The History of Leith

March 23, 2012


The Kirk-Session at a recent meeting had before them
a request by this incorporation to erect a tablet in the
Church to commemorate the historic connection which
existed so long between the incorporation and the Church.
At the same time they petitioned the Session for authority
to place in some suitable part of the churchyard certain
sculptured stones taken from their old Convening House
and still preserved by them These two requests have
been referred to appropriate committees for consideration,
and we trust arrangements will be come to in regard to
both of them.
The Carters are one of the few old incorporations of
the town which still continue to exist; the Trinity “House
being another, and probably the only other survivor. In
former days, as our church Records have shown from
time to time, the inhabitants of Leith were divided among
four incorporations, namely:—the sailors, the maltmen,
the traffickers or merchants, and the trades or crafts.
The last of these was made up of various independent
bodies, which, however, combined into one whenever
the whole incorporations had occasion to meet and
deliberate upon a question of public importance, e.g.,
the selection of a minister or the appointment of a master
to the Grammar School. In olden days the incorporations
possessed exclusive trade rights. and all unfreemen,
as non-members were called, were rigorously debarred
from transacting business, and were seized as malefactors
and delivered over to the tender mercies of the Bailies if
they committed any breach of the monopolies or privileges
enjoyed by the brethren of the incorporations.
This relic of a medieval method of fostering industry was
abolished by Act of Parliament only so recently as 1846.
Nowadays the incorporations exist for the purpose of
administering their funds for charitable and educational
purposes, or such other public objects as they may
According to the traditional account of the origin of
the incorporation of Carters in Leith, they, upon the
arrival of Queen Mary from France, furnished the means
of transport for her and her attendants from Leith to
Holyrood, and their Charter was granted in 1555 as an
acknowledgment of these services. This picturesque
narrative is unfortunately open to the criticism that the
dates are incorrect, as Queen Mary did not arrive in
Leith until the year 1561.
The first mention of the Carters in our Church
Minutes is probably that of i6th January, 1645, which
states that ‘ ‘ t h e Bailies promised to take order and
speak with the Carters that they remove their carts off
the public high street, because in the night time
(being dark) sundry people going through the street
are hurt therewith.”
The Carters or Sledders (as they were called) are
frequently mentioned in the Minutes dealing with the
Plague. Thus in June, 1645, certain members of
Session were instructed to speak with the Carters and
” to agree with them to carry further the foul gear out of
the infected houses to the Links, and what they will
have for every cartful thereof.” Later on as the
Plague fastened its deadly hold upon the town the
Kirk Session instituted a species of martial law and
ceased to bargain with the Carters or anyone else, but
summarily impressed everything and everybody into a
common service, laying violent hands upon all horses,
sledges and carts within the parish. A significant
Minute of I3th June, 1646, when the Plague had abated
its virulence ordains “to render every man his horse
back again who served the public in the time of
The Carters are mentioned again in the Church
Minutes of the year 1648 in connection with the
” engagement” an episode of the covenanting times, by
which a section of the Scottish people ‘ engaged’ to
restore- King Charles to the throne. The Covenant was
being renewed in Leith and the Minute is therefore an
interesting one—”lyth December, 1648, the which day
being the Lords Day, the Covenant was sworn both by
man and woman by holding up their hands, but first,
Mr. Alexander Gibson, our Pastor, read the
acknowledgment and gave a public rebuke to the
whole congregation who are guilty of backsliding, but
more especially to some of our sledders who were
pressed to carry some carts to the engagement, being
designed by standing upon their feet in presence of the
whole congregation. Then the Covenant was sworn
by man and woman standing up upon their feet and
holding up their hands to God.”
All who participated in the engagement were punished
by the Church of Scotland. The Carters of Leith had,
however, some claim to have their offence overlooked,
since it appears that they were “pressed” and did not
serve of their own free wills.
This is not the only occasion on which the Carters were
” pressed.” However unwilling they may have been to
join in the engagement, we may believe that their reluctance
was greater still to assist directly or indirectly in the *
slaughter of their fellow-countrymen at the Battle of
Bothwell Brig in 1679. In that year the King’s Army
was recruited at Leith Links, and it is on record that
certain carts and horses were furnished by the incorporation
of Leith Carters. We do not know what penalty
they may have suffered for doing so, beyond the pangs of
conscience. They, however, in due course presented
their account to the State, claiming payment and
compensation for services rendered.
The incorporation was connected also with another
incident in Scottish history. There is still preserved
among their documents a Petition to General Guests,
soliciting payment for their services in transporting the
artillery from the Castle of Edinburgh to the North,
when General Cope marched to the Highlands in 1745 ‘°
meet Prince Charles Edward’s invasion.
The Carters had sittings in the south-west end of the
Church, in virtue of a contract made with the maltmen,
which is still preserved in our Church Records. It is
dated 1st January 1650, and it is interesting to note the
reference to “the Lady Kirk of Leith,” recalling the
name of St Mary’s Chapel, by which our Church was
known in pre-reformation days ; and also the reference
to the old practice of burying within the walls of the
church. The Contract is between John Brown, Boxmaster
of the trade and calling of maltmen, and John
Stewart, Boxmaster of the sledders of Leith, and it provides
that the maltmen shall give the sledders ” full and
peaceful possession of these five laich seats lately built and
possessed by the maltmen, lying under their loft within
the Lady Kirk of Leith upon the south-west end thereof,
and that by delivery of the keys thereof, to be in all
time coming bruckit and possessed by the said sledders
as their own proper seats, with full power to their
servants to settle in the said mailmen’s back loft
promiscuously with the said mailmen’s servants; as
likewise it is expressly provided that the forenamed
incorporation of sledders shall have full power and free
liberty and license to bury their dead within the said
mailmen’s aisle of Leith, for which cause, the said
John Stewart for himself and for the said sledders,
binds himself to content and pay to the said John
Brown for himself and the maltmen, the sum of 50
merks, Scots money yearly and ilk year, likewise it is
hereby agreed upon betwixt the said parties, that in
case the Ministers of Leith, their stipends be
augmented,then, and in that case, the said John Stewart
for himself, and in name and behalf foresaid binds and
obliges himself and his successors to augment their proportion
of the payment accordingly.”
The suggestion has been made that the most suitable
place for erecting the sculptured stones possessed by the
carters would be against the Kirkgate wall, as this part
of the Churchyard was for many generations the burial
ground for the members of this incorporation. The
stones in question were placed above the door of a little
building in the Kirkgate, demolished a number of years
ago to make way for the theatre. The building
was used as the Carters Covening House and also
for a time as a Session-House. The following description
is taken from an old book written before the
building was taken down :—
“On a sculptured stone, surmounted by a small
carving of a man driving a horse and cart, there is the
following inscription, conveying a somewhat novel bit of
information :—
‘ Incorporation of Carters Convening House.
1720. Rebuilt 1802.’
” Great God. whose potent arms drive the sun,
The carters bless while wheels of time shall run.
Of old they drove Thy sacred Ark, O God ;
Guide Thou their hands and steps in every road,
Protect this house we dedicate to Thee,
Increase and sanctify our charity ;
Thy blessing, Lord, be its foundation stone,
And we’ll ascribe the praise to Thee alone.”

source-South Leith Church 1911

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