The History of Leith

August 19, 2007


A cannonball, possibly fired during one of the several battles fought in Leith, has been unearthed within seventeenth century ironworking deposits at a construction site in Leith.

A 3,500m sq area exposing the historic core of Leith is currently being excavated by Headland Archaeology on behalf of Barratt East Scotland. The work is part of the conditions for planning consent laid down by the City of Edinburgh Council, under the direction of the city archaeologist.

Leith 1560

The excavations are being carried out at Giles Street where twentieth century warehouse buildings have recently been demolished to make way for redevelopment.

The excavations link two of Leith’s early streets, Giles Street and St Andrew’s Street. Both date back to at least the sixteenth century, but have almost entirely disappeared in the course of slum clearance and redevelopment over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beside the site The Vaults, a seventeenth century building constructed over extensive late sixteenth century vaulted cellars, is one of the few old buildings surviving in the area.

From the late sixteenth century onwards, the site was increasingly built up, and the discovery of cellared buildings and a large well reflect the growing size and economic activity of the port.

Some time in the early nineteenth century, extensive redevelopment appears to have taken place on the site. Most of the earlier buildings, including many of the cellars, were demolished and buried under extensive levelling deposits, and new buildings, probably warehouses, commercial and industrial premises and workers’ housing, were built over them.

Analysis is ongoing on the finds recovered from the site, which provide fascinating insights into the social and economic status and activities of the inhabitants of the site, and the development of the trade, commerce and industry of Leith in general.

The cannonball, possibly fired during one of the several battles fought in Leith, was found within seventeenth century deposits associated with ironworking.

Other unusual objects discarded on the site over the centuries include an anchor (or grappling iron), a bone toothbrush, cheap copper cufflinks and a ring, and a coconut shell – which in the nineteenth century would have been quite exotic.

Nineteenth century shops on Giles Street may have included a dressmaker’s or haberdasher’s, to judge by the quantities of thimbles, pins and buttons recovered. There also seems to have been a clay pipe factory in the area, as quantities of unused clay pipes, as well as kiln props made of pipe clay, had been dumped to the rear of the buildings.

Pottery found includes plain and utilitarian forms, many of which can be identified with specific manufacturers in the Edinburgh area. Imported sixteenth and seventeenth century wares from Holland and Germany, and fragments of glass vessels illustrate the spread of commerce and the increasing use of items such as tableware to create an impression of class and respectability.

Leith developed as a busy port from the twelfth century onwards, but always under the control of Edinburgh, whose burgesses guarded their trading monopolies jealously. As Edinburgh grew to dominate the Scottish economy, so did Leith.

By the end of the sixteenth century more than half of Scotland’s imports and exports were passing through the port. Its importance is reflected in the key role it played in the historical events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was sacked twice, in 1544 and 1547, by English troops on the orders of Henry VIII. In the 1550s the town was fortified and garrisoned by French troops under the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, and it was re-fortified against Cromwell in 1649-50.

Council archaeologist John Lawson said: “These excavations have proven to be of enormous significance in our understanding of the development of the port of Leith and for post-medieval trade and industry within the town.

“Originally it was thought that this area formed part of the historic medieval core of the port. However the excavations have turned this theory on its head, with the site now lying on the edge of the medieval town and being developed as part of the major regeneration of the port following its destruction in the mid-sixteenth century. As a result of these excavations I am now having too redraw the medieval map of Leith.”

Harbour Councillor Gordon Munro, said: “I am thrilled this site has been excavated and that the public will have the chance to view the work in progress. This is a wonderful and unique opportunity for the community to learn more about the history of their area. The discoveries on this site will further help piece together Leith’s past. Preserving and recording the findings will add valuable information to the bank of knowledge the city has built up through its archaeological finds to date.”

Excavation of the site will continue until mid-August. In the meantime an open day on the site will be held on Sunday 8 August at the Giles Street site from 11am-4pm for the public to view the work in progress. Guided tours will be taken and stout shoes are essential

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