The History of Leith

December 8, 2004

Days before the tide turned in Granton

TAKE a walk to Granton Harbour these days and it’ll be a peaceful affair.

Small yachts tied to the marina bob on the Forth, a man walks his dog on the pavement by the shore. There’s no discernible buzz about the place, no sign of the fast trade that kept the port afloat for three generations.

Thirty-five years ago Granton was a hive of activity, bustling with cargoes from all over the world, and one of only two harbours in the UK to be making a profit.

The ninth Duke of Buccleuch was a director of the port when it was nationalised in 1966. The compulsory acquisition and closure of Granton swiftly followed and the staff of 86 reduced to just two.

The harbour never flourished again. Workers went their separate ways, sad to see the end of their long-lived camaraderie and well-paid and secure jobs.

But few were more downhearted than the Duke.

Now aged 78 and in a wheelchair, he is in a reflective mood. Perhaps that’s why he’s chosen now to appeal for former Granton Harbour workers to come forward to a reunion?

“I think so,” he smiles. “The older you get the more you think about falling off your perch.”

“I pop in and out of the ERI to have a pacemaker fitted and checked over, and that rather reminds me to keep the old thing going.”

“I’ve always feted our relationships with those we work with, whether in Granton or on the estates. But it’s easier on the estates because we have frequent get togethers and always hear about what everyone’s up to.”

“Granton was different though. We never had a farewell party. We were all so stunned to see it close, and there was nothing we could do.”

“But in my nostalgic surveys of Granton over 50 years my outstanding memory is that of all those involved and the happy annual parties we had in an upper room of the Granton Tavern, which were very jolly occasions.”

Gazing on to the rhododendron bushes and rolling hills of his Bowhill Estate in Selkirk, the issues which put paid to the Duke’s family’s harbour still rankle.

“It was a wonderful example of how private enterprise was strangled to death by Big Brother moving in, taking over and shutting it down,” he says. “Because Granton was too successful it showed up the other places which were losing huge sums of money, and that’s why it closed.

“But the prospects for continuing a thriving port were very good, and we’d just started on land reclamation for industrial use in the shallower parts of West harbour, which would have reinforced the security of the harbour workforce for a long time to come.”

The Duke is Scotland’s biggest private landowner. He is expected to make around £1.5 million from the reluctant sale of land at Granton, which will eventually become part of a £1 billion regeneration of the area. Eventually there will be new offices, industry, open space and thousands of homes, breathing fresh life into the area.

But for the Duke, it means the severing of family links with the area which date back to the 18th century.

The family already owned land in the area when the harbour was started from scratch by the Duke’s great, great grandfather in 1837 for the benefit of the people of Edinburgh and as a sea link to Fife. At one time it had the fastest coal loading machine in the country and in the 1960s had the first roll-on-roll-off loading pier to enable locally-built electrical transformers to be transported by ship instead of road.

Cargoes of esparto grass from North Africa came to supply the Capital’s paper mills. Imports included motor spirit, timber, bog ore, and exports listed were coal, coke and coke breeze.

North Sea trawlers were able to come and go at all states of the tide, whereas Leith had a lock entrance. And a ferry sailed from Granton to Burntisland.

The Regent Oil Company had a major terminal on Buccleuch Estates’ land on shore, with a steady stream of oil tankers to supply it. And the Royal Yacht Britannia graced the berth at the deep water of the west pier.

The ninth Duke went straight into the family business at Granton Harbour when he was demobilised in 1946.

“It was a fantastic place – a thrilling place to be,” he remembers. “Everyone there was constantly on their toes and eager to expand.

“Morale was so good that when there was a threat of nationalisation during the post-war period, powerful opposition was mounted from Granton.”

The “no” campaign was led by Walter Beveridge, a harbour foreman, chairman of the TGWU for Scotland and first cousin of cousin Jennie Lee – wife of Aneurin Bevan, who then lobbied the Government.

