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The Story of Leith
XXVIII. Leith Changing to Modern Times


AT the Restoration Scotland expected that her people would continue to be treated as natives of one kingdom along with Englishmen as they had been under the rule of Cromwell, and that in the matter of home and overseas trade they would continue to enjoy the same rights and privileges as Englishmen. But in this expectation they were to be speedily disappointed. At this time England adopted a system of protective duties in order to foster and develop her industries, and, in carrying out this policy, she treated the Scottish people exactly as she did foreign nations, and excluded their commodities by the same heavy duties she imposed upon those sent from overseas.

France, too, under the administration of the far-seeing Colbert, the brilliant finance minister of Louis XIV., in rivalry of England, entered on a similar policy of protecting her manufactures by the imposition of prohibitory duties against those of Britain. In this way Scotland lost all the trade privileges she had so long enjoyed with her ancient ally. For this the Scots blamed their relationship to England. "The loss of our advantageous privileges with France," they declared, "is one of the great damages we sustained by the Union of the Crowns."

Scotland, of course, immediately retaliated by adopting a similar policy of protection. Up to this time her merchants had been mostly exporters of raw materials, and importers of luxuries and all kinds of manufactured goods. If these latter were to be excluded, it followed that she must now begin to manufacture them for herself. In order to do this with any degree of success the Scots Parliament passed two Acts—one in 1661 and another much more drastic in 1681—forbidding the export of raw materials and the importation of manufactured goods. And now, in addition to the making of soap and some coarse woollens and linens, Leith and Edinburgh, whose trade was all done through the Port of Leith, began to set up other industries in their midst, but not without encountering many difficulties and much opposition.

Among their difficulties was their poverty and consequent want of capital, the lack of skilled workmen, and the difficulty of obtaining a sufficient quantity of the proper kind of raw material, and of purchasing the requisite tools and machines from England and other countries, like France and the Netherlands, much more advanced in manufactures than Scotland. These countries had no desire to aid her to compete with them in supplying the world’s markets with manufactured goods. These difficulties seem formidable enough, but they were not all. Not only would Scotland’s manufactures be handicapped by high tariffs in finding markets abroad, but, what seems strange to us in our days of unlimited freedom of trade, the merchants of the royal burghs looked upon the manufacturers as interlopers upon their special privileges, and obstructed in many ways the sale of their products.

To obtain the necessary capital men of means were invited from England and other countries to settle in Scotland as free citizens, and to join their capital to that of Scotsmen in the formation of joint-stock companies like the East India Company and the many joint-stock companies all over the land to-day. To encourage the formation of such companies some, like the wool-card factory and the soap-work at Leith, were granted monopolies for the goods they manufactured, and all had the privilege of importing their raw material and of exporting their finished products free of all customs. When a firm of merchants obtained such privileges their business was called a manufactory. It was, therefore, the ambition of all manufacturing companies to have their business erected into a manufactory. We have an example of this in 1683, in the case of a petition by the partners of a cloth factory in Leith. Wishing to extend their enterprise, they had secured the services of three clothiers (clothworkers) in Leith "excellently well skilled in their trade." Having obtained this skilled labour, they felt justified in asking for all the privileges of a manufactory, and as the Privy Council were doing their utmost at this time to encourage trade the petition was granted.

But the requisite technical skill was not always so easily secured as it was by this firm of Leith cloth manufacturers. Skilled workmen had often to be tempted from abroad with high rates of pay, both to carry on industries and to teach Scotsmen their art. It was in this way that new industries were established in Leith and old ones improved. But these industrial companies and their employees, especially those from abroad, who were greatly disliked by the native workmen, were often much obstructed in their work by the jealous interference of the local trade and merchant guilds. We have a notable instance of this in Leith in the case of Peter Bruce, an "Ingeneer German," who, like many aliens among us to-day, apparently thought it might pay better to assume a Scottish name than to retain his own.

