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 :- The Virgin Mary and the baby
Jesus. 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 its 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
Since there was no great tradition of flag flying here, in
Scotland, any adoption by Leith of a flag of its own, would be
relatively unique, the Saltire having only made its 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 pretty flag from France, that our
forefathers may too have mistaken the symbolism contained within
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
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
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
tolerated 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- 1400s 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
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 The great Volutte of William Logan - 1439.
Marking out the Vaults as they were to become known as
Scotlands 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 The Fort. 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.
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 its own
Police Force it adopted as its cap and uniform badge, the 16th
century depiction of the Flag complete with the 1563 dated
Subsequently, when the merger of Leith and Edinburgh took place
in 1920, Leith lost its unique police force and its badge
identity. It might have been around this time that the legend
Persevere 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. Im sure we will discover that shortly. AMW. 5/11
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