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The Story of Leith
XXIV. Leith after The Union of the Crowns


THE people of Leith and Edinburgh had long hoped that when Queen Elizabeth died their own King James would be called to the English throne as her successor. And so it came to pass. But could they have foreseen the evils the Union of the Crowns was to bring in its train for them, their joy and pride in seeing their king ride forth from Holyrood amid the thunder of the Castle guns to rule over the "auld enemy" would have been sadly sobered and restrained. Leith had the honour of seeing three of her townsfolk accompany King James on his journey to London. There was the first Lord Balmerino, who had succeeded Sir Robert Logan as Laird of Restalrig, and, as Secretary of State, on Queen Elizabeth’s death had proclaimed James VI. at the Cross of Edinburgh as King of England. With him were David Lindsay, Bishop of Ross as well as senior minister of South Leith, a great favourite at Court, and Andrew Lamb, Bishop of Galloway, in whose father’s house in Water’s Close Queen Mary had been hospitably entertained when she arrived so unexpectedly from France.

Before setting out for England James ordered that the King’s Wark and the adjacent lands and buildings associated with it should become a barony, and this he gifted to the groom of his chambers, Bernard Lindsay, granting him also a tax of £4 Scots on every tun of wine sold in the taverns in the King’s Wark, of which there were never to be more than four. From this tax he was to erect in the King’s Wark a bourse or exchange for merchants "for the decorating of the pier and Shore of the haven of Leith." This bourse has long ago disappeared, and so has its successor at the foot of Queen Street, a locality which old residenters still call the "Burss." The French name bourse is a relic of the French occupation of Leith in the time of Mary of Guise and the long trade connection of the town with France.

Leith Harbour, 1680

The word is still a place-name in Leith in a corrupted form in Timber Bush. Leith has to-day a memorial of Bernard Lindsay in Bernard Street, which was opened right through a part of the King’s Wark more than one hundred and fifty years ago.

A considerable yearly income in the way of rents was derived from the buildings that went to form the King’s Wark. It was out of these that James III. and James IV. gifted the annual grant of £28 to the Collegiate Church of Restalrig, which Bernard Lindsay continued to pay to South Leith Church. When the Town Council of Edinburgh purchased the King’s Wark in 1647 they became liable for this financial burden on the property, which they pay annually to the South Leith Kirk Session, a yearly transaction that links our days with

"The old unhappy far-off times
And battles long ago,"

for it was in 1512, the year before Flodden, that James IV. made over his gift. Part of the walls of the King’s Wark may be incorporated in the quaintly gabled old tenement now occupying the greater part of the site.

The Union of the Crowns itself, though of great benefit to England in freeing her from the menace of invasion from Scotland when she engaged in continental war, was very far indeed from being an unmixed blessing to the people of Leith and Edinburgh. The removal of the king and court to London meant much loss to Edinburgh’s merchants, and consequent injury to the trade of Leith. But that was not their only loss. The absurd claim of the Stuart kings, after they became British sovereigns, to rule by divine right led to such tyrannical methods of governing Scotland that Parliament for years together did not meet. That did much injury to the general merchant, for the hundred and forty-five Lords and the hundred and sixty Commons who, with their wives and families, were wont to throng the city for a longer or shorter period every year, and to bring in their wake much gaiety and business, did a good deal to stimulate and encourage local trade. As Edinburgh’s trade was affected so was that of its port of Leith.

But if Leith’s local trade was injuriously affected by the Union, her overseas trade suffered still more, and, indeed, was at times almost brought to a standstill. During the seventeenth century the two countries with which England was most frequently at war were France and Holland ; but these were the very countries with which Leith carried on most trade. Through her sovereign, as King of England, Scotland was, of course, involved in these wars, and her trade with the enemy forbidden. She was then in the embarrassing position of having to fight those with whom she wished to be friends, and of having to pay heavy taxes to carry on wars that ruined her own trade. The result was that Scotland frequently disregarded the prohibition against trading with the enemy. We find Leith ships sailing to and from France and the Low Countries during the French and Dutch wars of the seventeenth century, to the great indignation of the English, who looked on the Scots in general, and the Leithers in particular, as they were the chief overseas traders, as little better than traitors, because the French favoured them "after the old manner."

