City of Edinburgh

Redevelopment at Victoria Quay, Leith
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Redevelopment at Victoria Quay, Leith

Situated to the north of Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth, Leith grew up around its port on the Water of Leith from at least the 12th Century, exporting coal, salt, animal skins and wool and importing timber from the Baltic. It became Edinburgh's official port in 1329, was fortified by Mary of Guise in 1557, was created a burgh in 1636, achieved full independence from the capital in 1833, and was finally incorporated back into the city in 1920. Former industries include shipbuilding, rope making, chemical works, sawmills and flour mills. It was burned by the Earl of Hertford in 1544 and 1547, had its walls demolished by the Protestants in 1559-60, and lost almost two-thirds of its population to plague in 1645.

Leith was Scotland's main point of entry until the Union of 1707 and the starting point for the ill-fated Darien Expedition (1698). Dry docks were built in the 1770s and shipbuilding took place here until 1984. Leith was a major centre for whaling from the early 17th century until the 1950s, with the name of the settlement transported to South Georgia through the whaling activities of the Salvesen company there. Despite a considerable decline in trade since the 1970s, Leith remains the largest enclosed deepwater port in Scotland, boasting several docks, a cruise-liner terminal and the permanent mooring for the former royal yacht, Britannia. The major part of the Scottish Government is located at Victoria Quay. Leith claims several firsts; namely the original rules of the game of golf, the classic wine bottle design, the first steam-ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the first ship to pass through the Suez Canal.

Street names record Leith's history as a trading port: Admiralty Street, Commercial Quay, Maritime Street, Quayside Street, Ronaldson's Wharf, Sandport Place, Seaport Street, The Shore and Water Street; Baltic Street, Cadiz Street, Coburg Street, Corunna Place, Elbe Street, Flanders Lane and Madeira Street; Carpet Lane, Ropemaker Street, Sailmaker Street, Stevedore Place and Timber Bush.

Notable buildings and structures include the Customs House (1812), the Citadel Gate (1656-7, Dock Street), the Sikh Temple (1843, formerly St. Thomas's Church), The Vaults (17th-century onwards and now home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society), Andrew Lamb's House (1587), The Shore, the former Leith Bank (1804), the Signal Tower (1686), the Corn Exchange (1809), and the Martello Tower (1809). The brutalist Cables Wynd House (1965), better known as the Banana Flats, featured in the film Trainspotting (1996). Leith had three railway stations which have all closed: Leith Central (1903-52), Leith North (1879 - 1962) and Leith Walk (1868 - 1930).

Today Leith is an increasingly popular shopping and residential area.

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