The History of Leith

March 1, 2008

Jealousy of Edinburgh

It is an odd fact that when visitors come to Leith they are in a different place from Edinburgh. Somehow, even today, there is a community feeling that just doesn. t exist anywhere else in the city

It is an odd fact that when visitors come to Leith they are in a different place from Edinburgh. Somehow, even today, there is a community feeling that just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the city. The reasons for this are many and I will explain this in various articles on this site. The most obvious reason is Leith is a port, the fifth largest in the United Kingdom.

The harbour we see today, was only built up over the past 150 years and was very much part of Victorian Scotland. Before this when people talked about the Port of Leith what they were talking about was the Shore. This would have been the port the ancient tribes would have known extending from the Broad Wynd to the Tolbooth Wynd. Edward II would have known it when the Town was used for stores brought in before Bannockburn. This was the place where Kings and Queens of Scotland landed. By the time George IV landed in 1822 the Shore was a trading area full of shipping offices and shops. It was also an area where many people lived, and where the bad feeling towards Edinburgh started.

The reason for this goes back to the Middle Ages and was connected to the rise of the Scottish Burghs and the development of a mercantile class or Burgesses. This ill feeling is made clear in James Grants Old and New Edinburgh”. He states We find Vice Admiral Sir William Monson, a distinguished English Officer who served with Raleigh in Elizabeth’s reign and in many ships during the reign of James VI (I) and survived until the time of Charles I urging in his Naval tracts” that Leith should be made the Capital of Scotland. He wrote Instead of Edinburgh, which is the supreme city and now made the head of Justice, whither all men resort as the only spring that waters the Kingdom. I wish his Majesty did fortify, strengthen and make impregnable, the town of Leith and there to settle the seat of Justice and all other privileges Edinburgh enjoys, referring to it the choice of the inhabitants whether they do or remove to Leith, where they shall enjoy the same liberties as they did in Edinburgh”.

Sir William explains Leith is a sea port…. convenient for the transportation and importation of goods, also in times of war Edinburgh being landlocked could be surrounded and starved into submission, on the other hand Leith could be supplied by sea”. This did actually happen during the Siege of Leith in 1560. When the French were supplied in Leith from the sea. Until Lord Winter and the English navy stopped it by blockading the port from the sea.

Sir William took a seaman’s view in this suggestion but we can only imagine the anger of Edinburgh, if it really happened.

In a charter of 1558 it states The inhabitants of Lyth (Leith) may on na wyis buy wool, hydes, claith, skin, salmond, wyne, waix, victuellis, or any manner of stapill gudis aucht and sould be brought to the said Burgh as a principal stapill thereof, and there to pack and peill (buy and sell) the samin and pay customs and dewties thairfore”.

It is in statements like those above and there is many like them that start to give the impression that Leith and Edinburgh did not have the best of relationships. The reason for this lay in the fact that since the time of the early Stuart kings and mainly from the time of James I Edinburgh became a Royal burgh and Leith despite being the Principal port for Scotland since 1296 was a unfree Town (i.e. it has no rights itself). Because of this Edinburgh could gradually buy Leith. Also by using their trade monopoly they had obtained the Shore prior to the reign of Alexander III, Newhaven in 1510, South Leith in 1567, North Leith in 1639, the Citadel in 1663, the Calton Barony in 1724. In fact the only part of Leith, Edinburgh they never got was the was the Barony of St Anthony, which included the Foot of Leith Walk to Yardheads

So the origins of this feeling of distrust between Leith and Edinburgh lay in the trade monopolies held by Royal Burghs. No Leither could go into foreign trade that was a right of Edinburgh. The reason we have a burgess Close on the Shore is to mark the area where the Edinburgh Burgesses had their offices. Even after the battle of Dunbar in 1650, General Lambert who took Leith. Took the complaints of Leith and the English families who lived in Leith to Edinburgh, when he realised all the restrictions on trade in Leith but Edinburgh was so greedy, grasping, and insensitive, that he got nowhere. This feeling towards Edinburgh still exists to this day.

Some Text