Leith’s Chains of Destiny

Posted by in December's Magazine

Sandy Campbell On the Loose

A story based on newspaper reports
from the time

At lunchtime on Monday 7th of December 1953 a young couple strolled arm-in-arm into Huntly House Museum on the Canongate. The gentleman paid their sixpence admission fee to Mr McClure on the desk. Smiling politely, they made their way upstairs. No need to rush. They knew the other attendants were on their lunchtime break. McClure, downstairs, was all they had to worry about. 



They went straight to the cabinets on the first floor. Inside the main locked one and displayed either side of a pretty ordinary looking necklace, were the chains – plural. That was a surprise! The most glorious, and the purpose of this whole venture, were the Leith chains – the ones worn by Provost John Lindsay until 1920 – the year when Leith was dragooned into greater Edinburgh. 

John A. Lindsay (1865-1942), CBE, Provost of Leith (1917-1920). Museums & Galleries Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh Council

The man recalled his dad saying he’d witnessed John Lindsay ceremoniously handing over the chains to Edinburgh officials, with the Leith Citizen’s Party demonstrating in the background during the run up to the first Greater Edinburgh municipal elections being held in November of that year. At the far end of the cabinet were the Portobello chains.

The Leith chains were resplendent in beautifully crafted gold, together with the enamelled pendant showing the Persevere insignia of Leith in all its glory. His mind wandered back to his dad. He was always going on about Leith. “Those days are past now,” he nearly said out loud to the ghost of his Leith conscience. “Look; they’re solid gold! They’ll be worth a fortune.”

“Stop dreaming. Get a move on.” She said, snapping him out of his dwam. The tools came out from under her coat and handbag and in a jiffy they were in. The Portobello chains came too.(Portobello was swallowed up by Edinburgh in 1896). “A bonus! Poor old Porty.” Together, they made for a good haul. 

Once we had the evidence that we were once independent and now that visual, almost regal evidence, is gone

They could hear McClure wandering about downstairs, probably heading for the cludgie. Now was the time to get the hell out. Heading for the stairs a gold snuff box caught her eye inside a smaller glass case. She tried the lid. It wasn’t locked. “Serves them right” he whispered whilst scooping it up. It was a wee beauty with Edinburgh’s fine coat of arms enamelled on the lid. “I bet they make more fuss about losing a poxy Edinburgh tobacco tin than they do about losing our chains”

Moments later they burst out the front door into a bright sunlight winter’s afternoon. And off they bustled down the Canongate with two sets of civic regalia under their coats and a gold snuff box in their pocket. Just as the door swung shut McClure emerged from the cludgie with yesterdays’ Evening Dispatch tucked under his arm. “I wonder if that couple are still upstairs?” He mumbled to himself, as he shuffled towards the staircase.

And that was the end of Leith’s Civic Regalia. Edinburgh’s finest constabulary drew a blank in their search for the thieves. “It seems reasonable to assume that everything was sold for its gold value and would have been melted down” the City Archivist wrote to me in 2006 when I started my quest for the lost chains.

I have always had an interest in understanding the symbolism of identities of place; those communities or peoples who feel they are not being rightfully recognised. Be it Scotland or Leith, or those geographies where loyalties are split, like Israel/Palestine or Northern Ireland. I have noticed the power of symbols in marking a place out for recognition. Flags, crowns, chains, sashes, even marbles or stones. Indeed – the lost civic regalia of the Leith Provost Chains are our Stone of Destiny.

Once we had the evidence that we were once independent and now that visual, almost regal evidence, is gone. Those of us who are old enough will remember the ceremonial return of the Stone of Destiny to Edinburgh Castle in the dying days of the Conservative Government in 1996. By then it was too late to appease Scotland’s demands to be recognised. Only our own parliament would do.

I was brought up on the story of how four young Scots ‘stole’ the Stone from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950, only for England to ‘find’ it again after an anonymous tip off. Well Edinburgh: ‘find’ our chains. 

So how would that work? Well we could make a project out of it and involve the school children of Leith in creating new chains, using the compensation funds from Edinburgh Council. New chains to mark our history: the docks, the whaling, the demolition of the Kirkgate, the arrival of new Leithers; even the trams – old and new! 

And where would we display them? As if by serendipity, the Scottish Historic Building Trust is currently canvassing ideas for what to do with Customs House on Commercial Street. A Leith Museum is being floated. So, when our new chains were not being paraded around the burgh, they would be on display in a damn secure cabinet.

Edinburgh lost Leith’s chains when they were in their care. Edinburgh should pay for us to replace them. And we’ll look after them this time.

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One response to “Leith’s Chains of Destiny”

  1. email login says:

    Thank you for sharing the post! I learned a lot from it.

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