Leith is connected to the world
Since I moved to Leith in 1996, my first home in Scotland after arriving from Perth Australia, I’ve had a strong fascination with the history of the place. Part of that is personal: my partner’s family had shops in the old Kirkgate, selling fabrics, old clothing and bric-a-brac, but it’s also about something less tangible - that sense of the past being around every corner, with hidden stories at every turn and on a far older scale architecturally than anything I was used to growing up.
My first home in Scotland was just a few doors down from the neoclassical North Leith Parish Church, which pre-dates the oldest building in the city of my birth! Compared to Australia, where indigenous people’s history has been largely - and shamefully – suppressed or erased, and much of the built environment is only a few decades old, in Leith you can trip through the centuries on a 15-minute walking tour.
And Leith’s history has significance not only locally, or within Edinburgh, but also on a national and international level. The area was one of the key sites of the Auld Alliance – Scotland’s pact with France to curb England’s power and expansion – and of its formal ending following the Siege of Leith in 1560.
On Parliament Street, you can see the site of the Scottish Court where Mary of Guise ruled the country as Queen Regent during the French occupation in the mid 16th century. Round the corner the insignia of her daughter Mary Queen of Scots is carved into the wall at Trinity House, with the coat of arms of both women on display at the entrance of South Leith Parish Church.
During that period – indeed, for six centuries - Leith was not only Edinburgh’s main port but also the busiest in Scotland and our gateway to the rest of the world. Many of the area’s street names are a legacy of this long maritime tradition.
Madeira Street, where I lived initially after arriving, invokes the Portuguese islands famed for their fortified wine, recalling the time when the vino flowed freely into the harbour. Cadiz Street alludes to the links with Spain, Elbe Street testifies to the trade routes leading from Germany and Central Europe, and Baltic Street is a reminder of our ties with Scandinavia, Poland and the Baltic states.
But of all Scotland’s trading partners, Flanders (then part of the Netherlands) was for a long time the biggest, with wool, cheese, furs, coarse cloth and cured salmon shipped between Leith and Bruges. There’s also Dutch hints in the architecture of the area, most notably the striking steeple of St Ninian’s Manse. Add to this the Norwegian and Ukrainian churches and replica buildings inspired from places as far-flung as Brittany and St Petersburg, and you get a sense of Leith’s richly cosmopolitan influences.
That multiculturalism has equally been found in the people of the area through the centuries. Leith’s seen many waves of immigration – Irish and Italian arrivals in the 19th century, Lithuanians fleeing Czarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century, and those from India, Pakistan, China, Eastern Europe and many others in more recent decades – new communities have enriched Leith and helped shape it into the vibrant and eclectic place it is today.
Our immigrant communities haven’t had it easy, though. Most have had to overcome prejudice and discrimination and we shouldn’t pretend that there isn’t work still left to do. But overall, I believe Leith is a fantastic example of a mosaic of communities mixing and thriving together.
It’s a source of great pride that I represent a constituency that’s home to as diverse a range of organisations as the Nepal Scotland Association and the Polish Family Centre, the Multi-Cultural Family Base and the Scottish Council of African Churches, to name just a few examples.
And, of course, in the past year we’ve been privileged to welcome to Leith thousands of Ukrainians forced to flee their homeland following Russia’s appalling invasion. It’s been an honour to meet some of the new arrivals and pay visits to the Ukranian Community Centre and the Catholic Church, who have done incredible work to help them settle.
Leith’s cultural, ethnic and religious diversity continues to face challenges, especially in the face of a Tory Government which has stripped rights from our EU citizens and pursued a dehumanising hostile environment approach against migrants from around the world seeking to make their home here.
Meanwhile, with EU imports down and trade barriers along with other issues causing a steep rise in the price of food, a contrast could also be made with the post-Brexit trade debacles and our centuries of successful commerce with Europe.
Even the UK Government has had to accept this was folly, with new customs checks on European imported goods delayed for another year due to increased dangers of empty shelves.
In many respects, the history of Leith is defined by its connections with the rest of the world. It’s a heritage that we should continue to celebrate, and strive to preserve and enhance for future generations. ■