Bruce set up a playing-card factory in Leith, and, in a way not very honourable to himself, he obtained the monopoly previously granted to some Frenchmen for the manufacture of paper in two mills by the water side between Leith and Canonmills. This "Ingeneer German" had to contend against constant and malicious opposition in the prosecution of his business, and finally, his two paper mills were deliberately burnt down by some of his enemies. The establishment of manufactures in the Leith district at this time in face of the prejudices and privileges of the merchant and craft guilds was evidently an uphill task, and one which involved considerable financial risk, for insurance against fire was then unknown.

Evergreen Oak, Trinity RoadDuring the later years of this period, between the Restoration and the Union of 1707, Louis XIV. of France was making life bitter for the Huguenots, just as Charles II. and his brother James II. were pitilessly persecuting the Covenanters at home. The result of Louis’s policy was that thousands of Huguenots, who were the most skilled and industrious of French workmen, fled to England, and, fortunately for the new-born industries in and around Edinburgh and Leith, part of this great wave of Huguenot emigration overflowed into Scotland. and did much to stimulate manufactures in our neighbourhood, as these French craftsmen taught their Scots fellow-workmen the latest continental methods of manufacture. One of these Huguenots, Pierre de la Motte. settled in Trinity Road, where the last of his French evergreen oaks has only recently been cut down; and all readers of R. L. Stevenson’s fascinating romance of Catriona know that the name of Picardy Place preserves the memory of the Huguenot colony of Little Picardy, which settled down here to carry on the manufacture of linen. Many of them had previously endeavoured to introduce the silk manufacture, but their mulberry trees refused to mature on Moutree’s Hill owing to our less genial climate.

Leith and Edinburgh then became the chief centres of the linen manufacture in Scotland. There was a large factory in the Citadel and another in Leith Wynd beyond the Low Calton, and both had their bleaching greens in the meadows by the waterside at Bonnington. Owing to her proximity to the great Border sheep pastures Leith had always had a large trade in the export of wool, and, placed as she was on the east coast, no Port could have been more favourably situated for importing the finer foreign wools and all dyes and other materials necessary for their manufacture into cloth. Both the Leith and Edinburgh districts, therefore, became leading centres for woollen manufactories, for James Watt had not yet invented the steam-engine which led to the great coal and iron fields of the west becoming Scotland’s chief industrial centres.

But the home-grown wool was unfit for any save the coarser kinds of cloth, such as blankets and the hodden grey from which the dress of most Scots was made in olden days. England, France, and the Netherlands jealously forbade the use of their fine wools for any but their own manufactures. Supplies had, therefore, to be imported from Spain and Portugal in return for cargoes of oats, barley, fish, skins, and coarse cloth. But, despite her favourable situation for continental trade, a constant and sufficient supply of this finer wool from the Peninsula was difficult to maintain.

Voyaging in Spanish waters was peculiarly subject to "sea hazards and pyrats," the pirates there being the sea-rovers of Algiers and Sallee, at whose very name wives and mothers of Leith sailormen turned pale. The slow-sailing Leith barques became an easy prey to those. "savadge and merciles infidels ye Turkes in Argeirs," as the wife of a Leith mariner of those days described the sea-wolves of the Mediterranean, by whom Leith seamen were so often enslaved. Agents in southern Spain did a regular business in ransoming such unfortunates, and collections in Leith were accustomed to be taken in an endeavour, not always successful, to effect their release, as in 1646, to quote one example, for the crew of David Balfour’s ship "who are lying captive among ye Turks in Argeir "—the old name for Algiers, as one may see on reading Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Factories for the manufacture of woollen cloth of the finest quality were established in Leith, Leith Wynd, and at Bonnington, which seems to have been quite a hive of industry in the seventeenth century. The factory at Bonnington was originally under the superintendence of seven Flemings, who not only introduced the most up-to-date methods in the production of the finest woollen cloths, but also engaged to teach them to native workmen. In all there were more than fifty business establishments that received the privileges of a manufactory from the State between the Restoration and the Union of 1707, and of these a very considerable number were located in the Leith district, owing to the facilities for trade afforded by the Port.

