The History of Leith

November 3, 2006

The connections between North Leith and South Leith Parish Churches

Using in the main the Session Records of South Leith Parish Church this paper explains the close relationship that South Leith Parish Church has had with North Leith parish Church over several hundred years.

1) Due to the absences of David Lindsay the minister of South Leith caused by State business a second minister was appointed and his stipend was paid for by the four Incorporations of Leith along with the Kirk Session. John Durie was the first to hold this position in 1570-74 followed by James Logan (1591-1593). However during the term of George Sempill (1593-1596) as minister of the Second Charge at South Leith that a very important decision was made by presbytery on the 25th Nov 1595 to “Plant a Kirk” in North Leith at which time came under the Parish of the Canongate. This was due to North Leith coming under Holyrood in Pre-Reformation Times. It was John Brand, Minister of the Canongate and David Lindsay who were appointed to officiate at the “Planting”. By 1606 the Kirk of St Ninian in North Leith was erected into a Parish Kirk by Act of Parliament. Which means the Parish of North Leith is in fact three years older then South Leith.

2) By 1650 Leith was occupied by the Troops of Oliver Cromwell. Although Cromwell respected the Scottish Church he felt as if the Church had double crossed him as he had accepted the National Covenant. However as soon as he was told that not only had Charles II accepted the National Covenant but was in Leith. He invaded Scotland defeating the Scots army at Dunbar and Leith was occupied. However although the decision was made to build the citadel in North Leith the fact remains that military equipment had to be stored somewhere and as the only large stone building available was South Leith Church, that is where the armies military stores where kept until the Citadel was built, and the congregation were evicted, worship taking place in different areas around the town. However by 1653 there was a gradual movement back to the Church. This was accomplished by 1654. According to the records “Upon the 13th day of November 1654 being the Lord’s Day the preaching began again to be in our Church. Prases to our Lord”. However there were still many Cromwellian troops and English families in Leith and they attended the Church, and the minister of South Leith at the time was Mr John Hogg ,who was a good minister, but he had one great failing and that he was a Royalist and he couldn’t keep his political opinions to himself, not only did he pray for Charles II he openly criticised the government and so Mr Stevenson the Church Treasurer received a order from Major Pearson the Town Major for the Church Keys, on instructions from Timothy Wilks the Deputy Governor. So the Congregation were again evicted however due to a petition to Cromwell himself and the Privy Council of Scotland it was ordered that the Congregation should worship at North Leith and this began on the 10th July 1656 in the old St Ninian Church. At the same time due to the building of the Citadel the graveyard of St Nicholas which was the graveyard for North Leith, had been removed, therefore it was arranged for North Leith burials to take place at South Leith. This continued for a number of years until North Leith obtained the graveyard in Coburg Street. Later in 1656 the congregation finally returned to South Leith and that is why on the wall of the North aisle is a beam showing 16-For the Craigend-56. Strictly speaking it is not a beam but came from the pew for the Calton area were the Shoemakers lived. However at this period Calton came within the Parish of South Leith, 1656 refers to the year not only when the congregation moved back into South Leith but in that year North Leith and South Leith worked very closely together helping each other out.

3) After 1833 the new Town Council of Leith after the elections and for many years attended South Leith Church in the morning on the Sunday following and North Leith in the afternoon.

4) In 1836 the joint Sessions of North Leith, South Leith and St John’s tried to stop the opening of Public Houses on Sundays. However this failed unfortunately. The problem was that heavy drinking in Leith was causing serious problems leading to debt, disease and early death and fathers were spending all their money on drink leaving their families to go hungry (quite apart from the fact the day concerned was the Sabbath however that wasn’t the main reason) . The Church can be portrayed at times as being kill joys but in this they were absolutely right and far ahead in their social thinking and the Council were wrong. What the council didn’t realise was the gross overcrowding in Leith was causing people to drink more then what was good for them. If you look at the 1852 ordinance survey map of Leith there is a Public House on every street corner drink was cheap and made people forget their dank overcrowded living conditions, poor working conditions and long working hours.

5) It is interesting to note that the Session of South Leith being at one time the proprietors of Hillhousefield in North Leith were heritors in the Parish of North Leith and therefore were involved with the calling of the minister of North Leith (eg Session Records 29th December 1707)

6) People could move backwards and forwards between the two Parishes without any problem based on their testimonial given by their respective Kirk Session (eg Session Record 22nd May 1718)

7) According to the Session Record £25 was raised at South Leith to help in the repairs of North Leith Church 18th September 1735. It doesn’t seem much but in 1735 that was a year’s salary to many people.

