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The Story of Leith
XIV. Our Parish Churches: North Leith


THOUGH more than a century has passed since it was dedicated to Godís worship, the parish church of North Leith in Madeira Street is modern compared with its ancient predecessor, which, long since given over to profane uses, still stands amid the quaint houses and narrow alleys that lead down to the riverside in the vicinity of Old Church Street.

Old North Leith, showing St. Ninian's Church and Manse and Inne's Boatyard

When viewed from the south side of the river, from the neighbourhood of the Shore or the Coalhill, the most outstanding feature of North Leith, in spite of the many tall lands that have grown up around it, is still, as in olden days, the steeple of this older parish church, which looks extraordinarily picturesque with its windows of latticed wood, its old clock face, its quaint decoration, and its metal-covered roof, surmounted by an old-fashioned weather-cock. This old weather-cock, whose more ancient predecessor is yet to the fore, still proudly shows where sits the wind; but the clock, by which the North Leithers in days of old used regularly to set their own, has long ceased to mark the passing hours, while the church-going bell which used to ring the curfew every night at ten oíclock no longer swings in the quaint old steeple, but has found a safe resting-place in another part of the parish. For this building, once sacred to Godís worship, has for nearly one hundred years been degraded into a warehouse for storing goods. Yet we would rather have the old church reduced to these base uses than see its picturesque old steeple removed altogether from the skyline of North Leith. But of this there is no fear so long as the various flats into which the building has been divided continue to remain as they are constructed at present, for within the ancient steeple is the only stair by which they are reached.

We owe the record of our early history to the Church, but the Church was not simply a recorder of history. It was in many instances the chief maker of it. And this weather-worn church, round which the older North Leith seems to cling, suggests to us that in tracing its history we shall be led to the very beginnings of North Leith; and so we are, for the church, like the town, owes its origin to the Abbey of Holyrood. Davidís great charter to this much-favoured Abbey in 1143, confirming it in its many possessions, gives us our earliest peep at North Leith as the home of a few fisherfolk, serfs of the Church of St. Cuthbert. Along with that ancient foundation it became a possession of the canons of Holyrood, to whom the Church of St. Cuthbert, with all its pertinents, was gifted by the "sore saint."

Isolated as they were from the greater worlds of South Leith and Edinburgh by the Water of Leith, the inhabitants of the little hamlet in those distant days do not seem to have allowed this obstacle to hinder their attendance at the Abbey Church, then the parish church for the Canongate and North Leith. We have an interesting and even touching picture of this congregation at worship, and of the kindly relations existing between its members and their good friends the canons, in an old charter now a possession of the Edinburgh University Library.

In this charter we have the sacristan and other leading canons of the monastery coming before the parish altar on the morning of April 2, 1486, and there, in time of high mass, the parishioners being congregated in magna óthat is, in great numbersóexplaining how Brother Lathrisk, their parish clerk, who for so many long years had gone out and in among them, because of his age and feebleness had resigned his office into the hands of their venerable father in God, Robert Ballantyne, the abbot; and how the lord abbot had, with the consent of the convent, nominated Patrick Ballantyne to succeed him in his charge, if it was the wish of the parishioners that he should do so. Then, at the request of the parishioners, their old parish clerk was called, who asked them to receive his successor, as he himself, because of his age and infirmity, could no longer fulfil his duties. Then all the parishioners, with unanimous consent, approved of what the lord abbot had done.

Now what was a parish clerk? Well, here he was one of the canons or monks of the Abbey, and it was his duty to precede the priest with bell and lighted taper when the latter carried the sacramental bread to some sick parishioner, and at church services and at the great church festivals to go round the congregation with a sprinkler and holy water stoup and sprinkle the congregation with the blessed water to make them ceremonially pure. Such had been the duties of old Brother Lathrisk among his loved parishioners of North Leith in those far-away days of the reign of James III.

Abbot Ballantyne's Bridge That venerable father in God, the Lord Abbot Ballantyne, into whose hand old Brother Lathrisk resigned his office of parish clerk, was a great benefactor to North Leith, which then, and for many generations after, was often spoken of as the Rudeside, after the Abbey to which it belonged. Their good abbot, in order to give more ready and convenient access to his little township of the Rudeside, in 1486 replaced the inconvenient ferry and the oft-times dangerous ford by means of a bridge "of three stonern arches," for churchmen were the bridge builders in pre-Reformation days. In those times, when travelling was beset with so many difficulties and dangers, bridge building and road making were looked on as pious and meritorious works before God, like visiting the sick and caring for the poor.