Leith ships of any size, owing chiefly to the difficulty of obtaining the necessary supply of timber, were still built in Holland, and their equipment of sails, ropes, and cordage had to be imported from the same country, as in the days of James IV. nearly two hundred years before. A beginning was now made in remedying this state of matters by the establishment of a sailcloth factory in Yardheads and of a rope-walk in Newhaven, two industries for which Leith has to-day a world-wide fame. It was now, too, that the sawmill, to which Mill Lane led for so many long years before Junction Street was formed, was founded, with the exclusive right of sawing all timber by machinery, driven, of course, by water power, within a radius of fifteen miles of it. Farther up the Water of Leith was a factory for beaver hats which continued for more than a hundred years, and another for making gunpowder, both of which are commemorated to-day in the names of the districts — Beaverhall and Powderhall — in which they were erected.

The funds for the support of King James’s Hospital in the Kirkgate had been neither honestly nor wisely administered. Part of the building, in order to help the funds, was let as a "stiffing house"—that is, as a starch factory—while another portion was utilized for the manufacture of "prins" and needles. There was a "sugarie" or sugar-house in the Old Sugar-house or Candle Close in Tolbooth Wynd, and two soap-works were now at work in the town. Evidently the good folk of Leith and Edinburgh were making a beginning at washing every day. The old one in Riddle’s Close, under the new management of the Balfour family, now of Pilrig, was in a very flourishing condition, while a new one in the grounds of Coatfield’s Lodging did much to contribute to setting up the trade with Archangel.

Its proprietor, Robert Douglas, was a man of much commercial activity and enterprise, and a great promoter of industries in Leith, where he had also established a pottery. The last member of this family to be associated with the Port was Miss Anne Douglas, who died in Trinity in 1910. Then we must not forget the glass-works, of which there were two at this time, the larger in the Citadel and the smaller in Yardheads. In the next century they were to number seven. These were the more important of the industries founded in Leith during this period of progress. They show that Leithers at this time were full of that energy and enterprise which has always characterized the business men of the town, who were then, as now, doing their part in advancing the material well-being of the country.

But England’s commercial policy was no less hurtful to Leith’s trade than her policy of protecting her home industries against competition from foreign countries, among which Scotland was included. Under Cromwell’s rule Scottish merchants enjoyed equal trading rights with those of England, both with foreign countries and the Plantations, as the Colonies were then called. At the Restoration all this was changed, for England, by her Navigation Act of 1661, declared that no goods were to be imported into, or exported from, the Colonies except in ships belonging to England or the Plantations.

Such a law was quite in accord with the colonial policy of that time, for Scotland had contributed nothing, either in blood or treasure, to the acquisition of the Plantations. But Scotland was anxious to find some market for her linens and woollens and her newly established manufactures. As she was now shut out from English markets, and to a large extent from those of the Continent, both by trade policy and William’s French wars, she could only find a market for her goods in the Colonies, where there were no established manufactures. Scotland, however, had no colonies of her own, and she was now shut out from trading with those of England by the Navigation Act.

But Leith’s "sugarie" in the Old Sugar-house Close could not carry on without supplies of raw sugar, nor could the hat factory at Beaverhall continue to gratify the demand for beaver hats without a supply of beaver skins for their manufacture. Fortunate was it for Leith, therefore, that the trade regulations of those days were more strict in theory than in practice. For this reason, in spite of the Navigation Act, she was enabled to carry on a considerable trade with the Plantations in woollens, linens, stockings and other "Scotch goods," as they were then called. This trade was greatly encouraged by the colonists, because the Scottish goods, though coarser in quality, were cheaper in price than those sent from England.

Another of Leith’s exports during this period was "notorious vagabonds," with whom she was kept well supplied from Edinburgh. Strange as it may seem these "vagabonds" were much prized by the colonists, for despite their designation they made excellent and trustworthy servants. Some of them had, no doubt, been notorious enough, but many were no worse than poor Covenanters and "absenters from the kirk," who, like the two hundred or more prisoners from Greyfriars’ Churchyard wrecked in the ill-fated Crown, had refused to conform to Episcopacy.

