This thread was originally written and published in July 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
Look what arrived when I was away…
Yes, this is a copy of the first known town detailed survey and map of Leith, all the way from the National Archives in Kew. It was surveyed in 1709 by the English engineer John Naish.
There’s much to get excited about with this amazing old map – although it’s not the earliest accurate representation of Leith (Adair shows it in 1682, Grenville Collins in 1693. The Petworth House Map of 1560 is surprisingly accurate too, but it is a birdseye view in an older, more illustrative style) – it’s the first known accurately and detailed surveyed town plan of Leith .
Having referenced it from the known historical points that still exist today, it’s impressively accurate. The map accurately warped to the modern map and that simply given a best fit show little difference.
There’s so much to go into here. The accuracy of the medieval street plan of Leith for one thing. The remains of the Marian fortifcations and Cromwellian citadel for another. The detail of the all important port of Leith… I’ll pick a few interesting titbits below for now.
Here we see North Leith Kirk (A) and the burial ground (B), still there today. C is the Tolbooth, D is Mary of Guise’s “palace” and E is the 1493 bridge built by Abbot Bellenden (no sniggering at the back). K is the highwater mark.
The gun platforms (F) and bastion ramparts (G) of the French-built Marian defences of 1560 are clearly still there 150 years later, despite orders to have them slighted, as the written evidence suggested.
What is really surprising and exciting to me, is that the defensive ditches to the east of the town are clearly still there too and have flooded into water features.
Although they appear to be fed by the town sewers (which were open and ran down the streets), so were probably not particularly wholesome!
At the south of the Kirkgate, where it meets the “foot road to Edinburgh” we see a bridge or stairs. Excitingly, we also see the defensive ditch/bank thrown up by the Covenanter general Alexander Leslie in 1650 between Calton hill and the remains of Leith’s walls to repel Cromwell.
Leith Walk was formalised along Leslie’s fortification. Daniel Defoe described his 1706 visit to it thus; “a very handsome gravel walk, 20 Feet broad, continued to the Town of Leith, which is kept in good repair at the public Charge, and no Horse suffered to come upon it“.
People walked along the top of the old wall where their feet would be drier (the “High Walk”) and although it was possible to take a horse along the “Low Walk” at its base, horse and cart traffic to Leith from Edinburgh went via Abbeyhill and the “Eastern” (Easter) Road.
There’s an intriguing ring of dots marked on Giles Street, at its modern junction with Spiers Place, for a long time I had no idea what it might be, but the answer was it’s the “old green tree”, a “green tree growing on the south side of Giles Street at a point now just north of the entry of Spiers Place“. It was significant enough to be recorded on this map and be a local place name for a long time after its demise.
At the shore we see stone and wooden sections of the pier recorded, the “key” (quay) at H, I refers to “the bounds of the yard proposed*”, N was the wooden landing stage, M is the windmill of Robert Mylne, later the signal tower and now just “The Tower”. O appears to be a planned graving dock or ship building slip.
* = Naish was in Leith surveying for a potential new naval yard. He also surveyed at South Queensferry at this time. The yard would not be built at this time or position, it ended up being back from the shore at the north end of Constitution Street.
“A wood yard” refers to the Timberbush, with its unmistakable outline as one of the French bastions of 1560 (Fort Ramsay). “Bush” in this case is a corruption of the French Bourse, a yard or exchange. Timber was tipped off ships and floated under the quayside to be stored and traded in the Bush.
All out at sea, the lonely Beacon marked the entrance to the safe, navigable passage. It was a structure of wooden poles and iron, from which a bell and lantern could be hung. As early as 1504, King James IV had a pair of “bekynys” placed here. Access to the port was tidal and tricky and required careful navigation.
And that enticing detail of General Monck’s “Cittadell”. 3 of the bastions are clear, as is the outer glacis. The inner detail shows the partitioning into buildings and gardens. And the high water mark in a “raging full see” gives a clue as to where the north of the fortress went . It also provides highly compelling evidence that the fort was of a pentagonal arrangement, and not a 4-pointed “star fort”.
I can’t find much out about this map. It’s a military map, stamped with the symbol of the Board of Ordnance. As noted above, John Naish was an English surveyor and engineer for the Royal Navy who made surveys at this time for the Navy with a view to improvements
I wonder if we can assume this was the same John Naish who was soon master shipwright for the Royal Navy at Harwich ?
And then Woolwich. If it is he was certainly a highly skilled surveyor, draughtsman and of course shipbuilder.
It’s great that Naish seems to have been such an accurate surveyor, as it means we can take some measurements off the map with confidence. The scale of the Marian walls is 12-15m thick surrounded by a ditch 16-20m wide. Excavation in 2012 suggested the ditch was 3.6m deep
That figures, as the ditch needs to be about twice as wide as the rampart if the rampart is twice as high. When you consider that the defences were 3.8km long, totally enclosing the town to all but the sea and beach, you get a real idea of scale and effort.
I’ve not come across a reliable source for the height of the walls, but Victorian polymath David Brewster suggests “up to 20 feet” in the Edinburgh Encyclopædia (depending on the lie of the land). 6 metres in new money, with a 3.6 metre ditch makes a formidable obstacle.
You have to bear in mind that these were not high medieval walls, but modern artillery defences. They are low and thick, to absorb cannon fire, while still providing an obstacle to being scaled, and an advantageous gun platform
This is before the time of mortars and howitzers (weapons that throw their explosive projectile upwards, and over an obstacle), cannons fired solid shot on a flat trajectory. Stone walls would have been a source of shrapnel and tall thin walls were easily breached.
To get an idea of what the fortifications looked like, look no further than @Rob_Marshall‘s stunning 3D reconstruction of the contemporary Eyemouth Fort along the coast, also held (and remodelled) by the French for Mary of Guise.
Returning to the Leith of 1709, below is a coloured version of Naish’s map. The Water of Leith is in blue. “Roads” (they were hardly that, more like muddy tracks and paths) in white, wall and fortification remains in red, buildings in grey, the mud of the river and Leith Sands in yellow and everything else green.
And filling in and annotating the details of the Citadel based on other references:
By this time the moat was likely a stagnant, boggy ditch. It probably could have been flooded to form a moat proper by breaching the river bank and rain and high storm tides would have topped it up as well.
General Monck, who oversaw construction of the Citadel and occupied it briefly, had encouraged some English merchants and industrialists to set up in the Citadel. Glassmaking was one craft they are said to have introduced to Leith, something the town would later become famous for.
The Citadel Citadel was part of Cromwell’s plan to subdue and control Scotland, it’s logical they would have brought a printing press with them to churn out official declarations and propaganda. So it’s no coincidence that the first newspaper in Scotland is said to have been printed on an English press within the Citadel; “The Mercurius Caledonius – Comprising The Affairs now in Agitation in Scotland With A Survey of Forraign Intelligence“. It only ran for 12 issues from Dec 1660 – Jan 1661. Not to be confused with the later Caledonian Mercury, it printed reports from Parliament, “Forraign Intelligence” (i.e. news from abroad) and reprints of stories sourced from the London papers.
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