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The Story of Leith
XXI. The Burning of Leith


HERTFORD arrived in the Forth on his errand of destruction on the afternoon of Saturday, May 4, 1544. The Regent Arran (son to him who led James IV.’s navy to France) and Cardinal Beaton had got wind of the expedition a few days before, but too late to muster forces for effective resistance, and they made little or no use of those they had. They, however, warned all the inhabitants of the towns on the south shore of the Forth to fortify their towns with trenches to resist "the Englishe mennis navye," which those of Leith did. The people of Edinburgh and Leith gathered at every point of vantage to gaze on the great fleet of two hundred ships as they sailed up the Firth and came to anchor above Inchkeith.

Next morning the English army disembarked on the shore under the shadow of Wardie Tower, which had been built in the year 1500 by the Laird of Inverleith to defend his lands against the English; but on this occasion, like the Scottish leaders, Wardie Tower did nothing to oppose the enemy’s landing. The English then marched in three divisions to the Water of Leith, near Bonnington Mill, where their passage was disputed by some Scottish troops under Arran and Beaton. The Scots made but a feeble resistance, however, and were easily repulsed. Crossing the stream, the English then turned their steps towards Leith, whose early capture was necessary that they might bring their ships into its harbour for the landing of guns and stores. They were already bringing their larger ships into Newhaven.

John Knox, who was much given to the use of exaggerated language, gives a graphic picture of the English entry into Leith that suggests a sudden surprise and flight. According to Knox the English marched into the town, where they found "the tables covered, the dennarts prepared," and such abundance of wine and victuals as one could not find in any other town of the same size either in Scotland or England. Now it is hardly likely that the Leithers would prepare their Sunday dinners with the English marching towards their gates. In reality, save the defenders, all the inhabitants had fled from the town before the English arrived. But these same defenders did not allow the enemy the easy walk-over Knox would lead us to suppose. "We captured then by force," reports Hertford to his much gratified master, "the entry to the town of Leith, which was stoutly defended."

The crowd of fugitives, the stronger helping the more feeble and the sick, would make their way as best they could to the wilderness of swamp and morass that, for the greater part of the way, then extended between Duddingston and Gogar, where none could find them save those who knew the straggling and perilous paths by which their retreats alone could be reached. English invasion had made the folk of Leith familiar with these treacherous wastes, where they could remain in comparative safety until the enemy had taken their departure. From the large amount of plunder the English carried away from the town it is evident the Leithers had fled in haste, and had had no time to take with them more than some oatmeal, perhaps, and a few cooking utensils.

The English found two goodly ships in the harbour —the Salamander, given to James V. by the French king on his marriage with the ill-fated Madeleine, and the Unicorn, which had been built in Leith or Newhaven. Whether the English found in the town all the sumptuous fare Knox pictures for us Hertford does not say, but that they captured a wealth of booty they had never anticipated is certain. "The town was found fuller of riches than we expected any Scottish town to have been," reported the English admiral. In fact, the enemy captured booty in Leith to the value of 100,000 of our money—an amount of wealth that seems to contradict much of what we are generally told of Scotland’s poverty in those troublous times.

During the whole week they were encamped in Leith the English gave themselves up to the work of destruction. Edinburgh was given over to the torch. For three days and nights it blazed, and, being a city set on a hill, its burning was an awesome sight to behold. Holyrood, too, went up in flames; and with it was destroyed Restalrig and its tower above the loch, Pilrig, Newhaven, and the tower of the Laird of Inverleith on Wardie brow. Not a village in the neighbourhood, not a farm steading, not even a cottage was left unscathed. Meanwhile the English fleet had not been idle, for not a harbour, not a ship, not even a boat was left undestroyed on either side of the Firth from Stirling to the ocean.

The invaders now prepared to evacuate Leith, but before doing so they indulged in the same wanton destruction that had characterized their whole invasion.

They broke down the pier of Leith and burnt every stick of it. They took away the two goodly ships, the Salamander and the Unicorn, ballasting them with cannon shot from the King’s Wark. They then sent away their ships not merely laden but, to use their own expression, cumbered with booty, and resolved to return homewards themselves by land. The night before their departure from Leith they held a grand carnival of destruction by burning every house in the town. Next morning they set off across the Links on their homeward march, passing Restalrig, now a blackened ruin, and then marched away eastwards by the Fishwives’ Causeway, leaving a line of smoking towns, villages, and farms to mark their route.