Doorway and Stair Window, 10 ShoreThis trade in shipping off prisoners as slaves to the Plantations was a paying business, and English vessels voyaging to America and the West Indies would often come to anchor in Leith Roads and ship as many prisoners as could be had, for the Privy Council was always ready to empty the prisons and "be rid of such vermin." These vessels would then go North-about and continue their voyage to the west. Indeed, so profitable did merchants and skippers find the trade, that people were often kidnapped, a practice made familiar to us by Stevenson’s exciting story of the adventures of David Balfour, and by the true story of the life of Peter Williamson, the man who issued the first Edinburgh Directory in 1773. As late as 1810 a butcher of North Leith named Leadbitter was imprisoned for kidnapping boys to serve aboard ships voyaging to distant lands.

And so when ships like the Hopewell of Leith sailed with a cargo of "Scotch goods" to the Plantations, to return with tobacco and supplies for the sugarie and the factory at Beaverhall, James Graham and Thomas Hamilton, merchants in Edinburgh, her owners, would "crave the delivery of such idle vagabonds and other persons as may be ready to go to the Plantations." These unfortunates were generally kindly treated by the planters and were usually set free after a number of years, when they settled down on small plantations of their own. Along with those Scots who now emigrated to the Colonies instead of serving in foreign armies or wandering as pedlars and traders in Poland, they naturally kept in touch with their own countrymen, and encouraged them to come and trade with them. And in this way Leith vessels continued to sail to the Plantations in spite of every English regulation to keep them out.

The larger ships required to meet the needs of those more distant voyages brought about the first of the many harbour extensions that have been made to accommodate Leith’s ever-growing trade. The Shore had been gradually stretching seawards beyond the King’s Wark, and in 1677 Robert Mylne, the King’s Master Mason, obtained a grant of the waste land at the mouth of the harbour on which he erected "for his own use and benefit the great stone tenement upon the Shore of Leith," to quote a family charter. This tenement, now numbered 10 Shore, is still owned by the Mylne family. It possesses a beautifully moulded doorway and stair window, in the pediment of which, within a chaplet of roses, are the initials of its famous builder, R. M., and the date 1678. Here resided Robert Mylne’s son William, who was the first of the family to drop the old title of Master Mason for the new one of Architect. He was one of the supporters of the king’s policy of establishing Episcopacy in South Leith Church during the "killing time," as one would expect the son of the King’s Master Mason to be.

Signal Tower and Myln's Land, ShoreIn 1685 Robert Mylne received another grant of land along the seashore, where he undertook to erect a seawall to resist the encroachment of the waves, and to construct a windmill, leaving between it and the north gable of his tenement a suitable entrance to the adjoining Timber Bush. The great stone tenement, the windmill, and the entrance to the Timber Bush may still be seen on the Shore. The windmill is now the Old Signal Tower used to-day by Messrs. Cran as a part of their works. A portion of the seawall, which Robert Mylne built in 1685 to protect the stores of wood within the Timber Bush from being washed away by the sea, still forms the lower part of the walls of the shacks lining Tower Street, and in them one can easily discern the built-up openings, like embrasures for cannon, through which the timber cargoes floated from the ships were hauled for storage within the Timber Bush.

This windmill built by Robert Mylne at the entrance to the harbour, together with the one at St. Anthony’s, and a third built on the town ramparts near Links Lane behind South Leith Church, must have given a quaint Dutch-like aspect to Leith in those brave days of old in approaching it from the sea. It was from this harbour as reconstructed by Robert Mylne that the Darien Company’s expedition sailed away in such high hope in 1698, and it is substantially this harbour we see depicted in the old Dutch picture now in the Trinity House.

