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The Story of Leith
VIII. The Overlordship of Edinburgh


IN the last chapter we saw how Leith at last freed herself from the shackles by which Edinburgh had for so many long centuries restricted her from almost any share in the shipping trade of her own harbour. But Edinburgh, in another way, still continued to hamper Leith’s activities, for, from the closing years of the fourteenth century, she began to have another hold on Leith which tightened more and more as the years passed, and held her in an even more galling bondage than that of being excluded from any share in the foreign trade of her own harbour.

In being shut out from engaging in the overseas trade of their own port Leithers were no worse off than the inhabitants of other unfree ports throughout the land. The Clyde burghs of Rutherglen, Renfrew, and Dumbarton did all they could to hamper and impede the trade of the unfree town of Glasgow. But there the jurisdiction of these royal burghs over Glasgow ended. They had no other rights over the good folk of this unfree port, who in all other matters were under the authority of their own overlord, the archbishop of the cathedral.

The lot of those unfree towns was happy compared with that of Leith. For not only did Edinburgh own the harbour, and possess the sole right of carrying on all the overseas trade of the port of Leith, but by purchasing the feudal rights of the Logans and other superiors she gradually became overlord of nearly the whole town as well, and thus exercised complete authority over its inhabitants, and regulated all their doings. Leith was in the position of a serf of which Edinburgh was the owner. Serfs had really no individual rights, and therefore Leith as a town had none. Its inhabitants were for this reason looked on as unfree. No other town in Scotland had the freedom of its inhabitants so hampered and obstructed, or had its affairs so completely subjected to the selfish interests of its overlord, as were those of Leith.

From 1398 down to 1833, when Leith was made a separate burgh by Act of Parliament, the relationship between the two towns may be described as, on the one hand, the most constant and jealous interference and control on the part of Edinburgh to further what she considered her undoubted rights, and, on the other hand, an equally constant evasion of this control on every possible opportunity on the part of Leith. The Merchant Guild of Edinburgh, who alone at this time, and for the next two hundred years, monopolized the right to membership of the Town Council, thought, and no doubt rightly, that they could enforce and maintain their trade privileges in Leith all the more strongly if they, instead of the Logans, were the feudal superiors of the town.

Gradually, therefore, the whole of South Leith held by the Logans passed from the possession of the barons of Restalrig into that of the wealthy and, if truth must be told, somewhat proud and overbearing merchant burgesses of Edinburgh, who proved very exacting overlords to the Leithers, just as they were somewhat tyrannous and oppressive in their rule of all the inhabitants of Edinburgh itself who were not fortunate enough to be members of the Merchant Guild, and whom they jealously excluded from all share in the municipal government of the city.

To the many restrictions and prohibitions upon her freedom to trade abroad, dating from the earliest years of her history—for Bruce’s famous charter only confirmed what former kings had granted—we owe the origin of the unfriendly feeling between the two towns. But to the irritating and humiliating state of vassalage just described, much more than to Edinburgh’s trading privileges as a royal burgh, is due that feeling of suspicion and unfriendliness that still, to some extent, exists between the two towns. The prolongation of this state of vassalage for so many years after the growing commerce of the country had rendered the trading restrictions no longer possible, added to and greatly intensified this unfriendly feeling.

The Town Council of Edinburgh, then, gradually acquired complete control of Leith and all its affairs. For this reason Leith never had a provost, magistrates, or town council of her own until she became a parliamentary burgh under the Burgh Reform Act in 1833. The records of the Town Council of Edinburgh form a rich storehouse of the city’s history, and are valuable for the information they give regarding the customs and social life of its inhabitants in mediaeval times. Leith, on the other hand, having been an unfree town right down to the early decades of the nineteenth century, has, of course Town Council records from that time only, and thus what would have proved a valuable source of her early history was never written, and so we must look for it elsewhere. The loss from 1589 is partially replaced by the records of the Sessions of South and North Leith Parish Churches Of the former body, the two Edinburgh bailies—the Water Bailie and his Deputy—charged with the control and supervision of South Leith affairs, were members by virtue of their office.

The Session of the Parish Church, aided by the two Edinburgh bailies, strange as it may seem to us in our more democratic days, discharged many of the duties of a town council, and for over two hundred years had a considerable share in the management and direction of the public affairs of the town. Their records have been published for the period 1588—1700, and are not surpassed in the interest of their details by any similar publication for the same period. Yet few Leithers have taken the trouble to read them, and still fewer have thought them worthy of purchase. That seems altogether strange in a town that has never lacked a vigorous spirit of local patriotism.

We have learned that from the earliest days of their history, towns, like baronies, had their overlords, who held absolute sway over them and their inhabitants. As they grew in size towns became impatient of this rule, and wished to govern themselves through their corporations, as our towns do today. Where the king or some noble was overlord this freedom of self-government was not very difficult to obtain, for kings and nobles were often in need of money, and this need the towns under their rule were ever ready to supply in return for a larger freedom. They would advance a goodly sum to a needy king or baron in return for a document called a charter, in which the privileges to be granted them were fully detailed. Step by step in this way towns were constantly obtaining a larger measure of freedom until, as in the case of royal burghs like Edinburgh, they finally obtained self-government.

In many cases, as in that of Edinburgh, this privilege of self-government was acquired at so early a period that the charter by which it was granted has long ago disappeared. The royal burghs grew to be the largest and most important towns in the country, because they were allowed to develop freely without their industrial activities being fettered in any way by the arbitrary rule of some overlord. Baronial towns like Dalkeith were not quite so fortunate, and towns like the Canongate, which belonged to the Church, were still less so in their struggle for freedom, though continued for centuries, as rich and powerful bodies like the abbot and monks of some wealthy abbey, such as Holyrood, could not be induced to part with many of their powers by offers of money, however large.

