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The Story of Leith
XXVI. Cromwell's Ironsides in Leith


MEANWHILE, the Civil War was being waged in England between the forces of King Charles on the one side and those of the Parliament, aided by the Scots under Sir Alexander Leslie, on the other. Beyond the defeat and surrender of King Charles the Solemn League and Covenant accomplished nothing more, save the setting up of the Westminster Assembly, which gave to Scotland the Shorter Catechism and a new metrical version of the Psalms—the one we still sing in our churches. This new version was first introduced into the two Leith parish churches on Sunday, May 15, 1650.

The execution of Charles I. filled the Scots with grief and anger, for they were loyal as well as religious. They now proclaimed his son Charles II. king, and a commission which sailed from Leith invited him over from Holland, where he lived as a fugitive from his kingdom. Unwilling to accept the crown by subscribing to the Covenant, he first sent over the Marquis of Montrose to effect a rising in his favour. But Montrose was defeated and captured, and brought over the Forth to Leith, where a public thanksgiving in gratitude for his overthrow had been held in St. Mary’s Church two days before. On Saturday afternoon the 18th of May he was taken to Edinburgh, when bonfires blazed and the church bells rang out a merry peal to mark the event. Charles now agreed to the Covenant, and three weeks later landed in Scotland and rode to Stirling Castle.

The reception and acknowledgment by the Scots of Charles as their lawful king at once provoked the English Parliament to war, and Cromwell was sent to invade Scotland and reduce the country to obedience to the Commonwealth. Cromwell’s army, in accordance with the strategy of former English invasions, was accompanied by a fleet, which kept in touch with the troops as they marched along the coast, and came to anchor in Leith Roads without opposition. For at this time Scotland had only one ship of war, the good ship James of Leith, which had somehow been pressed into service for Montrose’s expedition, and, after his execution, had been recaptured and brought into Leith, with all his secret papers aboard. Leith’s shipping had never been so reduced, for with no ships of war to protect it it had become a prey to the attacks of royalist privateers and the many pirates with which the North Sea swarmed at this time. And now Cromwell’s fleet under Admiral Deane and Captain Penn, the father of the founder of Pennsylvania, captured what remained, and, destroying some, pressed the rest into the English service.

The fortifications of Leith were repaired and strengthened under the superintendence of John Mylne, the King’s Master Mason, and a Covenanting army under Sir David Leslie, who could outmatch even Cromwell himself in the art of war, mustered on the Links. The Scots defences were mainly directed to protecting Edinburgh and Leith, for Leslie was determined that there should be no such occupation of Leith by the enemy as in the days of Hertford’s invasions, or that of the French in the days of Mary of Guise. Cromwell could have entrenched his whole army around its walls, and, with his navy to ensure constant supplies by sea, could have made it a base from which to bridle the whole of Scotland.

Leslie’s plans to defeat any such purpose were wisely and skilfully chosen. To make it impossible for the enemy to enter Leith by sea a great boom was drawn across the mouth of the harbour. The landward defences were even stronger. The deep rugged valley of the Water of Leith formed an impregnable natural defence in the rear, while, facing the east, to resist the enemy’s approach, Leslie had a great ditch or trench dug from Holyrood to St. Anthony’s Port, opening into the Kirkgate a little above Laurie Street. Parallel to, and behind this defensive ditch, on the line of the present Leith Walk, was a broad rampart of earth which no artillery fire could breach, and which was protected by many batteries of "Dear Sandy’s Stoups"—the cannon of Sir Alexander Hamilton, who was now sleeping his last long sleep in the family vault in Duddingston Churchyard. His cannon were so named from their resemblance to the long hooped wooden pails or stoups then, and for two centuries afterwards, used for carrying water from the public wells.

Leslie’s defences proved insurmountable to the English, and baffled every attempt of Cromwell and his Ironsides to break through them. Knowing his troops to be no match for Cromwell’s veterans in the field, Leslie resolved not to be lured from his trenches into the open. In front of his huge rampart lay the unenclosed fields, and beyond were the Figgate Whins, a great waste of heather and marsh, and much overgrown with clumps of whims, like the Whinny Hill on Arthur’s Seat. The inhabitants of Restalrig and other villages had sought refuge within the city walls or behind Leslie’s ramparts, for the terror of Cromwell’s name had everywhere preceded him from Ireland, from whose conquest he had just returned to enter on his Scottish campaign.

