The thread about William Roy’s “Great Map” of Scotland and what details we can see of mid-18th century Leith on it

This thread was originally written and published in August 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

It was a rainy Day. My son was off school with a bit of a temperature and was binging on watching Octonauts. So I amused myself with having a good old look around William Roy’s “Great Map of Scotland“.

William Roy? by Paul Sandby (or perhaps, Paul Sandby, by Paul Sandby)

William Roy was one of the surveyors and cartographers, under Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson, Quartermaster-General, who were tasked by the Hanoverian Government with accurately surveying and mapping Scotland in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. As the son and grandson of Factors in Lanarkshire, he would have been familiar with surveying and quantifying the land, and by 1746 had found himself in the employ of the Board of Ordnance at Edinburgh castle as a draughtsman. Roy was not a soldier, but was appointed as a civilian assistant to Watson. His superior left much of the detailed work in the capable hands of Roy, who would himself lead a team of junior surveyors including the young Paul Sandby, who would prove to be a remarkable landscape artist. After completing the work in the Highlands in 1752, they began on the Lowlands, work almost being complete when the Seven Years War of 1755 saw the group disbanded and many of the participants re-deployed on war work.

Roy’s mapping is remarkably accurate, comprehensive and detailed, and the style is instantly recognisable and understandable to eyes raised on modern Ordnance Survey maps. So I’ve traced on the old 18th century parish boundaries of Edinburgh and Leith over it, and will annotate some key details to help understand all the unlabelled details in it.

North and South Leith parish boundaries

It’s always surprising just how extensive the parish of South Leith was – historically the centre of it was not the town but the village and Collegiate Church of Restalrig, where the de Lestalric and later Logan Barons also had their tower and the parish boundaries are basically the boundaries of the old Barony of Restalrig. This is why the Calton Hill is part of it, and not one of the Edinburgh parishes.

The map gives us an amazing and reliable insight into what Leith and its hinterlands would have been like in 1750 or thereabouts. 1750. The Town is represented accurately, its buildings and boundary walls being shown in red ink, hedges and roadways in black. Details such as trees, farmland, rough grazing or whins are shown symbolically by use of textures, as they are to this day, and countershading is used to convey the topography.

Leith Links is shown as rough ground, following almost the exact boundaries and with the same roads across and around it that exist to this day. The houses of Coatfield and Hermitage House (with it’s curious cruciform plan of corner wings) occupy the land to the south of the Links. The first bottle kiln of the glassworks can be identified, as can the long sheds and ropewalks of the Roperies, the principal onshore industry of the town. The Timber Bush; the storage and trading exchange for imported timber, is clear, with its seaward walls that were built as part of the Marian fortifications. And over the river in North Leith, the truncated pentagon of Cromwell’s Citadel, it’s northern wall and bastions already being claimed by the sea.

The Walk of Leith is clearly shown, that’s the line of General Leslie’s 1650 defensive fortification that Cromwell failed to breach when he assaulted it at the Quarryholes. You can see there are actually two paths here; one each ran along the top and the bottom of the old earthen rampart, which provided a convenient route for foot traffic between the port of Leith and Edinburgh.

Most of the area of South Leith was farmland, there were 2 main farms to the west; the Upper and Nether Quarryholes, with Lochend Mains at Lochend House to the east. There were 4 main “big hooses” in this area; at Drum, Hermitage, Lochend and the newly-built Hawkhill. South Leith was an area in flux at this time, it’s feudal superior, the Lord Balmerino, had supported the Jacobite side in the ’45 and had lost his head for the trouble. The crown had seized his lands and various parts were being feud off (such as Hawkhill to Lord Alemoor, the rights to draw water from the Loch etc.)

To the east, there were 2 principal “Mains” farms at Craigentinny; North and South (also known as Restalrig East and West, and later Fillyside and Southside Bank). There’s a big house at Craigentinny “Castle”, the possession of the Nisbet family, and the hamlets of Restalrig and Jocks Lodge. Much of the farmland here was part of the Lochend, Restalrig and Craigentinny Irrigated Meadows scheme.

And there are two small but distinct watercourses running west to east, entering the Forth at Fillyside or as Roy records it, Dowcraigs (Black Rocks). One feeds and drains Lochend Loch, which is also fed by springs. The other acts as the principal sewer of the city of Edinburgh. The latter was known as the East Foul Burn for obvious reasons, sections also have the more romantic sounding names of Tumble Burn, Clockmill Burn, Restalrig Burn and Fillyside Burn.

Back to North Leith, the little, overlooked section of the wider Town of Leith that had aspired to be its own Burgh, the only significant conurbation is Newhaven village. There’s big houses at Wardie, Lilliput and Laverockbank, and a principal estate farm at Trinity Mains. The name Trinity is a corruption of Fraternity, as these were the historic possessions of the fraternal Trinity House and Hospital in Leith.

Wardie was a big house with enclosed parkland, built on the remnants of the 15th century castle of the same name. I believe some of its stones may have gone into the fortifications of Leith. Wardie House was demolished in the late 1950s or early 1960s I believe.

And just for fun, here’s Naish’s 1709 town plan. Such is the quality of the surveying and draughtsmanship of both Naish and Roy, that the two drop almost perfectly onto eachother.

Naish (grey, 1709) vs. Roy (coloured, ~1750)

The north shore of the Forth is the southern boundary of the slightly earlier Roy Highland survey, which completed around 1752, and the Lowland Survey that ran until 1755. Although they’re probably based on the same surveying, we can see that the cartographic style has evolved in this time slightly, allowing us to compare and contrast the two styles. Notice in this time the spelling evolved from Lieth to Leith!

Roy Lowland vs. Highland maps

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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