This bridge crossed the river at the Old Bridgend, now gone like many another old landmark, and the roadway that led from it, the Old Church Street of to-day, formed the main street of the little town until 1788, when the drawbridge at the Tolbooth Wynd was formed, and gave it a new main thoroughfare in Bridge Street. The good Abbot Ballantyneís bridge was then removed, as it interfered with the shipbuilding. Its site was, however, commemorated down to the close of the Great War by the group of houses so long known as the Old Bridgend, behind which, always closed by a rough iron grating, was a narrow passage leading down to the water. This was part of the ancient way that led to the abbotís ferry superseded by the bridge "of three stonern arches" in the fifteenth century.

A few years later, in 1493, Abbot Ballantyne gave further proof of his solicitude for the welfare of his vassals on both sides of the river in Leith. Just as Brother Lathrisk, their old parish clerk, had found the long way to St. Leonardís and the Rudeside beyond his aged strength, so there must have been feeble and delicate folk among the abbotís vassals there for whom service at the Abbey Church meant a long and weary journey. Abbot Ballantyne, therefore, erected at the north end of the bridge the Church of St. Ninian, in later days the parish church of North Leith, and endowed it with the rents of the tenements which afterwards came to be known as the Old Bridgend, and with the tolls of wayfarers crossing the bridge. Here down to the Reformation two priests continued to minister faithfully to the religious needs of the Abbeyís vassals in Leith, and every morning at six oíclock, in accordance with the good abbotís injunctions, St. Ninianís bell was to ring out, calling the inhabitants to early Mass, which the two priests were to celebrate in turn on alternate weeks.

It has always been thought that Abbot Ballantyne founded the Chapel of St. Ninian in North Leith because its inhabitants had no other place of worship, but this does not seem to have been the case, for just at this period there comes into notice for the first time another chapel in North Leith of whose history practically nothing is known beyond the fact that, like St. Anthonyís in the Kirkgate, it seems to have been the chapel of a hospital. This chapel and hospital, to which a burial ground was attached, stood at the junction of the Citadel and Johnston Streets. They were very appropriately placed under the invocation of St. Nicholas, for

"St. Nicolas keepes the Mariners from danger and disease
That beaten are with boystrous waves and test in dredful seas,"

and North Leith has always been noted for mariners.

And just as St. Anthonyís Hospital was founded before St. Maryís Kirk in South Leith, so that of St. Nicholas would seem to have been erected long before St. Ninianís, to which Abbot Ballantyne gave no churchyard, an omission that is unaccountable save on the supposition that North Leith already possessed one at the Chapel of St. Nicholas. And in the churchyard of St. Nicholas the good folk of North Leith continued to bury their dead until 1656, when chapel and churchyard were displaced by Cromwellís citadel.

James: IV., who was ever a faithful son of the Church, sometimes worshipped at this chapel. His accounts show these two among several similar entries :ó

"Offerit in St. Nycholase Chapel, in Leith beyond the brig, vii s."
"To twa puir laddies beside Sanct Nicholas Chapell of Leith, xid."

As St. Nicholas was the patron saint of seamen, this hospital, like that of the old Trinity Hospital in the Kirkgate, may have been, in the first place, for aged and decayed mariners. It must have been a prominent object to those approaching Leith from the sea, and mariners, returning from a long and prosperous voyage, would not forget the good St. Nicholas who had safely brought them where they longed to be. Neither St. Ninianís nor St. Nicholasís would escape injury during Hertfordís devastating invasions, and at the Reformation the Chapel of St. Nicholas was allowed to fall into ruin, and all records connected with it were lost.

Among the last authentic notices of St. Nicholasís Chapel is one in connection with the death of Mr. Muirhead, the first minister of North Leith after the Reformation, who in 1612, we are told, died in his upper chamber of the old manse of St. Ninian, which still stands beside the church, "and was buried in St. Nicholasís Chapel on Friday thairafter at the west gavel." But workmen in digging trenches for drains and other works in and about the foot of Dock Street, a thoroughfare that has displaced the ancient St. Nicholasís Wynd, often uncover the bones of those who found their last resting-place in the old churchyard of St. Nicholas so many centuries ago, and wonder how they came to be there.

