Leith docks engineer inducted into hall of fame

John Rennie helped to develop the Port of Leith into a commercial stop.

John Rennie helped to develop the Port of Leith into a commercial stop.

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IT was Edinburgh’s Disgrace long before the National ­Monument – until one engineer stepped in to spare city leaders’ red faces.

For while Leith had its famous port, it had no dock, leaving vessels all at sea as they attempted to load and unload cargo.

Mention of John Rennie’s name is likely to draw a few blank stares in the place where he made such a huge contribution.

But as one of the greatest engineers of his age, he put Leith on the global map.

Now, nearly 200 years after his death, the unsung hero has been accorded his rightful place in the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.

When Rennie took on the project, Leith had no dock at all, and ships, which had to be tied to shore to load and unload, were often waiting in rows three deep.

A build-up of silt meant that only the smallest of vessels could get in and only when the tide allowed.

The engineer, who had already garnered a reputation for canal construction, stepped in at the request of the city’s fathers to remedy the ­situation and build the old East and West docks.

His work began in 1800 and is regarded as crucial to Leith’s survival as a port. The docks were completed 17 years later, the permanently accessible facility offering enough space for 150 vessels.

Victoria Dock was added between 1846 and 1852. The East and West docks eventually became car parks.

A street behind the Scottish Government at Victoria Quay is named Rennie’s Isle in his honour.

Community leaders said Rennie’s induction into the hall of fame was well deserved.

Jim Tweedie, chairman of the Leith History Society, said: “He was a visionary, way ahead of his time. His plan for the docks was to extend them towards Newhaven, but his vision wasn’t fully realised because the council ran out of money.”

Leith Docks, which now plays host to tourism in the shape of cruise liners and industry, is the biggest enclosed deepwater port in Scotland.

Fraser Parkinson, from the Spirit of Leithers website, said Rennie’s intervention would always be remembered as a vital turning point in the ­history of the area.

He said: “The development of the docks secured a future for Leith, and he was one of the key players in its history. This recognition is yet another accolade for Leith.”

Rennie was born in East Linton in June 1761 and raised by his brother, George, after their dad, James, died in 1766. He attended a parish school before going on to Dunbar High School.

Rennie is credited with designing the Royal Ireland Canal, which linked Dublin with the River Shannon, and the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast near Arbroath.

He also produced a significant body of work in London, including Waterloo Bridge, London Bridge, Southwark Bridge and Old Vauxhall Bridge as well as docks in Hull, Liverpool and Greenock.

A mile-long breakwater at Plymouth Sound, seen as one of the biggest civil engineering project of Georgian times, was also designed by Rennie.

He died in London at the age of 60 in 1821 and is buried at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Alex Wilson, chairman of Leith Business Association, said the hall of fame status would cement Rennie’s reputation locally.

He said: “This is a recognition of how important he was, and hopefully this will filter down. An awful lot of people who have made contributions to Leith have been overlooked.”

john.connell@edinburghnews.com