The History of Leith

June 8, 2007

Campaigning for a Leith Museum for 60 years

The Campaign for a Leith Museum has been going on for over sixty years and has included the last of the Balfour family who died in Pilrig House in 1941 (who in fact gave Pilrig House to the Edinburgh Council to be used as a Leith Museum but her wishes were never carried out). Dr James Scott Marshall the eminent Leith Historian and Minister of the Kirkgate Church and Councillor Rev Elizabeth Wardlaw whose efforts in developing the Leith Festival is still appreciated by many in Leith and many others over the years but still Leith hasn’t a Museum of its own.

However the first question should be “why a Museum in the first place?” For what possible reason should the Council or anyone else for that matter support a Leith Museum? Can I suggest the following-?

1) If we forget the past then we condemn ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past
2) It would inform, educate and enlighten this and future generations of what is, was and can be the future for Leith
3) It would bring people, cultures and communities closer together
4) Unless people clearly understand through different media the reasons for the problems in Leith today and there origins then current problems cannot be tackled.
5) At a time of rapid technological and cultural change there is a great temptation to forget the past and think it irrelevant to the present but such a view would be very shortsighted. Because the origins and reasons for things happening today lie in the past.
6) There are many people abroad and ex-pats who are interested in Leith and are returning in ever increasing numbers every year and so a Leith Museum would be essential to the Tourist industry and to the many small businesses, shops, hotels, B&B’s, Public Houses and restaurants that depend on the tourist industry for their business.
7) It would engender a community spirit and would bring people closer together and encourage greater understanding between generations of people and cultures which is essential in today’s climate of tension.
8) It would encourage a pride in the area
9) It would show Leith is more then merely an area for developers and for the well healed but has a proud history going back into the mists of time
10) It would help promote Leith to the wider world and place it on the World stage which may sound ambitious but the fact remains that Leithers have travelled all over the world and traded with Europe for centuries. These are our strengths and we should use it for the benefit of all and not the few.

Further a Leith Museum wouldn’t only focus of the History of Leith a small place in Edinburgh, but what people seem to fail to recognise is the central role that Leith has played in the history of Scotland. Most of the Kings and Queens of Scotland from the time of David I came to Leith including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, the Reformation of the Church of Scotland started and was completed in Leith, The Knights of St John built one of the largest monasteries in Scotland in Leith, the whole idea of the United Kingdom has its origins in Leith, Not to mention the poets, writers, painters, doctors, social reformers, soldiers, engineers, seamen, and real pirates connected to Leith that gave the world great literature like “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island” by Robert L. Stevenson. That is not to mention the Ship builders and inventers and the list of the contributions of Leith to world culture and heritage is endless. The first steam ship to cross the Atlantic was built in Leith like the first ship to pass through the Suez Canal and this is only scratching the surface of Leith History… So to suggest that Leith hasn’t a history is showing a very great ignorance and stupidity but also insulting to the people of Leith

So assuming we got the backing for a Leith Museum where in my opinion should it be? The Leith Town Hall currently used by the Police in Charlotte Street although a beautiful building is really too small to be used as a Museum. Lambs House is a proper 17th century merchant’s house currently owned by the National Trust which could be used. However the costs of bringing it up to modern museum standards and for the building to be brought into line with modern building regulations where the public has access may prove prohibitive. The only building suitable in my opinion would be the Custom House in Commercial Street. The reasons being-

1) It looks like a museum and has status and presence.
2) It can be developed and expanded internally for exhibitions and multi-purpose requirements
3) It has plenty of space
4) It is the sort of building that would be a credit to Leith and is recognisable
5) It’s on a main Street connecting the new Leith developments with Old Leith in close proximity to, restaurants, hotels and the Ocean Terminal and the Scottish Executive.

Although the cost to buy, run and develop the Custom House may initially be expensive in the short term in the long term it would prove to be a very wise investment in the future for the development of the area as a whole, the increase status it would give to Leith, the increase in visitor numbers and business in the area and by return a increase in employment and investment.

Let us not look at this through rose tinted spectacles to run, organise and pay for a Leith Museum is not easy nor is it cheap by any stretch of the imagination. However in my opinion it must be done not only for the well being of Leith, or the development of Leith, not only for business reasons which are good enough reasons in themselves but for the future generations of Leithers that will come after us, for our children and our children’s, children. Are we really going to allow the History and culture of Leith to be left ignored and discarded as if it was nothing because if we do that this generation and this council will stand rightly condemned at the bar of history

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