Apr 132024

Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 7BZ

Source: alljengi

Port of Leith was a critical commercial and logistics hub, its harbour being the largest trading centre on the Scottish North Sea coast and the town being considerably larger than the neighbouring Edinburgh. There were several phases of harbour development along the estuary of the Water of Leith, quays connected with moving bridges, like the nearby Victoria Swing Bridge, built in 1874.

On the corner (of The Shore and Tower Street) stands the Signal Tower. Originally a windmill, this is one of the oldest buildings in Leith, built in 1686 by Robert Mylne. In 1805 it was converted into a signal tower from which flags were displayed to let ships know the depth of water at the harbour bar. On the opposite side of the road is the large building of what was the Sailor’s Home, a boarding facility for visiting and homeless sailors started in 1883. It was designed to house 56 seamen, 9 officers and 50 shipwrecked seamen. In front of the building stands the Scottish Merchant Navy Memorial, unveiled in 2010 and commemorating all Scottish sailors, who lost their lives at sea. Its panels celebrate the global shipping routes, perils at sea as well as noting the crucial role of Leith Nautical College and its training ship “Dolphin” in the training of sailors.  

On the harbour quay, there is a preserved harpoon, a remnant of the Leith’s dominant industry of the past – whaling. Since early 17th century Leith whalers sailed North to Arctic waters around Greenland, as whale oil was critical for many industrial and domestic uses. In 1911, Leith had the largest whaling fleet in the world, owned by Christian Salvesen & Son and sailing South towards Antarctica, even establishing a whaling station called ‘Leith Harbour’ on South Georgia. However, the whale oil extraction left quite a bad smell, literally, with a ‘boiling house’ in Timber Bush. As it was owned by Peter and Christopher Wood, the smell was locally called “Woods’ scent bottle” – not something many people missed, when whaling finally ceased in 1963.

The Salvesen harpoon on The Shore in Leith, source UoE blog on the Long shadow of whaling

Leith Local History Society – http://www.leithlocalhistorysociety.org.uk/index.htm
Scottish Merchant Navy Memorial https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/87515
Signal Tower http://www.leithlocalhistorysociety.org.uk/buildings/signal_tower.htm

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