At the Reformation the possessions of the canons of Holyrood in Leith were bestowed by James VI. on John Bothwell, who stood high in royal favour, and his indulgent master at the same time created him Lord Holyroodhouse. The Chapels of St. Ninian and St. Nicholas then fell into decay. Some time later the Chapel of St. Ninian, along with the chaplainís house, the tithes of Hillhousefield and of fish brought into Leith and Newhaven, were sold to the inhabitants of North Leith, which included St. Leonardís, the abbotís lands between the Bridgend and the "Blak Volts" of the Logans of Coatfield. The church and chaplainís house having become ruinous, were, in 1595, either repaired or rebuilt, for it is recorded "thair has been ane kirk re-edified on the north side of the brig of Leith." This re-edified kirk and chaplainís house became in 1606 the parish church and manse of North Leith, Pilrig, Bonnington, Newhaven, and Warriston ("the bonnie Warriston" of the old tragic ballad).

The Jougs, South Leith Church The earliest date to be found on the present one-time parish church of North Leith is the year 1600 on a great inscribed lintel that stood over the main entrance to the church. The manse was afterwards extended across the front of the church, and access given to the doorway by a pend beneath the addition to the manse. Above this pend was placed the lintel of the now hidden doorway, and manse, pend, lintel, and church may all be seen to-day by peeping within the gate of the oil and paint stores of which they now form part. The walls of this older church are easily distinguished by their greater thickness from those of later additions and alterations.

Like the churches of South Leith, Restalrig, and Duddingston, that of St. Ninian had attached to some part of its fabric the jougs in which offenders against the law, both of church and town, had to undergo punishment. Thus on June 1605 one Peter Waugh, who had caused much trouble to the authorities, was on his next offence to stand in the jougs "frae morne to even."

In Chapter XI., dealing with the trade guilds of Leith, which included in their membership most of the townsfolk in mediaeval times, and which played at least as great a part in promoting religious services as in developing trade and industry in the town, we found that the guilds of North Leith joined those of the Canongate in the support and upkeep of the guild altar and chapel in the Abbey Church rather than uphold altars for themselves in their own Church of St. Ninian. They began this when Holyrood was the only place of worship for the abbotís vassals, and had continued it as their own members were few and their funds small. After the Reformation, however, when altars and chantries had all been swept away, the trade incorporations, as we must now call them, benorth the brig, like those on the south side of the water, had as large a share in the work of the church as in the days preceding the Reformation. This is sufficiently indicated in the fact that the cornmunion cups still used in the present parish church of St. Ninian in Madeira Street were gifted to its ancient Predecessor by the "Masters and Maireners," the ship-builders and carpenters of North Leith in 1673, while the baptismal font was presented by the trades of North Leith at the same date.

The Ship Carpentersí Incorporation held an important place among the trade guilds of North Leith, which has always been the shipbuilding quarter of the town. Before the days of steamships the carpentersí yards, as the shipyards were then called, lay along the north bank of the river and were reached by narrow winding closes which ran down to the waterside from Old Church Street and Sandport Street. One of these carpentersí yards of bygone days, so long known as Innesís, is seen in the picture of Old North Leith at the beginning of this chapter.

Ship Carpenters' Convening House, Sandport Street, now removed. How Edinburgh became possessed of North Leith we have already seen, and how the chapel and burial ground of St. Nicholas were removed by General Monk in 1656, to make way for Cromwellís citadel, we shall hear in due sequence. By Monkís act of vandalism the North Leithers were left without a place of burial for eight years. During that period they were beholden to their good neighbours of South Leith for leave to bury in their churchyard. As it had been by Edinburghís aid that the Citadel was erected at all, it was to the provost and magistrates of the city that the North Leithers turned for a new place of burial, and after repeated importuning they were given, in what is now Coburg Street, "a garden extending to the river bank," which remained the only place of burial of the little town until the opening of Warriston and Rosebank Cemeteries in 1843 and 1846 respectively. Unfortunately the church records of North Leith for these very years are wanting, if they ever were written, for during some of those years the North Leithers, like their neighbours in the larger world of South Leith, having strong hankerings after "the king over the water," were denied the use of their church for fear of their minister taking the opportunity to foster and encourage their royalist tendencies from the pulpit. The church meanwhile was used as a storehouse for munitions of war.

Monk is said to have allowed the good folk of North Leith to remove their tombstones and even their dead from the churchyard of St. Nicholas to the new burying ground by the river bank. When we remember that eight years were to elapse between the loss of the old and the grant of the new cemetery, we see at once that this story is mere legend, with no basis of fact beneath it, and certainly there are no tombstones from the older churchyard of St. Nicholas in the burial ground in Coburg Street to-day.