Such were some of the things Leith saw and suffered in those old unhappy days. We can only partly realize the grief and terror of the townsfolk as they sought refuge from the cruelties and outrages of Hertford’s savage soldiery amid the wastes and recesses around Arthur’s Seat and the country farther west. Their suffering and misery are to a certain extent suggested to us in that dispatch of Hertford’s detailing his fell work, which proved such pleasant reading to Henry VIII. In this document Hertford tells us how, standing with his officers upon the Calton Hill to view the burning city, he heard the women and children in the valley beyond, as they witnessed the destruction of their homes, bewailing their woeful state. On the departure of the invader those from Leith stole back again to the ruined town. Until their houses were repaired they found shelter in St. Mary’s Church, which, strangely enough, had escaped the flames.

The Leith sailormen knew all along of the mighty fleet Hertford was assembling in the Tyne and, guessing its purpose, had discreetly kept themselves and their ships out of harm’s way. They now returned, however, and determined that England should pay towards repairing the great loss the Port had sustained at her hands. Hertford’s fleet had now sailed to the Channel, where it was sorely needed for service against France, and was not likely to return until peace was made. Led by John Barton with the Mary Willoughby, the Lion, and other ships, the Leith mariners hung along the English coast for the next four or five months and worked their will upon the English, Dutch, and Flemish shipping—for the latter countries, under the rule of Mary of Hungary, were for the time being Henry’s allies against France. The Leith seamen during the war were thus shut out from trading with the Netherlands, and were now voyaging to Hamburg and other Hansard ports instead. "It would be an easy thing to lighten them by the way, either going or coming," wrote one of Henry’s numerous spies; but the English king had his hands full in France, and so the Leithers, for the time at least, had command of the North Sea.

Newcastle was sorely stricken with plague, and could send neither ship, boat, nor mariner to oppose the Leithers. Hull, Yarmouth, and other east coast ports sent urgent appeals to Henry. "If we might have help here," they lamented, "the Scots should not long keep the seas. No man that sails by the coast can escape them, for they cannot be meddled with." Their only consolation was a message to help themselves as the Channel ports did. But their desire for revenge made those east coast towns importunate, and so another appeal was made to their sovereign lord. "They are desperate merchants of Leith and Edinburgh, who, having lost almost their whole substance at the army’s late being in Scotland, seek adventures to recover something. They have taken many Hollanders, and with such as they take of ours wax wealthy again. Six of your Majesty’s ships are a match for sixteen of them. Sorry are we that they route after this sort upon the seas." But his Majesty told his loving subjects that if the Scots could be so easily beaten that was all the more reason why they should attempt it themselves. And so the "desperate Leith and Edinburgh merchants" continued to "route" upon the English seas because no mariner of the "auld enemy" dared say them nay.

Henry VIII. died early in 1547; but his death brought no change in the English policy towards Scotland, except for the worse, if that were possible, for Hertford, now Duke of Somerset, in his endeavours to compel the Scots to marry their little Queen Mary to Edward VI., surpassed even Henry VIII. in merciless and savage cruelty, as Leith was soon to know. He invaded Scotland once more, this time by land. The bale-fires blazed forth the news of his having crossed the Border. At Pinkie, near Musselburgh, he inflicted on the Scots army under Arran such an overwhelming defeat that for long years after the name of Black Saturday, given to the anniversary of the fight, reminded Scotland of one of the most disastrous days in her annals.

The craftsmen and merchant burgesses of Edinburgh, "the sons of heroes slain at Flodden," had again nobly come forward in defence of queen and country, and nearly four hundred widows were left to mourn their husbands sent to their long last home at Pinkie Cleuch. There, too, fell Robert Monypenny, the Laird of Pilrig; but who else from Leith, save the Laird of Restairig, took part with Monypenny in this most disastrous fight we cannot tell. Luckily for the Leith sailormen, they had set out on the autumn voyaging before the invasion took place, for Somerset was accompanied by a fleet of transports and war vessels that came to anchor off the mouth of the harbour.

The day after the battle the English marched straight along the shore to Leith, "the which we found all desolate, for not a soul did we find in the town." The Leithers, like the other inhabitants of the district, had been ordered to betake themselves and their gear within the shelter of the walls of Edinburgh. If the English had anticipated again enriching themselves with stores of loot from Leith they were to be hugely disappointed. Except some thirteen odd vessels, most of which were old and ruinous, there was little else to be found, "for as much of other things as could well be carried the inhabitants overnight had carried off with them," writes one who accompanied the expedition. What a strange procession they must have formed—the men, women, and children of Leith—as they toiled towards Edinburgh, bent and perspiring under their load of household gear. "My Lord Somerset and most of our horsemen were lodged in the town," while the rest of the army, in full view of their fleet riding at anchor in the Roads, lay encamped on the Links and on the stubble fields stretching away towards Lochend and Holyrood.

