Sandy Campbell: Leith needs you – in 2020


Posted by in November's Magazine

Imagine the scene: The House of Commons, 8th June 1920, the Second Reading of the Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramways Bill: 

Captain Benn, MP for Leith from 1918 to 1927, rises to his feet to oppose the annexation of our Burgh and its resulting forced incorporation into the metropolis of Edinburgh. 

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“It is not to be assumed naturally that because one area is contiguous to another therefore the best interests of good government are served by joining them together. Every boundary is compelled to go through some place.

In the late war I have seen camps in which men slept with their heads in Asia and their feet in Africa, and I have never heard that advanced as a reason for amalgamating Asia and Africa.”

He goes on…

“How can this House tolerate the suppression of this burgh merely on the grounds of some geographical expansion, and not on the grounds of real necessity? Lord Rosebery, speaking of this bill said:

“If Leith is willing to surrender her individuality and illustrious traditions as an historic city, she will deserve her fate. What advantage or honour Edinburgh expects to reap from annexing free communities strongly opposed to the absorption is a mystery.” 

Stephen Dickson spent 3 years sketching these images of Leith Depot regulars

This same bill also sought to annexe Portobello and Corstorphine. I don’t hear impassioned references to ‘individuality and illustrious traditions’ coming from Corstorphine-ites a century later. Perhaps those City Fathers in the Chambers at the time fully expected the same fate to befall Leith. After all, the Union of 1707 planned for the re-naming of Scotland as ‘North Britain’. The destruction of identity is so often the aim of conquest. Integrate those on the periphery lest they rise up and become a nuisance.  

I have met many older Leithers who lived here in the times when industry defined us clearly. There was no need to remind the people of Edinburgh that Leith was different; they knew it, and many steered well clear. Interestingly, those same Leithers say that Leith is probably more different to Edinburgh now, than it has been since those days when the docks literally anchored us. ‘Leith is Edinburgh’s Glasgow’ is a phrase I often use when matters of a Leith nature are in the air. Without fail it brings a smile of recognition. As true now as it was back when the shipyard reigned supreme. 

Lord Rosebery, however, was wrong: we didn’t surrender our individuality or our illustrious traditions. Our perseverance remains robust. Leith has not become just another suburb of Edinburgh, just as Scotland has not succumbed to becoming a northern province of Greater England. 

82 years after Captain Benn’s stirring speech in Leith’s defence, his son, Tony Benn MP, would similarly join the (successful) fight to retain Leith as a parliamentary constituency by name, and not a nameless part of the North East Edinburgh constituency, as proposed in 2002. Family connections with Leith run deep.

Some year later, there was Forth Ports’ short-lived attempt to rename our docks as ‘Edinburgh’s Harbour.’ Once more, our motto was put to the test – to persevere and win yet again. This disregard for Leith’s separateness casts a long shadow.

They’ve renamed Leith,” my dad announced in the early 70s, brandishing a copy of the Evening News. “It’s now going to be called EH6”. At the stroke of a post office civil servant’s pen, Leith had ceased to be a postal town in its own right, resulting in slower delivery of mail if ‘Leith’ rather than ‘Edinburgh’ was on the envelope. (Still the case to this day.) Now my dad, an old-fashioned Scottish nationalist with anarchist tendencies, loved a story of bureaucratic conspiracies against the plucky wee man nae feart tae defend hisel’, of which both Scotland and Leith are fine examples.

“They’ve renamed Leith,” my dad announced in the early 70s, brandishing a copy of the Evening News. “It’s now going to be called EH6”

Strong and confident identities are infectious. Newcomers embrace Leith’s with the enthusiasm of converts. Many of Leith’s most fervent advocates hail from elsewhere: the Irish, Italians and Sikhs were pretty much in with the bricks, whilst those from deepest England and eastern Europe are more recent acolytes.

Ours is an inclusive civic identity, unsullied by the bitter taste of ethnic nationalism. Make Leith your home and you are welcome. We are a port after all. But Leith is a defined place with a marked difference from any other part of Imperial Edinburgh – as we will show next year, a full century after our forced annexation. 

2020 is the year when Leith will make such a noise that the City Chambers will be reaching for earplugs. You bulldozed our Kirkgate, you closed down our hospital, you tried to change our name, but as long as a hundred of us remain we will never surrender to the domination of Edinburgh. 

Over the past few weeks I have met with all manner of Leith activists and passionistas. All are hatching plans to mark the Annexation. Some are pretty whacky. I’m looking forward to what unfolds. What I like about the ideas I’ve heard is that everyone’s doing their own thing. There is no Leith Central Committee sanctioning what will happen. In our own unique Leith way, unlike the corridors of committees in the City Chambers, Leithers are doing it for themselves.

Help: What are YOU doing for Leith in 2020? Start by completing our survey: www.leithsurvey.com

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