The History of Leith

March 14, 2005

Edinburgh and South Leith

Prior to the year 1920, in days that are now gone, Leith was a separate burgh and its Town Council had sittings in South Leith Church, where they attended on stated occasions throughout the municipal year and at other times when it was fitting to mark in this way the occurrence of events of local or national importance.

Their attendance on any occasion made a little stir in the Church, and gave an emphasis to the event which was being commemorated. The time had gone by when the Town Council regarded it as part of their public duty to be present every Sunday and to take a share in the life of the Church, and now that Leith has been joined up with Edinburgh we may expect that these visits from the public representatives of the people will become less frequent, which should be set down as part of the loss sustained by Leith. It may be hoped that the visits will not cease altogether, for the association of Edinburgh with South Leith is centuries old and makes up a chapter of our local history which is perhaps not so well known as it deserves to be.
One of the first Acts of the Town Council of Leith when it came into being in 1833 was to arrange for permission to occupy the front seat of the maltmens loft in South Leith Church, that is the present organ gallery. The arrangement was meant to be merely temporary since the official seats were in the body of the Church in a conspicuous place near to the pulpit. These sittings belonged to the Baffles, who were appointed by the Town Council of Edinburgh, and who governed Leith from 1567 right down to the passing of the Municipal Reform Act in 1833, a period of 266 years. The Bailies gave way to the new Town Council, but as Church law is proverbially uncertain it required a special clause in an Act of Parliament passed in 1838 to transfer the official pew, which to this day bears the old-world name of the Magistrates pew. This pew is mentioned in our Records under date 17th May 1694; and in an earlier Minute of 9th July 1657, when it was ordered to build ane new seat to the Bailies in the bodie of the Kirke befor ther old seat.
Of more importance than the mere possession of sittings is the part which Edinburgh played in the life of South Leith Church and the work of its Kirk Session throughout the long regime of the Bailies. It may not be generally known that the Bailies were themselves members of the Session, not ordinary members chosen by the Congregation and voting in the usual way when any dispute occurred, but official members representing civil authority whose aid might be invoked to give executive effect to the decisions of the Church court. The Session could impose spiritual censures, but it was the Bailies who inflicted the civil punishment, and hence within the Session the Bailies formed a little estate of their own, They were not unmindful of their own dignity and consequence, nor did they forget that they represented Edinburgh, the feudal superior of South Leith. Therefore it followed that next to the two ministers of the church, the Bathes, also two in number, were the most important members of the Session and congregation. At one time, as our Records show, the Session had a custom of marching into the Church on Sundays to occupy the sittings set apart for them. In this procession the Baffles came first and they sat by themselves in front of their colleagues. Again at communion services our ministers sat at the top of the tables and immediately behind them a special table was placed for the Bathes of Leith. On the death of Queen Anne in 1714 mournings were displayed on the Kings seat, the Magistrates seat, and the Ministers seat. Details such as these indicate that the status of the Bailies was duly recognised, and as an element of friction was always present in the relations of Edinburgh and Leith, it may be asked whether this element was evident throughout the two and a half centuries during which the Bailies collaborated with the Kirk Session of South Leith. By way of offering an answer to this question it is proposed to set down some information taken mainly from the Church Records, which it is thought will make it plain that while a difference of opinion occurred now and again as was probably in evitable, yet on the whole the long association of Edinburgh and South Leith was marked by harmony and unity of purpose, and certainly was of the utmost value to the Kirk Session in carrying out theft various functions. It should be kept in mind that the members of the Session in those days, besides being churchmen, had to undertake many duties that now belong to the Town Council and were also the authority for poor law and education, so that the restraints and labours imposed on elders were very considerable.
Source-South Leith Records 1925

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