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The Story of Leith
IV. Leith's Part with Robert The Bruce


WITH the tragic and untimely death of Alexander III. Scotland was to enter upon a long, cruel, and desolating war to maintain her independence against the aggressive policy of Edward I. During this troubled period the prosperity which Alexander III. and his immediate predecessors, the "Kings of Peace," had done so much to build up by their wise and friendly policy towards England was completely destroyed. Alexander’s little granddaughter, the Maid of Norway, was the nearest heir to the throne. The Scots agreed with her grand-uncle, Edward I., that she should become the bride of his son, Edward, Prince of Wales, and in this way bring about the union of England and Scotland under one sovereign. But this child of many hopes, the little Maid, died on the voyage from Norway, leaving to Scotland a disputed succession which gave an opening for the mischievous interference of Edward I. The English king’s attempt to make Scotland a province of England changed the two otherwise friendly countries into bitter foes. The three centuries of devastating wars that followed made Scotland very unlike the happy and prosperous country she was in the days of Alexander III.

In 1296 Edward captured Berwick, and, by a savage massacre of its inhabitants, reduced that city of merchant princes to the market town it has ever since remained. Mounted on his great war horse Bayard, Edward led his army northwards and took up his quarters at Holyrood, while his fleet, laden with supplies for his troops, anchored off Leith.

During his progress through Scotland the landowners of the country great and small, churchmen, nobles, and the chief burgesses, were summoned to do homage and swear fealty to the conqueror. The names of all who performed these acts of homage have been carefully preserved on four rolls of parchment known as the Ragman Roll. These rolls form a valuable record of the lands, though not always of their owners, in our own immediate district at this date, and to them we are indebted for any little light that gives us a peep at the condition of things in and around Leith during those dark and troubled days. It is there that we find for the first time the name of an Edinburgh magistrate, namely, William de Dederyk, Alderman, as the provost was called in those early days.

There, too, we find the name of Adam, parson of Restalrig, the parish church of Leith at this time. King Edward had seized the lands of Holyrood, so that the greater half of Leith passed into the hands of the English; but Abbot Adam and all the canons swore a solemn oath of fealty to the English king in the Abbey chapter-house, a few remains of whose foundations may still be seen on the lawn at Holyrood. In those days men did not observe very faithfully feudal pledges not over willingly given, so, to add to the solemnity of their oath, the abbot and canons were compelled to swear over the sacrament bread—the Corpus Christi or body of Christ—brought from the high altar dedicated to the Holy Rood.

In this way was the convent again put in possession of its lands, no doubt to the joy of its sorely troubled vassals in Leith, who rejoiced to have the good abbot and canons come among them, as they were wont to do. Thus did the policy of Abbot Adam of swearing fealty to Edward I. secure the safety of his monastery and the fortunes of his part of Leith during his remaining years. But they were difficult and dangerous times, and it was no easy matter knowing what course to steer. The Abbey with its adjacent possessions was doomed to suffer grievously at the hands of the English before they would yield to acknowledge Scotland’s independence.

The lands of Holyrood were not the only parts of Leith to come under King Edward’s peace at this time. Farther down the roll we find the name of John de Lestalric and that of his near neighbour, and no doubt good friend, Geoffrey de Fressinglye, Lord of Puddingston. A few years later, however, De Lestalric and his companion-in-arms, De Fressinglye, were to forfeit their lands of Restalrig and Duddingston for being among the first to enlist under the banner of Robert the Bruce and doing their "bit" in the long and strenuous fight for Scotland’s independence. In this struggle they were either killed or worn out with hardships and toil, for, like Randolph and the Good Lord James, they both died comparatively early in life.

The early struggle against England is rather an obscure period of Scotland’s history, and but for the immediate neighbourhood of the mighty fortress of Edinburgh Castle, which was strongly held for England until the year of Bannockburn, and which dominated and held in subjection the whole neighbourhood, Leith might have dropped out of the history of this time altogether; but, as it is, it bulks more largely, if less romantically, than Edinburgh itself in the story of those stirring and chivalrous days.

