Leith Local History Society


Some milestones in the history of Leith

Archaeological evidence shows that there was human settlement by the banks of the Water of Leith in prehistoric days. Leith, however, enters recorded history in 1128 when King David I granted certain lands in North Leith together with his harbour (at Coalhill) to the Holyrood Abbey. The King then developed another harbour at The Shore for his own use.

Leith is usually thought of as the port or dock area of Edinburgh. It was not, however, part of Edinburgh until 1920. Between 1833 and 1920 Leith was an independent burgh. Before that Edinburgh town council was able to control Leith through being the feudal superior of the land there. Leith history is full of examples of how Leithers tried, often successfully, to evade those controls.

In mediaeval days neither North nor South Leith had a parish church. South Leith was in the parish of Restalrig -quite a long walk for Leithers going to church. Restalrig was owned by a family called ‘de Lestalric’. Their estates eventually passed to a family called Logan and they were responsible for passing control over to Edinburgh. The people on the village of North Leith were in the Parish of Holyrood - again a long way to go to church!

Below we have set out some of the significant events in the history of Leith from mediaeval times to the present date.

Date Event
80 Agricola passes through Leith on his way from Inveresk to Cramond.
211 The Romans finally leave the Leith district.
1128 David I founds the Abbey of Holyrood and gives it the lands of what is now North Leith. At the same time he gave the lands of Restalrig, which included what is now South Leith, to a Norman knight who came north with him and took the name of that district.
1296 The capture and annexation of Berwick upon Tweed by the English cut off South East Scotland from what had been its main port for foreign trade. This opened the way for Leith to take its place.
1296 From 1296 to 1314 Leith occupied by English troops.
1329 King Robert the Bruce gave to Edinburgh his harbour at Leith and access to it. This is the start of the process under which Edinburgh took control of Leith.
1380 The Incorporation of Master Mariners were granted the right (by Robert II) to levy duty called ‘Prime Gilt’. (12d on each ton of goods landed at Leith). This money was used for the relief of the sick, poor and widows of mariners as well as for aged mariners.
1398 Sir Robert Logan sold the superiority of land at The Shore to Edinburgh. This meant that Edinburgh now had further access to the harbour and was able to control trade in Leith.
1430 The Preceptory of St Anthony founded by Sir Robert Logan.
1434 The King’s Wark was built on the orders of James I as a combined warehouse and arsenal. The original King’s Wark was a tower house on the same site as the present building.
1483 St Mary’s Church (later South Leith Parish Church) was built by the Trades Incorporations (Guilds) of Leith. It was not originally a parish church but Leithers no longer needed to make the long walk to Restalrig on Sundays and Holy Days.
1486 The first bridge across the Water of Leith was built by Abbot Ballantyne of the Abbey of Holyrood.
1493 St Ninian’s Church (later the first North Leith Church) was built by Robert Ballantyne, Abbot of Holyrood. St Ninian’s manse and belfry in Quayside Street are the oldest buildings to survive in Leith.
1544 An English army under the Earl of Hertford sacked Leith. This was part of an attempt by King Henry VIII to bring about the marriage of his son, later King Edward VI, and the infant Mary Queen of Scots - often referred to as the ‘Rough Wooing’.
1547 Scots army defeated at the Battle of Pinkie. Leith sacked again by Hertfort, now Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England (Regent for Edward VI).
1548 Work on fortifying Leith was begun.
1555 Trinity House of Leith built in the Kirkgate by the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners.
1559 Additions to the fortifications were made and Leith became a walled town with fortifications based on the latest Italian designs. These would have looked rather similar to the ramparts that can still be seen at Berwick upon Tweed.
1560 The Siege of Leith took place. Mary of Guise, acting as Regent for her daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, and her French troops were besieged by an English army and Scottish Reformation Lords.
1560 The Reformation took place in Scotland. St Mary’s Church, which had been badly damaged in the siege, became the church of South Leith Parish. Now it was the people of Restalrig who had to make a long walk to attend church - in Leith.
