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The Story of Leith
I. Leith in Prehistoric and Roman Times


THE story of some of our Scottish towns is comparatively easy to write because they have their origin in modern times, and consequently the records of their history are usually both full and complete. But Leith is not one of these towns. It is a town of ancient origin, its beginnings taking us far back into the years of past time, and its story, in the earlier years of its history, has to be laboriously sought in many an old charter or other document.

From these documents we learn that as far back as eight hundred years ago Leith was a thriving village. Its houses nestled along the mouth of the Water of Leith, just where the Shore now stands. Unfortunately, we know very little of this old village, for it never entered into the thoughts of the monks—who were the only chroniclers of those days—that future generations would be interested in knowing something of the Leith of their days and the life of its inhabitants. The information they give us is scanty in the extreme, and thus it is exceedingly difficult to form a clear mental picture of this Leith of other days.

Of one thing we may be sure: fishing would be the chief occupation of the people of the village. And of one other thing we can be equally certain, and that is that the date of the foundation of Leith, could we but get it, would be found to be much further back than the twelfth century. In our own days we read of cities springing up in a single night, like Jonah’s gourd, but in those days towns and villages developed very slowly. There was then no such thing among them as "mushroom growth." They grew in size only by slow degrees; and so, if Leith was an important place eight hundred years ago—important, that is, according to the ideas of those times—its history must have begun at a much earlier date. But there are no records of. Leith which go back further than 1143, and there is no likelihood of any such ever being discovered.

If Leith, then, dates so far back into olden times, you may be tempted to ask why the Leith of to-day contains so very few really old houses. The reasons are not far to seek. Leith’s history is not only interesting but it is also eventful. Its history has often been of much more than local note, and on more than one occasion the fortunes of Leith have been the point on which the whole history of our country has turned. This was especially so, as we shall see, in the days of Queen Mary. Now a town cannot hope to bear the brunt in troublous times and escape unscathed. Leith has often had to pay a heavy penalty for its share in Scotland’s history. For example, when the Earl of Hertford led an invading force into Scotland because the Scots had rejected the contract of marriage between the English Prince Edward and the young Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII. ordered him to burn Leith, and, if necessity required it, to massacre its inhabitants. Hertford faithfully carried out the first part of his instructions. Having possessed himself of Leith, he destroyed the pier, and then proceeded to set fire to the town, reducing to ruins as much of it as he possibly could. It is small wonder that Leith to-day contains so few old houses.

Then, again, in modern times the magistrates of Leith have carried through many improvement schemes, and this has meant the sweeping away, not of single houses, but of whole streets. While we are glad that light and air have been let into districts sorely in need of them, yet we cannot but regret the disappearance of many of Leith’s old-time houses. But though the houses themselves have passed out of existence their sites can still be pointed out, and we still have pictures of many of them. Some of these are shown in this book.

It has already been said that Leith existed as a village more than eight hundred years ago. But there is a question to ask which carries us very much further back in time than eight hundred years. It takes us back to prehistoric times, times of which there is no written history, because the rude, uncivilized people of those days could, of course, neither read nor write. The question is this : When did man first make his appearance in the district on which modern Leith now stands?

To this question nothing like a definite answer can be given, but learned men who have made a special study of prehistoric Scotland tell us that many thousand years must have elapsed since man first appeared on the scene in our country. These archaeologists, as we call them, are not agreed among themselves as to the age in which Scotland became the scene of human habitation; and this is not to be wondered at, as the evidence on this question must be got from unwritten and not from written history, and naturally each archaeologist places his own interpretation upon this evidence. But they all agree that it must have been many thousands of years before the Christian era that man made his appearance in our land.

Stone Axe found beneath Laurie Street By using your imagination, try to picture how the area on which Leith stands would look in those far-off and so very different times. Imagine the disappearance of every building in Leith, of all its busy streets and still busier docks, and then imagine the whole district covered with great forests, the home of wild beasts such as the fox and the wild cat, and other animals which have long been extinct in Scotland, as the wild boar, the beaver, and the wolf. Imagine the sweep of the forests broken here and there by a loch or marshy piece of ground, for there were innumerable lakes, marshes, bogs, and morasses all over the low ground of our country in those days. The Water of Leith would form part of the picture of your mind’s eye, for, of course, then as now it journeyed on from its source among the hills to where its waters mingled with those of the sea. But gone would be the solid stone quays which now confine its course. Your picture would show it turning and twining in its bed between its own natural tree-clad banks, its clear-running water sparkling in the sunshine.

