The earliest surviving historical references are in the royal charter authorising the construction of Holyrood Abbey in 1128. The medieval settlements of Leith had grown into a burgh by 1833, and the burgh was merged into Edinburgh in 1920.
The port remains one of its most valuable enterprises, handling over 1.5 million tonnes of cargo a year in 2003.
Previous to the bridge being built in the late 15th century, Leith had settlements on either side of the river, lacking an easy crossing.
South Leith was larger and was controlled by the lairds of Restalrig: the Logan family. It was based on trade and had many merchants' houses and warehouses. This was where ships offloaded their cargoes at The Shore where they were collected by Edinburgh merchants. Leithers were explicitly forbidden by statute to participate directly in the trade at the port, to ensure that landed goods were not sold elsewhere.[nb 1]
North Leith was smaller but proportionately richer, coming under the jurisdiction of Holyrood Abbey. It was effectively a fishing village consisting of one street, now Sandport Street and Quayside Lane. Burgage plots ran down to the river from each house. This has traditionally been the shipbuilding side of Leith with several wet and dry docks built over time. The first dry dock in Scotland was built here in 1720. A small peninsula of land on the east bank also came under the same jurisdiction on what is now Sheriff Brae/Sheriff Bank.
The first bridge to link both banks of the river was built in 1493 by Abbot Bellenden, who controlled the church at North Leith. The bridge was a toll bridge, the revenue supplementing the church's income. Reputedly Leith's oldest building, it was demolished in 1780 to allow ships to sail further upstream.
The earliest evidence of settlement in Leith comes from several archaeological digs undertaken in the Shore area in the late 20th century. Amongst the finds were medieval wharf edges from the 12th century. This date fits with the earliest documentary evidence of settlement in Leith - the foundation charter of Holyrood Abbey.
Leith has played a long and prominent role in Scottish history. As the major port serving Edinburgh, it has been the stage on which many significant events in Scottish history have taken place. Mary of Guise ruled Scotland from Leith in 1560 as Regent while her daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots remained in France. Mary of Guise moved the Scottish Court to Leith, to a site that is now Parliament Street, off Coalhill. According to the 18th-century historian William Maitland, her palace was situated on Rotten Row, now Water Street. Artifacts from the demolished residence are held by the National Museum of Scotland, and her sculptured coat of arms, dated 1560, can be seen in South Leith Parish Church. When the large French garrison stationed in Leith was attacked by Scottish Protestant lords, reinforced by troops and artillery sent from England, Mary of Guise was forced to shut herself in Edinburgh Castle. In June 1560, Mary of Guise died, and the Siege of Leith ended with the departure of the French troops in accordance with the Treaty of Leith, also known as the Treaty of Edinburgh.
Two mounds on Leith Links, known as "Giant's Brae" and "Lady Fyfe's Brae", identified as Somerset's Battery and Pelham's Battery respectively, are believed to be artillery mounds created for the siege in April 1560 and are listed as scheduled monuments. Stuart Harris was of the opinion, based largely on the contemporary Petworth map, that Pelham's Battery was built on the slope to the south of Leith Links and Somerset's Battery was located adjacent to the present Pilrig House. He also notes that the "tradition" that these batteries were situated on Leith Links is spurious, going no further back than Campbell's "History of Leith" 1827. Lent authority by the Ordnance Survey map of 1852, this attribution saved the mounds when several other hillocks on the links were removed in the 1880s. The best documented day of the siege was 7 May 1560, when the English and Scots charged the walls of Leith with ladders that turned out to be too short. John Knox records the delight of Mary of Guise at the failure of the attack, and English sources report 1000 casualties.
