This thread was originally written and published in September 2020. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
Historic Environment Scotland released a very nice 3D model of a 19th century gun from Fort George mounted on a “traversing frame”. When it was first built – commencing in 1780 – Leith Battery or Redoubt (for simplicity’s sake we shall call it the Fort) had most of its guns mounted on these sort of “traversing frames”. This animation shows a 32pdr, Leith originally had 24pdrs (pdr, or pounder, being the weight of the shot in pounds; muzzle loading, smoothbore weapons were not classified by the internal diameter – or calibre – of the bore).
The Fort had been built in something of a panic after Leith and Edinburgh had been threatened by the squadron of the American John Paul Jones in 1779 during the War of Independence. A temporary battery of cannon was emplaced in North Leith to cover the entrance to the Port of Leith from seaborne assault; the tidal nature of the harbour meant any ship intent on entry had to navigate a relatively narrow and defined channel. When the dust settled, it was decided to formalise this battery as a permanent fortification. It was somewhat unusual in its origin in that it was largely paid for – and constructed by – the City of Edinburgh and the town of Leith, to the designs of a mason – James Craig – who was not a military engineer. Captain Andrew Frazer, the Army’s Chief Engineer for Scotland who had designed and superintended the construction of Fort George, oversaw the practical details. The Board of Ordnance completed the specifications and fitting out of the Fort after it was handed over to them completed up to the first storey. It took until 1793 until everything was finalised and it was formally occupied by the Royal Artillery.
I have read more than once than the Fort was something of a folly, but plotting the fields of fire of its artillery gives an idea of how advantageously sited it actually was. The intensity of the red shading shows how many guns can train to fire at that particular point. The effective range of the 24pdr was just shy of 1,000 metres; any ship making an attack on the Port had to transit a considerable distance under the overlapping fire of the Fort’s guns. A newspaper report of artillery practice in 1840 confirmed the guns were capable of firing on practice targets from 200 to 1,200 yards distant with some degree of accuracy.
A contemporary account notes;
The Battery will effectually command the range from one mile to one mile and a half of the road for shipping and the entry to the harbourJohn Smith’s Houses and Streets of Edinburgh
An original survey of the fort, made by the Board of Ordnance in 1785, gives details of its planned artillery. The principal battery, annotated at a and b were the eight 24pdr cannons; those at b were on traversing frames, those at a on wheeled carriages. At c was a colossal 13 inch mortar. In addition there was a trainable 18pdr weapon to protect the seaward entrance and a single 68pdr Carronade mounted at the lower level.
This video shows a 24pdr cannon on a traversing frame being loaded, aimed and fired by re-enactors at “Old Fort Henry” in Ontario, Canada. Notice it takes the best part of 3.5 minutes to complete the loading and firing drill although regular gunners in the 18th and 19th century would have probably had this down nearer to a minute.
The Carronade was for point-blank use against ships trying to force their way into the Port of Leith. It was a compact but very powerful weapon intended to cause extreme damage at shorter ranges. It took its name from its inventors, the Carron Company, a pioneering Scottish ironworks which was further up the River Forth, near Falkirk. Coincidentally they had a foundry in Leith at this time.
The mortar was a terrifying weapon, more suited to siege work and with a very slow rate of fire thanks to its huge 195lb (90kg) explosive bombs. But even a near miss from one of these would have made it very difficult for any small boats caught in the blast, or for ships trying to anchor outside the port or come alongside its piers. In addition it could fire a special “ball light” shot to help illuminating the scene for night actions. You can read a full information leaflet about the 13 inch mortar here.
To protect the fort from naval gunfire, it had two broad parapet walls, faced and backed with masonry. The inner parapet, of the battery itself (at B on the diagram) was further protected with a ditch, through which ran a fence.
To protect the Fort from the ravages of the waters and storms of the Firth of Forth – which had reduced the seaward walls and bastions of Cromwell’s nearby 1655 Citadel to rubble in a matter of years – a sea wall was constructed in front in 1785. To reinforce this and to secure it against direct assault by small boats, 3 rows of large wooden posts were driven into the sea wall.