Although we cannot say with any degree of certainty exactly when man first appeared on such a scene as you have just depicted to yourself, we can be pretty certain that the district on which Leith stands began to he populated before the land on which Edinburgh is built.

The ground on which Edinburgh now stands is higher than that which lies between it and the sea, and would therefore afford more security against the attacks of wild beasts and neighbouring tribes. But to the uncivilized man of that time this advantage was more than counterbalanced by other considerations. In the first place, the dense forests would offer him little temptation to penetrate inland; and then, also he would want to live as near as he could to the sea which provided him with fish, and along the shores of which at ebb-tide he gathered the limpets, mussels, and cockles which formed so large a part of his diet.

These first forefathers of ours lived in rudely constructed dwellings, clothed themselves in skins, and lived on the produce of the sea and such animals as they were able to kill in the forests. They did not know the use of metals. Their implements and weapons were made of stone, bone, horn, or wood. As time went on they gradually became less barbaric. Their stone implements became more finely and more symmetrically worked. Then a discovery was made which lifted the prehistoric peoples into a higher stage of culture and civilization. This discovery was the art of making bronze.

Bronze Axe found in the Citadel Lastly, just as stone gave way to bronze, so bronze in its turn was superseded by iron. When the use of iron was discovered, tools could be made which were far superior to those made of bronze, just as bronze tools had been far superior to those made of stone. As you doubtless already know, these three periods in our history are known as the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages.

None of the dwellings of these old peoples are known to have been discovered on the site on which Leith stands. This is not to be wondered at, since they were made, not of stone, but of timber, which must have decayed long ago. We cannot even find traces of their existence, because these have been obliterated by the cultivation of the land before a town came to be built on it. But the skulls of these early inhabitants have been found, as also some of their wedge-shaped stone hammers and axes of bronze.

You will find some of these in the Antiquarian Museum in Queen Street, Edinburgh, a building which you ought to visit if you are interested in prehistoric Scotland. In it you will see a very large collection of articles belonging to prehistoric ages which have been discovered at various times in different parts of Scotland. These have been systematically arranged so that the visitor may trace the successive changes in the life of prehistoric man and his gradual progress in civilization. You will be especially interested in searching out the objects which have been contributed from Leith.

To sum up the progress made from the first human occupation of the site of Leith, we may say that at the beginning of the Christian era prehistoric man had left much of his savagedom behind him. He had begun to grow corn; he was in possession of domestic animals—the horse, dog, ox, sheep, and goat; he had implements of iron, and he showed considerable mechanical skill in various directions.

The materials of unwritten history are to be found in caves, rock shelters, and underground dwellings, in river beds, in drained lochs, in hill forts, and in the memorials erected to their dead by the prehistoric races. With the coming of the Romans to Scotland in A.D. 80 we emerge from the period of unwritten history. Our knowledge of the history of Leith will henceforward be obtained from books, and from written records and documents.

For our knowledge of the Roman campaigns in Scotland we have to depend largely, though not altogether, upon the materials of unwritten history, and to gather their story from the remains the Romans left behind them—their camps and their forts, and the objects lying buried there beneath the surface. From these, and the story they reveal to men skilled in their interpretation, we obtain much knowledge of the Roman occupation of our district.

It was Julius Agricola who first led the Romans into North Britain and brought them right into our neighbourhood. From the south he made his way through the heart of the Cheviots, and, crossing the river Tweed at Newstead, near Melrose, continued his march until he came to the Lammermuir Hills. Along the line of his route he built forts at strategic points like New-stead, and to overawe the natives he laid waste the land as he advanced.

The news of the slow but steady advance of the seemingly invincible enemy would reach the people of our district long before the Romans themselves appeared. From vantage points on the Calton Hill and Arthur Seat their scouts would be keenly watchful, ready to give the alarm on the first appearance of the glittering spears and helmets of the Roman legions. They would be in readiness to seek refuge within the recesses of the deep forests, or to betake themselves to strongholds on the lower hill-tops, like the fort on the rocky height overlooking Dunsappie Loch, from which they could watch the movements of the invader and find a safe retreat from his devastating legions.

Having crossed the Lammermuirs by the pass at Soutra, Agricola had then to determine his further line of march. His aim was to reach the central district of the Lowlands of Scotland—that is, the country between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. He had a choice between two routes. From Soutra he could march almost due west. This would be his most direct route but if he took it he would have to cross the valleys of the North Esk and the South Esk, and the Pentland Hills would also form another obstacle. On the other hand, an easy march of ten miles from Soutra in a northwesterly direction would bring him to the shores of the Firth of Forth at the mouth of the Esk, from which point his march along the coast plain would present few difficulties.