Late in 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots, arrived in Leith and, finding no welcoming party to receive her, made a brief stop at the "house of Andro Lamb ... beit the space of ane hour", before being collected and escorted by coach to Holyrood Palace, to begin her ill-fated six-year-long reign. The Protestant reformer, John Knox, explained the lack of preparation thus;
"The ninetein Day of August 1561 Yeirs, betwene seven and eicht Hours Befoir none, arryved Marie Quene of Scotland, then Wedo, with two Gallies furth of France ... becaus the Palace of Halyrudehous was not throuchly put in Ordour (for hir cumming was more suddane then many luiked for), sche remained in Leyth, till towards the Evening, and then repaired thither"
After the abdication of Mary Queen of Scots in 1567, during the ensuing civil war, troops fighting for James VI of Scotland against his mother's supporters in Edinburgh Castle based themselves in Leith from 1571-1573, a period called the "Wars between Leith and Edinburgh". A century later, Leith was a prospective battleground when the Army of the Covenant, led by General David Leslie, threw up an earthen rampart between Calton Hill and Leith to defend the northern approach to Edinburgh against Oliver Cromwell's forces. This rampart became the line of one of Edinburgh's longest streets, Leith Walk. After Cromwell's victory at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 and subsequent occupation of Scotland, a fort known as Leith Citadel was erected in 1656 to regulate the port traffic. All that remains of the fort today is a vaulted trance in Dock Street which was its main entrance.
During the American War of Independence the Scot, John Paul Jones, who, with John Barry, is credited as founder of the US Navy, set sail on 14 August 1779 as commodore of a squadron of seven ships with the intention of destroying British commerce in the North Sea. He intended to capture the port of Leith and hold it for ransom, but his plan was thwarted when a gale on 16 September kept him at the mouth the Firth of Forth. The scare he caused led to the hasty erection of Leith Fort, designed by James Craig, the architect of Edinburgh's New Town, and built in 1780. A Georgian terrace to the north-east served as officers' quarters, and was known as "London Row" because, being brick-built, it looked more like a London terrace than any in Edinburgh. The fort was in active use until 1955, latterly serving for National Service training. Most of the barracks were demolished to build a Council housing scheme centred on Fort House and enclosed by the old fort walls. The Council development was an award-winning scheme in its day (1955), but the building was demolished in January 2013 and the site is to be redeveloped. A pair of the old fort's gatehouses survive at the southern entrance to the scheme.
From the twelfth century South Leith was part of the parish of Restalrig and had no church of its own. After the Scottish Reformation the principal parish kirk for Leith was South Leith Parish Church, originally constructed in 1483. In June 1811 a statistical population census gave the population of South Leith as 15,938; North Leith 4,875. With a procession and ceremony, the foundation stone of the new church for the parish of North Leith was laid on 11 April 1814.
Leith was the port of entry for the visit of King George IV to Scotland, and The Old Ship Hotel and King's Landing was then given its new name, to mark the King's arrival by ship's boat at Leith Shore for this event, which is remembered most for popularising and decriminalising symbols of Scottish national identity.
Leith Docks became known as the port for Edinburgh and modest shipbuilding and repair facilities grew. On 20 May 1806, there was a procession of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Baillies, and Council, along with a numerous company of ladies and gentleman, for the opening of the first new Wet Dock, the first of its kind in Scotland. The Fife packet called The Buccleuch was the first to enter the dock, with the civic dignitaries on board, amid discharges of artillery from the Fort and His Majesty's warships in Leith Roads. The foundation stone for the second (middle) wet dock was laid on 14 March 1811, which was completed and opened with due ceremony in 1817 by Lord Provost Arbuthnot. The same year the Trinity House in Kirkgate was erected in Grecian architectural style at an expense of £2500. During the 'long 19th Century' Leith became an important entrepôt for the Scottish herring trade, with exports peaking at 388,899 barrels in 1907.
The docks at Leith underwent severe decline in the post-Second World War period, with the area gaining a reputation for roughness and prostitution, with an official 'tolerance zone' until 2001. In recent years, Leith has undergone significant regeneration and is now a busy port with visits from cruise liners and the home of the Royal Yacht Britannia, Ocean Terminal, and administrative offices for several departments of the Scottish Government. The council and government's 'Leith Project' provided a further economic boost. The shore area of Leith, once unattractive, is now a centre for a range of new pubs and restaurants in charming surroundings. On 6 November 2003, Leith was the location for the MTV Europe Music Awards, with a temporary venue being built next to Ocean Terminal.
