Treasures of the wine dark sea

Posted by in June's Magazine

To get under the skin of a place and to understand its spirit and what makes it tick, we really need to take a look at it from a historical context; the history of Leith shows us that for several centuries it was one of the motors of economic growth for the city. The engine driving that development was the trade flowing through its port due to the strength of its merchant fleet, wine from France, timber from the Baltic, treasures brought back by the whaling fleets – these are all historic signals of its wealth and success.

Leith was governed, in its hey-day, by the powerful triumvirate of the Magistrates, the Customs, and the Ship Owners and Masters, and evidence of their power and influence still surrounds us. The Customs House dominates one side of the port, the old Town Hall, now the police station on the corner of Constitution Street and Queen Charlotte Street, was built by the Magistrates and Masters in 1828 and Trinity House, at the back of the Kirkgate pedestrian precinct, was built by the Ship Owners and Masters in the early 17th century, on the foundations of what had previously been a charita-ble hospital for injured seamen.



Trinity House is one of the gems in Leith’s historic crown. It is the home of the Fraternity of Ship Owners and Masters, originally founded in 1380 and one of Leith’s four original guilds. The word Fraternity in the original title gradually evolved into Trinity, as in Trinity House, as in the borough of Trinity, which is where the Owners and Masters first developed charitable housing for families who had lost their men folk in service with the merchant fleet, as well as developing some fairly impressive mansions of their own. Trinity House was a charity whose big break came in 1556, when Mary Queen of Scots introduced a new tax, called Prime Gilt, which was a levy on all goods passing in or out of the port, with all proceeds going to their charity.

It is now a museum, run as a part-nership between the Ship Owners and Masters and Historic Scotland, and the one-hour tour is a historic treasure generations of wealth and prosperity. The ‘fifty guinea’ ceiling is a delight. It shows our bold, adventuring sea-men with their telescopes trained not on the navigational hazards around them but on the pretty damsels who are lining the quays in anticipation of their arrival, which tells us a bit more about the real life and spirit of old Leith. Covering the wall at one end of the Convenor’s Room is one of the highlights of the collection; a fantastic, vibrant 1849 painting by David Scott, depicting Vasco de Gama doubling the Cape of Good Hope in dramatic weath-er. It hangs in the Convenor’s Room because it has the only wall space in Leith large enough for it, which seems to encapsulate the spirit of adventure and excitement that attracted genera-tions to Leith’s merchant fleet and the wealth that flowed in to the port with its sustained success.Trinity House may look closed a lot of the time, but don’t be put off. Behind the closed gate (not locked, it opens if you fiddle with the catch) and the locked doors (they open, after a pause, once you sound the bell) is an old chest of treasures to explore. Though you need to book in advance during the week, the visit is free and there are pre-scheduled open tours on a Satur-day. So why not sling your anchor, give yourself an hour and go exploring?

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