1561 Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France and landed at Leith. She arrived earlier than expected and no one was there to greet her. She was entertained in the house of Andrew Lamb while news of her arrival was sent to Edinburgh. The present Lamb’s House in Water Close, off Burgess Street is not the building where she was entertained but is a very fine example of an early 17th century merchant’s house.
1589 King James VI and Princess Anne of Denmark were married by David Lindsay, Minister of South Leith at a ceremony in Christiana (now Oslo) in Norway. They returned to Scotland landing at Leith in May 1590.
1606 North Leith becomes a parish.
1609 South Leith becomes a parish.
1616 Whaling begins from Leith to Newfoundland
1638 The National Covenant is signed in North and South Leith.
1645 The last and worst outbreak of plague in Edinburgh and Leith. Over 2,700 people in the parish of South Leith died - about three quarters of the population.
1649 Work began on a line of defences stretching from Edinburgh to Leith. This later became Leith Walk. General Leslie and the Scots army successfully defended this line for three weeks against the forces of Oliver Cromwell. After the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar both Edinburgh and Leith surrendered to Cromwell.
1655 General Monck built The Citadel in North Leith for Cromwell. An arched gateway in Dock Street is all that remains of this once impressive building.
1686 A windmill was built at The Shore by Robert Mylne and he also constructed a new harbour.
c1690 The King's Wark was destroyed by fire. The present tenement was erected shortly afterwards and given the same name.
1698 The first four ships of the fated Darien Expedition sailed from Leith.
1742 George Carkettle, grave-maker, was accused of selling bodies to anatomists. A mob broke into the churchyard and dug open a grave.
1744 The worlds first ‘Rules for Golf’ were written for a tournament played on Leith Links.
1754 Leith gets her water supply from Lochend.
1771 Permission was given for the construction of Leith’s first dry dock.
1773 Robert Fergusson wrote his famous poem ‘Leith Races’ The races were held annually on Leith Sands until they were moved to Musselburgh.
1774 A second dry dock was constructed.
1778 Abbot Ballantyne’s old stone bridge was demolished and replaced by a drawbridge, further downstream. This enabled ships to berth further upstream.
1779 Leith was threatened by a fleet led by John Paul Jones, ‘Father of the United States Navy’. Adverse weather conditions eventually forced him to withdraw. A Fort, manned by the Royal Artillery, was then constructed in North Leith to defend Leith against future attacks.
1792 Leith Banking Company was set up.
1799 Plans were drawn up and approved for the construction of Leith’s first wet docks.
1805 The sails of the windmill and the domed roof were removed and it was converted into a signal tower. Flag signals were used to tell incoming ships the depth of the water at the harbour bar.
1806 The Old East Dock was opened.
1809 A Martello Tower was built for the defence of Leith during the Napoleonic Wars. It is now on reclaimed land at Leith Docks.
1812 The new Custom House was built in Commercial Street.
1813 The first steamship to enter Leith, The Comet, ran excursions between Leith and Bo’ness. Single fare 7/6d (37½p).
1813 Leith Commercial List published for the first time.
1816 North Leith Church moved from the old St Ninian’s to a new church in Madeira Street. This was intended as the centrepiece for a Leith ‘New Town’
1816 The present building bearing the name Trinity House was erected to replace the earlier building.
1816 Leith Races moved to Musselburgh.
1817 The Old West Dock was opened.
1818 Junction Bridge was constructed. This was part of an ambitious plan to link the new docks to both Ferry Road and Leith Walk without having to go through the narrow streets of old Leith.
1821 A regular steamship service from Leith to london was started with sailings three times a week.
1822 The last execution for piracy took place on Leith Sands.
1822 George IV landed at The Shore. He was the first monarch since Charles II to visit Scotland.
1825 Junction Road Church (now St Thomas’ Junction Road Church of Scotland) was opened. This was one of the first buildings to be erected on Great Junction Street and originally stood isolated in the fields.
1826 The docks are put under the control of the Dock Commission.
1827 The Town Hall in Charlotte Street is built.
1833 Leith becomes an independent burgh with its own Town Council.
1833 Leith gets its first public transport service in the form of horse buses.
1837 Leith shipbuilders, Robert Menzies & Sons, built the steamship ‘Sirius’. This became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.