But English foreign policy even in times of peace was often a menace to Leith’s shipping trade. England’s Navigation Act of 1614 forbade the importation of goods into England except in English ships. The French Government naturally retaliated by issuing a similar decree for France. Now such a policy on the part of France, if carried out against Scotland, would have meant ruin for many a Leith shipowner. From the reign of James IV. a goodly number of Leith ships had always been hired and employed by Frenchmen in their own carrying trade, and would be now laid up for lack of cargoes.

The Scots at once reminded Marie de Medici, the Queen-Regent of France, that the French still enjoyed their old trading privileges in Scotland, in spite of the new English regulations. The Scots had enjoyed the same rights as French subjects in France from the marriage of Queen Mary with the Dauphin in 1558.

Nor did the Union of the Crowns bring Leith any recompense of increased trade with England by way of compensation for this loss of overseas trade, for she was as much shut out from any share in English foreign and colonial trade as she had been when the two countries were under separate sovereigns. England persisted in a policy towards Scotland of always subordinating Scotland’s interests to her own by shutting her out from any share whatever in those rights and privileges of trading with the Colonies and Plantations, which she considered belonged to Englishmen only. King James, who, in his own way, was ever anxious for the welfare of his Scottish subjects, wished the two countries to be brought into commercial as well as regal union. The English commercial classes were bitterly opposed to this scheme, which, although it failed, was not altogether without good result.

After the Union of the Crowns there was frequent trouble between the Scots and their English neighbours, who were much given to piracy and violent outrages at sea. In 1610 nine English pirates were sentenced "to be hangit upon the Sands of Leyth until they be deid." In the same year thirty more were doomed to this fate at the same place. The gibbet stood within the "flood mark," nearly opposite the foot of Constitution Street. To avoid all such trouble as far as possible, King James issued a proclamation that the ships of both nations were to carry at their maintops the flags of St. Andrew and St. George interlaced. It was now that the Union Jack first made its appearance in Leith harbour. The ships of Scotland had also to carry at their stern the flag of St. Andrew, while those of England were to fly, in the same place, that of St. George.

In Scotland up to this time each royal burgh had protected its own trade area against encroachment by every other burgh, free or unfree. Now this monopoly of the royal burghs, where all trade was controlled by the merchant and craft guilds, was about to be broken down, because it could not be made to fit in with the new ways of trading that were beginning to come into vogue. The old methods had already broken down in England, where any one might carry on trade whether he was a member of the local guilds or not. The first step in this direction in Scotland was taken in 1597. By this date the Spanish treasure ships had imported so much gold and silver from America that there had been a general fall in the value of money throughout Western Europe, and King James’s income was no longer sufficient for his needs. As a remedy taxes were imposed on Scottish imports for the first time. From taxes for revenue purposes only to taxes for the protection of home industries is but a step. Such a step meant in time the end of mediaeval and the beginning of modern methods of trading, for from this time the protection of trade began to be a national instead of a local matter, and was no longer left to each burgh in its own district.

The step of fostering home industries by heavy protective duties seems to have been first taken in Leith, where several new industries were introduced in James’s reign, and began Scotland’s career as a manufacturing country. This was done by the grant of patents, or monopolies, to certain merchants, giving to them the sole right of manufacturing certain articles whose importation from abroad was prohibited. Under the old system of trading only burgesses of Edinburgh, who were at the same time members of the merchant guild, could engage in commerce in our district. Up to this time no Leithers could be merchants, as we understand the term to-day, although Sir Andrew Wood and the Bartons are often erroneously described as Leith merchants. They were shipowners, a calling that no doubt gave them many opportunities for trading, and they could always find markets abroad for cargoes of their own, either obtained in foreign ports or by piracy. While merchants might have storehouses and even booths in Leith, they had to reside in the city or forfeit all their rights and privileges as merchant burgesses, and become "unfree." But merchants who obtained monopolies could reside and carry on their trade wherever they pleased, without being either free burgesses or guild brothers.

