The thread about a curious hole in a wall, its former life as part of the Leith Naval Yard and what it has to do with “Mons Meg”

Here’s a curios wall feature on Constitution Street in Leith; a tapering opening, circular on its outer face, square on the inner. Between two old doorways. The wall is Georgian…

Most recently this wall was just a substantial boundary of a scrap yard, though for much of its life it was the ground floor of a warehouse. It started life in 1781 as a Navy Board victualling yard, employing 250 men. At this time, the Royal Navy had two distinct chains of command and control; the Navy Board was responsible for the day-to-day civil administration and the Admiralty Board was tasked with the operational control of the navy. The two organisations were merged in 1832, at which point the Admiralty took over all control of the Royal Navy and the responsibilities of the Navy Board; Sick and Hurt, Transport and Victualling.

The role of Victualling Yards was the sourcing and manufacture, storage and supply of the preserved foodstuffs on which the Navy depended. Ship’s biscuit, salted meat, oats, dried peas, butter, cheese and – most importantly – beer formed the bulk of sailor’s diets. The yard also had to be able to supply them with other essentials such as coal, candles, lanterns, clothes and so on and so forth. These would all have been stored in the Constitution Street yard to provision the ships coming in and out of the port on escort duty. The ships of the Navy would have stayed out in Leith Roads (the safe anchorage outside the harbour, protected from the weather by the island of Inchkeith), and been supplied from the yard by its lighter. This was partly due to a lack of space in Leith’s crowded inner harbour, partly due to it being tidal in nature so there was the risk of naval warships being trapped by the state of the tide if an enemy were to appear in the Firth of Forth, and a significant part was a fear that any sailors going ashore would desert and never be seen again.

Activity at Plymouth's Victualling Yard, 1835 by Nicholas Condy
Activity at Plymouth’s Victualling Yard, 1835 by Nicholas Condy

The dedicated yard was likely established in Leith following the difficulties the Navy had experience in supplying their ships in the port in the first half of the 18th century. They found supplies wanting, quality questionable and prices to be high. The Leith brewers were unable to supply them and beer had to be sent for from Newcastle. Ships could be delayed by weeks, stuck in Leith Roads awaiting supply. Note also that at this time, the high water mark was 800m further south than it is today after 2 centuries of dock building and land reclamation.

Ainslie’s Town Plan of 1804 showing the Naval Yard. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

If we look closely at the keystone of the arched doorway, we can see there is a shield relief on it, containing a large anchor and two smaller ones. This was the symbol of the Navy Board.

© Dianne King

The reason for the Naval Yard in Leith was to support the Leith Station of the Royal Navy. The building above the word “Baltic” in Ainslie’s map, above, was the Admiralty office, headed up by the Commander-in-Chief at Leith and on the Coast of Scotland. The Royal Navy had operated from Leith in the 18th century during times of war – from 1709 to 1713 the Lord Provost of the city was made Lord High Admiral for Scotland – but it did not have a more permanent presence until 1745, when one was set up during the War of the Austrian Succession, with Admiral Byng at its head (Byng would later suffer the ignominious fate of being court-martialled and executed for failing to prevent the French from capturing Minorca). The role of the station was to form up convoys of North Sea merchant shipping, gathering the east coast trade in the Forth, and providing onwards naval escorts for them.

After the end of the Austrian War, the station went dormant and was without a Commander-in-Chief, but was resurrected in 1792 during the French Revolutionary Wars, under Commodore Sir Alexander Cochrane. It was at this time that the Navy Board saw fit to establish the victualling yard. Command at Leith was later under Rear-Admiral James Vashon, who arrived in 1804, whose convoy system from Leith was so effective that he was rewarded with promotion in 1808 prior to his retirement. He was highly thought of by the merchants of Edinburgh and Leith, who gave him the Freedom of the City and held a ceremonial public dinner in his honour, awarding him with commemorative silverware.

The old warehouse here was demolished in the 1970s, but not before John R. Hume was able to get some photographs. These are hosted on Canmore.

And if we zoom in on the two doors, we can see our hole and crest.Not that it helps us in understanding the function of the hole…

Zooming in

The Yard, which was not particularly near the quayside and moved to the new wet docks on Commercial Street in 1829. The docks had been opened in 1806, but the City had struggled with the debt taken on to construct them and had asked the Government in 1825 for a loan of £240,000. This was granted, one of the conditions being the City forfeit land for the construction of the new Naval Yard. The old yard was put up for sale by the Commissioners of the Navy in 1835 and at some point after that part of it became used as a coal yard next to the Leith gasworks, the warehouse finding ample civilian use.

The only contemporary images I can find of the Naval Yard are a pair made by Alexander Carse around 1800 – from the soldiers’ headgear I would say it’s probably the late 1790s. The top image is clearly a sketch and watercolour study for the main oil painting “The Return from the Races”, the reference being to the Leith horse races, which were at this time held on the beach at the end of Constitution Street.

The Return from the Races, Alexander Carse, © Edinburgh City Libraries

The large building on the right is the Leith Assembly Rooms and Post Office, much rebuilt and expanded since. None of the other old buildings remain either. The two-storey building to the left of the Assembly Rooms was the Admiralty Office, and beyond that the Victualling Yard. Note the flag pole. The warehouses were clearly rebuilt and expanded at a later date.

Similar view in 2019, before the street was dug up for tramway works

In 1828, the Naval Yard had an unusual visitor, when the great medieval bombard known as Mons Meg arrived at the end of November after Sir Walter Scott had successfully led a campaign to have her repatriated from London. She arrived aboard the steamer City of Edinburgh, whose owners waived the shipping charges, and was stored at the yard until the Castle was ready to accept her in March 1829. The final journey from Leith to Edinburgh on March 9th was a great ceremonial pageant as reported by The Scotsman at the time.

…a great concourse of spectators assembled. A troop of the Third Dragoon Guards, a party of the Royal Artillery, and a strong detachment of the 78th Highlanders, all under the direction of Major Broke, Assistant Quartermaster-General, were in attendance to escort Meg to her old quarters, which, at ten minutes past twelve (preceded by some members of the Celtic Society, among whom were General Graham Stirling and Mr Macdonald of Staffa), left the Naval Yard, drawn by ton horses, decked with ribands and evergreens, the two leading horses being rode by two boys, dressed in tartan, and carrying broadswords. The line of march was that adopted on the landing of his Most Gracious Majesty (George IV), viz, by Leith Walk, York Place, and St. Andrew Square, and then by the North Bridge to the Castle, where the Royal Standard was hoisted in honour of the occasion, the gates being closed , and all other ceremonies being duly observed . At half-past one o’ clock the advance guard gave notice of Meg’s approach, when she was welcomed by the hearty cheers of a dense multitude of all classes, the band of the Dragoons playing the “Highland Laddie,” which, on her entering the gate, was changed to “God Save the King”. She was then drawn to the Argyle battery and placed on a carriage prepared for her reception in front of the Main Guardhouse.

Mons Meg on the castle ramparts, an 1830s engraving. Note at this time The Mound has yet to be formed and there are no railways in the Nor’ Loch valley.

I am indebted to Leslie Hills at Skyline Productions whose knowledge of the Leith Naval Yard started me off on the right track with my own thread.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


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