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Monumental Leith

In the last issue we went over some street names, which fossilise certain people from the past into our everyday references.

Statues do that even more! Let’s see what we have.

The oldest is the statue of Robert Burns on Bernard Street, put there in 1898 by the Leith Burns Society.

The central panel gives us The Cottar’s Saturday Night, with its homely, family connotations. It’s striking to realise how popular Burns was in the 19th century, his celebrations of ordinary people in their daily lives, combined with his radicalism: ‘A man’s a man, for a’ that’, struck a chord.

In contrast, only a tram stop away at the Foot of the Walk, we have the pinnacle of Empire and Establishment, Queen Victoria. Whose statue was placed there in 1907, six years after her death.

The side panels were added in 1913. One shows a much younger queen arriving by carriage in 1842. It was all a bit unfortunate. Leith had prepared for her arrival at Shore, but she was a bit early and the tide did not permit an approach over the sandy beach.

Not prepared to wait, she diverted to Granton, where the dirty coal jetty stretched into deep water and the carriage finally brought her to Leith, for the official welcome.

The newly formed Leith Burgh Council was dismayed. They quickly built a new dock and named it after her. She wouldn’t be dependent on the tides for her next visit.

But she never came…

Her next landing in Scotland was at Dundee – she was house-hunting, and she picked Balmoral. Thereafter she travelled by train.

The other panel of the statue depicts the 5th Volunteer Battalion the Royal Scots - a Leith battalion - before a resplendent Britannia. A memorial to ‘Loyalty and Patriotism’ during the Boer War. It’s not so much about a tribute to the men as elevating Queen Victoria.

Leith suffered a disproportionally high casualty rate in the Great War, mostly down to the single incident of the Quintinshill railway disaster in 1915. Over 200 Leith men were on a troop train bound for Liverpool and onwards to the Dardanelles.

Although they had not left the country, because they were in uniform and under orders, they were deemed to have fallen in action and given a military funeral with full honours in Rosebank cemetery.

Noticeably, Leith has no honorific statue to the fallen as there are in many towns and villages across the country. Leith’s memorial was the Children’s Wing at the hospital, such an ambitious project that it wasn’t opened till 1927. The military insignia are still there on the wall facing Taylor Gardens.

The merchant navy monument at Shore, unveiled by Princess Anne in 2010, is built in classical style. Although it serves as a memorial for lives lost at sea on the Sunday after Remembrance Sunday in November, it is also a celebration of a life at sea: adventure, foreign lands, camaraderie, hard work, and dangers, whether natural or in war.

It’s well placed here. The Royal Navy keeps us safe: the merchant navy keeps us fed. Leith was Scotland’s premier east coast port for many centuries till the 1960s, when Grangemouth took over. It’s a mercy – if Leith had container berths, we would have lost our street pattern to dual carriageways, rounded corners, and flyovers.

On the Links you’ll find a statue of Dr John Rattray. In 1744 he signed the earliest rules of golf, for playing ‘on the links of Leith’. Indeed, Leith has a better claim to the historical origins of golf than the Royal and Ancient club at St Andrews.

Dr Rattray was surgeon to Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746. On the losing side, he was hauled off to London, and it was only after the intervention of a high-placed golfing chum that he returned to Leith with his head on his shoulders.

And we can’t overlook Anthony Gormley. Stretching downstream in the Water of Leith from the Gallery of Modern Art, the six figures are in the water ‘silently bearing witness to the ebb and flow of the seasons’ as the Water of Leith Conservation Trust would have it. The last looks out over the Water’s meeting with the tidal Firth of Forth.

Leith can claim a good part of Ken Buchannan MBE, undisputed world featherweight champion in 1971. Born in Portobello, he did most of his training in Sparta AAC when it was in McDonald Road, and latterly he was often seen around Leith. Ever popular and easy to talk to, in his career he was hugely inspirational to many younger boxers.

A statue of him was erected close to St Mary’s RC cathedral, Picardy Place, in 2022. Not many folk get a statue in their lifetime. He died the following year.

Who will the folk of Leith be remembering a hundred years from now? ■

Tim Bell


6 Times, Antony Gormley Figure VI at Western Harbour, Leith Docks. Photograph by Michael Duxbury

Leith can claim a good part of Ken Buchannan MBE, undisputed world featherweight champion
in 1971



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