The History of Leith

October 29, 2010

Leith in prehistoric and Roman Times-Part 2

Of one thing we may be sure : fishing would be the chief occupation of the people of the village. And of one other thing we can be equally certain, and that is that the date of the foundation of Leith, could we but get it, would be found to be much further back than the twelfth century. In our own days we read of cities springing up in a single night, like Jonah’s gourd, but in those days towns and villages developed very slowly. There was then no such thing among them as ” mushroom growth.” They grew in size only by slow degrees ; and so, if Leith was an important place eight hundred years ago—important, that is, according to the ideas of those times—its history must have begun at a much earlier date. But there are no records of Leith which go back further than 1143, and there is no likelihood of any such ever being discovered. If Leith, then, dates so far back into olden times,
you may be tempted to ask why the Leith of to-day contains so very few really old houses. The reasons are not far to seek. Leith’s history is not only interesting but it is also eventful. Its history has often been
of much more than local note, and on more than one occasion the fortunes of Leith have been the point on which the whole history of our country has turned. This was especially so, as we shall see, in the days of Queen Mary. Now a town cannot hope to bear the brunt in troublous times and escape unscathed. Leith has often had to pay a heavy penalty for its share in Scotland’s history. For example, when the Earl of Hertford led an invading force into Scotland because
the Scots had rejected the contract of marriage between the English Prince Edward and the young Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII. ordered him to burn Leith, and, if necessity required it, to massacre its inhabitants.Hertford faithfully carried out the first part of his instructions. Having possessed himself of Leith, he destroyed the pier, and then proceeded to set fire to fire the town, reducing to ruins as much of it as he possibly could. It is small wonder that Leith to-day contains so few old houses.
Then, again, in modern times the magistrates of Leith have carried through many improvement schemes,this has meant the sweeping away, not of single houses, but of whole streets. While we are glad that light and air have been let into districts sorely in need of them, yet we cannot but regret the disappearance of many of Leith’s old-time houses. But though the houses themselves have passed out of existence their sites can still be pointed out, and we still have pictures of many of them. Some of these are shown in this book. It has already been said that Leith existed as a village more than eight hundred years ago. But there is a question to ask which carries us very much further back in time than eight hundred years. It takes us
back to prehistoric times, times of. which there is no written history, because the rude, uncivilized people of those days could, of course, neither read nor write. The question is this : When did man first make his appearance in the district on which modern Leith now stands To this question nothing like a definite answer can be given, but learned men who have made a special study of prehistoric Scotland tell us that many thousand years must have elapsed since man first appeared on the scene in our country. These archaeologists, as we call them, are not agreed among themselves as to the age in which Scotland became the scene of human habitation and this is not to be wondered at, as the evidence on this question must be got from unwritten and not
from written history, and naturally each archaeologist places his own interpretation upon this evidence. But they all agree that it must have been many thousands of years before the Christian era that man made his appearance in our land. By using your imagination, try to picture how the area on which Leith stands would look in those far-off and so very different times. Imagine the disappearance of every building in Leith, of all its busy streets and still busier docks, and then imagine the whole district covered with great forests, the home of wild beasts such as the fox and the wild cat, and other animals which have
long been extinct in Scotland, as the wild boar, the beaver, and the wolf. Imagine the sweep of the forests broken here and there by a loch or marshy piece of ground, for there were innumerable lakes, marshes, bogs, and morasses all over the low ground of our country
in those days. The Water of Leith would form part of the picture of your mind’s eye, for, of course, then as now it journeyed on from its source among the hills to where its waters mingled with those of the sea. But gone would be the solid stone quays which now confine
its course. Your picture would show it turning and twining in its bed between its own natural tree-clad banks, its clear-running water sparkling in the sunshine. Although we can lot say with any degree of certainty exactly when man first appeared on such a scene as you
have just depicted to yourself, we can be pretty certain that the district on which Leith stands began to be populated before the land on which Edinburgh is built.

source-The Story of Leith

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