The thread about what 18th century Leith looked like from Easter Road and what brought a talented young English artist to Edinburgh as a military draughtsman

Here is a #NowAndThen animate gif transition showing a view of Leith in the distance overlaid on the same vista these days. This particular original view is by Paul Sandby, “View of Leith from the East Road” and was sketched around 1750 making it one of the earlier views of the town.

The foot of Easter Road, c. 1750 (left) and 270 years later (right). CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland

It’s possible to use the relative positions of the primary landmark of old Leith – the tower of South Leith kirk – and also the first “glass cone” down on Salamander Street and in the distance the island of Inch Keith to establish an fairly good approximate position from where Sandby sketched out his scene. However a modern building means we can’t get into quite the right place now.

My experience of looking at the detail of Sandby’s images of Edinburgh and Leith is that his draughtsmanship is exceptionally good and faithful to reality on the ground. There are occasions where he explicitly chooses not to do things like flip key details around to make a more dramatic or romantic scene, but it’s done in such an obvious way. I think we can therefore be confident he was faithfully and accurately drawing the scene that he saw before him of Leith in 1751. There are actually 2 different engravings of this picture (Sandby was skilled in that art too): I assume Version 1 was for a large print and Version 2 for inclusion as a plate within a book judging by its simplification and cruder detail.

Version 1, finer detail and stagecoaches on the road.
Version 2, simplified detail of the foreground figures, a single horse on the road, a more dramatic sky and crude ships added on the Forth

The Lowland part of William Roy’s “Great Map”, which was made about the same time shows the Kirk (1), the glass cone (2) and that windmill (3). Sandby is just off the Easter Road looking downhill probably somewhere off of the modern street of Thorntreeside

On the right of the scene we can see the glass cone, the windmill (which was built early in the 18th century and was used for grinding lead ore brought up from the Earl of Hopetoun’s mines in Lanarkshire at Leadhills) and the farmhouse of Coatfield. The workers are bringing in the crops in the foreground.

Bringing in the crops.

In the foreground, workers at leisure. A couple dance on the left, those on the right may be sitting down to eat, the central figure holds the stoup. The piper with kilt and tartan hose suggests a Government soldier, the Dress Act of 1746 having forbidden the wearing of “the clothes commonly called Highland clothes” by anyone apart from officers and soldiers.

Figures at rest. The woman, centre, holds the stoup
Dancers. The piper on the right wears Highland dress.

The young Paul Sandby had a position as a surveyor to the Board of Ordnance under Lt. Col. David Watson at this time, so would have been accompanied by soldiers as porters and a bodyguard wherever he went. It was Watson who headed up the military survey of Scotland and who was involved in appointing William Roy as its cartographer.

On the left of the engraving is South Leith itself (North Leith was a separate Parish), with the distinctive “Dutch” steeple of the Kirk. The large house in the foreground, directly below the church may be Whitfield House, it is approximately where Crown Street is in modern Leith. The row of buildings of the Kirkgate – the principal north-south street of auld Leith – is obvious, running off to the left from the Kirk. The tall building left of the Kirk may be the Tollbooth. The masts of the port beyond are to the right of the Kirk.

Old South Leith.
South Leith Kirk, and on its left probably the Tolbooth and Signal Tower. The building below them, with the two tall chimneys, is the King James Hospital, where the Leith High School met.

A few doors down from the Tolbooth was a signal tower, seen in this engraving in “Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time” by Daniel Watson, which may be the tall structure left of the steeple.

The Ancient Signal Tower via Edinburgh Bookshelf
The Ancient Signal Tower via Edinburgh Bookshelf –

This signal tower wasn’t very well located, particularly as the taller tenements grew up around it in the 18th century and it would be relocated to Robert Mylne’s late 17th century oil seed windmill at the head of the Shore in the late 18th century.

The Tower, seen in John Clerk of Eldin’s print of 1805.

Wilson’s book also has this engraving of South Leith Kirk with that steeple again. We can see just how closely Sandby’s image matches this. North Leith (St. Ninian’s), the Tron Kirk, and the Holyrood Abbey church also had such belfries.

