the Leith Theatre evokes fond memories.

Local historian John Arthur, an expert on the theatre, says the venue was the people’s theatre and it will be sadly missed.

He says: “It was a very popular venue and very well attended. I remember it being very grand indeed – the entrance hall especially, and in its heyday it was rather spectacular. A special place to go to.

“It was actually bombed in 1941 during the Second World War by a landmine, attached to a parachute. I think they were aiming for Leith Docks but missed and Portland Place got most of it – the devices landed on tramlines, hit a tram and hit the theatre.

“It wasn’t completely destroyed but it had to be refurbished. It was spectacular when it was [refurbished].”

He continues: “Various functions took place there initially. It was more like a town hall to begin with, and there were community shows, school shows and it was even a venue for donating blood.

“But it became more popular in the 1960s and 70s with the upsurge of buildings and it became a location for local people to go to, to be seen in. There were lots of shows, even the opera, and it became a very popular venue.”

One man who recalls visiting the theatre at Leith is David Todd, former manager of the King’s Theatre and Festival Theatres. The theatre history expert was a regular audience member at the venue.

He says: “I used to live in Leith until 1967 and I have fond memories of the theatre. The two memories that stand out for me was when I was a small boy. One was going to a concert by the Amadeus Quartet in the mid-1960s which was just fantastic, and the other was by the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group.

“This was particularly memorable as everyone got dressed up in medieval costume and it was a superb show.

“Leith Theatre really did some great events. More recently, I went to see the folk opera Aida, which was superb – the theatre had put in a swimming pool for some of the scenes.”

He adds: “It was an important venue and it is a shame it’s finally being sold. However, I do understand why it has to go. The King’s Theatre is another venue, much like the Leith Theatre, and it may well face closure some of the year, as it [The Leith Theatre] did, if there are no funds.

“The Leith Theatre went into disrepair when this happened, and we don’t want the same thing happening to the King’s Theatre. One is enough.”


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