This is David. King David I of Scotland (1124-1153). It’s with David that the history of Leith gets going, and his decisions as supreme ruler set the foundations for the complex and confusing development of Leith for the next 500 or so years.
From about the age of 10, David was raised in the English court, so effectively was raised as Norman royalty, and he took the Scottish throne by force with the backing of England in 1124.
As part of his campaign to exert authority and pacify his hard-fought kingdom, he did a couple of things. Firstly, he founded the Augustinian Holyrood Abbey in 1128. Secondly, he invited Anglo-Norman friends from the English court to take up Baronies in Scotland. One one of these was Peter, more on him later.
To Holyrood Abbey he granted “his” (he was King, so everything was his to give away) lands of Inverleith (Gaelic, mouth of the Water of Leith), half of its fishing and fish taxes and its harbour to the monks.
At that time, the mouth of the water of Leith was a proper tidal river mouth, much wider than it is today and with no harbour structures. The harbour was a bit of the shore on the south bank (now where the Coalhill is) where boats could be hauled in and launched
So by giving the harbour to Holyrood Abbey, whose lands would become the parish of North Leith, he creates an odd salient of North Leith that sits on the “wrong” side of river in South Leith. This administrative distinction between North and South Leith is something that will persist right up until the mid-late 19th century.
And to his old pal Peter from his English court days, he gave the lands of Lestalric (Restalrig) as a barony. David I’s planting of Norman nobility as Barons brings order and control and taxation to Scotland, and provides the crown with a power base. This has been described as the “Davidian Revolution”.
Peter becomes the Baron of Restalrig. The Baron held the lands for the crown and had powers of law and taxation and that sort of thing so long as he supported the crown etc.
The Lestalric lands included most of Leith to the south and east of the river, and all the lands we now think of as Craigentinny, Lochend, Restalrig etc. So the community of South Leith was part of Restalrig and not the other way around. It also included Calton Hill; at the opposite end of the Barony from Lochend, an old alternative name for this distinct area was the “Craigend” (from Scots Craig, Gaelic Creag: rock / cliff). The Calton would later be portioned off as a separate Burgh and for hundreds of years was not formally part of the city of Edinburgh.
The Lestalrics built a church near their seat at Lochend Castle, which is where Restalrig parish church still is today. That became the parish church for South Leith, a wee bit of a walk, but less than for the parishioners of North Leith who had to make as they went to Holyrood Abbey to worship. South Leith and North Leith would not get their own parish churches until quite a bit later.
The King, having given away his principal harbour, simply made himself a new one by taking a little bit of the shoreline for himself. This is round about where the Malt & Hops and Kings Wark pubs currently are.
Both North and South Leith developed on the “toft” system, where the land was drawn up into a series of long farming strips, headed by a house, rented from the superior (the Abbey or the Lestalrics respectively). Surrounding lands were worked as common grazing or on behalf for the superior. There would have been no significant buildings at this time, just small, single storey, rubble, wood, daub and thatch houses.
By the mid-12th century, you have North Leith and the harbour (yellow) held by Holyrood Abbey, the King’s land is in Blue, the Lestalric’s land in red and the tofts they granted in South Leith in paler red. The map is adapted from a sketch in Sue Mowat’s wonderful book “The Port Of Leith“, you won’t find a better reference on the subject.
And so life proceeds in this vein for a few centuries. War, pestilence and famine keeping things in check, until in 1398 the then Baron Restalrig, Robert Logan (the first, they were nearly all called Robert), does something silly and sells a strip of shore and wide-ranging rights to the Burgh of Edinburgh.
The Logans hailed from Ayrshire way (Grougar) and the first Logan Baron, Robert, came into possession of Restalrig when his father (Robert) married the daughter of the last de Lestalric. When he in turn died in 1439, he had no surviving son and his possessions were split amongst 4 grandsons
Logan’s eldest grandson, Sir John Logan, took the Barony of Restalrig and with it South Leith (except the bits held by Edinburgh). His 2nd Grandson took the estate of Coatfield, including Leith Links.
Now, Sir John Logan also held the title Sheriff of Edinburgh which had passed to him with the Barony of Restalrig. He in turn gives this title, and the lands on the south bank of the river to the west of North Leith’s bit, to his son. who builds a big hoose on the high ground.
And so we come to how the bit of Leith called the Sheriff Brae got its name (“Shirra” was the local term) – it was the hill on which the Sheriff of Edinburgh built his house.
By no means accurate, but roughly, at the start of the 16th century we have the lands of North Leith held by the Abbey (yellow) and in South Leith by the crown (blue) and 3 distinct lines of Logans; the Logans of Restalrig (red); the Logans of Coatfield (purple) and the Logans of Shirrabrae (orange). And just to mix things up, the Burgesses of Edinburgh own a bit of the shore too – read on to find out how they got it (green strip).
Skipping quickly back 100ish years to the blue lands of the Crown, in 1434 Kings James I has constructed a defensive work (or wark in Scots); hence the “King’s Wark”. Basically a defensive 3-storey blockhouse to hold an arsenal and the Crown’s personal stores brought ashore here.
In 1604, James VI grants part of the lands of the King’s Wark to one Bernard Lindsay, who is also given the hereditary office of Baillie. Edinburgh purchased this from the Lindsays in 1623 and the street later formed there became Bernard Street.
It is the peculiarity of North Leith being split across the north and south banks of the river that results in the river first being bridged. Holyrood Abbey’s lands are largely on the north side, but access to this side is by an unreliable ford or going the long way round by the Stock Bridge, the lowest bridge across the river.
So it is Holyrood, under Abbot Bellenden (no giggling at the back, Bellenden is the old Scots spelling of Ballentyne!), who build a bridge across the river to connect their lands on each side and give better access to and from the Abbey. The bridge brings in useful incomes in tolls and in renting out tenements built into it on the south side.
So how about the Coal Hill? Well that was part of the lands held by Edinburgh, who controlled all the trade in and out of Leith, and coal was no exception. Coal was vital, and generally came by ship given how terrible the roads were – carting prices from the pits in Mid and East Lothian were prohibitive.
In 1797, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh ordered that any ship bringing in coal was immediately to be given a berth at the Coal Hill, any other vessels making way for it, and no shore duties were to be charged to the collier.
So that’s the coal bit sorted, but hill? Well if you consider that it was a tidal river, with a shore line much further back (and lower) than currently, relatively speaking the slope that is now the Coal Hill was indeed a bit of a hill (same goes for the “brae” in Shirrabrae).
And what do we find next to the Coal Hill? But of course, the Peat Neuk! A neuk being the Scots word for a corner, the peat neuk was a place for the storage of peat fuel. Apparently the tollhouse of the old Abbot’s Bridge here was converted for the purpose.
The Peat Neuk was somewhat ruinous and allegedly the hangout of “those reckless and abandoned characters who abound in every seaport” and even the “haunt of disembodied spirits, whose crimes or suffering in life compelled them to wander“! 👻
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