The History of Leith

November 9, 2006

” NORTH LEITH – A Description. “

A DESCRIPTION of North Leith given in a traveller’s guide dated 1787 did not paint an encouraging picture. Very little had changed for over a century and it consisted of one main street which ran from the bridge and had many narrow lanes and closes leading off. Some of these ran down to the carpenter’s yards by the river and others on the North side gave access to the gardens used by the inhabitants. The buildings were described as being very mean in their appearance and were inhabited by people who let their rooms during the summer months for those who wished to bathe in the salt water of the Forth.

Two hundred years on from this view of North Leith, one of the most interesting buildings and perhaps one of the oldest can still be seen, This is St Ninian’s Chapel, the remains of the former North Leith Kirk which stands in Quayside Street overlooking the river. It was in 1493 that Robert Ballantyne, Abbot of Holyrood founded and endowed this chantry chapel which was built not far from the bridge end of the stone arched bridge which connected the lands of South and North Leith. It was dedicated to St Ninian, but the fabric fell into ruin after the Reformation and local residents had to find an alternative place of worship.

The building was restored in 1595 and in 1606 it became the official church for the new and independent parish of North Leith. The Statistical Account of Scotland at that time states that both the church and the manse were as old as the time of popery and although repairs had been carried out from time to time it was largely rebuilt in 1736. It was too small for the worshippers however and although additional galleries had been constructed it became clear that a new Church had to be built and this was opened in Madeira Street in 1816. St Ninians was used by other congregations until 1825 when it became ‘ the unhallowed repository of peas and barley.’ It is believed that only a small area of the original masonry still exists in the lower part of the South side wall.

The manse, which still exists stands at the North East corner of the church and has been built in two sections, the one to the West representing the parsonage and the one to the East, which was added after the Reformation provided married accommodation for the clergy. These are probably two of the oldest houses left in Leith and although it is not possible to determine their age with any accuracy, they probably date from before the turn of the seventeenth century. T`he buildings are generally three storeys high, L-shaped on plan and terminate in a timber clock tower with its distinctive Dutch style steeple. A lintel over the entrance to the tower stair bears the date 1675 and there is also an inscribed lintel over one of the central windows at first floor level.

The last minister to officiate in the Church of St Ninians was Dr Johnston who was one of the founders of the Edinburgh Blind Asylum. He had served his congregation for over fifty years and at the opening of the new Church in Madeira Street his sermon and address were said to have affected all who heard it. He died on 5 July 1824 at the age of ninety-one and some years later a bust of Dr Johnston was placed in the new Church by a few affectionate friends in recognition of his service.

The ancient churchyard of St Ninians stands in Coburg Street and it was granted by the City of Edinburgh as compensation for that taken over by General Monk during the building of the Citadel.

The remains of Kobert Nicoll, one of Scotland’s unfulfilled poets were laid here in 1837 and there are several headstones of former mariners and ship builders as well as some which are said to have been brought from the church of St Nicholas when the Citadel was built over the site. Near to the main gates is the tomb of Thomas Gladstone who was the grandfather of William Ewart Gladstone and who was an elder in North Leith Church.

Sadly, one of the forgotten sites of Leith’s past is the Hospital and Chapel of St Nicholas about which very little is known and which disappeared in the middle of the seventeenth century when the Citadel was built.

source- PORTHOLE/David Valentine

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