The rest of the Fort’s defences all pointed landward, with loopholes along the walls and corner bastions to provide enfilading fire (i.e. they can shoot lengthways along the face of a wall, to prevent any attackers from taking refuge up against it from the defenders above). As well as its 100 gunners, the Fort had accommodation for a squad of 12 defending soldiers and their sergeant. It was not designed or intended to resist a siege, this was purely self defence to prevent it being overwhelmed before regular forces from Edinburgh could come to its relief.
There is a single contemporary image of the Fort that I am aware of, a sketch made in 1784 looking from the west towards Leith. In it we can see the grass-covered battery wall, with the notches cut in it for firing the guns through, the flag pole, and some of the accommodation buildings to the right.
Helpfully, it confirms that the Fort was actually armed, one of the 24 pounders can be seen poking through its loophole.
In 1805 and 1806, it is recorded that Leith Fort had five 24pdrs and 4, later 6, 18pdrs. The 24pdrs were still there, on more modern carriages, around 1843 when David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson took some calotype photographs of some of the weapons and men of the Fort. A newspaper report in the Caledonian Mercury of April 1847 noted the strength at Leith Fort was seven 24pdrs, four 18pdrs and a 10 inch mortar.
An 1860s newspaper illustration shows the City of Edinburgh Artillery Volunteers practising at the Fort, but their weapons look to be rather larger than the 24pdrs and on more substantial carriages than the iron ones shown in Hill and Adamsons photos. It was reported that in February 1860, three 32pdr and three 64pdr cannon were delivered to Leith from Woolwich; judging by the scale the weapons below are the 64pdrs. The Artillery Volunteers were raised in 1859 on the back of an invasion scare, and there was much enthusiasm to join; 9 batteries were formed in Edinburgh and Leith alone. The role of the volunteers was to man the home defences in times of invasion and to provide mobile support to the regulars, using agricultural horses to haul their weaponry to where it was required.
Hill & Adamson’s pictures also show a number of small, horse-drawn field artillery pieces. These would have been suitable for rapid deployment to firing positions outwith the Fort in the event of action.
Between 1795 and 1815, there are 13 recorded substantial repair and improvement works at Leith, including making provision for it to hold French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars. However the Fort’s life as an artillery battery was cut short, when the new Wet Docks began to be constructed along Commercial Street in 1801 by John Rennie. Although they would take a full 16 years to complete, they blocked the field of fire of the Fort and rendered it “useless as a work of defence“. A government bail-out of the financially troubled scheme saw the City cede land to the Naval Board, who moved the Leith Naval Yard from Constitution Street to a more advantageous position directly below the Fort.
New defensive bastions were constructed 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 29 years before they handed it over to the military; unfinished! The Fort was therefore re-purposed as an artillery depot, a barracks and as a muster and training depot for artillery volunteers. It was for a time the main ordnance store in “North Britain”, but local concerns over the quantities of gunpowder stored there saw this removed to Blackness Castle in the 1870s.
By the end of the 19th century, the weaponry allocated to the Fort was a mixed bag of older weapons for drill purposes. It continued to serve as an artillery depot right up until the 1950s. It’s final occupants, the Royal Army Pay Corps, paraded out in 1956 and it was abandoned. Purchased by the City it formed a core part of the Leith Fort Comprehensive Redevelopment Area, its inner buildings apart from a pair of guard houses were demolished and an infamous housing scheme was constructed within it’s tall, oppressive walls.
This scheme, which had all the ambience of a prison (and in later life, most of the social ills of one) was demolished in 2013 and a much more pleasant housing development replaced it, with the Fort’s oppressive walls much reduced in height. Somewhat appropriately, the new streets within are called Guardhouse Parade, Cannon Wynd and John Paul Jones View.
For a comprehensive paper with detailed research on the Fort and the Napoleonic defences of the Forth, you can download The Fixed Defences of the Forth in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1779-1815 by Gordon Barclay and Ron Morris from the Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal. This has proved an invaluable source for me on some of the details of how Leith Fort was actually used and equipped.
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