History of Leith, Edinburgh

November 29, 2010

The number of the dead exceeds the number of the living

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 Abercrombies 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 the Yardhead’s. 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).
“2nd August 1645.—The act of Parliament given at Pearth the 2nd Augt. 1645 for releife of the distressit toun of Leith the tyme of the great visitatioun of the plague of pestilence. At Pearth the second day of August in the zeiv of God 1645 zeiris. The Estaites of Parliament, now presentlie conveinit in this fourth sessione of the first triennial parliament, by vertu of the last act of the last parliament, holdene be his Majestie and three Estaites, anno 1641, having takin to theire consideratione the desyre of ane supplicatione gevin in by Jhone Aldinstone, ane of the baillies of Leith, and Captain James Crawfurd indweller there, for themselfis and in behalf of the remanent inhabitants of the said town of Leith, bearing That where it is not unknowne to the saids Estaites the calamitie and distress whereunder the said town doe lye for the present being visit with the plague of pestilence in such sort that the nomber of the dead exceeds the nomber of the leiving, and amongst them it cannot be decernit quha are clean and quha are foulle ; and make the calamitie greater, they are visit with ane lamentabile famine, both for penurie and also for laicke of means; for which cause the saids supplicants are forced, in their names, to have recourse to the said Estaites, beseeching them out of the bowels of mercie to conserat theire lamentabill conditioun, both towards them as also towards the rest of the countrie they being now reducit to that extremitie of necessitie—rather than to perish of famine to breake throue the rest of the countrie, wherebye the haill kingdom sail be endangerit. And therefore humblie beseeching your lordsps to grant unto them some present supplie, and to take such present course for theire reliefe as the foirsaid evil may be previned, as the said supplicatione at mair length bears. Quhilk supplicatione being redde in the audience of Parliament, and the just merits thereof being dulie weighted and considered, the said Estaites of Parliament be thir presentis gives andgrants full power and warrand to the present magistrates of the toune of Leith, or their commissioners and servandis having their warrand, to meddle and intromett with the nomber of ane quantitie of five hundreth bolls of eat meill, and that out of airie sellar or sellars in Leith, wherebe they may have it for medling and intrometting wherewith, and (if needs bees) making open doores for that effect.
The saids Estaites declares thir presentis to be to the said magistrates and their servandis and comssrs ane sufficient warrand; and the said Estaites lies allowed, and be their presentis grants full libertie to the said magistrates of the toune of Leith or anie having their warrand, to passe throwe all the sheriffdoms of this kingdom, or any of them, as they think fitt be south the water of Tay, to crave the helpe and supplie of ane voluntarie and charitable contributione for payment of the foirsaid victual and furnishing of such things as may be useful to the said towne of Leith, now in such ane extremitie. Extractum de libris actarum per me, Alexandrum Gibsone, cl. registri. This is a just copie of the authentic, insert in our register be Mr David Aldinstone, our
sessione clerk.
(Signed) DA. ALDINSTOUN, Session Clerk.”
source-South Leith Records

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