History of Leith, Edinburgh

November 6, 2006

A Strange Connection

One of the greatest mysteries connected to South Leith Parish church is when it was built and the usual answer is 1483 or about that date but is this date correct ?

I must make a digression this month to mention a connection I discovered in connection to the history of South Leith Parish Church. One of the greatest mysteries connected to the church is when it was built and the usual answer is 1483 or about that date. So is this date correct I don’t think so.

The reason for thinking this is that there is Charter evidence to prove that Gilbert son of Henry of Leith donated the land on which the Church stands dated 1230 to the knights of St John from Torphican. However they didn’t use this donation until 1327 by which time they had combined with the Knight Templars. Later they created the Preceptory of Saint Anthony, which stood where the South Leith Parish Church Halls now stands. So the question is where did the date of 1483 come from? In fact in some histories this date changes to 1487 and even 1488.

To explain this I must explain that I recently went on a trip to Inchcolme with members of South Leith Church to celebrate an act of Communion in the Chapter house of the Abbey, which stands on the Island. The Abbey itself was founded by Alexander I in 1123. Now it is not my intention at this time to go into the history of Inchcome but to bring to the readers attention a odd fact that the original name for Inchcolme was in fact Aemonia which is said to signify the island of the Druids and according to some traces have been found to indicate traces of this superstition before the introduction of Christianity. However much to my surprise this interpretation is in fact wrong and the reason is quite simple and that is because Aemonia is the Latinised form of Thessaly and it was from an area in Thessaly called Achaia, which is in Greece came St Triduana in the 7th or 8th century the date is uncertain. It was of course due to the relics of St Triduana and the healing well of St Triduana being at Restalrig which led to Restalrig being a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages which made Restalrig rich and famous and attracted Royal Patronage through James III, James IV and James V with the development of the shrine of St Triduana into a Collegiate Church and the building of the Chapel Royal the bottom part of which can still be seen in the Churchyard of St Margaret’s Church and is seen as a hexagonal shaped building with a statute of St Triduana on top. In fact the bottom part was called St Triduana’s Aisle was a reliquary and would have been the place where the relics of St Triduana would have been kepted

It is also odd that in the Macfarlene MS c1217 is found the following entry “Thomas de Lastalrig made over to the Abbey of Inchcolme for the good of his soul and that of his wife Anna and the souls of his predecessors and successors, the whole of that land which Baldwyn Comyn had held from him in the town of Leith, along with twenty-four and a half acres of arable land in his territory of Lastalrick (ie Restalrig) on the south of the highway between Edinburgh and Leith (ie Easter Road)”. This last named portion of land is that which now goes by the name of Coatfield. On closer inspection of the document it would appear that Coatfield was also know as Horstanes but more research will need to be done to confirm this. All that remains of Coatfield today is Coatfield Lane, which lies right beside South Leith Church.

Why was this donation not made to the Parish Church of Leith which was at that time at Restalrig is quite simple to explain and that is because the Parish Church wasn’t built until around 1178-1198 and would have taken time to build. However this may only apply to the shrine of St Triduana because the first real mention of a Church at Restalrig only really begins in the late 13th century. So it would appear that Sir Thomas de Lastalrig made his donation to Inchcolm because not only because of the island’s connection to St Triduana which later was forgotten about but because it was also an Abbey.

So what have we got but land donated by Sir Thomas de Lestalrig in Leith connected to Inchcolm and St Triduana and this land lies right beside what in the future will become South Leith Parish Church. We also know that in the time of James III Patrick Graham Archbishop of St Andrews was held prisoner on Inchcolm in fact it is said there were four guards kepted on him night and day. However as Inchcolm was in danger of being attacked by the English Navy Patrick Graham was transferred to Dunfermline and then to Lochleven Castle where he died. In fact the English attacked the island in 1335 and 1385. That is also why the canons of Inchcolm went to the mainland in 1421 because of fear of the English. Really from the time of James III Inchcolm Abbey went into decline because of the English Navy.

It was for this reason the Chapel Royal dedicated in the main to St Triduana wasn’t built at Inchcolm but at Restalrig, which was the centre of pilgrimage for people going to the shrine of St Triduana. The Chapel Royal was built at Restalrig in approximately in 1477 and which lead in turn on the 15th November 1487 that a papal Bull was issued by Pope Innocent VIII who alone had the authority granting the petition of the King at the instance of “our beloved son, John Frisell Priest of the Diocese of St Andrews and Master of Arts” that the Church of Restalrig be erected into a Collegiate Charge with the company of priests being under the jurisdiction of a Dean. Now look at the date 1487 is that not one of the dates mentioned as the foundation of South Leith Parish Church?

What I think happened was a mix up happened between South Leith and Restalrig because Restalrig in 1487 was the Parish Church of Leith and Restalrig had connections with Inchcolm and St Triduana because of the donation of land in Leith to Inchcolm and this land lay right beside South Leith. So when people came to look at this at a later date the connection that Coatfield had with Inchcolm and St Triduana would have been forgotten about but they would have seen a church being built in the Parish of Leith and would have assumed that it referred to South Leith not to Restalrig. In the passage of time records do get lost or damaged or simply misunderstood and the memory fades. So mistakes can entry into the historic record because assumptions are made.

The date for the so-called founding of South Leith Church didn’t apply to South Leith but to the founding of the Collegiate Church of Restalrig. In fact South Leith was probably erected in 1327 with the coming of the knights of St John and may be one of the explanations why on the coat of arms of South Leith dated 1598 a Royal Coat of Arms appears above the West door of the Church because of the historic fact that Robert the Bruce came to Leith in 1327 to receive treatment from the knights of St John and it was for this reason a hospice was erected which later developed into South Leith Parish Church.

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