Scotland, in adopting a policy of protecting her new industries against competing products from England and continental countries, went far to shut her own commodities out of European markets. Leith’s illicit trade with the Plantations did not compensate her for the loss of her trade with England, France, and the Netherlands. During King William’s wars with France her commercial intercourse with the Baltic had increased as that route was safer from the attacks of French war ships and privateers than those to Holland and Spain and Portugal.

But Scotland, and more especially the Leith and Edinburgh part of it, had become a manufacturing centre, and markets for the disposal of her manufactured goods were urgently needed. Having spent what capital she could gather together in establishing manufactures, she now gave what money she had left to found the Darien Company to settle a colony in Darien, which was to be a great colonial market for the disposal of Scottish manufactures. The maximum amount of stock one could hold in the Darien Company was £3,000, the sum subscribed by the Corporation of Edinburgh, but none of the sixteen Leith shareholders on the list approached this amount. The highest was the share of James Balfour, the ancestor of the Pilrig family and a partner in the soap-works in Riddle’s Close and the powder-mills at Powderhall, who subscribed £2,000, while Robert Douglas, his rival in the soap trade, with more Scots caution, put his name down for the modest sum of £100. The Trinity House "adventured" £200, as also did Mr. William Wishart, the minister of South Leith.

Leith Harbour as extended by Robert Mylne in 1685.And so on a fine day in July 1698 the whole population of Edinburgh and Leith, we are told, poured down upon the pier and sands of Leith to see the five ships, which had been specially built at Amsterdam and Hamburg for the expedition, weigh anchor in Leith Roads, and to cheer loud and long as the vessels hoisted sail and made their way down the Firth. With the second expedition, which sailed in the following year, went as chaplain the Rev. Archibald Stobo, from whose daughter, Jean, was descended Martha Bulloch, the mother of the late President Roosevelt.

The expeditions, instead of founding a colonial market as an outlet for Scottish manufactured goods, ended in disaster, and brought much sorrow to Leith, for of the nine ships that sailed away only one returned.

The feeling of hatred against King William and the English, and especially against the East India Company, who largely contributed to the failure, and deliberately left the colonists to whatever fate might befall them, was deep and bitter. It soon showed itself in unfriendly and hostile acts that still further inflamed the feeling of enmity between the two countries. After the failure of their great colonial scheme the Darien Company still carried on a shipping trade with the East. This was strongly resented by the East India Company, who looked upon the countries round the Indian Ocean as their peculiar sphere for trading. They seized and sold the Annandale, one of the Darien Company’s ships, while another, the Speedy Return, had sailed to the East three years before, and, in spite of her name, had not since been heard of.

Just at this time an East Indiaman, the Worcester, driven by stress of weather, sought shelter in the Forth. The Worcester did not belong to the East India Company, as was supposed at the time, but to a rival company founded in the same year as the Darien Company. Rumours began to get abroad that Captain Green and the crew of the Worcester had captured a Scottish ship off the Malabar coast, and had murdered the crew. It was at once concluded that this ship was the Speedy Return, and that an overruling Providence had directed Captain Green and his men to the Forth for punishment. The upshot was that Captain Green and two of his crew were tried, and, without a shadow of proof, condemned to be hung as pirates on Leith sands, where the angry population of the two towns crowded to see that they did not escape. If the crew of the Worcester had seized any Scottish ship it was not the Speedy Return, for that much misnamed vessel, it would seem, eventually found her way back to Leith.

The feeling of enmity deeds such as these stirred up between the two countries was now so strong that any further acts of hostility could only end in war. It was seen that the two countries must either once more become separate kingdoms or be brought into closer union, and have the same rights and privileges. They were wisely guided, and the result was the Act of Union of 1707. The good folk of Edinburgh and Leith were opposed to the Union, and on 1st May, the day on which the Act came into force, the musical bells of St. Giles’, which no longer hang in the steeple, gave sympathetic expression to the feelings of the people by pealing forth the melancholy old Scots tune, "O why should I be sad upon my wedding day?"

A Relic of the Old Leith Glass-Houses


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