He chose the latter route. Agricola, as Tacitus tells us, was a skilled military engineer, and his quick eye at once perceived the fine strategic position of Inveresk, protected as it was on west and south by the great Caledonian Forest, and safe from attack on the east by Pinkie Cleuch. It commanded all the routes from the south and east going westwards towards the Clyde. Many remains of the great fort built by the Romans at Inveresk are still to be seen, including the heating chambers of their baths, while Inveresk Church and numerous other buildings near it have probably been erected from stones taken from the fort.

Leaving a garrison behind him, and crossing the Esk by a wooden bridge—the present so-called Roman Bridge not being built until many centuries later—Agricola marched westward by way of Restalrig to the country between the Forth and Clyde, his military way passing right through our parish. Whether there was any hamlet or village of the Britons where Leith now stands we have no means of knowing; but as our district is the meeting place of routes by road from the south, east, and west, it must have been a centre of traffic for the population in forest clearings and along the shore of the Forth.

The Fishwives Causeway

At the west end of Portobello there is a road of Roman origin, known to-day as the Fishwives’ Causeway, though, of course, it would not be so named in Roman times. This ancient road has for many long years formed part of the boundary between the parishes of Duddingston and South Leith. It is called a causeway because it was a causewayed road, as all Roman roads were, its stones being mostly boulders from the seashore close at hand, and quite undressed by the Roman work-men who laid them. When the present Portobello Road was made about 1770, the fishwives of Fisherrow, on their way to Edinburgh to dispose of their fish, continued to favour the old causewayed road in preference to the new; hence the name Fishwives’ Causeway. It is a causeway no longer, its stones having been lifted and utilized in the construction of the great wall enclosing the Craigentinny parks on the left side of the turnpike road from Wheatfield to Portobello, where their round boulder shape at once betrays them.

In the year 180 the hated Romans were driven south of the Cheviots. Yet Leith had not seen the last of the Roman legions, for in the year 208 the great soldier emperor, Severus, set sail from York for the Forth with a mighty fleet to punish the wild Caledonians for their raids beyond Hadrian’s Wall. We can imagine the excitement and alarm when the great armada was seen heading up the Forth. Severus landed his troops at Cramond, which became his headquarters during his three years’ stay in Scotland; and there, as at Inveresk, you may see stones showing Roman handiwork and an eagle that some Roman soldier with an artistic eye has carved on the Eagle Rock by the shore. Severus was to find, as Edward I. centuries later, that to win victories is not to conquer a country, and, when he sailed from Cramond on his return to York, the Roman capital of Britain, the shores of the Forth saw the Roman legions for the last time.

The many chance finds of Roman relics that have been made within the bounds of Edinburgh and Leith have led to the belief that a Roman post midway between Inveresk and Cramond must have existed somewhere in our neighbourhood. The discovery of Roman bricks from time to time in the foundations of St. Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle has led some to think that a Roman station once existed there. Roman coins have been found at several points, including the Fishwives Causeway and Leith Walk, and a rich find of Samian ware—the best china of the Romans—was uncovered in digging the foundations of the Regent Arch in the landward part of our parish. Such discoveries do not necessarily indicate a Roman settlement, for such chance finds occur in all parts of Scotland, and even in countries the Romans never knew. They are rather a proof that during the Roman occupation much commercial intercourse grew up between the Britons and their conquerors, and that this trade continued long after the Roman legions had retired beyond the wall of Hadrian.

The Craigentinny Marbles

The Romans used to bury their dead in tombs ranged along the sides of the roads outside their cities—the strip of ground on each side being laid out much after the manner of our cemeteries. The famous Appian Way, the great road that led southwards from ancient Rome, is flanked on both sides for many miles with handsome tombs. Though Roman tombstones have been discovered in other parts of Scotland, none has so far been found in our neighbourhood. By a strange chance, however, one may see a great sepulchral monument, designed from a tomb on the Appian Way, standing solitary and alone in one of the Craigentinny parks close by the Fishwives’ Causeway, and just within the ancient parishes of South Leith and Restalrig. This is the tomb of William Henry Miller of Craigentinny, who wished to be buried in one of his own fields. It is ornamented with two beautifully sculptured marble panels, known to fame as the "Craigentinny Marbles." It is a strange coincidence indeed that full sixteen centuries after the Romans left our district there should have been erected directly on the Roman road a tomb so purely Roman in its design as that which we have at Craigentinny.

Road from Wheatfield to Portobello


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