On Sunday evening, July 29, 1650, Cromwell reached Musselburgh, where he encamped his infantry on the Links and his cavalry in the town. Here he had his headquarters for the next month, and, on an elevation on the Links in front of Linkfield House, the site of Cromwell’s own tent may even yet be traced in the grass. Next morning he led his whole force forward to the Figgate Whins around Craigentinny, posting his cavalry beside Restalrig, his foot in "that place callit Jokis Ludge," and his guns at the foot of "Salisberrie Hill, within the park dyke." There was hot skirmishing around Lochend and the Quarry Holes, whose mounds may still be seen within the east end of London Road Gardens. The Scots were driven in within their trenches by that dare-devil Puritan commander, General Lambert; but the fighting here was perhaps a feint to screen the main object of his attack, which was to bombard and capture St. Leonard’s Hill, from which, with his artillery, Cromwell could have dominated the city. His men were utterly routed and driven off. At the same time four ships of the English fleet bombarded Leith with fire-balls and other missiles; but we have no record as to how their onslaught was repelled. On the whole the honours of the day remained with Leslie and the Scots, and the baffled English fell back upon their camp at Musselburgh.

Balmerino House, showing Renaissance DoorwayThat same day King Charles had ridden from Stirling to Leith, and had watched the day’s fighting from the Castle Hill. In the evening he passed along the line of trenches to Leith, when he received a most joyous and boisterous welcome from the troops, and took up his residence in the once noble mansion of Lord Balmerino, which still stands just off the Kirkgate, though now shorn of all its former state. There is also a tradition that the young king was entertained by the "bold Buccleuch" in the great mansion in Quality Street, which was then an inn, and is to-day a good specimen of old Scottish street architecture. The young king ardently wished to join in one of the sorties against the enemy; but Leslie would on no account agree to this, as the risks were too great. After a stay of several days at Balmerino House, the Scots leaders, to his own great disappointment, insisted on King Charles seeking a safer residence at Dunfermljne.

During Charles’s stay in the Kirkgate, a hospitality for which his host was ill-requited after the Restoration, the Scots determined to surprise the English by beating up their quarters at Musselburgh under cover of night. The success of such a dangerous enterprise, of course, mainly depended upon their making their attack from the most unexpected quarter. About midnight over one thousand horsemen rode out from Leith towards Restalrig. Making a wide detour, they forded the Esk far above the most advanced line of English outposts, and rode along the high ground to the east end of Edgebucklin Brae. Here they formed up for the charge, and, dashing down upon the Links, broke right through the English camp, upsetting tents and cutting down all who attempted to oppose their progress. But Cromwell’s cavalry quartered in the town soon rallied to the fray, and the Scottish horsemen had to make a straight run for Leith with the English cavalry close on their heels.

And so for a month the fight went on. Cromwell was not only unable to break through the Scots entrenchments, but every attempt to pass towards Queensferry to cut off Leslie’s supplies from the west, and so starve him into surrender, was foiled. Baffled and defeated, his men dying daily of disease, thanks to the Lammas floods, which seemed to be in alliance with the Scots, Cromwell could do nothing but retreat.

And then there followed the disastrous Scottish defeat on the field of red Dunbar because of their disobedience to those very tactics of sitting tight which had completely baffled the English at Leith. Cromwell at once returned to Edinburgh and occupied Leith, when "the ministers and most part of all ye honest people fled out of the town for fear of ye enemie." The charter chest of South Leith Church, containing the communion plate, the records, and other documents, was buried beneath the floor of the church, where it lay for nearly two years before it was thought safe to remove it.

Ere long most of those who had fled the town returned, for Cromwell, by wise and just government, always endeavoured to win the Scots to the side of the Commonwealth. But the hearts of the Leithers were with King Charles, unworthy as he was to prove himself of their loyalty and devotion; and however wise and just their rule, the English well knew that the Leithers were ready to flame into rebellion when the opportunity arose. It was for this reason that General Monk shut up the two parish churches, and no prayers of the Leithers could induce him to reopen them, for he looked on the Scottish clergy as "trumpets of sedition," as they all preached in favour of the monarchy. Let us give the English commander’s reason in his own words, for they show the Leithers still, as Henry VIII.’s ambassador found them in days before the Reformation, "noted all to be Christians."

"There was," Monk tells us, "so greate a resort of Scotchmen that there would bee above a thousand of them there on the Lord’s Day, which I thought not safe to suffer any longer, the Magazine wherein our arms and ammunition are being so near the Church."

This magazine consisted of four closely adjoining buildings, King James’s Hospital, the vault beneath the old Trinity House from which they evicted the Grammar School to one of the lofts of Riddle’s soap-work, the Windmill Yard of the ancient St. Anthony’s Hospital, and the churchyard. On the expulsion of the congregation the church itself was used for housing their artillery. Monk, like a wary and prudent commander, thought the English garrison ran great risks with so large a weekly gathering in the immediate neighbourhood of what were their military depots until a citadel was built where both troops and stores could be safely lodged.

Main Gateway of Cromwell's CitadelThe people of Leith were allowed to hold church services where they pleased, so long as they did not gather in the town. And so for nearly seven years the congregation had to wander in the wilderness, worshipping for the greater part of this period at Restalrig, but sometimes holding their services around the Giant’s Brae, when, through the influence of James Riddle with the deputy-governor of the town, St. Anthony’s Port was kept open "upon the Lord’s Day betwixt 7 hours in the forenoon until 2 hours in ye efternoon for outgoing and incoming of the people to sermone in the Links."