8) North Leith and South Leith agreed that certain beggars who normally begged in North and South Leith were to be given badges sawed into their clothes and all others the “Stranger Poor” were to be removed from the town as they were causing trouble. It was also ordered by the joint Sessions that Peter Thomson and William Mackintosh were to be appointed to carry this out. This might be considered an unchristian thing to do but Leith at this time had limited resources and many poor people from outside the area were flooding into the town and caused real friction and the poor of Leith were suffering. So something had to be done (eg Session Record 24th April 1750)

9) The Session Record for the 7th April 1642 appears odd to modern ears but it is an instruction from the Kirk Sessions of both South Leith and North Leith to stamp out bad language in the Town. Elders and deacons were instructed to report such people and then they had to appear before the Session. Not only this but conversations were listened to and reported. Certainly Religion at this time became very Puritan however there was a good reason for this as Leith was a very rough and tough place to live in being a Port and anything said out of place could cause serious trouble. The Kirk Sessions understood the people and served them well however strange the entry may appear.

10) The Session Record 6th January 1646 announces the death of Mr James Sharp of South Leith and the appointment of Mr Andrew Fairfoul of North Leith as moderator until Mr John Weir was appointed in 1647.

11) There are two interesting entries in the Session Records the 11th and 14th August 1672. This in the main concerns the visitation of the Bishop of Edinburgh who was George Wishart minister of North Leith who was later driven from his church for his refusal to sign the Covenant. He was the author of a Latin Memoir on Montrose a copy of which was hung around the neck of Montrose when he was executed. During the visitation he dealt with the case of Mr Andrew Cant who was accused of punching a Mr John McQueen. The matter was serious as Mr Cant was the minister of the Second Charge at South Leith however it was settled and they shook hands. They later became colleagues again at Trinity College Church.

12) In the Session Record of 16th September 1680 it is intimated that the North Leith bells be rung for the Thursday sermons at South Leith.

13) The Session record of August 2nd 1688 mentions the summons of the Bailie of St Anthony before the Edinburgh Sheriff concerning the Baillie’s authority. Edinburgh was trying to impose what they thought was there “rights” however within the Barony of St Anthony and properties held in North Leith and Newhaven Edinburgh in point of fact had none. He was appointed by the Session of South Leith and normally sat with two Edinburgh Bailies. The Kirk Session of South Leith was also called the Preceptors of St Anthony which dates back to the early history of the Church.

14) Session Record of 22nd December 1692 Mr James Lundie minister of North Leith came to the South Leith Session with a commission from the Presbytery to stop an election for a new Session at South Leith because of the division between Mr Kay who was Episcopalian and Mr Wishart who was Presbyterian. They refused to take notice of this because Mr Wishart was moderator. Also the Session was Episcopalian and had protested to the Privy Council. The Episcopalian Session ended on the 28th February 1693 by Act of the Privy Council. Mr James Lundie died in 1696 and was buried at North Leith Churchyard Coburg Street.

15) By 1687 the Presbyterian South Leith were meeting at what is called on many maps “John Knox’s House” which had no connection in point of fact with “John Knox” the reformer (however it may have been owned by the Rev John Knox of North Leith but there is no proof of this unfortunately) less grandly it was also simply called “The meeting House” because it stood in what later became “MeetingHouse Green Close which ran parallel to Cables Wynd the name suggests it must have been open country when it was built in the 17th century however by the 19th century the meeting house had become a Fish Warehouse in a dark and dirty Close. In the Session Record of the 24th November 1687 Mr John Knox minister of North Leith preached and after the sermon moderated at the Session meeting which appointed Mr William Wishart minister of South Leith. Mr Wishart was later imprisoned for denying the Kings authority and became moderator of the General assembly on five separate occasions, Principle of the College of Edinburgh (Edinburgh University) and minister of the Tron Church.

16) Under the Session Record of 1st January 1692 there is the following narrative (Which is long but I will give the first paragraph) as follows “ In the year 1687 when there was libertie granted by King James a considerable number of families in ye parioche of South and North Leith did ascoiat together into one congregation and sett up one meeting hous near to the Sheriff Brae and on July 14th 1687 choosed seven persons to be representatives and in January 1688 Mr William Wishart (being called by them) was settled by the Presbitery minister of the said congregation.”

17) The Session Record of 8th November 1692 shows how the two Sessions of North and South Leith help a couple John Forbes and Jean Barclay both holding Begging Badges from both Churches

18) The Session Record of South Leith 26th January is noted that the Elder Robert Pergillies had spoken to the Constable of North Leith and that he had given them libertie to jail anybody they wished in the tollbooth of North Leith. Dated 26th January 1693.

So from the beginning of both Parishes in North and South Leith in the early 17th century they have had very close ties with each other and more then this but had a very close working relationship together as well. Unfortunately there is no record of how the plague of 1645 affected North Leith but it must have been just as bad there as it was for South Leith and judging by the records the implication is they must have helped each other out at that time. In fact in times of trouble they seemed to have worked more like one Parish then two separate Parishes. A surprising fact is the Session Record of 24th November 1687 where it mentions many families both from North and South Leith attending the meeting House and so the congregation of South Leith for well over three hundred years has been composed of people from both North and South Leith and I would think this goes somewhere to explain this close relationship.