1838 Petty customs of Leith were transferred from Edinburgh to Leith. The merk per ton was abolished (the merk was worth 1s 1½d [5½p]).
1838 The railway comes to Leith in the form of a branch of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway (later absorbed into the North British Railway Company). It ran from Niddrie to a station in Constitution Street.
1839 Dr Bell’s School was opened in Great Junction Street.
1840 Leith Chamber of Commerce was instituted.
1842 Whaling ceased in Leith.
1846 Hawthorn’s Engineering Works opened on a site near Junction Bridge.
1846 The Edinburgh. Leith and Granton Railway (later absorbed into the North British Railway Company) opened its Leith branch. It passed under Junction Bridge and then through a tunnel under Coburg Street to a terminus on Commercial Street (Citadel Station).
1847 South Leith Parish Church was substantially rebuilt. The hammerbeam roof was based a design from a church in St Petersburg.
1850 South Leith Poorhouse was opened in Great Junction Street on the site now occupied by Taylor Gardens.
1852 Leith Hospital was opened in Mill Lane.
1852 Victoria Dock was opened to accommodate the larger steamships then in use.
1862 ‘Prime Gilt’ was abolished and Trinity House had then to depend on income from property to meet pension payments.
1863 North Leith Poorhouse built in North Junction Street.
1869 Junction Bridge Station opened.
1869 Albert Dock opened.
1872 Horse tram services began in Leith.
1874 The Victoria Swing Bridge was completed. At the time it was the largest swing bridge in the United Kingdom.
1881 The Edinburgh Dock was opened.
1885 The Sailors’ Home (now the Malmaison Hotel) was opened.
1885 The Henderson Street Improvement Scheme was launched. It provided a new street running from Great Junction Street to the Shore and involved the demolition of many appalling slums.
1903 Central Station was opened at the foot of Leith Walk.
1904 The Imperial Dock opened.
1905 An electric tram system opened in Leith. Through journeys to Edinburgh were not possible however because Edinburgh had opted to install a cable tramway system. Passengers had to change at Pilrig.
1907 Both North and South Leith Poorhouses were closed and their operations moved to a new poorhouse at Seafield (later the Eastern General Hospital). This was the last poorhouse to be built in Scotland.
1908 Christian Salvesen & Co of Leith began whaling operations in the Antarctic. By 1911 their fleet was the largest whaling fleet in the world.
1911 Leith Provident Co-op building opened at 170-174 Great Junction Street.
1913 Leith Dockers strike for seven and a half weeks.
1919 David Kilpatrick School opened on the site in North Junction Street previously occupied by the North Leith Poorhouse.
1920 Leith was (reluctantly) amalgamated with Edinburgh - ending 87 years of independent existence.
1938 The State Cinema was opened on the site previously occupied by Hawthorn’s Engineering Works.
1947 Passenger services from Junction Road Station were withdrawn.
1963 Telectra House was built in Great Junction Street by Leith Provident Co-operative Society
1968 Freight services running on the line along the Water of Leith were withdrawn and the lines uplifted.
1983 The shipyard of Henry Robb Ltd closed. This brought an end to over 600 years of shipbuilding in Leith.
1992 Forth Ports Authority became Forth Ports plc.
1995 The Scottish Office (later the Scottish Executive and now the Scottish Parliament) moved to a new building at Victoria Quay.
1998 The former Royal Yacht ‘Britannia’, launched in 1953, arrived at Leith - her final destination.
2003 Telectra House demolished and site re-developed for flats.
2006 Leith Local History Society raised once again the question of a ‘Museum for Leith’ which had been promised in the 1920s after the amalgamation with Edinburgh but had never materialised.
2007 A petition was started, supported by Mark Lazarowicz, our local Member of Parliament. This raised over 3,000 signatures in a very short time. A committee was formed and many local businesses and businessmen are now involved. Sir Tom Farmer has agreed to be patron of the Museum. A search for premises and funding is ongoing.
2008 Many streets and business in Leith have suffered great disruption during this year. This has been as a result of the tramworks. Having removed all trace of trams in the 1950s, the Council have decided we should have a tram system again as a result many roads, particularly Leith Walk and surrounding streets have been closed for many weeks.
2009 Tramworks are continuing to disrupt business throughout Leith with many streets having been closed on numerous occasions. It looks as though this work will go on for many more months.