Historically Leith was governed by the Town Council of Edinburgh, with separately organised baillies appointed by various bodies without contact with each other. The result became very unsatisfactory, and half of Leith was provided with no municipal government whatever or any local magistrates. An 1827 Act of Parliament arranged for municipal government and administration of justice in the town, providing watching, paving, cleansing, and lighting, with Edinburgh Council responding to the views of Leith townspeople. In 1833 the Burgh Reform Act made Leith a Parliamentary Burgh, which jointly with Portobello and Musselburgh was represented by one member of Parliament. On 1 November 1833, Leith became a separate Municipal Burgh, with its own provost, magistrates, and council, and was no longer run by bailies. In history the Right Hon. Lord Provost of Edinburgh is virtue officii Admiral of the Firth of Forth, the Provost of Leith is Admiral of the port thereof, and his four bailies were admirals-depute.
Continued growth meant that Leith and Edinburgh formed a contiguous urban area. Leith was merged with Edinburgh in 1920 despite a plebiscite in which the people of Leith voted 26,810 to 4,340 against the merger.
Until 1923 there was no through tram service between Leith and Edinburgh; at the boundary in Leith Walk it was necessary to change from a Leith tram (electrically powered) to an Edinburgh tram (cable hauled) until the electrification of the Edinburgh Corporation Tramways in the early 1920s.
Leith was Scotland's leader in several industries for many centuries. Of these the most notable are:
After decades of industrial decline, deindustrialisation, slum clearance and resultant depopulation in the post-war era, Leith gradually began to enjoy an upturn in fortunes in the late 1980s. Several old industrial sites were developed with modest, affordable housing, while small industrial business units were constructed at Swanfield, Bonnington, Seafield and off Lindsay Road. The Shore developed a clutch of upmarket restaurants, including the second of the chain of Malmaison hotels in a conversion of the former "Angel Hotel", a seaman's mission, whilst the once industrially-polluted and desolate banks of the Water of Leith were cleaned up and a public walkway opened.
Leith's gradual revival was also helped by the decision of the then Scottish Office to site their new offices in Leith Docks (just north of the old infilled East Dock). The site was chosen as part of a design-and-build competition against other sites at Haymarket and Marionville. It was completed in 1994. The hoped for influx of well-paid civil service jobs failed to have much local impact as most commute to the office, and only a small percentage venture beyond the confines of the office during lunchtimes. It did further foster Leith's growing reputation as a white-collar, small business location. Further large-scale service and tourist development followed, including the Ocean Terminal shopping centre and the permanently moored Royal Yacht Britannia. The plan to connect Ocean Terminal and the Scottish Executive building area by the new Edinburgh Trams by the Port of Leith tram stop has been shelved.
In 2004 the owner of the docks, Forth Ports, announced plans to eventually close the port and carry out a major redevelopment of the area. The planned development, which was given supplementary planning guidance by the City of Edinburgh Council in 2004, was a small town with up to 17,000 new homes.
One of the areas is Timber Bush.
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Following developments in Edinburgh and following a change of legislation which allowed people to live outside the town walls and still have trading rights an area to the west of the Leith of the end of the 18th century, flanking Ferry Road, was built. Development was sporadic with only certain sections following the original feuing. Many streets are named after events or people of the time:
A centrepiece of the whole development was Leith Fort, built along the lines of Fort George in 1780. This was demolished in 1955 having continued to serve a military function until that time. A housing scheme was then built on its site by Edinburgh Council and named Fort House. Two huge 22 storey blocks, Cairngorm and Grampian House on the north edge, survived less long and were removed in the mid-1990s. The main block was demolished late in 2012.
Some equivalent, less structured Georgian development happened on the east side of Leith, again their date evidenced in street names:
Leith has several notable historic churches, including North Leith Parish Church and South Leith Parish Church (both of the Church of Scotland), and the Roman Catholic St Mary's Star of the Sea. The area has Sikh and Hindu Temples, a Shia Imambargah, a Sunni Mosque and community centre, a Pentecostal centre, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; it also has a former Norwegian Church, which is home now to the Leith School of Art.
A regular stage coach service ran between Bernard Street and Edinburgh's Old Town from the mid-18th century. By 1863 this had become a horse-drawn omnibus running every 5 minutes from 9 am to 10 pm. This was put on tracks sometime around 1880 effectively then becoming a horse-drawn tram. Leith was the first town in Scotland to electrify its tram system (1905). The tram ran until 1956 and was then replaced by buses due to their greater flexibility.
