The History of Leith

November 4, 2005

A day at Leith Races

IF you went down to what are now the Albert and Edinburgh Docks during the 17th to the 19th century this would have been the sort of scene that would have greeted you.

“Leith Races” by William Reed
East Sands, as they were known then, would be milling with people, some excused especially from work, all eager to witness the annual carnival of the Leith Races when horses fought, sometimes against fierce rain and winds, to be first past the post – or, if it was a subscription race merely not to be last!
To arrive there, you might have “gaun doon wi’ the Purse”, following a procession from the City Chambers of the Town Officer in full livery carrying aloft the City Purse, the uniformed City Guard and a drummer playing the “Scottish March”.
Leith Race Week, the social event of the calender began in the early 1660s and ran until 1816 when it was decided they should be moved to Musselburgh to be run on turf.
This was not the end, however. In 1836 the Subscription Races returned to East Sands – this was a race of all the unfortunate horses who had fared the worst and were now bidding not to be the worst horse of all!
The last ever subscription race was run on 22nd September 1859 and it is this day, according to a plaque attached to the frame, that is captured in the painting by William Reed – Leith Races.
When the Leith Races began they were under the patronage of the city of Edinburgh magistrates and, from 1665, the King
They were officially opened each year by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and members of the council.
Writer, William Hudson, immortalised the carnival atmosphere of the Leith Races in Glimpses of Old Leith published in 1910. He wrote:
“Scores of booths and tents and drinking stands, and carts and caravans with trash and nick-nacks on sale.., and an infinite number of wheel-of- fortune, tables, gingerbreads barrows, stands, ‘shies’, peep-shows and light tents that perforce had to be ‘dug out’ like the posts holding the ropes, before the return of the tide.
“Here was the fat lady, the skeleton man, the boy with six toes, the Aunt Sally. Punch and Judy were there in all their glory; and who could omit seeing ‘Old Malabar’ the conjuror and acrobat.”
When the Leith Races were replaced by the Subscription Races the famous procession from the City Chambers followed a shorter route from the Custom House and the race course, formerly two miles long, only measured one and a half miles. They continued at Leith until which date it was transferred to Musselburgh.

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