The Sikhs: Our Leith Neighbours

Posted by in March's Magazine


Early Sikh Leithers: Centre Bhai Diwan Singh who arrived in 1936. From left Hazur Singh, Molik Singh, Munshi Singh, Supuran Singh and Chiman Singh who arrived in the 1950s



This is the story of six generations of Leithers. Leithers who have stuck with Leith, avowed to keep their presence in Leith, to the exclusion of any other temple in Edinburgh. Children of Leith who have chosen to worship the one inclusive God, without prejudice towards other faiths, in Leith. Whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and more, went to Leith schools, served, did business with, and have immersed themselves in the wider Leith community for nearly a century. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday 28th August 2018 they, as a community, were attacked.

And they were attacked. As we have since learned, so was a Methodist church. So it wasn’t ‘personal’ to the Sikhs. Maybe the arsonist had a gripe against all religions. Maybe he mistook the Sikh’s place of worship for a Christian church. Who knows. When is a Molotov cocktail not a Molotov cocktail? Is it when it’s also targeted at Methodists? It was an attack – pure and simple. Both communities have every right to feel outraged.  

A couple of weeks after the attack I met with the president and vice-president of Leith’s Gurdwara (temple). Kulbear Singh Bhai and Ragbir (Rab) Singh Landa over a coffee in Pringles on Bangor Road. In the ensuing conversation three of my passions collided perfectly: religion, history, and all things Leith.

It was 1929 when the first Sikhs arrived in Leith. The Gurdwara’s current president and vice-president’s great grandfather was among them (Kulbear and Rab are second cousins). They were the first of the Landa clan to arrive from Galotia, near Sialkot, now part of present day Pakistan, but at that time part of the Punjab province in the British Raj. They were travelling salesmen by trade – selling clothing mainly, so trading was what they continued to do as subsequent generations continued to arrive. “None of us ever went to the brew,” they proudly recalled. 

The early settlers came to Leith after landing in Liverpool from India. Kulbear and Rab don’t really know why Leith ended up being their forbears destination. Maybe it was the culture of the Port in those days (hopefully also today), to accept strangers from foreign lands. Yet in these early times they each carried a diary so they could recount their movements to the random interrogation of a passing Leith bobbie. 

In World War 2 many Sikhs across the UK were shipped back to India in two vessels; both were torpedoed off the coast of Africa with most drowning. Kulbear and Rab tell the story of their grandfather who survived and took eight months to make his way to India. Their grandmother in India on hearing the news of the torpedoing assumed he had drowned. She lived all that time grieving as a ‘widow’. Just picture the celebrations when he finally did turn up alive!

As the British imperial conquest of India drew to a close, the dark period of partition ensued. The Punjab was sliced in half. Our Leith Sikhs were on the wrong side of the divide and in the bloody Muslim versus Hindu conflict that unfolded the Sikhs were driven into India. Rab tells a moving story of their flight from what was about to become Pakistan, from their home for generations. They buried their valuables on their land on the assumption that they would be back before too long. It was never to be. Such is the fate of displaced people from the dawning of time.

Most of Leith’s Sikh families come from those uprooted villages. Little wonder they made their way to the UK – the so-called ‘mother country’. In the 1950’s and 60’s the men were joined by their families and the first Gurdwara (temple) was established in a top floor flat on Hopefield Terrace in 1964, just off North Junctions Street, followed six years later by a slightly larger Gurdwara in Academy Street. In 1976 they bought the church on Sheriff Brae for £15,000 and set about converting it to their needs. And there they have been, undisturbed and welcomed ever since, until August’s attack.

On the day of the firebomb I came out of my house in neighbouring Sheriff Park to see police and members of the community everywhere. After speaking to some of them I headed to the shop and mentioned the attack to the guy I know behind the counter. “The Sikh temple has been attacked,” I said. “So I heard” he replied, and went on to say “A bloke just came in saying the mosque has been firebombed”. “It’s a Sikh temple, not a mosque.” my Muslim friend had replied. “What’s the difference?” the customer had responded with an indifferent shrug. “What’s the difference between a Christian and a Jew?” was the shopkeeper’s sharp riposte. So, after nearly a century of a Sikh presence in Leith, allow me to clear up some confusions with just four insights into the Sikh religion’s faith:

Unlike Islam, and Christianity for that matter, the Sikhs don’t believe they have a monopoly on the truth, a special relationship with God that gives them a privileged, indeed exclusive access to God’s grace. In fact, quite the reverse. In around 1500 the first guru, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, said: “There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim”, meaning that in the eyes of God, it is not religion that determines a person’s merits, but one’s actions.

In 1699 the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, decreed that he was to be the last living guru and thereafter their holy book (the Guru Granth Sahib) was to be their source of spiritual guidance. Their scriptures deliberately draw on the wisdoms of all faiths, believing that all religions have something to contribute to spiritual enlightenment. 

From the beginning, women were deemed to be equal to men; possessing the same souls – which was in sharp contrast to the other religions of India, and indeed Christianity, even today. Women participate equally in all religious and cultural activities. Sikhs have no dietary rules, other than vegetarian food in the Gurdwara. Alcohol or any other intoxicants are not allowed. Smoking is most definitely prohibited. 

The orange flag with the blue symbol you see on parades and flying on a flagpole in front of the Gurdwara is the ‘Khanda’, which encapsulates their faith. The vertical double-edged sword represents their belief in one God. The circle symbolises a God without beginning or end, and the curved swords, or ‘Kirpan’, that surround the symbol represent both the spiritual and the temporal: the Sikhs believe that the spiritual and the temporal are intertwined. You find God whilst living your life and bringing up your family. Hence there are no Sikh monks, nuns or monasteries. 

A final observation of my own; some days after the attack there was a demonstration outside the Gurdwara, supposedly in protest and solidarity at an assumed racist attack. It was their placards that bothered me. “Say No to Islamophobia; Migrants welcome here”. The Sikhs are most definitely not Muslims and it is pretty disrespectful, if not worse, to casually lump them into the same category. They are not migrants either, any more than the Irish-Scots or the Italian-Scots from as many generations ago are migrants. How long does a community from another land need to live here to be included? Is 90 years not enough? Leith without the Sikhs would not be Leith. Just as those from the Irish and Italian diasporas are intrinsically integral to Leith’s identity, so are the Sikhs. Thankfully all the Leithers I have met agree with me. 

As Kulbear said to me as we parted, “We Sikhs are brought up to believe that “we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”. Amen to that.

Picture:  Early Sikh Leithers: Centre Bhai Diwan Singh who arrived in 1936. From left Hazur Singh, Molik Singh, Munshi Singh, Supuran Singh and Chiman Singh who arrived in the 1950s

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