But Walter wasn’t around when, under the Harold Wilson’s government of 1966, a Bill was pushed through parliament to set up the Esturial Authorities to take over and manage groups of ports.

The political rights and wrongs of nationalisation could be argued forever, but there’s no doubting the profound effect the closure of the harbour had on the Duke.

“I had a sentimental attachment to the place, yes,” he admits. “After my eldest son was born in the early hours of the morning, I went out to the pier and sat there, looking out and contemplating my good fortune and the future. It was a time I shall never forget.”

“And one felt rather proud of one’s family achievements, for establishing the place and employing so many. But when it’s gone no one has sympathy for a titled family – that’s when the inverted snobbery factor I often talk about comes into play.”

He adds: “I did go back there, once or twice. The timbers were decaying, and the area seemed a haven for vandals. And even the seagulls sounded mournful as they flew around.”

After the axe fell on Granton Harbour the Duke put all his energies into his work as an MP for Edinburgh North.

“My plate was pretty full with 47,000 constituents. And now that I can vote and stand for parliament I would love to go back but don’t think anyone would vote for me.”

“But I don’t think my wife would relish the thought of pushing me all around a constituency.”

Today yearbooks celebrating Granton Harbour’s centenary – featuring pictures of the young Duke with his mother – are all he has to remind him of the good old days.

But he still owns much of the land at Granton and has been wading through mounds of paperwork as he buys and sells areas for redevelopment.

“We’ve been selling some bits and others have been sold off through compulsory purchases,” he says. “But I’m afraid it doesn’t make up for what I’ve already lost.”

After so many years, the Duke’s memories of specific people who worked at Granton Harbour are understandably hazy. But there are a few he could never forget. “There was a crane driver who had learnt enough Arabic when a soldier in Egypt to be able to welcome many Mediterranean traders,” he laughs.

“And there were two brothers called King. I happened to catch a cab once and who should be driving it but my old friend Mr King. But I don’t know where he is now.”

“Most of the people probably lived within reasonable distance of Granton.

“Even if one old colleague is found, hopefully that will lead to others and we could have a little gathering with my old colleagues or their widows.”

“I really would love to hear from them again, would love to hear what their views are on what happened to them.

“And maybe we could have a party here at Bowhill.”

*Are you one of the former Granton Harbour workers? Call 0131-620-8672.

Waterfront full to brim with history

The history of Granton Harbour stretches back through the centuries.

Here are just some of the key moments:

1425: Records dated October tell how a great “carrick” of the Lombards was shattered on the rocks. At the same place in 1887 some ancient Italian guns were discovered.

1544: When the English army marched on Leith under the Earl of Hertford they landed on the exact spot where the harbour is now situated. An account of the expedition from the King’s private army states: “The army landed two miles bewest the town of Leith, at a place called Grantine Cragge, every man being so prompt that the whole army was landed in four hours.”

1579: The Leith ship Jonas was wrecked there. And in 1844, when excavations were being made for the foundations of a bridge at Granton railway, coins of Philip II of Spain were found and are thought to be relics from an ill-fated Armada galleon.

1833: Interest in Edinburgh’s maritime connections reached fever pitch, but Leith – with its heavy dues, inadequate facilities, and the large sandbanks at the entrance – was unable to supply the city’s needs.

Vessels had to lie in the “roads” and send their passengers ashore on small boats, and since the large increase in passenger steamers plying to the Forth, a landing place where passengers could disembark was urgently required.

The Duke’s ancestors owned property at Granton and the rights of the foreshore and harbour.

1837: The Royal Assent to enable the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry to make and maintain a pier at Granton was granted by William IV on April 21.

1966: The Government under Harold Wilson passes a Bill ordering the nationalisation of all ports. Granton Harbour closes.

2001: The ninth Duke of Buccleuch looks set to make £1.5 million from sale of land at Granton, thus severing the family ties with the area.


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