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Leith: a History of Sorts


Last issue, in yet another first for this column, I tried my hand at telling the future with a scrupulously researched, painstakingly accurate set of predictions for 2023. Print deadlines being what they are, I’m unable to confirm at the time of writing that they have all come true, but I’d say a good few of them should have done by the time you read this.

Buoyed by this almost inevitable success, I’m proposing something equally ambitious this time out. Not content with telling the future, I’m going to have a stab at telling the past.

Specifically, I’m planning to tell the history of Leith, in the commemorative spirit of this magazine’s 150th issue. (On which topic, collectors would do well to lay their hands on a rare copy of the very first issue, of which precocious teenage editor Billy only managed to run off a few dozen copies on the school photocopier before the janny came bursting in and put a stop to it.)

In theory, this task should be right up my street. I’m not a historian by profession, but my day job does involve sourcing a lot of information and corroborating it extremely carefully, so to ward off potential correspondence to my employers from the pen of ‘Angry from Manchester’. So it ought to be well within my powers to separate fact from fiction.

But the true history of Leith, as with all the most interesting places, turns out to be pleasingly elusive. The definitive version may one day be written – perhaps it already has been and I missed it – but it won’t be half as diverting as the distinctly unreliable one I’ve picked up in dispatches over the past twenty years. The one formed from half-remembered conversations in this pub or that chippy; from ghost signs and faded graffiti, each with a few more snippets of stories to give before being painted over or weathered away.

One advantage of taking a wilfully casual approach to historical accuracy is that it doesn’t matter overmuch when information you’d long taken as gospel turns out to be on something of a shoogly peg. I read recently that the one fact that absolutely everyone knows about Leith – the one about the old Boundary Bar at Pilrig having one door in Edinburgh and one in Leith, to allow punters at last orders to hop to the other side of the bar and take advantage of the different licensing laws – might itself be apocryphal.

But fortunately, where a story can’t be empirically proven, it can at least be forcefully argued in the pub, which is almost as good. And the Boundary is far from the only bar with a collection of potentially true stories attached, earnestly told to me within their own walls. I’ve heard of strippers in Nobles; of sawdust and spittoons in the King’s Wark; of pretty much anything and everything in the Port. All of it may be true or none. It doesn’t matter really; the value, if not necessarily the truth, is in the telling.

Such is the joy of the oral tradition: from Homer, through folk song, to that swaying guy at the bar whose name escapes you (and perhaps even escapes him).

The original source of the information is only the beginning of its journey. Soon enough it will be shared, half-remembered, shared again with embellishments, and so on. In a world full of wilful misinformation, there’s something oddly reassuring about its organic equivalent.

And if that leaves me confidently regurgitating harmless nonsense to anyone who’ll listen – that for instance, before John Logie Baird came along, the sign outside Borland’s used to read ‘Darts and Telegrams’ – then I’m in no way sorry about that.

My favourite story about Leith does at least have some basis in fact, but the fun bit is in filling in the gaps. It’s true that James Lind, among others, worked out that citrus fruits, packed with the then-unidentified vitamin C, helped prevent scurvy.

It seems to be true that the ensuing citrus rations for British seamen led to them being nicknamed ‘limeys’ by their US counterparts.

And it’s at least reasonably true that, before Lauchlan Rose of Commercial Street patented a process for making sweetened fruit concentrate – dilutey juice, in other words – these citrus rations were usually preserved through the addition of a good slug of rum.

Whether all this technically means what I’ve always assumed – that a Leither was directly responsible for the withdrawal of bonus booze rations from the entire British Navy – is perhaps less certain.

Some cursory research indicates that the tradition of a ‘tot of rum’ for each sailor remained in place for quite a bit longer: over a century longer, in fact. But I do love the story; so as far as I’m concerned, Lauchlan Rose stole the Navy’s booze.

On reflection, I shan’t bother telling you my version of Leith’s history at all. After all, it’s mostly bollocks. Much better that you spend a bit of time here yourself – I can recommend a few pubs if you like – and set about compiling your own. ■


That’s Leith’s oral tradition: the swaying guy at the bar whose name escapes you (and perhaps even escapes him)


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