“A plebiscite has been taken of the Leith people …

Posted by in December's Magazine

and we know they are against this attempt of the municipal maw of Edinburgh to eat up Leith.” Mr C Palmer, House of Commons 15th July 1920, Hansard

The Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramways Act 1920 is still regarded as an unfair imposition and has passed into Leith legend. The story passed on from generation to generation inculcating a sensibility where people still talk about “going up to Edinburgh” and proudly declare “ah’m fi’ Leith” when asked their provenance. 

A valiant battle was fought by Leith MP Captain Benn (Tony Benn’s father) in the House of Commons to retain Leith’s independence as a Burgh established as a consequence of the Great Reform Act of 1833. Leith lost the vote in the House of Commons in 1920 but won the vote in the streets of the old port. So how do you mark those 87 years of independence from the ‘maw of Edinburgh‘? 



Well in true Edinburgh style the Council has a report that looks at how this can be done. A paper was put to a meeting of Full Council on 20th September, which proposed spending £100,000 for projects and a projects officer to devise a programme of events. In the end it was agreed that any spend beyond that raised by sponsorship needed the authority of the Finance and Resources committee. 

Map of Easter Road area 1888, location of Hibernians’ park shown

All very proper for a council that has made cuts of £240m and has 1600 less workers and is looking at a further round of cuts of £147m and another 1700 workers. I contributed to the debate by joking that we wear black armbands to mark the anniversary with ‘Leith Forever’ and ‘1833-1920’ printed on them. 

But I also pointed out with some confidence, that there is talk of another referendum in Leith on amalgamation with Edinburgh and I felt sure the result would be similar to the last one where an 88% turnout of those eligible to vote did so (30,000 against amalgamation and 5,000 in favour). Whether it is Leith Festival and/or LeithLate who make the referendum happen…the Council could help by making polling stations and ballot boxes available. This could also be a good exercise in civic duty and the need to vote – with extension of the franchise to 16 year olds and debates in local schools. It would certainly be tremendous fun! 

A few years back I found an excellent book in the city archives produced by the City Architect, which rather brilliantly had the map of the boundary and contemporary photographs taken at the time along the boundary. I used one of these photographs to resolve an argument that posited the controversial thesis that Leith Athletic were the Leith team and that Hibs were an Edinburgh team. 

One photograph from this book resolved it by showing that the boundary cut through at the side of Norton Park School making the Dunbar Road end, the away end in Edinburgh and the rest of the stadium in Leith. A reprint of that book updated with contemporary photographs along the boundary would be a great piece of publishing. 

The boundary idea could even be taken one step further by marking out the border with a paint that wears away similar to that used on the Gretna project by Pilmeny marking the route from Dalmeny Drill Hall to Rosebank cemetery to mark the train disaster of 1915, or the work by LeithLate for Christine De Luca’s poem Leith Swing marking parts of Leith celebrated in the poem.

Local businesses and institutions could also play a part, it would be great if Forth Ports could find resources to bring Leith sea cadets into this century by creating a purpose built facility beside Victoria Dock which could give them access to the water as a facility that would enable them to conduct their activities. Making the water active here would be an attraction in its own right as well as continuing the opening up of the Docks that has taken decades to be realised 

The Scottish Government too, has a role to play. They have sports facilities that were, in theory, supposed to be available for local use. Say as a training resource for local sports clubs especially Leith swimming clubs. 

The arts in Leith are particularly vibrant. A competition could be set for a poem, story, artwork, piece of music or dance, to celebrate Leith. 

A book written by a local teacher for Primary school children – and used in local schools back in the day – gave a potted history of Leith and helped stoke the fire in older generations. A new version, bringing it up to date for local children would be a great way to mark the anniversary and add to the work by Leith Primary pupils who have trained as guides at Trinity House.

The Council itself could a play part. The heavy hand and some would say malign intent of Edinburgh to Leith is an open wound. In his speech to Parliament defending Leith Captain Benn quoted one of Cromwell’s men who, in 1652, informed Speaker Leventhall that his impression of Leith was “that town having been under the greatest slavery I ever saw” in defence of Leith So the grudge has been held a lot longer than 1920.

In my speech I suggested that restoring more of the rose and half rose Leith lampposts still to be found around Leith could be continued, similar to the work done at The Shore. The Leith bank of street names could also be used to name new streets in Leith. 

2020 brings an opportunity to commemorate, commiserate and even have a bit of fun.

Gordon Munro

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