Here’s a photo of the Leith Martello tower. You might never have realised it was there, or even heard of it. This used to stand out on the rocks on Leith Sands but has been left landlocked and mostly buried since the final extension of the Eastern Breakwater was completed and land reclaimed behind it to extend the docklands.
Martello towers were a response to the threat of coastal invasion / attack during the Napoleonic wars. They were built throughout the British empire but only 3 in Scotland. That in Leith was known locally as the Tally Too’r, from as in ‘Tello Tower.
Martello is an Anglicisation of (Torra di) Mortella – a medieval Genoese round tower in the north of Corsica that caused the Royal Navy such trouble to overcome during the Siege of Saint Florent in 1794 that it inspired a home grown variant.
The basic design is rather like a squat lighthouse. They were to be located at advantageous coastal positions, with a raised door accessed through a ladder to make capture from the land more difficult. Inside were 2 floors of accommodation and storage for an officer and c. 25 men. The foundations would contain a well and perhaps a storeroom. But instead of a light at the top of the tower, there is an open fighting platform with a cannon that could pivot through 360 degrees and slots for musket fire. As well as a raised fighting position, it was an observation and signal point.
In 1779, Leith and Edinburgh had been threatened by the squadron of the American John Paul Jones during the War of Independence, and the city had responded to the threat from the sea by building Leith Fort to guard the harbour entrance. The Fort was never entirely satisfactory, and for most of its life was used as an ordnance depot and a drill barracks for artillery volunteers. In 1807 the Board of Ordnance proposed a 32 foot high Martello tower on the rocks at the mouth of the entrance to the Port of Leith to improve defences.
Somewhat unusually, the tower was left to the Corporation of Edinburgh to construct. They began in 1809 and it was finally handed over to the Board of Ordnance nearly 30 years later in 1838 after £17,179 18/4.5d had been spent. And it wasn’t even finished! Plus ça change! Irish Navvies were engaged in its construction and left their marks on its masonry.
The below painting by Robert Norie shows a causeway laid out across the rocks towards the tower and the incomplete base of the latter being used as a mooring point for fishing boats.
The final tower was 45 feet high, with 16 feet of foundations built into the rocks. The base diameter was 80 feet and the gun platform at the top was large enough to accomodate not one but 3 cannons. Within the tower was a basement and a single central chamber. There were 2 staircases within the walls up to the gun platform.
This same reference suggests it was finally ready to accept guns in 1853, but the cannons were never actually fitted and the garrison never left Leith Fort to man it. The tower had cost a huge amount of money, took forever to build and when it was finally finished it was never even used!
According to “Martello Towers Worldwide” (where would we be without a copy of that handy?), the tower was never actually armed until the 1850s, when it mounted 2 x 32pdr cannons and was occupied by a detachment from Leith Fort until 1869. The 32pdr (so called as it fired a shot weighing 32 lbs) was the Royal Navy’s standard cannon. The handy diagram below shows the main parts including the rammer, wad and pricker (no giggling at the back!)
Such guns were also mounted at Leith Fort, and can be seen in a series of contemporary photos by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.
From the top, the tower had an elegant, clover-leaf appearance on account of its 3 gun positions.
The 1849 OS Town Plan clearly shows the tower and also one presumes the obvious route for the garrison to reach it should they ever need to across “The Weir”, the same route shown in Norie’s painting with the causeway laid across it.
The rocks on which it stands have become known as Martello Rocks, but the 1860 Admiralty coastal chart curiously gives it the name of its progenitor as Mortella Tower/Rocks
Further, smaller, towers for the Forth were planned at Cramond Island and Inchkeith but were judged not to be a pressing need and so work never started. They would have carried two 24pdr cannons rather than the three 32pdrs intended for Leith.
In 1854, the Inspector General of Fortifications prepared a report on the Forth defences in which he stated:
At Leith there are at present twelve heavy guns, mounted for the protection of the harbour and roadstead at Leith Fort and on a tower; it would be, however, very desirable to establish two batteries and a small barrack on the Island of Inch Keith.Burgoyne’s report
The Martello Tower was disarmed and abandoned in 1869, just 15 or so years after occupation. It was proposed in the 1880s to mount a 6 inch Rifled Breech Loader (RBL) gun on the it, which appears never to have been completed. In 1891 a 9.2 inch Breach Loader (BL) gun was proposed. By 1894 it was instead suggested to place two 6 inch BL guns on the dock walls instead. In 1899, approval was given for two 4.7 inch Quick Firing (QF) guns to be mounted, although yet again these do not ever seem to have been installed. In 1900, two 6 inch guns were again proposed for the tower, and once again nothing came of this. In fact it does not seem that the Leith Martello Tower was ever re-armed to defend the Port against intrusion by ships ever again.
The citizens of Leith were however left with a curious object to explore and useful landmark, which was easily accessible at low tide. The picture below shows the scale of the abandoned fortification. Check out the boy in his swimmers looking over the parapet!
The Tower finally went to war in 1939, when it was reconfigured again to act as an anti-aircraft gun platform, so is full of hastily built brick partition walls inside. Three or four anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the top.
However the Tower’s splendid isolation out on Leith Sands was about to be cut short. From the late 1930s onwards, the Leith Docks Commissioners had been building a vast new breakwaters around the harbour, and they were slowly encroaching towards the tower. In 1951 it was still outside the sea wall, but only just.
The sea wall finally encircled the tower in 1972, and then the land behind it was built up in a reclamation scheme. The diagram below indicates just how deep the tower was buried within the new docklands.
The slow march of Leith Docks out towards the Firth of Forth can be visualised in the below animation based on maps. It also shows how useful a defensive position the tower initially was when it was built, any ship wanting to enter the docks had to come around the Eastern and Middle Craigs and the Black Rocks, therefore had to pass close by the Tower’s guns.
We can no longer get anywhere near the Tower thanks to the stringent security at the docks, which has been stepped up significantly in recent years. Forth Ports used to open it once a year to visitors but it’s been around a decade since anyone was afforded that privilege. But we can still see the tower in art, look at enough paintings of Leith Docks and it pops up again and again.
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[…] way in and out of the sea in the middle ground, and further away still is the dock breakwater and Martello Tower. The smudge of smoke might at first suggest that there is an occupant in the tower, but it was […]
[…] on the sea wall of the wet docks, where cannons could be mounted in times of threat. The outer approaches of the harbour were to be defended by a Martello Tower, work on which commenced in 1809. Left to the City to finance and construct, it took them a whole […]
[…] rigging of the vessels, were crowded with spectators; and the water from the harbour to near the Martello Tower was covered with boats, filled with Ladies and Gentlemen.” They set off from the end of the […]