The History of Leith

February 26, 2011

The Origins of South Leith

A chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, patroness of the town and port, and situated in South Leith, preceded by more than a century the origin of the present edifice, and was enriched by many donations
and annuities for the support within it of altars and chaplainries dedicated to St Peter, St.Barbara, St. Bartbolomew, and others, The destruction of ecclesiastical records at the Reformation involves the date of the foundation of the present church in utter obscurity. It can only be surmised that it was erected towards the close of the fourteenth century; but notwithstanding its large sue—what remains now being merely a small portion of the original edifice—the name of its
founder is utterly unknown. The earliest notice of it occurs in 1490, when a contribution of an annual rent is made by Peter Falconer in Leith to the chaplain of St Peter’s altar, ” situat in the Virgin Mary Kirk in Leith.” The latest of similar grants was made on the 8th July, 1499.
The choir and transepts are said to have been destroyed by the English, according to Maitland and Chalmers, in 1544. ” No other evidence exists however, in support of this,” according to Wilson,
“than the general inference deducible from the burning of Leith, immediately before their embarkation—a procedure which, unless accompanied by more violent modes of destruction, must have left
the remainder of the church in the same condition as the nave, which still exists.” He therefore concludes that the choir and transepts had been destroyed by the Scottish and English cannon during the great siege, in which the tower of St. Anthony perished.
Robertson, an acute local antiquary, held the same theory. That the church was partially destroyed after the battle of Pinkie is obvious from
the following letter, written by Sir Thomas Fisher to the lord Protector of England:—” 11th October,1548. Having had libertie to walke abroad in the town of Edinburghe with his taker, and sometymes betwix tliat and Ieghe, he teileth me that Leghe is entrenched about, and that besydes a bulwarke made by the haven syde near the sea, on the ground where the chapel stood (St. Nicholas), which I suppose your Grace remembereth, there is another greater bulwarke made on the mane ground at the great church standing at the upper end of the
town towards Edinburghe.” (Malt Club.)
In a history published in the Wodrow Miscellanywe are told that in 1560 the English “lykewise shott downe some pairt of the east end of the Kirk of Leith,” thus destroying the choir and transepts.
On Easter Sunday, when the people were at mass, a great ball passed through the eastern window, just before the elevation of the host,
That Hertford’s two invasions were unnecessarily savage—truly Turkish in their atrocities, as dictated, in the first instance, by order of Henry VIII.—is perfectly well known ; but it less so that he materially aided ttie work, of the Reformers,
In 1674 a stone tower, surmounted in the Scoto-Dutch taste by a conical spire of wood and metal, was erected at the west end; and in 1681 a clock was added thereto.
The English advanced, and took possession of Leith immediately after the battle of Pinkie, and remained there for some days, after failing in their unsuccessful attempt on Edinburgh. During that time the Earl of Huntly and many other Scottish, prisoners of every rank and degree were confined in St Mary’s Church, while treating for their ransom.
“The cruelty,” says Tytler, ” of the slaughter at Pinkie, and the subsequent severities at Leith, excited universal indignation ; and the idea that a free country was to be compelled into a pacific matrimonial alliance, amid the groans of its dying citizens and the flames of its seaports, was revolting and absurd.” ‘

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