Custom House could spark Leith heritage quarter

Customs House in Leith, which is set to become the Leith Museum. Pic: Steven Scott Taylor.

Customs House in Leith, which is set to become the Leith Museum. Pic: Steven Scott Taylor.

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CAMPAIGNERS who secured a base for a dedicated Leith museum are now aiming to create a heritage quarter celebrating the rich history of the port.

The deal to buy Custom House in Commercial Street as a hub for a museum was struck last week, and campaigners now believe it could pave the way for more – provided agreement can be reached to berth HMS Edinburgh next to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Leith could be home to HMS Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow

Leith could be home to HMS Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow

Lobbyists say the ambitious plan would transform the quayside into a “Beamish-like” section of Leith, a reference to the museum in County Durham charting the fortunes of locals from the north east of England.

The vision would see the visitors travel between the two world-famous ships at Ocean Terminal and the proposed museum via a horse-drawn tram or old-fashioned bus.

Graham Whyte, of Spirit of Leithers, said the quarter was a long-term, but achievable, goal.

“The current thinking is now Leith museum is certain to come to fruition, there could be a good way to join all the attractions together to become a Leith historic quarter,” he said.

“The primary concern is applying pressure to the funding partners.

“Providing that can be achieved the whole idea of a historic quarter can go ahead with time. Beamish wasn’t built in a short space of time, nor will this attempt at breathing life back into Leith.”

The News has told how the city forked out £650,000 to buy Custom House from the National Museums of Scotland, bringing to an end years of campaigning by heritage groups, and paving the way to transform the A-listed building into a vault dedicated to celebrating the area’s history.

It is understood that Rev Dr James Scott Marshall, minister of the Kirkgate Church between 1947 and 1973, had been among the first to moot the idea of using Custom House about 40 years ago.

Talks are now being held with the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust to determine the best way forward. It is thought funding worth up to £10 million will be needed to convert the property.

Alex Wilson, vice-chairman of Leith Business Association and a community council member, said the heritage quarter was part of a “broader vision” for Leith museum.

He said: “It is an iconic building, and it ought to be the hub for a whole host of things, and I’m sure every group has a vision for what it ought to be. But it should not be standalone, it should not be a sterile space. It should be a vibrant space.”

Mark Lazarowicz, MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, said while he always envisioned a Leith museum being an anchor in a larger showcase of the port’s history, it was crucial the Custom House transformation was delivered before introducing new challenges.

“A very important first stage has been reached, but there’s a long way to go yet,” he said.

“I think it’s right for people to think about the wider picture, and I think it does unlock a much wider potential for Leith as a project which could link in to other initiatives, but having said that I think the focus should remain on the current project.”

Green councillor Chas Booth, a long-time supporter of a Leith museum, hailed the quarter as an “interesting and inspiring idea, but said it has to be serviced by extending the tram network

He said: “There are a lot of people in Leith who say, having suffered all the problems with the trams, with all the disruption and businesses going bust, when are we going to benefit?

“I’ve always said I’m in favour of extending the tram, and I’ll work with anyone who has a plan to help make that happen.”

paris.gourtsoyannis@edinburghnews.com