In the mid-nineteenth century the railways came. Leith had one horse-drawn line pre-dating steam-trains, bringing coal from Dalkeith to a station at the north end of Constitution Street, to serve the glassworks there. This dated from the late 18th century. Steam trains arrived in the 1840s, being some of the earliest lines in Britain. When the railways were at their height, Leith had four passenger stations and many goods stations. However, in the 1950s the Beechings report recommended the closure of almost all of Leith's railway infrastructure. Today, only one freight line that connects to the dock remains in use.
Although there are no longer any passenger rail services serving Leith, two station buildings partially remain:
The SS Sirius (from Leith) beat the SS Great Western by one day in being the first steamship to cross the Atlantic but, as a much smaller ship, was eclipsed by the press coverage given to the larger ship. Leith offered ferry services to many European ports, including Hamburg and Oslo.
Today, Leith is served by various bus services provided by Lothian Buses. A tram service was due to serve Leith in 2011 by Edinburgh Trams. However, due to construction and funding issues, the section of the line towards Leith was cancelled. As of 2017, the current administration of the City of Edinburgh Council support plans to complete the line towards Leith.
Leith has a long history of pioneering social advances, some of which were the first of their kind in Scotland:
All boys were educated for free from 1555 onwards. This was paid for by the local trade guilds. All girls were educated from 1820, a long time after the boys, but a very early example of free education for females (only required by law from 1876). A free hospital service was provided from 1777, paid for by a local tax, with beds sponsored by local shops. Leith had electric street lighting from 1890 and electric trams from 1905 (only Blackpool was earlier in the UK). The first public sewer in Scotland was built in Bernard Street in 1780; this flowed into the Water of Leith. The iron seal over the end of the sewer is still visible next to Bernard Street bridge. The sewage is now pumped in the opposite direction (it was laid to fall westwards) to Seafield.
Leith was formerly a port linked to the trade of the Hanseatic League. Today it is a multicultural community with sizeable African-Caribbean, Asian and Eastern European participation. Other historic incomers have included 19th century Irish, Italian immigrants (See Henderson Street) and various refugee groups from the world wars and upheavals of the early 20th century.
Festivals occur throughout the year, including Leith Festival, Leith Late festival, PLU Parents Like Us and the Edinburgh Mela on Leith Links, part of the Edinburgh Festival since 2010. The Leith Gala, now known as Leith Festival Gala Day is an annual event that has taken place since 1907; it was originally a charity event to raise sponsorship for local hospital beds before the National Health came into place. It has developed into the community-based Leith Festival.
Leith FM (later renamed Castle FM) started as a week-long RSL station during the late 1990s, linked to Leith Festival. A few years of annual 28-day broadcasts later, the station bid for and won a permanent community radio licence and broadcast for several years on 98.8 FM and online. In December 2013, Leith Dockers Club locked the station out of its rented premises, due to the "substantial" debt it was owed by the station, and the future of the station is currently in doubt.
Irvine Welsh had his Channel 4 drama Wedding Belles (2007) filmed in Henderson Street. Welsh's novel Trainspotting and its prequel, Skagboys concern a group of drug users living in the Leith area in the 1980s and numerous local landmarks are referenced. Trainspotting Tours take place during the Leith Festival.
Leith Library is on Ferry Road.
Leith Athletic Football Club have been part of Leith's sporting culture since their foundation in 1887 until closure in 1955. Reformed in 1996 they amalgamated with Edinburgh Athletic in 2008 and achieved promotion to the East of Scotland Premier Division in 2011. They host home games on Leith Links.
Leith Links have been used a sports and recreation area over many centuries.
Leith is significant in the historical development of the rules of golf, as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers played there before moving to Musselburgh Links and later Muirfield. The official rules of golf, initially formulated at Leith in 1744, were later adopted by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The only difference introduced with those rules (which remain the rules of golf) was the omission of one rule to do with hazards such as trenches.
From at least 1600 until 1816, Leith Races were held on Leith Sands, an area immediately north of the present Links and now built over. They were long regarded as one of Scotland's most important horse race meetings before racing moved to Musselburgh permanently from 1816 onwards.
Leith Links also have one of the longest established cricket pitches in Scotland, from 1820.
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