The History of Leith

September 1, 2013

The Killing Times

This was the period when episcopacy was re-established in Scotland after the Cromwellian period and the restoration of the Monarchy all legal rights for Presbyterianism being removed. The records of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston give us a brief grimpse into life during this turbulent time.

In looking through some old records recently I came across the records of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston who was the nephew of Lady Pilrig of Pilrig house. In these yellowing pages we find descriptions of the annual horse races on the Leith Sands which are now concreted over with the development of Leith Docks in the late 19th and 20th centuries it was from Leith that the musselburgh race course was developed, of his Golf matches on Leith Links and of him playing tennis at the Kings Wark (this is where the name “Catchpell” comes from in the “Catchpell Business Centre” the name “Catchpell”being the Scottish form of Royal Tennis. He also mentions his dinners at Mrs Kendall’s fashionable tavern in the Kirkgate. It would appear from this that life in Leith was peaceable and tranquil and not much was happening but this would be far from the truth. This was the 17th century and the period was called the “Killing Times” This was the period when episcopacy was re-established in Scotland after the Cromwellian period and the restoration of the Monarchy all legal rights for Presbyterianism being removed. This led in turn to three rebellions in Scotland in 1666,1679 and 1685. For twenty-five years the Covenanters suffered brutal persecution and were cruelly suppressed. However in1688 an ecclestical settlement re-established the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.

Among the last to be prosecuted for holding what was called a Conventicle which was a prayer meeting of committed Presbyterians was William Wishart he was related to George Wishart who was executed at the Reformation for his Protestant beliefs He had been persecuted for his beliefs and had come to Leith to Leith to live. However in 1683 he was caught by a group of Soldiers while conducting morning prayers. He was thrown into the Canongate Tolbooth although he was “Ane aged and infirm person, broken and disabled with many diseases” which can still be seen in the High Street of Edinburgh to this day. He was to be sent to the Plantations but was sent free conditionally and under heavy sureties.

When in 1688 Presbyterism was re-established in Scotland Thomas Stark of Leith Mills and Robert Douglas of Coatfield formed a congregation and set up a meeting house at the Sheriff Brae and appointed the aged William Wishart as minister this later proved to small and a larger meeting house was rented in Cables Wynd. He continued until his son could take over after his studies in Utrecht in Holland. It was from here that the Presbyterian congregation re-established ltself in South Leith Church. The area near to Cable Wynd well known in the 1920’s was called Meeting House Green. This was because in the 17th century the area was open country with Gardens and grassland between the Meeting House and the Town. However by the 1920’s it had became a slum and obscure yet it had one of the most historic names in Leith history and reminds us that freedom of Religion and holding a personal belief comes with a cost and it never comes cheap. That the freedoms we enjoy today, which we all take so lightly, came at the price of many people’s lives.

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