The History of Leith

November 15, 2006

The Sport of Kings at Leith

For many centuries horse racing was a favourite pastime in Scotland. In 1552 there was an annual race at Haddington. The prize being a bell, and during the reign of James VI race were held at Peebles and Dumfries. It was at Dumfries that the race was the Scots against the English and the Regent Morton held a court at the same time. However these cross frontier meetings didn’t last long as they led to conflict and the use of deadly weapons and in 1608 they were stopped by the Privy Council and by an act of James VI which said any winnings over a hundred marks was to be given to the poor. By 1620 there was horse racing at Paisley. However the most famous race course in Scotland was at Leith.

After the Restoration there was horse racing every Saturday at Leith (which was extended later in the century) and were reported by the Mercurius Caledonius which was one of the earliest newspapers in Scotland. In March 1661 it reported “Our accustomed recreations on the Sands of Leith was much injured because of a furious storm of wind accompanied by snow. However we had some noble gamesters that were so constant in their sport as would not forebear a designed horse match. It was a providence the wind was from the sea otherwise they had ran a hazard either of being drowned or splitting upon Inchkeith. The tempest was nothing inferior to that which was lately in Caithness when a bark of fifty tons was blown five furlongs into the land and would have gone further if it had not been arrested by the steepness of a large promontory.”

The old races of Leith was run over a mile between two posts driven into the sand and the horses usually ran between three-five times around the marked distance. The races were rarely cancelled and even continued when the tide was slowly starting to rise, In the early days the Duke of Albany supported the races at Leith and later as James VII. The earliest records of the races are now lost however it is known from old maps where exactly the races took place and that is the area now covered by the modern docks of Leith.

The races were under the direct patronage of the Magistrates of Edinburgh and it was usual for two Town Officers in full livery to walk in procession each day of racing from the City Chambers to Leith carrying a pole with ribbons the City Purse and they were escorted by the City Guard with fixed bayonets accompanied with a drummer. Within a few minutes hundreds of people would have joined them on their way down to Leith. On the Sands themselves there would be booths and tents, recruiting sergeants, sailors ashore for a holiday, tradesmen with their wives and families, servant girls, places to buy drink and refreshments, and different shows like a fun fair. By Saturday the horses that had been beaten all week was made to race again for the honour of not being the worse race horse. By evening of the last day there were running fights up and down Leith Walk.

It was due to the constant trouble that racing on Leith Sands ended in 1816 and transferred to Musselburgh where they take place to this day. Although attempts were made to bring it back in 1839 and 1840 it proved abortive.

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