It’s not easy to get your head around where the shoreline was in Leith at a given time, the natural coast has been altered beyond all recognition by human activity in the last 500 years. Slowly and gradually at first, and then it marched northwards into the Forth in ever-expanding dock building activity in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. The best way to visualise it is, naturally, with a visualisation.
The earliest view showing the shoreline and Leith Sands that I can think of is a beautiful sketch by John Slezer made around 1693. The sands are on the right where the figures are; notice that already by this stage there is a prominent and solid masonry breakwater. This defends the Timberbush from the sea. From the French word Bourse – for exchange – this was where imported timber was sorted, stored and traded. The stacks of timber can be seen and as this was a very valuable commodity, and the principal import source for Scotland, it had to be defended from nature. The harbour pier is a mixture of stone, turning into timber. The buildings of the Shore are on the left, the prominent tower belonging to the King’s Wark, which was brought down not long after this picture was made.
While today the shoreline of Leith is almost entirely concrete and boulder breakwaters, with the little strip of sand strictly off limits behind the Dock security fences, it was not always this way.
One hundred and fifty years prior to this, this spectacular 1886 photo by Begbie (no, not that one, I mean Thomas Vernon Begbie) shows the palisade retaining wall on the sands, formed to level the ground behind for the coming of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway to South Leith in 1835. On the left we see the industrial chimneys and kilns of the glass manufactory, gas works and chemical works.
It’s actually two photos, intended to make a panorama, and each was taken stereoscopically. I’ve joined them together and put them through a colourising app, which although not perfect it really does makes some of the features stand out. Let’s take a look up closer at them.
On the left we can see the glass bottle kilns or “cones” of the Edinburgh and Leith Glassworks. Glassmaking arrived in Leith with the English occupation by Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate in the 1650s, establishing itself in the Citadel of that force. It really got going a century later when it moved across the river to South Leith. Beyond are the chimneys of the Leith Gas Works and the row of vertical tubes which were the condensers. The light coloured building on the right of those is the passenger building of South Leith Station. The various sidings for the goods yard fan off to the right.
In the middle, the proud looking fellow in his pale work clothes and a waist coat stands amongst the shoreline rocks and the whins. We see “the Tower” down on the Shore on the left, peeping out between the chimneys. By this time it was used as a signal station for communicating with ships entering the port, the masts of which can be seen in the distance. Behind our fellow are the goods sheds, timber sheds, railway wagons etc. of the busy dockland. Another group pose behind the palisade on his left.
To the right we see a family picnicking amongst the whins – this scrubby, bushy coastal rough ground of coastal grasses and gorse were the natural flora of the shoreline. Children, squatting down, are scratching about in the sand on the right. In the distance,”bathing machines” make their ponderous 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 likely never armed or garrisoned at this time, and it’s probably a passing steamship.
The people of Leith have a long history of using the sands for leisure. The annual highlight of the Leith year (and a fixture in the Scottish calendar) was the Leith Races, which dated back to the early 16th century.
Quoth she, “I ferly unco sair,Leith Races by Robert Fergusson (1750-1774)
That ye sud musand gae,
Ye wha hae sung o’ Hallow-fair,
Her winter pranks and plays;
Whan on Leith-sands the racers rare,
Wi’ jockey louns are met,
Their orro pennies there to ware,
And drown themsel’s in debt
Fu’ deep that day.”
We can see many of the same features that are in Begbie’s photograph in this 1811 painting of them by William Reed, it’s taken from a similar location – slightly further out on the sands. We see the kilns of the glassworks again, to their right is the Naval Yard of the Victualling Board, and right again the Shore, the Tower, the pier and the Martello tower.
The Leith races were a boisterous (and riotous) orgy of horse racing, gambling, gaming, drinking, winching and fighting; and for all social classes. Did I mention drinking? An antidote at odds to the otherwise god fearing reputation of the congregation.
And the Leith Poleith? It doesn’t look like the constables are doing too much Dithmithething here, they appear to be buying drink from a cart vendor.
Such was the attraction and notoriety that many artists took the time to capture the scene, e.g. Walter Geikie here, probably made around the 1810s, not long before the racing transferred to Musselburgh Links. Men indulge in beer from wayside vendors, others help eachother homewards. More genteel ladyfolk take a ride in a cart.
Another of his etchings shows the popular game of Rowly Powly, which seems to be something between football, bowls, croquet and golf, best played with a total skinfull in you. Giekie was profoundly deaf and dumb and was an artist of prodigious skill, with a particular knack of capturing drunk people.
He also made sketches with a more lifelike and less caricatured style. Again, he was drawn to the races;
Or Alexander Carse, around 1798. This is an unfortunately monochrome copy of an oil painting, I believe the Edinburgh Museums and Galleries have the original. That’s one for another day to find. We can see the column of carriages, gentlemen on horses and volunteer militia all winding their way up Constitution Street on the way home from the races. They are passing the Assembly Rooms and Post Office on the right and the Admiralty building and Naval Yard behind that.
And not just the professional artists, such was the draw of the Leith Races the amateurs turned their hand to it too. Here we see a charming caricature by J. Jenkins, made on July 26th 1800 of the horses passing the judges’ box. Jenkins’ first name is unknown, he made a large catalogue of hand-coloured humorous sketches of Edinburgh life at the time, very much in the style of the better known John Kay.
The draw of the races was of course the racing itself – not just all the merriment that went with it. And to attract the best riders, top prizes were on offer by the finest craftsment of Edinburgh for the prime races, e.g. this Golden Teapot from 1738.
The 1736 golden teapot sold in 1972 for £38,000, almost £600,000 in today’s money. Or how about this silver trophy from 1707?
The races were important enough that they were included as a feature on early town plans. John Ainslie helpfully maps out the course in his 1804 edition.
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
[…] station was on the sea front when it was built, with Leith Sands beyond and the high tide line beyond that. The railway providing a new boundary between land and shore as Leith crept northwards into the […]