Also the early history of North Leith is not so radically different from that of South Leith. Just as South Leith originated from the Preceptory of St Anthony which covered an enclosed area from Constitution Street to Cables Wynd. North Leith originated from the St Nicholas Hospital (which was probably where Trinity House started). St Nicholas was the patron saint of seamen, and again like the Preceptory of St Anthony was an enclosed area with a hospice for seamen, Church, Chapel, graveyard. and other monastic buildings, In fact James IV visited St Nicholas Hospital and there is a record of this as follows “ Offerit in St Nycholas Chapel in Leith beyond the brig vii s” (please note a offering was made at the Chapel not that he actually worshiped there. This is important)). The confusion here is medieval hospitals always had chapels connected to them which in time quickly turned into Churches. Furthermore the records clearly state that the building was substantial in order that it could be seen from out at sea. So this seems to describe a church rather then just a chapel. In point of fact St Ninian’s Church may have been the Church of the St Nicholas hospital being built by Abbot Robert Ballantyne of Holyrood in 1493. The reason for thinking this is because James IV was a regular visitor and pilgrim to St Ninian’s shrine at Whithorn and because of the time James IV spent in Leith and Newhaven the suspicion is that St Ninian’s was built on the orders of James IV, as he was dedicated to St Ninian, with the support of Robert Ballantyne and not for the reasons stated in “The Story of Leith” by John Russell.. Furthermore although the above offering was to St Nicholas Chapel I would think his visit was to the Church of St Ninian and not to the Chapel. The offering in the Chapel was to the Seamen as he was dedicated to starting a Scottish navy and this was demonstrated by him in the building of the Great Michael at Newhaven began in 1507, payments made like this were always recorded in the State Papers not the actual reasons for the visit. Unfortunately the records of St Nicholas Hospital appear to be lost and so not much is known about it. However in the recent archaeological dig done in Sandport Street pieces of the buildings of St Nicholas were found including a font which may have come from the Chapel. Furthermore during the demolition of Victorian warehouses around St Ninian’s it was discovered that St Ninian’s was originally a very rare “Tower Church” of which I believe there is only one other example in Scotland quite sufficient to be seen from ships out in the Forth as they made there way into Leith. The problem with St Ninian’s Church is that apart from the name St Ninian had no connection with Leith whatsoever so why dedicate a Church to him in Leith, St Nicholas is understandable because he was the patron saint of seamen and North Leith has had a very long connection with the sea and ships.. The only possible explanation of the dedication of the Church to St Ninian is King James IV as St Ninian was the Kings favourite Saint and due to him being unable to visit Whithorn because of his duties in Leith he built the Church and dedicated the building to St Ninian.

Since writing above the piece I found the following entry in Dr Marshall’s book about North Leith Parish Church concerning St Ninian’s which seems to bear out what I was saying as follows,

“ On 8th June 1497 King James IV paid a visit to the new chapel of St Ninian’s and gave the Priest there twenty shillings to say “ane trentale of messis for the King” and later made a further offering of fourteen shillings. The accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland records thirty masses is listed, refers to the chapel of “Sanct Rengzanis chapel of Leith” in ordinary Scots “Ninian” was pronounced “Ringan” and Leithers would have known St Ninian’s as “Sanct Ringan’s””

The last authentic record we have of St Nicholas Hospital is one in connection to the death of Mr Muirhead, the first minister of North Leith after the Reformation, who in 1612 died in the manse of St Ninian “and was buried in St Nicholas Chapel on Friday thairafter at the west gavel” The reason St Ninian didn’t have a graveyard was because St Nicholas had one and it is now buried under Dock Street. This is known because substantial amounts of human remains have been found there. Both the Chapel and Church must have been burnt during the rough wooing and became ruinous and St Ninian’s was rebuilt in 1595 because it is recorded “ thair has been ane Kirk re-edified on the north side of the brig of Leith”. This re-edified Kirk and chaplain’s manse became in 1606 the Parish Church of North Leith, Pilrig, Bonnington, and Warriston.

Again like South Leith which strangely enough was not considered part of Leith being within the Barony of St Anthony. North Leith came originally under St Cuthberts but in 1128 was disjoined from St Cuthberts and given to Holyrood Abbey and again like South Leith was not part of Leith and that is why it came under the Parish of the Canongate after the Reformation. Although part of the Holyrood property included what is now the Sheriff Brae and Coal hill. That is why in later centuries what you find are in these areas when they come under South Leith Elders of North Leith living there as well.. So the original districts of South Leith were Sands (Bernard St), Hill (Coal Hill), Dubra (St Andrew Street), and Lees (St Anthonys and Yardheads). The Dubra was so called because it comes from the French meaning “two streets” and St Andrew Street originally split into what was called the Sheepheid Close.


South Leith Records

The Story of Leith, John Russell

The Church in the Midst, Dr James S. Marshall

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