In the wall of the Corporation Buildings, opposite Meeting-house Green, is a carved stone from the old building which previously occupied the site, bearing the inscription— 

BUILT 1583. T. J. REBUILT 1800.

This ancient building had been for generations the Leith Soap-work, which has now removed to Broughton Road. T. J. were the initials of Thomas Jameson, a noted Leith merchant in his day and proprietor of this old soap-work at the close of the eighteenth century. Down to 1619 foreign soap only was used in this country, and was mostly imported from the Low Countries. In that year Nathaniel Uddart, whose father had been Provost of Edinburgh, was granted the monopoly of soapmaking in Scotland for twenty-one years, on condition of paying an annual duty of £20 to the Crown. He erected "a goodly work" in Leith to carry on its manufacture. But it does not seem to have been too prosperous. And indeed that is not surprising, for in Leith in those days, and everywhere else for that matter, not many washed every day as they are expected to do now.

Meeting House Green and the Old Soap-Work Nathaniel Uddart was one of the most active and enterprising merchants of his time. The manufacture of soap was the first but not the only industry he established in Leith. To obtain a supply of oil with which to carry on its manufacture Uddart received a further patent to trade! in oil obtained from the whale fishing in Greenland. This led to much trouble with the English Muscovy Company, trading with Russia through Archangel, then her only seaport, for at this time she had no possessions on the Baltic coast. The Muscovy Cornpany looked on the entry of Leith ships into the Arctic Seas as an infringement of their monopoly, and resisted them with "wild outrages, riots, murder, and effusion of blood."

Uddart’s patent seems to have been either recalled or allowed to lapse, for in 1634 a new grant was made to Patrick Maule of Panmure, "His Majesty’s daily servitor." Panmure Close, in the Canongate, just below the parish church, where a large portion of the family mansion still remains, preserves the memory of this family in our midst. Like Uddart, Maule also sent ships to the Greenland whale fishing and to Archangel, from which he imported materials used in the soap factory at Leith; but the oil and tallow for this purpose were both more extensively and more conveniently shipped from Danzig and Königsberg, the two chief centres of Leith’s trade with the Baltic Seas. The manufacture of soap and the whale fishing were to continue to be two of Leith’s staple industries for the next two hundred and fifty years. From this time Leith was no longer simply a trading port. With the soap and oil works of Uddart and Maule she enters on that career which has made her to-day not only a great seaport but a busy and prosperous centre of industry as well.

But the departure from the old methods of trading under the hampering control of the merchant and trade guilds was only in its infancy, and developed slowly in the seventeenth century. Indeed it was impossible it could be otherwise. Apart from the dislocation of trade through England’s wars with France, Spain, and Holland, in which Scotland was her unwilling partner, with such troubles as the civil wars of Charles I.’s time, and the misgovernment and persecutions all through the reign of his son, Charles II., no country could thrive. Scotland was thus kept in a state of poverty. There was little money with which to start new industries, and capital was scarcely more plentiful in Leith than in other parts of the country. The manufactures introduced by the enterprise of the ever-active Uddart struggled along rather than progressed, and sailoring, fishing, and farming the lands immediately around the town were still, as in older days, the chief occupations of Leith’s inhabitants.

The want of capital with which to begin and support new industries, and later the disturbing effect of the civil strife in Charles I. and Cromwell’s time, led to much unemployment at home. Scotsmen, therefore, as at the close of the wars between king’s men and queen’s men, still sought fortune abroad in continental wars.

One of the largest and most beautiful comets that have ever been chronicled appeared in our northern sky in the beginning of 1618. Leithers, like other Scotsmen, gazed night after night with awe and wonder on the blazing messenger, for messenger they believed it to be.

