Custom & Practice
It was a sneaky move and seen as such by a range of people.Without any warning a paper appeared on the agenda of the Culture Committee which put forward proposals for the future of Custom House. There was no advance notice, no briefing for local elected members and it was part of a packed agenda one week before the Council elections. It was almost like it had been planned to happen that way and get through on the nod without any depth of scrutiny or discussion. Luckily citizens and councillors complained and the paper was pulled on the day for consideration by the next administration.
The fact that it happened in this way at all is not a good sign for those who campaigned for Custom House to become a Museum for Leith. The fact the paper was pulled due to pressure from citizens and councillors shows that Leith will fight hard to have its Museum. Council officers and Scottish Historical Buildings Trust (SHBT) need to take note of this reaction and a less elitist approach to how this Common Good asset is managed for the common good.
The purchase of Custom House from Museums Scotland was a unique use of the Common Good fund to save a building which the community and the campaign for a Leith Museum had identified as the site for this long held ambition. It was my research into the Common Good fund that saw the Council unanimously agree to using the fund to make this purchase. The problem the council had once purchased was the lack of capital to realise this ambition and the revenue to make it happen. This saw a collaboration with SHBT in finding a funding model that could do both.
Theoretically that is what the paper tried to do but with a pre-determined outcome based on a consultation that got sidetracked by Covid. This is a flawed approach and was shown as such by the offer of a briefing to local consultees once it was known that there was a backlash. Too little too late. A better more collaborative approach needs to be taken if the same reaction is to be avoided when this is considered.
So what could this look like? Well for a start there needs to be an oversight body for Custom House that meets regularly and receives reports on how the building is managed alongside a programme of steps that meets the original aim and ambition.
This body can comprise local groups such as the community councils, the local history society, Spirit of Leithers, the Living Memory project THELMA, (previously - Scotland’s history festival), which worked out of here at one point and of course local elected members. It could be advised and receive reports from SHBT and council officers. Such a body would mean that there is consensus rather than surprises when it comes to next steps for Custom House. It could then supply an annual report on progress which could be part of the annual reporting that the council needs to do for Common Good assets.
Covid has meant that the centenary of Edinburgh becoming a suburb of Leith has not been celebrated as fully as Leith wanted to or indeed deserves. The potential of this was seen by the screening of the film sponsored by the Lord Provost on the side of Custom House which used archive film that covered the 1920 Amalgamation Act. This was popular but more can be done.
The arrival of Tram to Newhaven via Leith in Spring of 2023, 190 years since Leith got its independence and 103 since it lost it, presents the opportunity to fully utilise the building with a celebration of Leith and its rich historical past along with its exciting future. A collaboration with the Post Office could see a replica of the Post Office that was in the space now occupied by ‘Men in Sheds’.
Folks would queue to have letters and postcards franked with a Leith post mark to send to the Leith diaspora in Edinburgh and further abroad. Some of the materials collected by THELMA and Citizen Curator could be gathered here to show the rich ‘People’s History’ of Leith. The collection of paintings and photographs held by the Council could show how Leith has changed over the ages. Some of the civic regalia from when Leith was independent from 1833-1920 could be put on display minus of course the Lord Provost of Leith chain which was stolen from Huntly House museum ( irreplaceable and yet another debt that Edinburgh owes Leith}.
But the real point is that this has to be a collaboration not an imposition. The history is there.
The building is there. The opportunity is there. Let’s work together from Council to Forth Ports, from SHBT to citizens to make it happen. ■
You guessed it... Leith Custom House