On the Loose
She had that skip in her step and look of almost shocked joy that made you feel like the most important event of her day
We called Mary Moriarty our Queen because no other word was enough. She was the iconic landlady of the Port o’ Leith. A one-woman ‘Welcome to Leith’. She was also the greatest networker I’ve ever met…
An ambassador, advocate, and activist for all things Leith. She was the Anchor that pulled us together and made us want to serve Leith.
Earlier this year I interviewed Mary for a Leither story I wrote about the Algerian war of independence from France. She lived in both countries during that conflict and as I listened to her, I couldn’t help but recall De Gaulle’s opening words to his autobiography: “All my life I have had a certain idea of France.” Yes, that’s it; Mary always had a certain idea of Leith. For her, being a Leither is an act of enjoyment and pride, not a postal address; as much about having a party, as fighting for Leith’s identity and pride.
I first met Mary when I came back to Leith in 1998 and the Port o’ Leith bar was the place to go, its legendary landlady the woman to know. Mary presided over an extraordinarily diverse clientèle with elegance, warmth and near regal authority. Stories there are aplenty of nights in the Port, and they will live on and be colourfully embellished for decades to come.
It took me a couple of years to pluck up the nerve to properly introduce myself. I remember the time and the place: a summer’s afternoon at the bus shelter outside St Andrew’s and St George’s Church at the east end of George Street, both of us waiting for a bus back to Leith. That was the journey that brought Mary into my life as a friend, colleague, and mentor.
And a real mentor she became in the hatching of my fledgling idea for mentoring Leith teenagers. 20 years later, the now fully mature charity WorkingRite helps hundreds of young people across Scotland, including Leith, into work and a good adulthood.
But back in those earlier days I would pitch up at the Port of a morning and we’d nurse a coffee by the window while she listened attentively to my idea. She asked if I had something she could pass on to others who might be interested. It was just the push I needed. My first call to action rolled off the presses. She immediately asked for a bundle of them, stashing them behind the bar, and firing them out to anyone she thought might be even vaguely interested or useful to me.
Every time I went in, she had a new name to give me. Most of them went nowhere other than a good blether over a pint or two, but her highly tuned lens could produce some gems. Tom Farmer, for example, who several years later funded the repainting of the lampposts down by the Shore – the ones that showcase the Persevere Arms of Leith. And it was lads from my charity who did the job. Looking back Mary feels like the midwife who helped to give life to my vision.
But this wasn’t unique to me. This was Mary just being Mary. At her funeral I heard countless similar stories of exhibitions, campaigns, new projects, and many new life partnerships - all of whom would not have seen the light of day had it not been for Mary’s well-timed magic wand.
Mary’s way of getting things done was a glorious combination of front of house and behind the scenes. Whether ceremonial, or in (once) smoke filled rooms making plans for Gala Day, she’d don her leopard-skin coat, quickly touch up her lipstick, and then get down to business.
Mary was the constant of Leith Festival in the first decade of the millennium; captain on the bridge and operating the engine room. That was the decade when Leith Festival took off and them up the hill realised that Leith was the real place to be. During her leadership the festival grew to over 200 performances and recorded audiences of nearly 20,000. Gala Day on the Links was so crammed you couldn’t see the edges, but you could always spot Mary, whatever the weather, setting out the chairs in front of the stage and filling black bin bags with the revellers’ debris.
Those were also the years when Mary performed another spectacular act of midwifery with the launch of Leith FM on 87.7FM, forged in earnest huddles in the Port and then broadcasting daily from the Dockers, filling the airwaves of Leith with upbeat chat and foot stomping rhythms over those balmy summers.
Memories and stories of Mary will remain in our hearts and be passed on through the generations for years to come. But at Mary’s core was much more than stories and causes. Hers was a precious quality of authenticity.
The warmth in her presence. Her unconditional pleasure at seeing you. It didn’t matter if it was the next day or next year, there was never an edge. She took you as you were, wherever and whenever you turned up. That skip in her step and look of almost shocked joy that made you feel like the most important event of her day.
These last weeks there has been an emptiness in the air, a vacuum so specifically shaped I keep half expecting Mary’s unmistakable presence to shuffle elegantly around the next corner and fill it. The pavements of Leith are missing their Queen.
That’s why Mary, you were, and always will be, our Queen. ■
The Port radiating, and Mary doing the same in Leith Links