The History of Leith

March 10, 2008

The Story of Leith Walk

The spacious Road now known as Leith Walk was as its name implies originally a narrow foot path betwixt Edinburgh and Leith and used only by foot passengers. It owes its origin to fortifications erected by General Leslie in 1650 to oppose Cromwell.

The parapet or mound speedily became a footpath between the two towns. Defoe who visited Scotland in 1725 describes it as a very handsome gravel walk twenty feet broad and was kept in good repair at the public charge and no horses were allowed on it. By degrees another path was formed at bottom of the mound and these were known respectively as the high walk and the low walk. The houses at Springfield near Steads place are said to have been on level of what was known as the low walk.

When the North Bridge of Edinburgh was projected in 1769 in Provost Drummond’s time it was intended to form an easy access to Leith. But it was not gone into for some years after the opening of the North Bridge. Carriages were then permitted to pass along it but no provision was made to keep in repair the natural consequence of this was that it was the principal road to and fro from Leith it was most dangerous and difficult for wheeled vehicles. In this condition it remained until the beginning of the 19th century when the present spacious thoroughfare was formed at great expense and a toll was established to provide for repayment of the outlay and upholding the roadway.

Robert Chalmers in his “Traditions of Edinburgh “ thus describes the glories of the Walk in olden times-“If my reader be an inhabitant of Edinburgh of any standing he must have many delightful associations of Leith Walk in connection with his childhood. .Of all the streets in Edinburgh or Leith the walk in former times was certainly the street for boys and girls. From the top to the bottom it was a scene of wonders and enjoyments peculiarly devoted to children. Besides the panoramas and caravan shows which were comparatively transient spectacles, there were several shows upon Leith Walk which might be considered as regular fixtures and part of the “Country Cousin” sights of Edinburgh.

Who can forget the waxworks of Mrs Sands widow of the late G Sands which occupied a “laigh” shop opposite to the present Haddington Place and at a door of which besides various parrots and sundry birds of paradise sat the wax image of a little man in the dress of a French courtier of the ancient regime reading one eternal copy of the “Edinburgh Advertiser”. The very outsides of these wonder shops was an immense treat all along the walk it was one delicious scene of squirrels hung out of doors and monkeys dressed like soldiers and sailors with holes behind where their tails came through. From one end to the other leith Walk was garrisoned by poor creatures who from hand barrows, wheel barrows some drawn by dogs entreated the passengers for charity, some by voices of song, some by speech, some by driddling as Burns calls it, on fiddles, or grinding hand organs indeed a complete ambuscade against the pocket. Shows and objects have now vanished from the Walk.

The “Reminiscences of an Elderly Gentleman” published in the ladies Journal in around 1850 contained the following picture of the Walk as it appeared in his early days “Leith Walk was quite a country road and such a road for holes, ruts and big stones that at present there is not its equal in Scotland. The Black Bull Inn terminated the city. A little further down the village of Picardy occupied the site of Picardy Place. It derives its name from a colony of silk weavers from Picardy in France having located there. The next building was the Halfway House now incorporated with houses of Shrub Place. The footpath on the East side of the road was 18 feet higher than the carriage way. The journey on foot to Leith at night was an undertaking requiring no little courage. There was no well paved footpath lined with gas lamps and thronged with passengers but a long dreary road accompanied with the risk of falling of the footpath and breaking a limb and at the Gallowlee having to pass two or three dead bodies hanging in chains creaking dismally in the gusty wind. A rising ground adjoining Shrub Hill was the site of the Gallowlee and is now chiefly occupied by Mr Methven’s nursery. Criminals of more than ordinary importance after being strangled elsewhere were hung in chains there. For example Chiesly of Dalry was hanged at the Cross of Edinburgh and his body was hung at the Gallowlee and his right which had been struck off was affixed to the West port of Edinburgh. Also Philip Stanfields body was hung in chains at the Gallowlee. He was tried on the 14th December 1687 for murder of his father Sir James Stanfield of Newmills near Haddington was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged at the cross of Edinburgh, his tongue to be cut out for cursing his father, his right hand to be cut off for the parricide, his head to be put on the east port of Haddington as nearest place to the murder and his body to be hung in chains betwixt Edinburgh and Leith..

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