The History of Leith

December 6, 2006

Why Death worked overtime in Leith

The year was 1746 and at a place called Culloden the Duke of Cumberland defeated the Jacobites and at long last the dreams of the Jacobites of regaining the throne of Great Britain came to a very bloody end. So what impact did this have on Leith with the first flood of displaced people from the Highlands after 1746?

The year was 1746 and at a place called Culloden the Duke of Cumberland defeated the Jacobites and at long last the dreams of the Jacobites of regaining the throne of Great Britain came to a very bloody end. New realities started to dawn on the highland Chieftains and Lairds that the days of having clans and war bands were really over and that there was no profit in having bands of followers or crofters on their lands and so the days of the Highland clearances started. The Tartan and the bagpipes were banned; the speaking of the Gaelic was outlawed. The whole of the highland culture was crashed between Parliament imposing vindictive laws on the Highlands and the greed of the Highland Lairds as they realised that they preferred or at least it was more profitable to have four legged Highlanders (i.e. Sheep) to the two-legged sort.

So the Highlanders were forced of their land and you can imagine two moving populations one moving down the west coast and as soon as they get to Glasgow they are on board ships to the New World. Most Scots-Americans and Scots-Canadians record there date of entry into America from just after 1746. In fact it has been argued that the Jacobites, which immigrated at this time, brought about the American War of Independence. Their ideas and hatred for Britain being carried from Scotland to take root in America. Just in the same way the Irish took the Bag and Baggage of Irish Republicism in the following century to Australia.

On the east coast the populations of Aberdeen, Dundee, the Fife Ports and Leith all increased. Leith for centuries had a population of around 5000 for centuries but from 1746 to 1800 the population increased to 15000. From 1800 to 1850 it jumped again to 50,000 and by 1900 it stood at 82000. From this high point the population has collapsed to 29188 (1997). The question is why has this happened and the reason is quite simple The population increased throughout the 19th century because of trade, business and the Industrial revolution which brought in the factory system. Not only Highlanders came into Leith but also the Irish came due to the Potato Blight in Ireland.

So what impact did this have on Leith with the first flood of displaced people from the Highlands after 1746? The house builders and developers of the time started to build houses. These properties were just thrown up and rapidly became slums. Which led in turn to more houses and factories being built and so it went on. There was no town planning or building control in fact it was a free for all. The important thing to remember here is the town didn’t move out of its medieval boundaries and so this led to massive overcrowding. This can be shown from the census records of the 19th century, which as now were done every ten years from 1841. These records show families living in overcrowded conditions. In fact within the area bounded by Great Junction St and the Shore lived in excess of 40,000 people. This was before Henderson Street was built. In fact somebody could role out of one side of their bed and go to their work or role out of the other side and go to their Church. Which is all very nice and made life easy. However the truth is living conditions in Leith was bad and so when disease came it spread like wildfire and death came in its wake. The people of Leith like people all over Britain at this time were working incredibly long hours in the new factories for incredibly low wages making a few people very wealthy. Which meant the population were not only ill clad, hunger was a reality in the dark, dingy and smelly closes of old Leith. There is nothing romantic in the past living conditions were a complete disgrace. Not only this women could not give birth properly because of the low standard of living. If fact according to the statistics of the burials at South Leith Churchyard almost 50%of the burials were for children before the age of five. That is one of the reasons why Victorian families tended to be large and why in many families the same Christian name is used two or three times which is a old Scottish tradition which simply means that the earlier children of the same name had died. It is sad to think that up to 1900 the greatest cause of death amongst the working class was starvation. Its odd to think that people on average are nine inches taller today then what they were one hundred years ago. This is also the reason why Victorian hymns are full of death and rather grim. However on the brighter side if a person managed to survive childhood and the early teenage years then people in general lived a normal lifespan and in fact at South Leith Churchyard there is a burial to a man who lived to 101 which I believe is the oldest person ever to have lived in Leith and almost beside him is a large tombstone to a family that was wiped out by disease.

The Churches and Leith Hospital did their best to improve the living conditions and health within the area but at the end of the day it took the clearance of hundreds of homes and the creation of Henderson Street in the 1880’s and 90’s before any improvements were made. Along with Government regulations, the enforcement of the Factory Acts and improvement of wages that the vile Victorian living conditions were finally to be removed from Leith.

Some Text