The History of Leith

February 21, 2005


When a person in the present day walks along the Quay or Shore of Leith, he cannot but be struck with the absence of vessels. If half a dozen or so are lying along the quayside, from the top of Coalhill to the lower drawbridge, it is an exception to the ordinary state of matters. Such was not the case long ago.

It may be interesting at the present day to note some particulars of Leith fifty to sixty years ago, and some stories connected with the town in 1826 and some years afterwards, which came under the notice of the writer. For a very long period of years before 1826, the Shore of Leith was the principal quay for discharging and loading vessels, especially coasters. The new dock, as it was then called, was only finished in 1806. The Coalhill, as its name imports, was the quay where coal cargoes were discharged between the upper drawbridge and the lower one, the Newcastle and Hull traders, the three London companies and the Inverness one had their berths. The Glasgow and Greenock tug-boats lay on the North side, The Lerwick trader, the Fidelity, a stout, trig, frill rigged schooner (Captain Aim), used to lie on the North side of coal hill, next to Innes shipbuilding yard. A busy place the Shore of Leith was in those days on the arrival and departure of the London and other smacks. The London and Leith Old Leith Shipping Company, which was originally a Berwick one, was transferred to Leith in the beginning of the century. Long ago the goods from London to Leith, &c., were carted from Berwick by waggons with three or four horses in a string, or transhipped from Berwick to Leith in small craft, which must have made the charges on them for freight and carriage very costly, and the long transit very inconvenient to merchants. Persons going to London by sea in those days had to go to Berwick and take shipping there in the Berwick smacks. The Berwick shipmasters and their descendants long continue to navigate the vessels of the Old Shipping Company. The Berwick names of Nesbitt, Crabb, Johnston, Charters, Crow,&c., were long known in Leith. The smacks were stout-built ships of 140 to 180 tons register, able to stand very heavy seas. They had a tall thick mast with a heavy running out bowsprit, and a very large mainsail. They made quick passages with a fair wind, but were sometimes two to three weeks on the passage when contrary winds blew. Six to nine of them have been known to have come into Harbour on a change of wind in one tide. During the war times they were well armed, and carried six 18-pounder cannonades and two 4-pound guns.
It is recorded that the Old Shipping Companys smack the Queen Charlotte (Captain Nesbitt) was once attacked by a French privateer, of fourteen guns, betwix Cromar and the Spurn. Captain Nesbitt and his crew, aided by his passengers, stood bravely and manfully to their guns, and gave the Frenchmen such a warm reception that he was obliged to sheer off Captain Nesbitt and one of the crew were wounded. The Old Shipping Company, along with the under-writers and owners of goods on board, presented Captain Nesbitt with one hundred guineas, besides making allowances to the crew proportionally liberal for their gallant conduct. A particular account of the privateers attack is given in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal of 25th July 1804. Captain David Gourlay, long captain of the Lady one of William Sibbald & Cos fleet of West Indiamen which sailed from Leith, was for a period of years manager of the Old Shipping Company. He was a stout, fine looking man, sharp and active, and kept the smacks in the best of order and sailing trim. On sailing days, Tuesdays and Fridays, he was all activity getting the ships away. Old people of Leith will still recollect him. Large quantities of whisky from Lochrin and other distilleries, as well as lots of Edinburgh and Leith ales, were always shipped. All London smacks had good accommodation for passengers, a considerable number of whom went each trip. The seventh Earl of Wemyss, for many years, went in June with his carriages and servants and returned home by the Old Shipping Company, who named one of their new ships after him. Some passengers did not care for a quick passage. A story is told of a half-pay paymaster, hailing from the east country, who went to London now and then. He was never sea-sick, and used to tell the captain not to hurry on account of him, for he had plenty of time on his hand, and enjoyed the good living and viands on board which the company provided.
In those days convicts were shipped to London by the smacks for the hulks and penal settlements. It was a sorrowful sight to see twenty to thirty of them, both men and women, put on board, chained and manacled together. They were brought down from Edinburgh in hackney coaches, which came down the Kirkgate and the Tolbooth Wynd. The Old Shipping Company in 1828 had seven smacks which were named the Duke of Buecleuch, Earl of Wemyss, Sir William Wallace, Walter Scott Ocean, Lord Wellington and Lord Melville. They had a broad streak of white paint on their sides, and were called the White Siders. The berth and offices of those vessels were exactly at the foot of Queen Street.
