The History of Leith

January 12, 2011


The English found two goodly ships in the harbour—the Salamander, given to James V. by the French king on his marriage with the ill-fated Madeleine, and the Unicorn, which had been built in Leith or Newhaven.
Whether the English found in the town all the sumptuous fare Knox pictures for us Hertford does not say, but that they captured a wealth of booty they had never anticipated is certain. ” The town was found fuller of riches than we expected any Scottish town to have been,”
reported the English admiral. In fact, the enemy captured booty in Leith to the value of £100,000 of our money—an amount of wealth that seems to contradict much of what we are generally told of Scotland’s poverty in those troublous times.
During the whole week they were encamped in Leith the English gave themselves up to the work of destruction. Edinburgh was given over to the torch. For three days and nights it blazed, and, being a city set on a hill, its burning was an awesome sight to behold. Holyrood, too, went up in flames ; and with it was destroyed Restalrig and its tower above the loch; Pilrig, Newhaven, and the tower of the Laird of Inverleith on
Wardie brow. Not a village in the neighbourhood, not a farm steading, not even a cottage was left unscathed.
Meanwhile the English fleet had not been idle, for not a harbour, not a ship, not even a boat was left undestroyed on either side of the Firth from Stirling to the ocean.
The invaders now prepared to evacuate Leith, but before doing so they indulged in the same wanton destruction that had characterized their whole invasion

They broke down the pier of Leith and burnt every stick of it. They took away the two goodly ships, the Salamander and the Unicorn, ballasting them with cannon shot from the King’s Wark. They then sent
away their ships not merely laden but, to use their own expression, cumbered with booty, and resolved to return homewards themselves by land. The night before their departure from Leith they held a grand carnival of destruction by burning every house in the town. Next
morning they set off across the Links on their homeward march, passing Restalrig, now a blackened ruin, and then marched away eastwards by the Fishwives’ Causeway, leaving a line of smoking towns, villages, and farms to mark their route.
Such were some of the things Leith saw and suffered in those old unhappy days. We can only partly realize the grief and terror of the townsfolk as they sought refuge from the cruelties and outrages of Hertford’s savage soldiery amid the wastes and recesses around
Arthur’s Seat and the country farther west. Their suffering and misery are to a certain extent suggested to us in that dispatch of Hertford’s detailing his fell work, which proved such pleasant reading to Henry VIII.
In this document Hertford tells us how, standing with his officers upon the Calton Hill to view the burning city, he heard the women and children in the valley beyond, as they witnessed the destruction of their homes, bewailing their woeful state. On the departure of the invader those from Leith stole back again to the ruined town. Until their houses were repaired they found shelter in St. Mary’s Church, which, strangely enough, had escaped the flames.
The Leith sailormen knew all along of the mighty fleet Hertford was assembling in the Tyne, and, guessing its purpose, had discreetly kept themselves and their ships out of harm’s way. They now returned, however, and determined that England should pay towards repairing
the great loss the Port had sustained at her hands. Hertford’s fleet had now sailed to the Channel, where it was sorely needed for service against France, and was not likely to return until peace was made.
Led by John Barton with the Mary Willoughby, the Lion, and other ships, the Leith mariners hung along the English coast for the next four or five months and worked their will upon the English, Dutch, and Flemish shipping—for the latter countries, under the rule of Mary of Hungary, were for the time being Henry’s allies against France. The Leith seamen during the war were thus shut out from trading with the Netherlands, and were now voyaging to Hamburg and other Hansard
ports instead. ” It would be an easy thing to lighten them by the way, either going or coming,” wrote one of Henry’s numerous spies ; but the English king had his hands full in France, and so the Leithers, for the time at least, had command of the North Sea. Newcastle was sorely stricken with plague, and could send neither ship, boat, nor mariner to oppose the Leithers. Hull, Yarmouth, and other east coast ports sent urgent appeals to Henry. “If we might have help here,” they lamented, ” the Scots should not long keep the seas. No man that sails by the coast can escape them, for they cannot be meddled with.” Their only
consolation was a message to help themselves as the Channel ports did. But their desire for revenge made those east coast towns importunate, and so another appeal was made to their sovereign lord. ” They are desperate merchants of Leith and Edinburgh, who, having
lost almost their whole substance at the army’s late being in Scotland, seek adventures to recover something.
They have taken many Hollanders, and with such as they take of ours wax wealthy again. Six of your Majesty’s ships are a match for sixteen of them. Sorry are we that they route after this sort upon the seas.” But his Majesty told his loving subjects that if the Scots could be so easily beaten that was all the more reason why they should attempt it themselves.
And so the ” desperate Leith and Edinburgh merchants ” continued to ” route ” upon the English seas because no mariner of the ” auld enemy ” dared say them nay.
Henry VIII. died early in 1547 ; but his death brought no change in the English policy towards Scotland, except for the worse, if that were possible, for Hertford, now Duke of Somerset, in his endeavours to compel the Scots to marry their little Queen Mary to Edward VI.,
surpassed even Henry VIII. in merciless and savage cruelty, as Leith was soon to know. He invaded Scotland once more, this time by land. The bale-fires blazed forth the news of his having crossed the Border. AtPinkie, near Musselburgh, he inflicted on the Scots army under Arran such an overwhelming defeat that for long years after the name of Black Saturday, given to the anniversary of the fight, reminded Scotland of one of the most disastrous days in her annals. The craftsmen and merchant burgesses of Edinburgh, ” the sons of heroes slain at Flodden,” had again nobly come forward in defence of queen and country, and nearly four hundred widows were left to mourn their
husbands sent to their long last home at Pinkie Cleuch.
There, too, fell Robert Monypenny, the Laird of Pilrig; but who else from Leith, save the Laird of Restalrig, took part with Monypenny in this most disastrous fight we cannot tell. Luckily for the Leith sailormen. they had set out on the autumn voyaging before the
invasion took place, for Somerset was accompanied by a fleet of transports and war vessels that came to anchor off the mouth of the harbour.
The day after the battle the English marched straight along the shore to Leith, ” the which we found all desolate, for not a soul did we find in the town.” The Leithers, like the other inhabitants of the district, had
been ordered to betake themselves and their gear within the shelter of the walls of Edinburgh. If the English had anticipated again enriching themselves with stores of loot from Leith they were to be hugely disappointed.
Except some thirteen odd vessels, most of which were old and ruinous, there was little else to be found, ” for as much of other things as could well be carried the inhabitants overnight had carried off with them/’ writes * one who accompanied the expedition. What a strange
procession they must have formed—the men, women, and children of Leith—as they toiled towards Edinburgh, bent and perspiring under their load of household gear. ” My Lord Somerset and most of our horsemen were lodged in the town,” while the rest of the army, in full
view of their flset riding at anchor in the Roads, lay encamped on the Links and on the stubble fields stretching away towards Lochend and Holyrood.

Source-The Story of Leith

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