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A Potted History of the Flag of the Port of Leith
By Alexander Wilson


Ask anyone who they think is depicted on the flag of Leith and the almost instinctive answer you get is :- ĎThe Virgin Mary and the baby Jesusí. This is a fair understanding of the visual elements of the flag but most, if not all, have no clue as to the true symbolism contained within the image.

Ask further if they know how old the flag is or, where it might have originated and you meet a blank wall?.
Why then would Leith choose a flag which ostensibly has no associations with the port whatsoever nor is itís religious component either directly or indirectly connected with the port in any way?.

That the Emblem/Flag is truly an ancient symbol is a given but, just how old, and from where did it originate?.

It is suspected that the flag arrived on our shores around the middle part of the 11th century, in or around 1050 or so. At that time, Leith was an important trading port and many flags would be seen flying from vessels which might have their port of origin in Northern France/Flanders, or the Baltic. The concept of having a flag therefore would not be alien to our forefathers.

Since there was no great tradition of flag flying here, in Scotland, any adoption by Leith of a flag of itís own, would be relatively unique, the Saltire having only made itís appearance in 832. A flag of this age would be the oldest non-heraldic emblem known in Scotland, if not one of the oldest in Britain.

This Flag of Leith comes to us indirectly from Flanders where the habit of flying flags depicting family crests or regional ties was very much in vogue. It might be possible that in choosing to bring to Leith a Ďprettyí flag from France, that our forefathers may too have mistaken the symbolism contained within it.

By the 12th century seagoing vessels of any significant size were usually, Templar ships, constructed in the main, in Holland. Sturdily built for ocean travel and capable of carrying a wide range of goods, they would be seen flying their Maritime flag, the Skull and Crossbones, expect that it was a maroon background instead of the much loved black, so long purloined by Hollywood!

Since there is no biblical reference whatsoever to the Virgin Mary and Jesus undertaking a journey by sea, anywhere, who then are the figures depicted on the flag?

This flag, although brought to Scotland from Flanders, originated in the South of France in the Languedoc region, and was a depiction of the arrival by sea of Mary Magdalene and her child, on the shores of France. The cloud above their heads is symbolic of the protection given to them by the Leader of the Pilgrims, James the Just (Joseph of Arimathea), James, the elder brother of Jesus.

The veneration of the cult of the Magdalene (the Black Madonna), was deemed by the Catholic Church to be heretical and was proscribed. Most know of the Albigensian Crusade by Pope Innocent III against the Cathars of Southern France which attempted to erradicate the Gnostic religion which tied itself so closely with the Jewish Kingdom of Septimania. Religious symbolism, then went underground and drifted north to Champagne and Flanders.

Despite this, the cult of the Black Madonna (Mary Magdalene) was central to the beliefs of the Knights Templar even as they themselves had been created as a warrior knight order, by the Roman Catholic Church, their so called heretical views were Ďtoleratedí by the Church.

By the time Leith grew in importance, the emblem of the Port of Leith was firmly established. At the time of the founding of the Perceptory of St Anthony in the early- 1400ís the Knights/Monks/Frairs of that order having travelled to Leith from Vienne in the Languedoc, would have been thoroughly at home with the symbolism of the Leith flag. The Black Friars as they were known wore a simple plain black habit with a Blue Tau cross embroidered on the left breast.

Given that in those days, Leith was just a huddle of small houses in and around the Shore, (North and South Leith) the arrival of all these Knights and monks from France must have seemed intimidating to the resident Leithers. The perceptory that was built on land given to them by fellow Knight Lord Restalrig (formally de Lastalrik), ran all the way from the bottom of Leith Walk/Duke Street along Gt. Junction St as far as the Water of Leith, down to Parliament St and across to Constitution St then up again to Leith Walk, an immense property.

It is likely that the Vaults (the Black Vaults), were one of the first buildings to be constructed in French Leith, and we have mention of it in a letter from the Abbott of Holyrood to the Lord Restalrig as ĎThe great Volutte of William Logan - 1439. Marking out the Vaults as they were to become known as Scotlandís oldest continuously used commercial building. Possibly even, in the whole of Britain.

The church was constructed in 1468, along with the Fraternity House (later Ternity House and later still - Trinity House) with an underground passage all the way to the Vault. Here the huge wine trade that Leith was known for, flourished under the auspices of the monks of St. Anthony. It should be noted that there is no connection in the name Trinity to the Holy Trinity but as a corruption of Fra-ternity.

It should be noted that by the time of the French Garrison in Leith the area taken up by the fortifications neatly encompassed all of the lands of the Perceptory and beyond, into the area we locally refer to as ĎThe Fortí. In fact, there were two Forts in Leith, the original French one and the later Cromwellian one.

With the flag of Leith remaining relatively unchanged up to the advent of the Seige of Leith by Cromwell and the subsequent Reformation, in neither of these events did the nature of the Flag of Leith come under any form of scrutiny.

Cromwell, himself a Mason, would have instantly recognised the flag to be associated with the Templars and would have let it be. Similarly, during the Reformation then in full swing, destruction of Catholic idolatry was widespread, and surely this depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus would have gone the way of many statues and images, and have been destroyed?.

In fact in 1563, during the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, the flag underwent something of a makeover with considerable embellishment characteristic of the influence in all things Scottish by the French. The date 1563 then being added to the lower part of the image.

To further evidence the non - church nature of the Perceptory and Flag as seen by the authorities, King James VI in 1593 attempted to annex the perceptory but it was discovered that it was not a church possession at all and he promptly had to un-annex it again.

When, in the 19th Century, Leith sought to create itís own Police Force it adopted as itís cap and uniform badge, the 16th century depiction of the Flag complete with the 1563 dated attached.

Subsequently, when the merger of Leith and Edinburgh took place in 1920, Leith lost itís unique police force and itís badge identity. It might have been around this time that the legend ĎPersevereí appears within the cartouche. There appears no other documented entry for the source of the word but it is highly likely that it is there in recognition of the stoic nature of the Leith population in managing to survive through two devastating plagues in the middle ages, one in 1475 and another in 1645 both of which had a devastating effect on the population with typically 60% mortality.

Leith Academy proudly display the flag, or rather a further manifestation of the flag, as their uniform badge. At the time of this writing it has yet to be established the significance of their version. Iím sure we will discover that shortly. AMW. 5/11


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