"LEITH, a seaport town, and municipal and parliamentary burgh, in county Edinburgh, Scotland. It was originally called Inverleith, and includes the parish of North Leith, nearly the whole of South Leith parish, and a small part of the parish of St. Cuthbert, Edinburgh. It is situated 2 miles N.N.E. of the cross of Edinburgh (of which city it is the port), in 55° 58' N. lat., 3° 9' W. long., on the S. shore of the Frith of Forth. The town is about 1 mile long, and measures about half a mile at its broadest point.
It is irregularly built. In the ancient part the streets are narrow and inconvenient, and the houses old and closely built; of late years, however, some good streets and numerous dwelling-houses have been erected, particularly in the vicinity of what is called the "Links", or downs, a large open space on the S.E. side of the town.
There is a good supply of water, and the town is lighted with gas. The principal thoroughfares are Leith-walk, Constitution-street, Kirkgate, Bernard-street, and Commercial-place. The Leith water intersects the town, and is spanned by a stone bridge and two drawbridges; the last mentioned were erected in place of a stone bridge built by Robert Ballendean, Abbot of Holyrood, as a means of access to a chapel erected by him in North Leith.
That portion of the town situated on the N.W. side of the river is known as North Leith, and that on the opposite as South Leith; the former, although pretty extensive, being little more than a suburb of the latter, where all the chief business of the town is transacted, and where the offices and residences of the merchants chiefly are.
Among the public buildings worthy of mention are, the townhall and courthouse, erected in 1828, in which are held the burgh and sheriff courts; the exchange buildings, containing the post-office and assembly rooms; the Trinity House, or mariners' hospital, built in 1817 in place of a building erected in 1555; the custom-house, a Grecian edifice, erected in 1812; the Female Asylum for Incurables, erected by the late Sir John Gladstone, Bart., a native of Leith; Seafield baths, near the Links, erected in 1813; the gaol, built in 1822, situated in Tolbooth-wynd, is now converted into dwelling-houses. Near the gaol, and on the site of the old custom-house and excise-office, the market-places were erected in 1819.
Among the public educational establishments throughout the town are, the High School; Dr. Bell's school, in which 700 children receive instruction on the Madras system; and there are several parochial schools. There are numerous benevolent and charitable institutions which are well supported, as well as a public library, mechanics' subscription library, and a savings-bank. The manufactories of Leith are considerable, they comprise colour and paint works, roperies, canvas, sail, and soap making, brewing and tanning, fish curing, and the manufacture of glass - the latter supposed to have been introduced by English settlers in the time of Cromwell.
Ship-building is rather extensively carried on, and the yards here have turned out a number of very fine steam and sailing vessels. It is, however, to its shipping business that Leith owes its importance. From the year 1799 to the present period large sums of money (partly grants from government) have been expended in the construction of wet and dry docks, lengthening the piers, and otherwise improving the harbour. The aggregate length of the quays is 8,400 feet, and they, together with the docks, have very extensive warehouses and sheds, cranes of great strength and almost every modern improvement.
A line of railway connects the quays with the Leith terminus of the Edinburgh, Perth, and Dundee lines, and also the North British line. There are lighthouses on both the E. and W. piers. Leith fort, overlooking the beach, is the headquarters of the royal artillery of Scotland. The town has the advantage of several banks, viz: the Bank of Scotland, the British Linen, the Clydesdale, the Commercial, the Union, and the Royal; the last named was formerly known as the Leith Bank.
The several incorporated trades are the Ship Masters (or Trinity House), combining a benefit society with a board for licensing pilots; the Traffickers, or Merchant Company; and the Convenery of Trades, representing eight trades. The newspapers published here are the Leith Commercial List, on Tuesday and Friday, and the Leith Herald on Saturday.
The coasting, foreign, and colonial trade of Leith is of vast extent. The foreign and colonial trade is carried on with Russia, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Levant, the East and West Indies, America, China, and Australia. The shipping belonging to the port in 1692 comprised 29 vessels of aggregately 1,702 tons, while in 1855 the number amounted to 168 sailing vessels of an aggregate tonnage of 19,067, besides 25 steam vessels of an aggregate tonnage of 6,326. The customs revenue of the port in 1859 amounted to £572,872.
The principal imports are grain, hemp, tallow, timber, hides, tobacco, and wine; and the chief exports are iron, hardware, machinery, coals, cottons, linen, silks, woollens, haberdashery, &c. The number of ships entered inwards at the port of Leith in 1859 amounted to 1,539, of an aggregate tonnage of 216,356; while the entries outwards amounted to 415 of an aggregate tonnage of 98,877. The total value of the exports of 1859 amounted to £872,673. The port enjoys frequent steamboat communication with London, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, Greenock, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and other ports of Great Britain, and likewise with St. Petersburgh, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Hamburgh, Dantzic, &c.
The town is connected to Edinburgh by a branch of the Edinburgh, Perth, and Dundee line; there is also a line for goods traffic in connection with the North British line. Omnibuses run to the city.
Leith, in conjunction with Portobello and Musselburgh, sends one member to parliament, and is governed by a provost, who bears the title of "Admiral of Leith", four bailies, a treasurer, and councillors. The courts held here by the magistrates are known as the admiral and bailie courts of Leith, and a society of solicitors exists for practising in them. A sheriffs' small-debt court is held here every Tuesday. Police matters are managed by a commission.
The real property of the town in 1860-1 amounted to £147,636. The corporation revenue in 1859 was £692. The population of the district of Leith, embracing Leith, Musselburgh, and Portobello, in 1851, was 30,919, and in 1861, 45,417. One of the earliest, if not the earliest mention of Leith, occurs in the charter of Holyrood Abbey, founded by David I., where it is termed Inverleith.
Its proximity to the capital, and the circumstance of its having until recently been the port of Edinburgh, have rendered Leith the scene of several interesting historical events. In 1313, and again in 1410, the shipping in Leith Harbour was burnt by the English. In 1544 the town was almost destroyed, and its shipping carried off by the English under the Earl of Hertford. In 1549 the French took possession of the town to assist the Queen Regent to suppress the Reformation. In 1560 the forces of Queen Elizabeth, in conjunction with the Scottish Protestant forces under the Lords of the Congregation, took possession of the town.
The Solemn League and Covenant was sworn and subscribed in 1643 by many of the inhabitants. It was visited by the plague in 1647, which carried off 2,000 out of 4,000 of the inhabitants. In 1650, after the defeat of the Scots by Cromwell at Dunbar, the town was occupied by Lambert, his major-general, while Cromwell possessed himself of Edinburgh; it was afterwards occupied by General Monk, who induced several English families to settle here, to whom a good deal of the mercantile spirit of the port is attributable. Leith fort was repaired, and a citadel with five bastions erected by Cromwell.
Races were instituted in the reign of Charles II., and until recently were held in the month of July. The citadel was held for a short time in 1715 by the Pretender and his adherents. In 1779 Paul Jones caused a great panic in the town by appearing in the Frith. George IV. landed here in 1822 on his way to Edinburgh, an inscribed plate marking the spot where he landed. In 1842 the town was visited by the Queen and the late Prince Consort.
© Copyright Colin Hinson, GENUKI and contributors, 1999-2006, &c.