The History of Leith

February 14, 2011


THE Port of Leith which includes the ancient and adjacent ” Port of Grace,” Newhaven, has for ages been a very important centre of the
East of Scotland’s Fishing Industry. Tracing its beginnings takes us back into unrecorded times, and leads us through a sequence of unbroken developments persisted in through rough and smooth to its
standing in the present. With Granton, a neighbouring and independent port, they, taken together, make up a notable trinity bound by strongly interrelated interests.
Leith has, for many years, been closely engaged in the systematic development of this vital trade, and it has all along taken, as it still takes, an important share in the prosecution of East Coast fishery
activities, as well as such as are plied in more distant waters, and in their sale and distribution by road and rail to home destinations and by sea to markets abroad.
The busy selling market at Newhaven is the local centre for the disposal of catches and is, besides, the home of the diligent and picturesque Newhaven fishwife, who takes a generous share in the vending of supplies in her vicinity, and in her distinctive costume with her weighty creel strapped to her forehead and her knitting constantly in her hand, is a welcome visitor at domestic doors situated within the more restricted area than those that are generally served by mechanical haulage. Both she and her avocation have an honoured and abiding place in Scottish song and story.
The trade has seen many variations in conditions and fortune. Inshore fishing still continues, but trawling further afield is now the backbone of the industry. It has been compelled by modern trends to seek satisfaction in ever more distant waters, as nearer grounds have become relatively exhausted.
Owing to rising costs, at the moment, the numbers of trawlers operating from local harbours is at a low ebb, owing to the necessity of taking out of service ageing and, therefore, less efficient vessels
outmoded by progress, to keep abreast of which demands ever-increasing outlays for the building of modern craft, the payment of mounting wage bills and other heavy overheads. Trawler owners, nevertheless, are by no means dismayed at the present position, for they are bent on rectifying matters, and on asserting their optimism
in the very practical way of investing in and of building up a trawling fleet of the most modern types, capable of holding its own in competition with those of other fishing ports in the United Kingdom and with those of overseas rivals. Their outlay will exceed in the aggregate a round million pounds sterling, a figure which amply reflects the faith and courage on the part of the trawler owners concerned.
The enterprise of these owners in sinking so much fresh capital in new vessels has been matched by their enterprise in seeking and in finding new markets further afield than formerly. This has resulted in a very considerable proportion of local catches being, to an increasing extent, moved by road transport from the Port in the afternoon and evening
for night conveyance and scheduled to reach remoter markets in time for early morning sales and distribution.
A bold and recent experiment, which cannot be ignored here, is being conducted by the firm of Chr. Salvesen & Co., whose extensive and intimate connection with Antarctic whaling is noted elsewhere
in this volume. It has specially designed, built, and is now operating a vessel of 2,600 gross tons, carrying a crew of some 80, and fully equipped for the immediate quick freezing of its catches taken as far away as the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, for preparing them aboard for instant disposal on landing, and for processing the offals resulting for marketing.
Curers of herring and other kinds of fish, with headquarters in Leith, although often operating in more northern fishing ports, are intent on extending the range of their connections at home and abroad by the introduction of new and more attractive methods of publicity, packing and distribution.

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