IT WAS once Leith’s premier social event – until it descended into little more than an excuse for drinking and fighting.
The Leith Races ceased to exist in 1816 after the event was moved to Musselburgh – but now a rare painting portraying its final days is to go under the hammer.
The Last of the Leith Races, by James Howe, is valued at £15,000 and is expected to draw huge interest at auction in Edinburgh later this week.
The painting is one of the best examples still in existence portraying the event, which was one of the most important social spectacles in Scotland and set the path for the creation of Musselburgh race course.
Historians said it was a painting of huge significance.
Leith historian John Arthur said that, while the annual meeting was once a picture of decadence, as Leith’s population grew it became unsustainable and descended into a week of heavy drinking and fighting. “That’s why it had to be moved up to Musselburgh, and I think people realised that’s what had to happen,” he said.
“It used to be that people would come from all over Scotland and it would begin with a procession all the way from Edinburgh to Leith Sands.
“That’s all concreted over now, of course, where the docks are, but they used to run a mile between two posts and there were some valuable prizes up for grabs.”
But as the 19th century approached Leith’s population swelled from 5000 to more than 90,000.
“There was huge overcrowding, the only thing people could do to keep warm was get out of these damp buildings and into pubs.
“I remember looking at a map of the time and on every street corner there was a marking PH. I couldn’t work out what this was, then I realised it was ‘public house’.
“On the week of the race there would be stalls selling alcohol, and by the end of it those who could still stand were destroying them and fighting with each other.”
Despite the less than glamorous end, Mr Arthur said the painting’s sale would help re-ignite interest in an important historical aspect of the area.
“You ask any 16-year-old what the Leith Races were and they won’t be able to tell you because schools don’t teach about the area they are in.”
As well as the rare memory of the event, potential bidders will also be drawn to the quality of art on display, auction house Lyon and Turnbull said.
Painting specialist at the company Nick Curnow said: “The Last of the Leith Races is a fine example of the features which define Howe stylistically.
“By adopting a naive, almost primitive, style Howe is able to tangibly evoke the movement and excitement of the horses charging past.”
It is one of 1000 lots, with a total value of more than £500,000, to be sold from one of the largest house sales in Scotland in the last ten years.
The painting had been at the Blair Estate in Ayrshire prior to this sale, which will go ahead on Wednesday and Thursday.