The Citadel, "passing fair and sumptuous," built by Monk, was erected on the site of the Chapel of St. Nicholas at the foot of Dock Street, where its great arched gateway may still be seen. The house over the archway, according to tradition, was the meeting-place of the officers and men of Cromwell’s Ironsides in Leith who held Baptist views. We know that there were Baptists in Leith during the Cromwellian period who were wont to go to Bonnington to be "dippit in the clear rynnand water." The house over the Citadel archway, however, is of later date than Cromwell’s time, as is shown by the stair by which it is reached being outside, instead of inside, the Citadel gateway.

When the Citadel was built South Leith Church was restored to the parishioners. The opening services were marked by much rejoicing. The church had been given up largely through the influence of James Riddle, the wealthiest and most enterprising merchant in the town, and one in great favour with Monk and the other English commanders He had succeeded Uddart and Maule in the monopoly of the soap manufacture in Leith. Riddle’s Soap-work was at the corner of the Dub Raw and Riddle’s Close. This close, to which he was name-father, Leithers, with no knowledge of James Riddle and the town’s indebtedness to him, have in recent years misnamed Market Street. As there is already a Market Street in Greater Edinburgh with much more claim to the title, let us hope that Leith, in commemoration of the public service of its old-time patriotic citizen, James Riddle, will go back to the ancient designation, and, as the old thoroughfare is no longer a close, will rename it Riddle Street.

It may be that the two old skew stones bearing the initials I.R. or J.R. and the date 1659, built into the gables of the small tenement in St. Andrew Street looking towards Riddle’s Close (Market Street), are a relic of James Riddle’s soap-work which used to stand immediately across the street from this building.

But we have not yet exhausted the interest associated with the name of James Riddle. His father had been one of those enterprising Scots whom we have already seen embarking at the Shore of Leith to push their fortune in Poland. Having acquired great wealth there, he returned to Edinburgh, and set up house in that aristocratic quarter of the Old Town, the Lawn-market, where Riddle’s Close, one of the finest in the Royal Mile, still preserves his name, and where his house yet remains. His eldest son James, as we have seen, became one of Leith’s leading townsmen, and an influential member of St. Mary’s Kirk Session. From the address on one of his letters we know that Cromwell spent one night in Leith, when, according to a doubtful tradition, he was the guest of James Riddle. He is much more likely to have been lodged in Balmerino House, in whose extensive garden some of his chief officers were quartered in tents. In grateful remembrance of his many services, the Kirk Session bestowed on Riddle and his heirs a large space in the nave of the church for a family pew for all time coming. Such, in brief, is the story of James Riddle, one of Leith’s early benefactors and a man who nobly deserves the simple recognition of having his name restored to the street in which, by his spirit and enterprise, he did so much to build up the trade, not only of Leith, but even of Scotland itself.

Of Leslie and his great rampart we ought to be reminded every time we go up and down Leith Walk, for there we are walking along the huge mound of defence behind which he baffled the mighty Cromwell in 1650. It has now taken the place of the Easter, the Bonnington, and the Restalrig Roads as the main highway to the city, because, since the opening of the North Bridge in 1770, Leith Walk has been the most direct route. Before 1650 what is now Leith Walk was merely a straggling pathway known as Leith Loan, that wound its way over the heathery waste and through the meadows and cornfields that then lay between the city and its port. Leslie’s rampart became a gravelled roadway twenty feet wide, for pedestrians only, which Edinburgh citizens used as their "walk" on their way to enjoy the sea breezes on the pier of Leith, that in those days was merely a continuation of the Shore beyond the Old Signal Tower.

The High and Low WalksBy degrees another footpath was formed at the bottom of the mound, and the two became known respectively as the High Walk and the Low Walk, the one being eighteen feet higher than the other. The level of the Low Walk is to be seen at Springfield Cottage above the Alhambra, and also just north of Haddington Place, where the house below the level of the street, once the residence of the Curator of the Botanic Gardens before they were removed to Inverleith, still shows parts of the old boundary wall that ran along the Low Walk. For years Leith Walk was a dreary, unsafe way, with no broad pavements lined with street lamps, and thronged with foot passengers. Not only was there much risk of falling off the high footpath on to the one below on dark nights, but the long roadway was also beset with foot-pads.

At Shrubhill was the Gallow Lee, which was excavated to form Leith Walk Railway Station. Here stood the gallows tree, a permanent erection in old days. From it the bodies of notorious criminals, like Chiesly of Dalry, after being dipped in tar, were hung in chains, and swayed eerily to and fro with every gust of wind. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Low Walk was raised to the level of the High Walk, and in 1804 the great roadway was causewayed, a toll being erected at Pilrig to defray the expense. The tollkeeper’s shelter afterwards became the policeman’s box at the end of Albert Street, where its successor has formed a feature in Leith Walk for many years. Leith Walk then developed into the spacious thoroughfare we know it to-day.


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