No sooner did the English garrison take up its quarters in Edinburgh Castle than English ships began to arrive in Leith harbour with large supplies of all kinds, the various items of which show us that grains and wines were then, as with us to-day, among the chief imports. These stores, many of which came from Berwick under the protection of the traitor Earl of Dunbar, who was ever on the side of England, included wheat, barley, malt, meal and wines, munitions of war, and "Eastland boards" for the manufacture of Edward I’s great war machines.

Many of these stores were reshipped in smaller craft for the English garrisons at Stirling, Clackmannan, and other places of strength farther up the Forth. In 1303, for example, an engine capable of throwing missiles weighing one hundredweight was sent with munitions from Edinburgh Castle to Edward I., who had been for three months baffled in the capture of Stirling Castle by the vigilance and skill of that gallant knight and near neighbour to the Leith folks of those days, Sir William Oliphant of Muirhouse, just beyond Pilton.

For the protection of these stores a detachment from the Castle garrison was posted in Leith, no doubt in some fort on the Shore near the Broad Wynd, the seaward limit of the town in those days. There were no great docks in Leith at this time, with their miles of stone quays. The Shore, which extended as far as the present Broad Wynd, was then the only quay for the loading and discharging of vessels. How picturesque must have been the scene, with the green and wooded banks of the winding river, and the old-world ships with their great high sterns, from which their captains could overlook and direct all that was being done! How great also the noise and bustle among the English soldiers as they loaded their lumbering and creaking wagons with their share of stores for Edinburgh Castle!

There was no Leith Walk then, nor for many centuries after, and we must put from our minds all our notions of roads derived from the fine highways of our own day. The Easter Road, Bonnington Road, and the Restalrig Road were then mere tracks across the heathery waste that, but for the cornfields adjacent to the two towns, filled all the area between the port and the city, if we may so dignify the four hundred or more thatched dwellings that made up the Edinburgh of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The most direct road, and, no doubt, the one most used by the English soldiery, was the Bonnington Road, which led cityward by way of Broughton. It was at this early date, one may be sure, the most frequented and the best of the three tracks, for the monks of Holyrood to whom it belonged were great roadmakers.

In the spring of 1314 many of those same English soldiers who had been accustomed to drive so merrily with munitions and stores between the Castle and the Shore fell under the swords of Randolph and his companions when they captured Edinburgh Castle by climbing the Castle rock overlooking Princes Street—the most brilliant feat of arms of that heroic age. Immediately afterwards the English garrison posted in Leith burnt all their shipping and stores and sailed away southwards to Berwick, then a great English naval and military base for supplying and fitting out expeditions against Scotland.

A few months later, on a bright day towards the end of June, the great army of Edward II., on its way to Bannockburn, and anticipating an easy and triumphant victory, encamped between Edinburgh and Leith to receive supplies from the fleet which lay off the harbour. This great English host, though perhaps only a fourth as large as the chroniclers would have us believe, was yet imposing enough to dismay the Scots leaders as they saw it approaching them at Bannockburn.

The womenfolk of Leith from some safe retreat watched the mighty host march away westwards, and trembled at the sight when they thought of their sons and husbands who had followed the banner of their gallant leader, Sir John de Lestalric, to join the king at Stirling; for Leithers in the old days, as in these, were loyally patriotic, and ever among the foremost to rally to their country’s need. There was one Leither, however, a sailor, whose name, preserved for us in a pay sheet of this time, shows him to have been in the service of the English. This is not surprising, considering that they had held Leith as one of their chief bases of supplies for nearly twenty years. Nicholas of Leith, mariner, was with the English ships at Berwick, and may at this very time have come with the fleet to Leith Roads.

How unexpected must have been the sight, and how wild their joy, when these same Leith womenfolk saw some five hundred fugitive horsemen, all that was left of the flower of England’s chivalry that had ridden past Leith with so brave a show some three days before, pass in headlong flight on their way towards England. They were led by a traitor Scot, and followed close at heel by the Good Lord James with some sixty men, too few to attack, but not too few to cut off stragglers and keep the main body on the move.

