Whither Leith? The Border Question

Posted by in February's Magazine

In 1920, 90% of Leithers voted against amalgamation with Edinburgh in a Brexit style plebiscite; our lofty neighbours however, voted overwhelmingly in favour. At this time the border was clear: the Forth to our north – from Wardie to the old Leith Poorhouse, later the Eastern General Hospital; inland from Granton harbour to Golden Acre, left along Ferry Road then a sharp right up Newhaven Road to the end of Pilrig Street, cutting through the old Boundary Bar and the tenements on Albert Street to reach Easter Road stadium, (firmly establishing Hibs in Leith, other than a pocket of away supporters in the western corner of the new enlarged stadium); then finally in a straight line from Lochend Loch through the fields of Lochend Farm back to the sea. 

Back in 1920 the border made sense. From Wardie to Seafield, and from the Shore to Pilrig Church, we in Leith had a level of independence a century ago to rival present day Holyrood. Our own independent police force, our own water, schools and health boards, our own theatre and town hall, numerous cinemas and dance halls, our own Leith MP – just for us. And, unlike today, our own trams, on a different gauge of course from our Edinburgh neighbours.


But since ‘incorporation’ our Edinburgh masters have made merry with our borders on many an occasion the most recent being the City of Edinburgh Council’s Locality Plans. There are four such ‘localities’ in the world of Edinburgh local governance. As has so often been the case in these frequent re-drawing of the lines, Leith is partitioned: Leith Academy in one locality and Trinity Academy in another – from Ocean Terminal to Niddrie, most of us now find ourselves in the North East Edinburgh Locality Partnership.

Just over a decade ago the parliamentary boundary commission attempted to rename our parliamentary constituency similarly, as ‘North East Edinburgh’, only to encounter a tsunami of protest. Rarely do these bureaucrats back down, but they did when faced with Leithers United. Then in 2009 Forth Ports were forced to reverse their plans to rename Leith Docks ‘Edinburgh Harbour’. Dinnae mess! 

Of course borders only matter when there is territory that needs separating; when who or what is inside or outside needs defining. Going back some centuries to the time of the Union (the one between Scotland and England) there was no need for a Leith-Edinburgh border. There was clear countryside in between. By today’s standards, Leith was little more than a village and Edinburgh little more than a single street. In the 19th century Great Junction Street was built as a bypass, a way of avoiding the busy bustle of Leith to reach the docks.

When Scotland’s main port in the middle ages, Berwick, finally fell to the English in 1482, Leith became the principal port for the nation. The powerhouse of the kingdom was in the east. Trade, other than to England, faced the Baltic, the Hanseatic League of northern Germany, Flanders, etc. From a Leith perspective, the future was full of promise.

A few decades after Berwick’s fall and Leith’s ascendancy, Mary Queen of Scots’ mother moved her Royal Court to Leith on the site of present day Parliament Street by the Shore. Some decades later, if the Protestant rebellion had been defeated and the Siege of Leith had not forced our French allies to flee from the Protestant’s English allies, Leith could have remained Scotland’s capital in a Catholic independent Scotland. A century later, Cromwell also understood the importance of Leith as the route to subduing Edinburgh. The Citadel, the Cromwell streets nearby, indeed the very creation of Leith Walk are all testament to this rather controversial Leith champion from the other side of the religious divide.

So was the incorporation of Leith into Edinburgh inevitable? Was Edinburgh always destined to expand to the sea? Or could Leith have become the dominant burgh, with Edinburgh its oft forgotten suburb? What we take for granted today might not have always been thus, if historical power politics had taken some different paths. Indulge me.

Take the very existence of our own dear country, Scotland. If the Normans hadn’t subdued Yorkshire and Northumbria by brutal ethnic cleansing in the 11th century, to establish a permanent border from the Tweed to the Solway sands “to mark where England’s province stands”, then perhaps a different country could have emerged. With its southern border, the Humber and the Mersey, and its northern border the Forth and Clyde. No such country as Scotland; instead replaced by some kind of Middle-land with the Pictish north emerging as a Highland independent kingdom. The Cumbrian Tory MP, Rory Stewart, made a whole fantastical series of TV programmes on this thesis just a few years back.

But to return to Leith: four years after Berwick fell, Columbus ‘sailed the ocean blue’. The Portuguese, the Spanish and then the English proceeded to make themselves rich from the sale of human beings and the wealth they created for their ‘owners’. Leith’s fate was sealed. After the Union, and the access this gave us to England’s trade routes, we in Scotland, and particularly Glasgow, boomed. Maybe, if the slave trade hadn’t happened, and commerce hadn’t moved to our western shores, Glasgow might have remained as important to the Scottish economy as Wick. Maybe if the Reformation hadn’t switched Scotland’s treaty allegiances from France to England, and Leith’s very brief taste as Scotland’s capital had endured, it all could have been so very different.   

It was not to be. Edinburgh started to pen Leith in, gobbling up the coastal villages of Cramond, Granton and Portobello on either side. We did our own land grab too; taking in Newhaven and Trinity, but it was too little too late. In my adolescence I remember my dad joking that they’d renamed Leith – as EH6 – which actually reflected the 1920 boundary remarkable faithfully. Leith had become a postal number. In fact a post office worker once told me that if you put ‘Leith’ instead of ‘Edinburgh’ when addressing an envelope, even with the right postcode, it actually delays delivery!

So what is Leith today? Urban boundaries, unlike national ones, change inevitably with the growth in population and housing. Yet the intriguing thing is how enduring the Leith identity of place is. In fact in the last couple of decades it seems to have become stronger; a successful ‘brand’ even. Yet I doubt that many of today’s residents of Wardie and Golden Acre know that they are a historical part of Leith. On the other hand I suspect that many think that Leith begins at Elm Row.

Perhaps the border exists at a sub-conscious level now. I intend to find out. Over the next issues I will be talking to people from many parts of Leith. Those who were born here and those who’ve made Leith their home – and asking them:

What makes Leith different? And what does it mean to be a Leither?

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