Ben Jonson, the friend of Shakespeare, and after him the greatest of the Elizabethan dramatists, came to Scotland at this very time. During the whole period of this comet he was residing in Leith in the house of Mr. John Stuart, Water-Bailie, and owner of the ship, The Post of Leith. Here he was visited by that eccentric Londoner, John Taylor, the Water Poet, while on his Penniless Pilgrimage. Taylor had been hospitably entertained at the King’s Wark by Bernard Lindsay and his good dame Barbara, a Logan of Coatfield. Jonson wrote a journal of his tour, which, unfortunately for us to-day, was burnt while in manuscript through his house taking fire, and thus much valuable information about Leith and his many friends there, among whom we may number the Nisbets of Craigentinny, was lost to us. The great Elizabethan must often have discussed the strange stellar visitant with those friends who knew not what to make of it.

The Shore

"The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes," says Shakespeare, and the superstition of the age afterwards held this unusual visitant to have been a portent of the Thirty Years’ War that broke out in the same year. In this great struggle James’s only daughter Elizabeth and her kingdom of Bohemia were overwhelmed with misfortune. Scotsmen deemed it a patriotic duty to go to her support. Scotland became a chief recruiting ground for raising levies to support the Protestant cause in this war championed by Gustavus Adolphus, the "Lion of the North," and Leith was the chief port for their embarkation. Now we see the "fighting Wauchopes" of Niddrie sailing away in command of a company; now a troopship leaves the Shore with much cheering. Under the brilliant; generalship of the "Lion of the North," Scotsmen like Sir Patrick Ruthven and the two Leslies learned soldiering abroad, which they used afterwards with such skill in Leith that its effects are still plainly visible in the town to-day. But these wars were a serious drain on the manhood of the country, and the sorrow they caused finds touching expression in more than one old song—

"Oh, lang, lang is the travel to the bonnie Pier o’ Leith,
Oh dreich it is to gang on foot wi’ the snaw drift in the teeth!
And oh, the cauld wind froze the tear that gather’d in my e’e,
When I gaed there to see my love embark for Germanie."

But the chronic poverty of the country drove thousands more abroad in pursuit of trade. A great deal of the foreign trade of Leith, especially with Poland and other lands bordering the Baltic Sea, was carried on by pedlars, who, when their ships reached such ports as Danzig, Königsberg, or Stralsund, went round the country, and especially the village fairs, selling to the peasantry, as Breton onion-sellers used to do in Leith and Edinburgh before the Great War, and are now doing again since the arrival of peace. This was one reason why English merchants opposed King James’s commercial union between England and Scotland, because the Scots, they declared, "trade after a meaner sort and condition in foreign parts than we, by retailing parcels and remnants of cloth and other commodities up and down the countries, as we cannot do, because of the honour of our country, for their poverty is ever a spur unto them to make them industrious."

Poland and Eastern Prussia were the Canada for Scotsmen in those times, and few vessels sailed from Leith for the Baltic Sea that did not carry emigrants to those lands, as ocean liners do to Canada from Glasgow to-day. The descendants of those old Scottish emigrants, like General Mackensen (Mackenzie), were among Germany’s best soldiers in the Great War.

James Riddle, the successor of Patrick Maule in carrying on the manufacture of soap in Leith, was the son of one of those Polanders, as they were called. Riddle’s Close, whose name has in recent years been changed to Market Street, for over two hundred and fifty years preserved the name, if not the memory, of this old Leith merchant.

When James I. set out for England in 1603 he promised to visit Scotland every three years, but a period of fourteen years was to pass before his Scottish subjects were to see him once more among them. The news of his coming caused the greatest bustle and excitement in Leith and Edinburgh, for it seemed an impossibility to provide lodging, not to speak of provisions, for the huge following he was expected to bring with him, and for the nobility and gentry who would be sure to come to town during his Majesty’s visit. King James and his nobles travelled on horseback from Berwick to Leith, from which he made his State entry into Edinburgh.