In spite of his crushing defeat at Bannockburn, Edward II. obstinately refused to acknowledge Scotland as a free and independent country and Bruce as its king. The war was, therefore, resolutely carried on, mostly by invasions of England on the part of the Scots, under the gallant and skilful leadership of Douglas and Randolph. Provoked by these numerous and destructive raids, Edward determined, in 1322, on another attempt to crush Scotland. This invasion brings Leith once more into notice, for here Edward encamped for three days to await the arrival of his fleet with supplies. Bruce followed the tactics Wallace employed against Edward I. before the Battle of Falkirk. All cattle, corn, and food of every kind were secreted far from the English line of march. All merchandise was, no doubt, stored within the Castle. Edward found no cattle in Lothians save one cow too lame to be driven away like the others.

But where did the people of Edinburgh and Leith betake themselves? During an English invasion some sixty years later it is recorded that they transported themselves and their goods across the Forth, previously carrying off the straw roofs of their dwellings, so that when the English entered they found only roofless and empty houses. But the Leithers did not always betake themselves so far in times of invasion, for there were many safe retreats among the woods, marshes, and lakes by which the Leith and Edinburgh of those early centuries were surrounded, and to which Edinburgh may have owed its name of Lislebourg, so persistently used by Queen Mary, Mary of Guise, and the French of the sixteenth century.

Starvation compelled the English to retreat; but before doing so, to the horror of the whole neighbourhood and the grief of the people of North Leith, the English, as Fordoun, the father of Scottish history and the greatest of our old-time Scots chroniclers, tells us, "sacked and plundered the monastery of Holyrood, and brought it to great desolation," for Edward II. lacked not only the wisdom but also the piety of his father, Longshanks, who was ever a devoted worshipper of the saints and a lover of monasteries. Then the Leithers returned, and quickly and easily rethatched their dwellings, and settled down to the old way of life, to work with redoubled energy to repair their losses; for in those days, as, indeed, all through their history, Leithers had to, and did, live up to their town motto of ‘‘Persevere."

Standing as it did in close proximity to Edinburgh, the goal of most invading English armies, and never possessing, except for a very short period, any protecting walls, Leith suffered even more than Edinburgh at the hands of the "auld enemy." Her houses, largely composed of timber or rude stonework and thatch, were easily and speedily restored. They had certainly no architectural beauty. The ordinary houses of those days were little better than huts, with little furniture and less comfort; but as Leithers had never known anything better, these troubles distressed them little. Such frequent dislocation of their trade and commerce, however, must have greatly retarded the progress of their town. At last the English recognized that their only wise course was to acknowledge Scotland’s independence, which they did by the Treaty of Northampton in 1328, when Scotland gained all she had striven for, and Bruce just saw the accomplishment of his great life work, for he died the following year.

And then it seemed as if all King Robert’s great work was about to be undone, for the peace concluded at Northampton lasted only two years. Edward III. now repudiated what the English called the "shameful treaty " of Northampton. Edward Baliol claimed the throne, and Edward III., hoping, like his grandfather, to become Scotland’s overlord, aided him, and once more the land was cruelly devastated by English invasion. In 1335 Edward III. ordered Edinburgh Castle to be rebuilt and fortified, and for this purpose much Eastland timber was brought into Leith and then transported to Edinburgh. The work was carried out under Sir John de Stirling, an exceedingly able and active officer, who, on taking over his command, reported that there was no dwelling in the said Castle save a little chapel (St. Margaret’s), partly unroofed, showing with what reverence Randolph had preserved it, and how completely he had destroyed the Castle as a fortress. Stirling’s accounts, still preserved, form a valuable record of the condition of things in our neighbourhood under English rule.

Sir John de Lestalric and his companion-in-arms, Geoffrey of Duddingston, were now dead, whether slain in battle against the English or not we have now no means of knowing. Each had been succeeded by his son—true "chips of the old blocks," for both were forfeited for loyally and nobly supporting the cause of Scotland and freedom against Edward III., while many renegade Scots saved their estates by taking the English side. With the English garrison in Edinburgh Castle were some twenty Scotsmen, of whom not one belonged to either Leith or Restalrig, showing that the hearts of his vassals were with their forfeited lord.