The London and Edinburgh Shipping Companys smacks lay immediately below the Old Shipping Companys. Robert Bruce was manager. They had in 1828 also seven vessels the Royal Sovereign, Earl of Hopetoun, Robert Bruce, Favourite, Superb, Trusty and Pilot They had red sides, and were called the Red Siders.The London, Leith, Edinburgh and Glasgow Shipping Company had their birth above the lower drawbridge; formerly it was on the North side below the upper bridge. They had nine vessels the Abercromby, Edinburgh Castle, Venus, Matchless, Czar, Perth, Eagle, Hawk and Buecleuch. They had green sides, and were called the Green Siders. The Czar (Captain Smith) was lost on Deacliff rocks, east of North Berwick, in a stormy night (February 1831), when most of the crew and passengers were drowned. Messrs Ogilvie and Crichton were managers. The Glasgow and Greenock tug boats of sixty to seventy tons, which went through the Union Canal, also belonged to them. Thomas Menzies, a respectable and decent man, was long head clerk for them. From 1835 to 1840 the old Leith and London smack companies had to encounter a strong opposition in their trade from the brewers of Edinburgh, &c., distillers and gunpowder manufacturers, &c. The smack companies were not disposed to bring their empty casks from London, or to carry gunpowder and explosives, as they were under contract to Government to carry convicts, and they advertised to carry passengers. Brewers, distillers and gunpowder manufacturers were thus put too much inconvenience.
Under the management of the late Mr. James Wishart of the Timber Bush, a fleet of six quick-sailing and well equipped brigs and schooners was put on, and continued trading from Leith to London and back until 1840, when steam put forth its powerful arms and knocked all sailing vessels out of trade. During the existence of this opposition fleet no casualty happened to ships or crews.
Mr. James Wishart, an old respectable Leith merchant, was chief owner and manager of the Newcastle traders. Mr. A. B. Mabon was manager of the Hull vessels. Steamers to London began to sail before 1829, and in a few years the old renowned Leith and London smacks felt the change of times. The three companies had to be given up, and their sailing vessels sold off. The L. L. E. and Glasgow Company, however, for some time carried on their trade with steamers in conjunction with their smacks. The present well-conducted and appointed steam-ships which sail from the Victoria Dock are, it is believed, the property and successors of the old London and Edinburgh smack companies.
Below the under drawbridge sundry trading vessels used to be discharged and loaded, and at the ferry-boat stairs the Fife passage luggers lay, bringing over cattle, sheep, goods and passengers from Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy, Dysart &c. They were excellent sea-boats, and could stand rough weather well, although they were sometimes blown down as far as the Bass. A good story is told of a Highland drover who was crossing with his cattle from Kinghorn one day. There was a rough sea on, and he got very much afraid for himself and his cattle. The crew told him to keep quiet and trust Providence.
Donald replied, If I was once ashore with my beasties, I never trust Providence or your boat again.The old harbour-master Wilson, called Deadlie,â was an important person in his own eyes, and gave his orders to shipmasters roaring through a brass trumpet in very peremptory language. But he was a good kind of body after all, although he did not like to be crossed.
Idle fellows of boatmen used to congregate at the ferry-boat stairs, waiting for chances of taking people out to the roads or for a pleasure sail, A big course man who went by the name of Big Bob was one of them, and was constantly on watch for a job and ado,as will be seen from the following incident. One fine summer night two young men, apprentices in a mercantile house, were taking a walk down the stone pier; the tide was rapidly coming in, and the Black Rocks would soon be covered with water. They saw what appeared to them to be several persons running backwards and forwards on the rocks as if making signals for assistance. Impressed with the benevolent object of saving them from being drowned, they ran to Big Bob and told him their fears. In a minute they were in the fellows boat with him and another man. He often roared out, We are rowing very quick, and will save them.When the rocks were reached the objects soon disappeared, and turned out to be large seals which had been playing and romping on the rocks. The rascal knew well enough what they were, as he afterwards told, and laughed in the faces of the two simple apprentices. He demanded ten shillings for his hire, which was resisted, but the two young men had to pay him two shillings and sixpence each. This is a specimen of the Leith boatmen of those days.

Reminiscences, Port and Town of Leith, John Martine, 1888. Copied by David McCormick 2004

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