The History of Leith

August 13, 2007

Leith Nobility

“Few people in Leith or elsewhere nowadays are acquainted with the expression “The Leith Nobility”. Yet true it is that the expression was neither a groundless nor a satirical one.

In Leith long ago there were not only the inhabitants of the land but of Majesty itself for Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent took up her residence in Leith during her regency somewhere about the tear 1549. She was followed thither by many of the bishops and noble persons of her party while the arrival at Leith of 6000 French auxiliaries commanded by General D’Esse in 1549 to aid her against the English made Leith a place of great importance. The French fleet when it arrived in Leith Roads consisted of twenty –two galleys and sixty other ships.

The Queen-Regents first residence was in Queen Street (hence the name) in the premises long belonging to Adam White of Fend and occupied by the old mercantile firm of Adam White and Company. Some old painted ceilings were fifty to sixty years ago to be seen in the lofts and perhaps may still be seen. The adjacent premises which were old Robert Neilsons Cooperage rebuilt by James Wishart were also connected with her residence in Queen Street. In the present buildings the old respectable house of James Wishart and Sons have their offices and warehouses She had a new residence afterwards built for her in Rotten Row now Water Lane which was rebuilt in 1875 by Messrs J.Heddle and Company and is known now by the inscription on it as “Mary of Guises Building”. A Street near it is known to this day as Quality Street. Undoubtedly where Mary of Guises court was, there would courtiers congregate. Many old family Mansions were in it sixty to seventy years ago. In Bells Court, Quality lane a large one with a spacious yard yet remains, testifying that it must have been occupied by a family of quality.

The unfortunate and last Lord Balmerino who was beheaded on Tower Hill on 18th August 1746 for taking part with “Prince Charlie” and who possessed Restalrig after the Logans had a family residence in Leith. The grounds of which extended from Constitution Street where Charlotte Street crosses up to the Kirkgate with the east wall in Coatfield Lane enclosing the grounds.

When Charles II came to Scotland in 1650 he lodged a night with one of the former Lord Balmerino’s in his house. Wm Sibald of Gladswood long the only West India Merchant in Leith was the last occupier of Balmerino house in a respectable style. Above the main entrance is the figure of a ship in full sail cut in superior style.

The Duke of Argyle had a mansion house where Great Junction Street id now. The Marquis of Queensberry had a large house in the centre of Water lane at the head of Water Close which still exists. It has all the marks and style of a nobleman’s house dwelling house. Lofts which still remain are known as “Douglas Lofts”. Lady Fyfe’s house stood on the South Side of the Links. It is not many years that the grounds of it have been covered with buildings. Lady Fifes mount is well known to this day. It and the Giants Brae were raised by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1650 for the planting of Canon. Lord Forrester’s house was where Adam White lived for many years on the east side of the Links.
The Duke of Lennox’s house was on the Coal Hill. It is now taken down but bore all the appearances of having been a stately building in its day. On the east gable of it there was large ornamental carved stone in good preservation decorated with a rose-the emblem of his connection to Henry VIII of England-and a thistle for Scotland. It is said that the Duke when Regent kept his court in Parliament Square now called the “Peat Neuk”. Many other residences of the Scotch nobility are known to have existed in Leith long ago.”

From the Extracts and Reminiscences of the Port and Town of Leith
By John Martine. 1888

(Editors note –although much of what John Martine says is true however Mary of Guise it has recently been discovered never actually stayed in Leith. Her Coat of Arms which are now in the West Porch of South Leith Church were actually over the St Anthony Port (a gateway into Leith as the town was surrounded by a wall. Consequently what he says about quality Street is also wrong.

However what he says about the two hills on Leith Links could well be true because since the discovery of the 1560 map of the Siege of Leith it has shown that the two hills could not be Elizabethan Gun mounts, According to the map Mount Somerset was no where near Leith Links but was instead near to Steads Place on Leith Walk and Mount Pelham was on the Hermitage hill not at Lady Fyfe’s Brae. Whether it was Cromwell who created them is still to be proved.

Despite this the wealthy and the nobility of Scotland did reside in Leith and evidence of this comes from a remark made by Lord Hertford that Leith was richer then London. It was rich through trade in Wool and Wine with the Low countries and with France and where the wealth is you also find the nobility. Further evidence comes in the style and architecture of the buildings which by the 19th and 20th centuries had been subdivided into separate flats and had become slums.)

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