There is Something About Mary

Posted by in September's Magazine

Do I remember the first time? Why of course I do. I’d been living in Scotland for a decade and found myself dancing on the bar of the Port O’ Leith very late one night, I jumped down and my buddy ushered my sweaty body over to the front door, pointing out a well-dressed slender lady who looked like my secondary school French teacher and whispering: “That’s Mary, she runs the place.”

Even since then I’ve wanted to meet her properly. Mary would pop up on my radar, at events, at flea markets, shaking the donation bucket for Leith Festival. However it took this fine publication to offer me the opportunity for an official blether face to face in her kitchen, just off Leith Links. Ever hospitable, I supped on a strong coffee as we chatted and cackled our way through one of the easiest interviews I’ve ever done.


Mary was brought up on the other side of town in Corstorphine. Originally an antiques dealer, she had a warehouse in Leith in the 1970s and found herself moving to the port. “I much prefer Leith, but I shouldn’t say that” she states, and bursts out laughing. Having previously run a pub in Haddington, in the early 1980s Mary became the publican of the infamous Port O’ Leith on Constitution Street, and ran it for the next 25 years. Her daughter Eilidh ran the neighbouring Constitution Bar next door for a number of years too.

“When I had the pub the sailors would come off the merchant ships, or visiting Navy frigates from Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, I think, if I can remember. They were just interested in getting off the ship and not looking at the 20-odd men they’d been looking at for the last few months. So they were always jolly, liked a drink, liked to talk. Different people coming through, and it was wonderful.” She exclaims, revelling in the memory.

But don’t call her the Queen of Leith. “It’s bloody embarrassing, I don’t know why people call me that”. When I pointed out it might have something to do with her being awarded the British Empire Medal in 2014, Mary was vehement. “That award was for Leith Festival, so if that’s why people call me that then we’re ALL Queens!” And looking around her kitchen, you can see that Mary is indeed dedicated to our local festival. Leith Festival posters adorn the walls and paperwork is stacked near the kitchen table.

Mary got involved in Leith Festival at the turn of the millennium, when the former minister of Leith Parish Church, Reverend Ian Gilmour, held a public meeting to drum up interest for the then ailing community festival. Mary joined the board, and the rest as they say, is history (or herstory).

Back then Leith Gala day was much smaller than it is now; a few stalls and a tombola. It has since grown arms and legs, which is partly due to her relentless hard work. The formerly famous Pageant (one of the oldest), which trundles from Pilrig Park to Leith Links on Gala day, has sadly diminished over time. This could partially be attributed to the fact the police halted the pageant in 2003/4 for having the audacity to have a child on the back of a flatbed truck float. Health and Safety alert! The parade was stopped, the float fined, and since then it has been comprised entirely of non-mechanical paraders. (See my article in the last Leither for the history of the Leith pageant.)

“I think Leith is changing for the better, certainly. When I first came here to Leith it was definitely… (she thinks) …run down. Run down in the sense that there were a lot of unoccupied warehouse, unoccupied buildings. It’s better now.”

The week after chatting with Mary I popped along to LeithLate production Drifters, a special screening of a pioneering 1920s herring fishing film accompanied by live singing and beatboxing, screened at Destiny Church. Leith is full of history and Destiny Church is in fact housed in the old Central cinema with one of the only surviving plaster screens in Europe – a fitting venue for such a monumental screening.

It reminded me of the fact that Leith is indeed a port town, has always been a melting pot of cultures and ideas. It’s inspirational to live and work here. However places like Leith are becoming a rarity, as towns become bland, carbon copy High Streets populated with supermarkets, coffee chains and moneylenders. We need to keep the celebration of our unique past and future going and keeping Leith Festival going is an integral part of that.

Or as Mary says: “We live here, we work here, we eat here, we want everything to be the best it can be for us.” Go on, don’t just sit there, do something. 

Twitter: @tracygriffen


Pic: Mary Moriarty at the Dockers Club mural on the Leith audio tour created by Citadel Arts Group

Photo courtesy Eric Robinson

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