Leith now once again became the chief port on the east coast for English supplies, and here the English occupied De Lestalric’s house, but whether as a place of residence for their garrison or as a storehouse for supplies—more probably the latter—we are not told. The names of many of the ships bringing supplies from the south to Leith are recorded—such as the Mariola, St. Nicholas, and the Goddys Grace—their saintly names in no way deterring their captains and crews from indulging in a little piracy when occasion offered.

Sir John de Stirling commandeered a fleet of eighteen boats from Cramond, Musselburgh, and other places, to be moored at Leith for the use of his garrison, and now and again the governor’s account books give us a peep at the rather exciting incidents Leith sometimes experienced during the English occupation. Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell, the courageous son of the heroic companion of Wallace, was besieging Cupar Castle in Fife, skilfully defended for the English by William Bulloch, a clergyman of great military talent who had mistaken his calling. Sir John de Stirling determined to cross the Scots Water—that is, the Firth of Forth— and relieve it. For this purpose he had gathered together at Leith a fleet of thirty-two vessels and two hundred and twenty-four mariners. Suddenly crossing the Forth with the whole of the Edinburgh garrison, he successfully accomplished the relief of Bulloch, and returned to Leith within the marvellously short space of four days. But then Edward III., unlike his grandfather, knew how to choose his officers.

Sir John de Stirling, however, skilful commander as he was, had still more skilful opponents, for at this time Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, whose ruined castle still stands above the waters of the South Esk at Cockpen, had gathered together a band of homeless patriots, among whom, perhaps, were the young De Lestalric, and the lords of Duddingston, Craigmillar, Liberton, Braid, Dean, Inverleith, and Pilton—all forfeited and outlawed at this time for their resistance to English aggression. They had their fastness within the ancient caves among the cliffs at Hawthornden, near Roslin. From these, at unexpected times, they would pounce down upon the soldiers of Sir John Stirling as they convoyed supplies between Leith and Edinburgh for the Castle garrison. Sir Alexander Ramsay was one of the most distinguished warriors of that time, and he and his outlawed troop were worthy successors of those who had won Bannockburn. They were the heroes of many daring deeds. With such men as these on the patriotic side, and such women as "Black Agnes" to inspire them with courage, the English and Baliol soon lost their hold in Scotland when their garrisons were driven out of Edinburgh and Leith.

In April 1341 Edinburgh Castle was captured by a clever stratagem planned by Bulloch (who had been won over to the Scots side), Sir William Douglas the Black Knight of Liddesdale, and other heroes, aided by three Edinburgh merchant burgesses, William Fairley, Walter Curry, and William Bartholomew. A merchant ship belonging to Walter Curry was freighted from Dundee with a cargo of provisions for Leith. At Dundee they privately received aboard their ship Douglas, Bulloch, and some two hundred other bold and daring spirits, and, under pretence of being English merchantmen—they had shaved their beards in the Anglo-Norman manner—anchored off Leith. They then offered for sale to the English commander of Edinburgh Castle their cargo of "biscuit, wine, and strong beer all excellently spiced," and were told to bring it to the Castle at an early hour in the morning, "lest they should be intercepted by Dalhousie and other Scottish knaves."

Early next morning the laden wagons set out from the Shore under the care of armed men disguised as sailors, and eventually reached the Castle. The gates were at once opened, and at the entrance the wagons were so halted that it was impossible either to close them or to let down the portcullis.

A shrill blast from a bugle-horn brought Douglas and his friends, who were lurking in the neighbourhood. After a desperate conflict the garrison was overpowered. In this way Leith and Edinburgh were freed from English rule until the days of Cromwell. The descendants of William Fairley long held the estates of Braid and Bruntsfield, but now live in Ayrshire. The merchant booths of Fairley, Curry, and William Bartholomew were the last three on the south side of the High Street, just before coming to St. Giles’ Church. Walter Curry’s, the last of the three, stood exactly where the City Cross stands now. How many Leith and Edinburgh people who pass this spot to-day know aught of these three merchants who had their booths here, and who on that early morning some six hundred years ago played so heroic a part in their country’s story?


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