Many generations of North Leithers

"Who have worked their work, now reap
The unfathomable sleep "

of the dead within the old burial ground, as it has now long since become. Beyond that little can be said of those who lie there, for of few of them is there now any memory even in Leith itself, and yet some, judging by the coats-of-arms on their tombs, had been people of note in the social world of their own time. Perhaps the one best known to general fame is Robert Nicoll, the "Keats" of Scottish poets, whose high poetic promise was cut short by untimely death when he was scarce out of his teens.

The Gladstone Tomb, North Leith Just forenent the gate of the churchyard is the great altar-like tomb of Thomas Gladstone, the grandfather of the famous statesman. Perhaps it was constructed in this fashion as a protection against the "body snatching" of the Resurrectionists, for down to the first quarter of the nineteenth century this old graveyard was a lonesome spot, and on dark nights these foul robbers would steal up the harbour, fasten their boat to a branch of one of the overhanging trees of the burial ground seen in the picture of the old bridge, and then go about their ghoulish work.

Thomas Gladstone was a corn merchant on the Coalhill, but his house was at the head of King Street, where the site is indicated to-day by an inscribed tablet. The Coalhill, then one of the chief business streets of the town, formed part of the "Hill" district, as the abbotís lands of St. Leonardís were now called, and a portion of the parish of North Leith, although on the south side of the water. The Coalhill was so named in the eighteenth century because it was here that vessels bringing coals for public sale were berthed. They were charged no shore dues, and all other vessels had to give place to them.

The Gladstones "sat" in North Leith Church for over forty years, where old Thomas Gladstone was elder for the "Hill" district. This would almost seem to indicate that the family had resided here before they became established in the King Street house, and, if so, then Sir John, the father of the famous prime minister, would be born in the Coalhill, and not in King Street. The Gladstone mansion in King Street was burned down just over twenty-five years ago. James Gledstane, as they then spelt their name, the brother of Thomas, was parish schoolmaster of North Leith from 1769 to 1799. The old schoolhouse may yet be seen within a pend in Bridge Street. It is now a painterís store.

The minister of St. Ninianís in old Thomas Gladstoneís day was Dr. Johnston, who was always lovingly and familiarly spoken of, especially by the fisherfolk of Newhaven, then among his parishioners, as the "bonnie Dr. Johnston," from his handsome appearance and refined and courteous manner. He was minister of North Leith for the long period of fifty-nine years, from 1765 until 1824. Between the Gladstone and Johnston families there was a lifelong friendship, and the famous statesman used to tell how as a little boy he met Dr. Johnston in Glasgow. The good doctor, then eighty-two years of age, had walked all the way from Leith, and intended walking all the way back again.

That same year he preached his last sermon in old St. Ninianís to a crowded congregation. The old church had become too small for them, and being crowded to the roof with gallery upon gallery was stuffy and unhealthy from want of proper ventilation. The congregation were about to move to a new church (the present building in Madeira Street), which, like St. Anthonyís, had been built in the fields beyond the town, and like it, too, was ere long to find itself in the heart, instead of the outskirts, of the town.

The Old Black Swan and Hart's Land. For eight years Dr. Johnston was to continue their pastor in the new building, and then, in 1824, at the age of ninety-two, he passed to his rest, and was laid among his own people in the old burial ground of St. Ninianís, where a plain recumbent slab marks his grave; and in the same year the old church, which had become the nursery of two other congregations ó Coburg Street and Junction Road United Free Churches ó passed from sacred to secular uses. Two old buildings stood for long years beneath the shadow of St. Ninianís Churchóthe old Black Swan, the village inn, and Hartís Land, a weatherworn tenement with a dovecot gable. Hartís Land has in recent years lost much of its quaintness, and all trace of the old Black Swan has now disappeared, for it was rebuilt in 1892.

The Black Swan of our day is merely an up-to-date public-house. It lacks all the quaint picturesqueness of its ancient predecessor that used to speak to us so eloquently of its old-world past. The Black Swan of days of yore was the great trysting-place of North Leith. Close by stood the village well where gossiping dames and pretty serving-maids would forgather to fill the household stoups, and exchange pleasantries with the jolly sailor lad who came with water-barrel for the supply that was to serve the shipís crew on the outward voyage. How many a yarn of fights at sea with the French privateers of the old war days, and of the perils of the Greenland whale-fishing, must have been spun within and around the old Black Swan!


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