This thread was originally written and published in July 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
I was quite excited to find this image in the Edinburgh City Libraries collection that I’d inexplicitly missed before. It’s the “Gate of the Old Citadel of Leith“, an 1818 watercolour by lawyer and prolific artist James Skene.
As I may have said many times before, as far as I am aware there are no surviving contemporary illustrations of the Citadel when it was still standing, and the earliest map showing it accurately in plan was made 50 years after it was abandoned as a fortification and partially ruined. Before we get going, for reference that maps is below. The walls are coloured red, the perimeter ditch is dark green and the internal structures are grey. By this time the north walls and pair of bastions had been reclaimed by the ravages of winter storms.
Even John Skene’s delightful little picture from 1818, 150+ years after the citadel was built, is rare. So what does it show us? And secondly, where was it taken? So lets go through each in turn.
Despite being a small watercolour, there’s a lot of interesting detail in there. The obvious thing is it shows a citadel port (gate). It shows us the walls were faced in stone and filled with mud/rubble. It gives us an idea of overall height and there are figures for scale.
We can see tall tenements with pan-tiled roofs (common enough to be vernacular on the east coast of Scotland before slate became ubiquitous). We know that the citadel became a fashionable quarter of Leith, these are probably houses built after it had been turned over to residential use .
We can also see that the blocks here don’t meet at right angles, it was a 5-sided fortification, so they meet at about 72 degrees (give or take, as it was a slightly squished pentagon in plan).
We see street lighting. From previous threads we know that these were “train (whale) oil” lamps.
A woman hangs out her washing to dry.
Two men appear to be working stones. He in the red seems to have a regular block propped up. I wager they are reclaiming masonry from the collapsed walls.
These two square posts in the water are intriguing. The citadel was surrounded by an engineered ditch and it’s more than likely it had wooden bridges across it. It’s nice to think that those posts may be part of that.
And we have a two-storey block with curving external stairs. We know that there were at least 2 two-storey blocks built with the citadel for quarters and stables.
From a number of late 18th and early 19th century maps we see suggestions of external stairways at the back of the buildings
And of course, it’s auld Leith and wouldn’t be auld Leith without a forest of masts and rigging crammed into the river basin beyond (there was no formal wet docks in Leith at this time, everything tied up in the river mouth and alongside the quays).
So to conclude an answer to the first question, we can see a lot. We can see the former buildings of the citadel were actively occupied and in reasonably good repair at this time, and we get a good idea of the building style and inner layout.
And on to the second part; where was the artist when he made his drawings? Well that’s easy, because we know where the citadel port was, because it’s still there…
Except there’s 3 problems.
- Firstly, you can’t look through the citadel port and have the ships to the left of the image.
- Secondly, there was no range of buildings running parallel to the shore (i.e. right of Skene’s picture) in the Citadel.
- Thirdly, and crucially, the arch in Skene’s picture clearly doesn’t match the style of the one in the photo above.
So how can we be looking at the arch of the port but not be infront of the port? Given Skene’s usual and consistent attention to detail, I don’t think he just got it wrong. The answer is quite simple actually – until the early 19th century, there was another port, the western or St. Nicholas Port and it still existed as a ruin, marked “T” on the map below.
The best map to explain from where Skene made his sketch is that by Bell from 1813. The artist is at the red X. He is looking towards the black arch. The blue is the 2-storey range and the green are the larger tenements. The trees belong to the gardens in green. The map is slightly misleading in that it shows detail regards roads and the wet docks, and warehouses which were still under construction at the time.
mentions The Docks and warehouses shown on Bell’s map were not yet completed, so we don’t see them on the left of Skene’s picture but what we do see is the forest of masts in the harbour mouth (marked red below) beyond.
But, Andy, you say. How come the two men appear to be in the water? Shouldn’t that be the shoreline? Well we need to remember that the citadel had a very wide military ditch around it, which would have flooded at high tide. The 1709 Naish map shows it, our answer is the men are not working on the shore but in the “moat” .
I’ve only ever seen one other illustration of the western port of the Citadel, which refers to it as “Oliver’s Mount” (i.e. Cromwell), but confusingly shows it bifuricating. My understanding is at one time it may have been used as a cattle store and had been given a dividing wall internally, but it certainly doesn’t look that way in Skene’s picture.
Personally I think this image is just a mistake, and likely the artist was working off of a second-hand description. For a start there’s no way that masony would hold up the mass of wall above it, and that divining wall would fall down. And there were never 2 tunnels leading off it, that would be a defensive nightmare.
Another semi-contemporary image shows the “Cromwell House”, in which Cromwell most likely never stayed. It was probably built as a governor’s mansion and taken over after the fort was abandoned to residential use.
It certainly is a contemporary of nearby Pilrig House, although with a less ornate appearance as befits its military roots. It gives a few more tantalising clues as to the overall layout and finish of the citadel. It also shows there were 3 & 4 storey tenements there, probably dating to the early 18th century.We know that after the Protectorate military left, the Citadel became something of a high-end neighbourhood in North Leith. It’s modern buildings set around a central parade green would have offered something of an improvement over the late medieval closes of old North Leith.
It reinforces my previous conclusions about the layout in Skene’s illustration and the maps as being correct. This also matches nicely with a detail in an engraving by John Clerk of Eldin (who was a top draughtsman), which it is easy to overlook.
If we squint we see the sally port (blue) and a 2-storey tenement (red). The Custom House is in yellow to help our bearings, with masts beyond .
The full engraving is digitised in the National Galleries Scotland collection, you can zoom in on it at your leisure.
I know of know reconstruction illustration of the Leith Citadel, but one does exist for another one of the Cromwellian fortresses of this era, that of Ayr. Ayr is similar in some respects as it was built on the shore of a port town, but was larger and had 6 instead of 5 corner bastions. The illustration below gives a reasonable impression of what Leith would have looked like though.
Notice the church in the central green. At Leith, it was the old church of St. Nicholas – around which the citadel had been built – that was used as the centre of worship.
I find the Leith Citadel hugely enigmatic. It was a massive, dominant construction, totally unlike anything else in Edinburgh or Leith. It was built at great expense (the City footed the bill. Twice!) and yet from a military point of view it was effectively useless. It very briefly saw some military action in 1715 when Jacobites under Mackintosh of Borlum occupied it and had a standoff with government forces before retreating.
I find it remarkable that even though it was in use for such a short period of time, that much of it survived so long and yet left so little by the way of record. We are lucky indeed to have the remaining gateway and a small section of wall, tucked away in a car park in North Leith.
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