An interesting thing about South Leith kirk is that it’s really only one half of a church; the nave (west bit) and its aisles. The chancel (east part), crossings and central tower were destroyed or damaged beyond repair in the Seige of 1560. If you squint at it on the 1560 seige map, you can see a central tower and the crossing. The sketch is a little bit squished, it was quite a long, low building in reality, twice as long as the church we have today.

“Petworth House Map” of the Seige of Leith, 1560

Daniel Wilson’s engraving shows the rather crudely filled in arches at the east end of the nave (blue arrows) and the remains of the arches supporting the original tower and crossing roof (orange). The 1560 map and arch remains suggests a crossing only to the north.

Back to Sandby, he made this rather nice sketch of his boss Lt. Col David Watson around this time. Watson was a native of Edinburgh, son of Thomas Watson of Muirhouse, and a seasoned campaigner, present at the battles of Dettingen, Fontenoy and Culloden. It was Watson who picked up General Wade’s road and fortification building scheme after the 1745 Jacobite rising and massively extended it. He spent 8 1/2 years in the Highlands on this project, which would spawn Roy’s Military Survey and give us those beautiful and insightful maps of most of Scotland, the first really accurate topographic survey of the country.

Lt. Col David Watson, by Paul Sandby © Royal Collections Trust
Lt. Col David Watson, by Paul Sandby © Royal Collections Trust

This was not the only panorama that Sandby made of Leith, he made a watercolour with the town in the distance in 1747, probably painted from the vicinity of the old village of Broughton. Given that the Ashmoleon collection explicitly forbid any sharing of their images in any form, you’ll have to go and take a look on their site.

Paul Sandby’s work influenced many British watercolour artists who would follow. The Scottish artist Alexander Carse made a similarly pastoral view of South Leith from the Easter Road around 20-30 years after Sandby. Again we see workers at rest and play, set in a rural landscape but one that is not far removed from the urban and from creeping industrialisation.

Alexander Carse, South Leith from the Easter Road, c. 1790-1800 (left) and 220-30 years later (right). CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


  1. […] On the shores of the Forth we can see North Leith and Newhaven (yellow), South Leith (green), St. Mary’s Kirk (blue) and the first of the glassworks cones (red). Not marked to the right of the glass cone is a windmill – used for crushing ore for lead smelting – and the long, low sheds of the roperies – the principal, shore-based industry of Leith at the time. Sandby made other sketches and watercolours overlooking Leith too. […]


  2. Fascinating post. We can just see the sails of Mylne’s windmill at the end of the row of buildings to the right of the ships’ masts (i.e. Shore). I have always wondered if the oil it produced was used for the first oil street lamps in Edinburgh, set up around 1675 as Mylne was very enterprising and had connections in the council etc. By the way, the John Clerk of Eldin watercolour (not print) is undated and must date to the period before 1805 when the new tenement at 2, Shore was built.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve been doing a little more digging on the signal tower at Shore, Leith. Interestingly, the potential for development was advertised in the ‘Caledonian Mercury’ on 21 February 1799 when ‘Bamborough’s Tavern, the Round Tower, and all those buildings and houses adjacent thereto’ were put up for sale. As the puff for the sale put it: ‘The situation of these subjects is very advantageous; and it is supposed that, by a small outlay on improvements, they may be brought to produce double the present rents [of c.£175 p/a]. A plan of such improvements is preparing by Mr Burns, architect’. Now, this ‘Mr Burns’ was in fact Robert Burn who later provided the design for Nelson’s Monument on Calton Hill in 1807. Once you begin comparing the two structures you realise that they have some interesting similarities – both were signal towers with coffee/tea rooms below, both were ‘staged’ (i.e. different levels marked by bands of masonry), both were battlemented, and both have blind quatrefoils. It’s nice to be able to connect these buildings – has anyone noticed this connection before? Anyway, Mr Burn should be given his due – I think he is rather overshadowed by his more successful son William, another architect.


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