Dig to discover the secrets of Leith Fort

The fort in the 1950s
The fort in the 1950s
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THE secrets of a military base that sprang up in response to the American War of Independence are about to be laid bare for the first time.

A major excavation of Leith Fort is expected to unearth a treasure trove of artefacts from the early 19th century and reveal the hidden story behind the lost, great garrison.

US navy hero John Paul Jones. Picture: comp

US navy hero John Paul Jones. Picture: comp

The fort was originally ­constructed in 1780 to defend the port of Leith against assaults by the fledgling ­American Navy.

Only good fortune and stormy weather had thwarted a surprise attack by famed ­American Revolutionary John Paul Jones and his three-ship flotilla a year earlier.

The fort was designed by celebrated architect James Craig – the mastermind behind Edinburgh’s picturesque New Town.

Decades later, it was enlarged to accommodate French prisoners captured during Britain’s war with Napoleon and remained as a military base until the mid-1950s when much of it was demolished to make way for housing.

Now, out of the rubble of Fort House – a crime-blighted estate that was razed last year – historians hope to piece together vital clues about the origins of the site, peeling back layers of history to before the fortress was first built.

And to help, Leithers are being invited to complete the jigsaw by assisting archeologists in the dig. John Lawson, the city’s lead archeologist, said the Leith Fort site was of national significance and boasted a “fascinating history”.

“There is a history of 200 years of military occupation here,” he said. “Hopefully we will find artefacts that some careless soldiers have dropped behind which may actually inform us about who lived in the fort and how they lived.

“It first housed a French prisoner of war camp, so it would be particularly exciting if we found some evidence for that.

“All these bits of evidence will tell us a rich story about this particular part of Leith.”

And he added: “Leith Fort is a site of national importance because it was defending one of Scotland’s major ports at the time. I don’t think many forts were designed in response to the American War of ­Independence, so it is special. It has that strong sense of national importance for ­military history in Scotland.

“The archeology of Leith is some of the most important in Scotland.”

The dig, expected to last three weeks, will see top soil removed before excavation machines are drafted in to unearth buried foundations and relics.

Archeologists will then painstakingly “clean” the site.

A series of public “dig days” will be held on Sundays ­November 17 and 24.

Councillor Richard Lewis, culture and sport convener, urged Leithers to help explore their past. He said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to ­discover more about Leith’s fascinating history and the ­fortifications and defences that defined it in the past.”

He added: “I would encourage local residents to get involved in the community excavation days as they will offer a unique chance to unlock the secrets of Leith’s past.”

david.mccann@edinburghnews.com