But the lot of Church towns like the Canongate or Musselburgh was fortunate compared with that of unhappy Leith. While it was not unusual in Italy during the Middle Ages to find one town subject to another at least for a time, so far as its outside relations were concerned, as Pisa and Lucca to Florence in the early fourteenth century, yet such a servitude, except in the case of that of Leith to Edinburgh, was unknown in Scotland. In being subject to Edinburgh, Leith was the vassal of a wealthy city corporation, proud of its possessions and privileges, whom no sum of money could tempt to part with any one of them in the smallest degree. On the contrary, in order to obtain more complete control of the harbour and its shipping, and to check any attempt of the Leithers to evade her statutes and ordinances, or to infringe her trade monopoly, it was to the interest of Edinburgh to tighten by every means in her power, rather than to relax, her hold over her unhappy vassal, and the most effective way of doing this was to obtain possession of the town as well as of the harbour. This then became the traditional policy of the Corporation of Edinburgh, and they spent large sums of money in its pursuit.

The town of Leith in the far-off times of which we are now speaking—the closing years of the fourteenth century—was owned by three feudal superiors: the king, the Laird of Restalrig, and the Abbot of Holyrood. Edinburgh’s first possessions in Leith were, of course, those of the harbour and mills gifted to her by royal charter at some period of that golden age of Scotland’s history extending from the reign of David I. to the death of Alexander III.—that is, between 1124 and 1286. Mills, owing to the large revenue derived from them, were among the most valuable of an overlord’s possessions. They were as prominent a feature in the Leith of the fourteenth century as they are today, for both the Laird of Restalrig and the Abbot of Holyrood had mills in Leith as well as the Town Council of Edinburgh. No barony, indeed, was then without its mill. Though in later years we find windmills as well, those in Leith at this time were all driven by water power, and were therefore situated somewhere by the banks of the Water of Leith; but their exact location, except in the case of one or two which were owned by the Laird of Restalrig, is unknown today. Bonnington Mills, which we find a possession of Holyrood from their earliest record, perhaps supplied the needs of the abbot’s lands of North Leith as well as those of more outlying parts. The mills of the Laird of Restalrig, specifically known as Leith Mills, were sold to the city of Edinburgh in 1722 by Lord Balmerino.

The mills gifted to Edinburgh along with the harbour, though frequently spoken of in later years as "Leith Mills," are not so designated in Robert the Bruce’s charter. Leith Mills belonged, as we have already seen, to the lairds of Restalrig. Where Edinburgh’s mills were situated is not known. With the harbour they were the earliest of the city’s possessions in Leith. This royal grant did not confer any right to the use of the banks of the river, and disputes arose with Sir Robert Logan, the proprietor which were only settled by the Edinburgh authorities paying him a large sum of money for the banks, with liberty to erect wharves and quays thereon, and to make roads through the lands of Restalrig for the transport of goods and merchandise to and from the city. Their main highway became the Easter Road of later days, while the abbot and canons of Holyrood had their own approach to Leith by way of Broughton Loan and the Bonnington or Western Road, which passed through their own lands all the way to the ford and ferry across the water to North Leith.

In 1414 Edinburgh made another bargain with Sir Robert Logan, and obtained a charter from him by which he granted to the city all the land along the river bank from the abbot’s lands of St. Leonards, now the Coalhill, to the mouth of the river, which was then where the Broad Wynd is now, while the waste land beyond that point, in some way unknown to us today, belonged to Holyrood Abbey. Up to this time the only means of access to the harbour which Logan allowed the Edinburgh burgesses was by the narrow yet quaintly picturesque Burgess Close, now widened into a street, utterly wanting in the old-world charm that graced its ancient predecessor.

Old Burgess Close, showing the Nisi Dns Frustra Doorway

The old Burgess Close, which ran south-east to the Rotten Row, now Water Street, was not for Leith folks. It contained the booths and stores of those Edinburgh burgesses engaged in the commerce of their port. In an old building which formerly stood here, probably at one time the booth of one of those Edinburgh merchant burgesses, there was a beautifully moulded doorway with a finely carved lintel containing the heraldic motto of the city, Nisi Dominus Frustra, in the abbreviated form Nisi Dns Frustra, and the date, 1573, with what looked like a merchant’s mark, but which might have been merely decoration. This is the oldest carved lintel of Leith of which there is any record, and, curiously enough, the oldest carved dated lintel in Edinburgh has a variation of the same heraldic motto. The Edinburgh burgesses compelled the Laird of Restalrig to give them a wider and more convenient access to their harbour, and in this further grant we have the origin of Tolbooth Wynd as a street.

The next superiority the city acquired was that of Newhaven, founded by James IV. in 1504 on lands acquired from the Abbey of Holyrood in exchange for part of his own domain of Linlithgow. Here he erected shipbuilding yards and a naval dockyard for the construction and accommodation of the navy he was so ambitious to possess. The city of Edinburgh, we are told, did not look with favour on this new rival to their own port of Leith. James’s naval schemes had already exhausted his treasury, and, as the sale of Newhaven was in no way to interfere with the work of his shipyards there, he readily parted with it in 1510 to the Edinburgh Council, who were only too eager to possess it, for frequent injury was done to the trading privileges of the royal burghs by ports outside their control.


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