The English lay around Leith for a week. They struck their camp on the following Saturday, but Somerset, "mynding before with recompence sumwhat to reward one Barton, that had plaid an untrue part, commanded that overnight his house should be set afyr." This was John Barton, whom we have already seen achieving so much fame with his ships, the Lion and the Mary Willoughby. His "untrue part" was that he bad been devotedly loyal in serving his country, as all the Leith sailormen were in those days, when the shiftiness and double-dealing of the nobles who favoured the English cause had made the name of Scot a byword in England.

Sheriff Brae

We do not know where John Barton’s house was situated in Leith. As he was now the chief member of his family residing in the town, he had in all likelihood heired that of his grandfather, who had built his house in the Sheriff Brae, close by the residence of his old friend and fellow mariner, John Lawson of Lawson’s Wynd, which was almost opposite the Old Brigend. In setting the torch to Barton’s house the English soldiers, in their mischievous zeal, fired all the town besides. "Six great ships lying in the haven there," says the chronicler who accompanied the army, "that for age and decay were not so apt for use, were then also set on fire, which all the night with great flame did burn very solemnly." Leaving the ships and the town in flames behind them, the English left Leith early next morning. The Castle gave them a few parting shots as they crossed the Links towards Lochend and Restalrig on their way to the Border. The English fleet continued in the Roads for some time longer, to complete their work of destroying the harbours and shipping along the coast. Then, leaving garrisons behind them on Inchkeith and Inchcolm, the English ships sailed away to the south.

Hertford gained nothing by the slaughter of Pinkie and outrages like the burnings of Leith, for the little Queen Mary was sent to France, where she eventually married the Dauphin, who became king as Francis II. Leith suffered as she did because Scotland was divided into factions, and thus no effective resistance could be made against the enemy. There were two great parties— the party favourable to France, which included the great mass of the people, and held strongly to the Catholic Church; and the party desirous of closer relations with England, and which, as England was now a Protestant country, became more and more identified with the doctrines of the Reformation.

But as yet those who favoured Protestantism in Scotland ran great risk of persecution and even death. Leith was not only destined to be the scene of the final triumph of the Reformers over their opponents, but was also to aid largely in spreading the new doctrines that were to overthrow the ancient Church. The converts to the new teaching were at first known in Scotland as Lutherans. Leith sailormen and Edinburgh merchants sailing to the Baltic ports, and especially to Danzig, an early centre of the Lutheran Church, were among the first to become familiar with its teaching. It was chiefly through the traders of Leith and St. Andrews that Luther’s books and copies of Tyndale’s New Testament, carefully concealed in bales of merchandise, were imported into Scotland in spite of all the prohibitions against them. In this way Leith and Edinburgh made early acquaintance with Protestant doctrines.

The spread of the new teaching among the seafaring folk of Leith is shown in 1534, the year when David Straitoun and Norman Gourlay were executed as heretics at the Cross of Greenside, opposite Picardy Place. In that year Adam Deas, shipwright in North Leith, and Henry Cairns, a skipper, are cited to appear before the Archbishop of St. Andrews. What became of Deas does not appear, but Henry Cairns prudently went off to sea, and was denounced as fugitive and heretic with blast of trumpet on the Shore, the chief place of public resort both for townsmen and foreign traders, who would carry the news overseas.

The most noted sufferer for the Protestant faith having association with Leith at this time was the celebrated George Wishart, the most powerful and eloquent preacher of his day. On a Sunday in the middle of December 1545 he preached in Leith on the Parable of the Sower. No memory of Wishart’s friends, or of their place of abode, has survived in Leith, but this gathering of sympathizers, so desirous to hear him discourse to them, and their assurance that nothing was to be feared from the inhabitants, suggest that the new religion had numerous supporters in the town.

Every year, as June and July came round, companies of pilgrims had for long centuries been accustomed to embark at the Shore to voyage by way of Bruges to the shrine of that most popular of saints in Western Europe, St. James of Compostella, in Spain, and to return in September with their clam shells in token of their pilgrimage. Of these pilgrimages there is still a memorial over the doorway numbered 150 High Street, Edinburgh, marking where once stood the Clam Shell Turnpike. But now men like Patrick Hamilton, the first Scottish martyr, whose father had been Provost of Edinburgh in 1515, began to voyage to Danzig and other Baltic ports to see and hear Martin Luther at Wittenberg.

The Old Brigend was left in ruins by Hertford’s troops after their victory at Pinkie. With that woeful battle may be associated the weird story of Bessie Dunlop, who met the ghost of Tom Reid, slain in Pinkie fight, by the waters of Lochend. Tom’s ghost conferred upon Bessie the magic power which brought her to the stake as a witch in 1576. During Bessie’s uncanny interview a great cavalcade of the fairies swept past, with loud jingle of bridle bells. They seemed to ride into the loch and so disappear.


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