It was strongly believed that the main object of this, his first and only visit after the Union, was to complete the work of establishing Episcopacy in Scotland. The Leithers, who were sternly Presbyterian, had already had experience of James’s endeavours to bring the Church of Scotland into line with that of England in polity and service. King James, even in far-off London, kept an eye on the doings of the Scottish clergy, and had every one exiled or imprisoned who opposed his Church policy. In January 1606 six ministers, including Mr. John Welch, who had married the daughter of John Knox, were condemned to be banished for life from their beloved land for their resistance to the king’s arbitrary measures in putting down the Church of Scotland. They were to sail to the Continent from Leith, where they stayed with Mr. Morton, the minister of South Leith Parish Church, until their departure, of which we have a touching description from one of their contemporaries, that reminds us of another parting long before on the shore at Miletus.

"The ship being ready, and many attending their embarking, they fell down upon their knees on the Long Sands and prayed several times very fervently, moving all the multitude about to tears in abundance and to lamentation, and after they had sung the 23rd Psalm, joyfully taking their leave of their brethren and acquaintances, passed to the ship, and upon the morn, getting a fair wind, were safely transported and landed in France." Next year Mr. Morton himself was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle for an "impertinent sermon" against Episcopacy, nor, after a year, was he released except on condition that he should "preach not and goe not to Leith."

The Leith folk felt themselves confirmed in their convictions regarding the purpose of James’s visit when a ship arrived in the harbour from London with organs, paintings, and stained-glass windows to fit up Holyrood Chapel for service during the king’s stay among them. Indeed these mischievous innovations, as they held them to be, had been supernaturally foretold by such a swelling of the sea at Leith that the like had not been seen before for a hundred years. This abnormal tide was taken as a forewarning of some evil to come. The "evil to come" was of course afterwards seen to be James’s choristers with their white surplices, his organs, his paintings, and idolatrous windows set up in the chapel royal of Holyrood.

Eight years afterwards Leith had another supernatural warning. On Tuesday, March 29, 1625, one of the greatest storms on record raged round our coasts. The water in the harbour overflowed on to the Shore, carrying boats with it, and doing much damage. "It was taken by all men," says a credulous historian, "to be a forerunner of some great alteration. And indeed the following day a sure report was brought hither that the king departit this life the Lord’s day before," and thus the same kind of portent that had foretold his visit to Scotland was now held to have been warning of his death, in accordance with the superstitious beliefs of the age.

Sculptured Stone from Mary of Guise's House, Water Street James was succeeded by his son, Charles I., who made his first visit to Scotland in 1633, which was to begin for Leith the most troubled period of her whole history, a period which continued for fifty-five years. In honour of the king’s visit a new pulpit was placed in South Leith Church, and it is believed that the carved stone, with the royal arms and the letters C. R. for Carolus Rex, in the front of the church tower facing the Kirkgate, was then built into the stonework of the church in his honour also. The old sculptured stone that adorned King James’s Hospital was built into the north face of the tower in 1822. Besides the two panels containing the royal arms in the church tower there are within the entrance porch two beautifully carved stones, one of which, taken from her mansion that once stood in Water Street, shows the arms of Mary of Guise. The other, showing the arms of her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, once adorned the old Tolbooth in the Tolbooth Wynd, first erected in her reign. Thus we have four original and consecutive royal arms, from James V. to Charles I., built into the church tower, two within the structure and two outside.

The visit of Charles I. in 1633, like that of his father James in 1617, was mainly undertaken with a view to bringing the Church of Scotland into harmony with that of England in its form of worship. For this purpose Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, drew up a service book to be used in Scottish churches. The introduction of this service book led to the Jenny Geddes riot and the thawing up of the National Covenant in February 1638.

