History of Leith, Edinburgh

October 28, 2007

Great Plague

The Black Death swept across Europe killing millions in its path and desimating entire communities…how did the town of Leith cope through the dark times it was faced with?

For centuries, the plague had always affected Leith due to it being a port and to filthy living conditions within the town. Plague affected the soldier monks of the Preceptory of St Anthony and in fact decimated their numbers and so by around 1530 there was only about two left. However, the plague of 1645 was the last great outbreak and the most devastating but a case was found in Leith in 1902 and so it isn’t only found in the pages of history it could well happen again. Unlike many tales of Plague the Plague of Leith was carefully recorded by the Session Clerk of South Leith Church called David Aldinstone the only break in his record is six pages in a record running from the 3rd April 1645 to the 23rd Nov 1645. The reason for this is he contracted or was suspected of having the plague and so was confined to his house as he had been praying with a plague victim Margaret Gilmuir who had died from it. Apart from David Aldinstone. s record, we still have two things left in Leith that recalls the sad events that took place in Leith in 1645. The first of these can be seen as you enter the Churchyard at South Leith is the headstone of Alexander Abercrombie and the stone is simply marked 1656 . AA. with the Skull and crossbones on the stone with a hour glass. David Aldinstone and Alexander Abercrombie were great friends and it was Abercrombie. s job at this time was to gather heather from all around the town to burn inside the affected houses to fumigate them. He survived the plague but many in the town didn. t. It is odd to realise that despite living 355 years ago a map still exists of which I have a copy, which still shows where he lived which, was in Yardhead. And from the position of the grave and the map, we know he was a Maltman (ie someone who makes beer). The second thing is the silver baptismal basin, which is still used for baptisms at South Leith Church and is dated 1647. This silver basin was purchased from the sale of goods of the victims of the plague who had no known relatives and cost £500 scots. Around the edge of the basin it reads . Gifted to the South Kirk of Leith by James Rucheild and James Elles and David Vilkie Bailies 1647. . It is sobering to think that people who survived what even today people would be terrified at had handled this basin, and that it is a direct connection with these terrible times.

So what was the plague, it was more than likely Bubonic plague and is characterised by buboes or swellings in the neck, armpits and groin but death happens before any obvious symptoms appear. The disease was brought into Scotland by the covenanting army under Leslie from Newcastle. However what made it worse at this time was because the harvest was poor that year, living conditions in Leith were bad along with anxiety of civil war and the constant fasting people where getting really depressed and so when the disease struck nobody had the strength to fight it of and death worked overtime from the borders up to Perth.

In Leith it started quietly enough on the 3rd April two men and a women living in the Yardheads were suspected to having the plague and where confined to there homes and a white sheet hung from their windows. Within days it had spread to the King James VI hospital which stood in the Churchyard at South Leith and from there all around the town. Families were move out of the town to the Links where Booths were built and that is why at the Seafield end of Leith Links we have a building called Booth cottage. As the plague continued, people died at first they were buried at the churchyard at South Leith later on the Links. In fact, when the houses at Waterloo place were being built a large plague pit was discovered and a number of these have been found subsequently. To this day from time to time human remains are still dug up on the Links and around Leith. I have been told when the New Kirkgate shopping centre was being built human remains were found it is possible these were also plague victims (it is possible they dated from the time of the Siege of Leith, it is difficult to say as they were never dated as no archaeological work was done at the time.

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