The Covenant was sworn to by the people of South Leith in St. Mary’s Church on Thursday, 12th April, when the minister of Greyfriars’ read and expounded it. Then "he gurd the people stand up, hold up thair right hands, and swear very solemnly, which God blessed with ane very sensible motion." On Sunday; 22nd, it was similarly sworn to by the folk of North Leith in the Church of St. Ninian, where their own minister, Mr. Fairfoul, preached from Revelation, 3rd chapter and 2nd verse, a very fitting text for the occasion. By far the most interesting of the original copies of the National Covenant is the one in the Edinburgh Corporation Museum, in which there are over four thousand signatures, among them that of the second Lord Balmerino, one of the staunchest upholders of the Kirk of Scotland at this time.

All the work of Charles and Laud was now undone. The king, determined to secure obedience to his Church policy by force of arms, marched an army to Berwick for this purpose. But the Scots captains and troops, who had fought so gallantly for the Protestant cause on the blood-drenched battlefields of Germany, came pouring homewards when they heard that Scotland was in danger, and under Sir Alexander Leslie, his nephew Sir David, and that skilled general of artillery, Sir Alexander Hamilton— "Dear Sandy," as he was affectionately and familiarly called—they mustered on Leith Links to the number of twenty thousand. "Sandy" Hamilton refortified the town on a new plan. The nobles and their ladies, together with the townsfolk—men, women, and even children—joined enthusiastically to defend the Kirk and Covenant by helping to carry the earth of which the walls were composed, while three shiploads of arms were sent to Leith from Holland for the equipment of Leslie’s army encamped on the Links.

The stout Sir Patrick Ruthven, nephew to the grim Lord Ruthven who took so dramatic a part in the murder of Rizzio, also returned from the wars in Germany to be made governor of Edinburgh Castle on the king’s side. Ruthven and his family came to take up their residence in Leith, as did so many of the gentry in the seventeenth century; but with the exception of Balmerino House, and one or two survivals in Quality Street and Restalrig, few remains of their old mansions are to be found among us to-day. The Ruthven family had their pew in South Leith Church. In 1638 Sir Patrick gifted to the congregation two communion vessels, which are still in use and which were the work of that wealthy goldsmith, Gilbert Kirkwood, who was at this very time absorbed in the building of his new mansion of Pilrig House.

The king sent the Marquis of Hamilton with a fleet to Leith Roads; but the town, where his own mother was among the defenders, was so strongly fortified that he dared not attack it. The strength and power of the Covenanting forces arrayed against him led King Charles to make terms with the Scots by granting the liberties they desired, and three years later he came to reside again at Holyrood. While playing golf on Leith Links news was brought to him of the terrible Irish massacres of 1641, and shortly afterwards he left Edinburgh never to return. In the next year the great Civil War between King Charles and the English Parliament began. Sir Patrick Ruthven, after a heroic resistance of six months, was forced to surrender Edinburgh Castle to Leslie and his Covenanting army from the Links.

Then by the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant, which were sworn to in the two Leith churches after a solemn fast, just as the inhabitants had formerly sworn to the National Covenant, the Scottish army under Leslie joined the English Parliamentary forces against the king, and with them across the Border went, as chaplain, Mr. Gibson, one of the two ministers of South Leith. Over the Border, too, went Sir Patrick Ruthven to fight as gallantly for King Charles as Leslie and the army of the Covenant fought against him. All through these unhappy years of division and strife "ye Ladie Riven "and her three daughters were allowed to live quietly and peacefully in their old Leith mansion, and to worship Sunday after Sunday in the family pew in "ye loft bewast the pulpit" in the Parish Church in the Kirkgate.

The story of the Civil War and the ruthless campaign of Montrose and his savage horde lie apart from the history of Leith, but the grievous strife of this time was to bring upon the town darker days than she had ever known.

Charles I. at golf on Leith Links has been made the subject of pictures by Sir John Gilbert, R.A., and Allan Stewart. Below is a reproduction of another painting by Allan Stewart, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919. Its subject is the foursome on Leith Links in which James II. took part, as related on p. 358.


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