Leith book shows pictures of historic area

An excursion steamer leaving the West Pier circa 1900; below, the world's first professional golf tournament on Leith Links in 1867
An excursion steamer leaving the West Pier circa 1900; below, the world's first professional golf tournament on Leith Links in 1867
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FROM the Foot of the Walk along to the bustling Shore, past tenements and warehouses, into pubs where some might well have feared to tread, then beyond to one of the original homes of golf.

There are countless reasons why Leith has always held a unique place in the hearts of its sons and daughters.

With a distinct social and cultural identity and a rich history that can lay claim to royal affairs and wartime conflict, that spans the growth of the Empire and industrial revolution – with more than its fair share of troubles along the way – it’s fair to say the port is unlike anywhere else.

And while it might have been overshadowed slightly by its big next door neighbour – even, some could argue, at times bullied – it seems as long as a single Leither remains standing, it will never really be “part” of Edinburgh.

“It’s nearly 100 years since they joined Edinburgh with Leith,” says photography fan and historian Tom Wright with a smile, “yet ask anyone from Leith where they come from and they certainly won’t say ‘Edinburgh’. They say Leith.

“Folk from Leith have a very special connection with the place that will probably never change. The people of Leith are immensely proud of their rich heritage.”

For 30 years Tom ran Old Scotland in Pictures framing shop just off Leith Walk. Inside the shop he stored thousands upon thousands of old photographs – snapshots in time from the length and breadth of Scotland.

With incredible foresight he spent years gathering up as many old images as he could, in postcards and negatives, prints, engravings and maps, carefully labelling them and keeping all 14,000 of them at a time when many saw them as little better than junk.

Now he has drawn on part of his massive private collection for a new book, Glimpses of Times Past: Leith (Luath Press, £8.99), featuring some images that show the port at work, rest and play from times long gone.

Among the photographs are images of women and men in Edwardian garb, gathering at the corner of Albion Road close to what was the North British Railway’s Easter Road station, and others tightly packed on board an excursion steamer at West Pier – in days long before health and safety rules would have surely called a halt to proceedings.

Another shows neatly dressed youngsters with their mothers gathered around the Fountain in Victoria Park. Believed to have been taken around 1900, the children seem to be dressed in their Sunday best of collared shirts for the boys and pretty bonnets for the girls.

Some images capture a now long gone Leith – such as one image of The Shore between Sandport Place and Burgess Street, with its tall tenement buildings which would later be removed for modern homes and commercial properties.

And one grainy image shows Coalhill, site of Mary of Guise House, which was demolished in 1887 and where the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have lived. Designated a slum area in 1877, Coalhill and neighbouring Giles Street were knocked down to make way for new, cleaner homes.

The first ever professional golf tournament in 1867, which was held at Leith Links, was also captured on camera. One image shows the group of grim-faced golfers, including Old Tom Morris and Morris Junior.

Compiling the book was a labour of love for Tom, who gathered his collection of photographs for his framing shop, which specialised in Victorian and Edwardian images.

When it closed three years ago at the peak of the trams disruption, Tom decided that rather than keep them hidden away, he would share them in what is hoped will become a 
series of books.

“Many of these images will not have been seen in recent years,” says Tom, now retired. “And while many show how much the port has changed – others show how it’s kept its character.

“I didn’t want them just lying around unseen.”

Perhaps the images most likely to prompt a wry smile – or weary shake of the head – among Leithers are the ones which show open-top trams trundling along wide open, mostly empty streets. 
Picturesque, agrees Tom, but no doubt rickety, uncomfortable and freezing cold even in the middle of summer.

Now, with more than 14,000 images at his disposal, Tom, who lives in South Queensferry with his wife, Liz, is turning his attention to another book featuring his historic photographs, this time exploring the Forth Bridge and the communities it touches upon, from either side of the Forth.

Yet few places, he adds, can compete with Leith. “Leith was Edinburgh’s trading gateway to the world. It has a magnificent history of its own,” he adds.

“The Romans would have passed through the area as they travelled between the forts at Cramond and Fisherrow.

“Leith was Scotland’s leading seaport during the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Later the increase in shipbuilding had a huge impact on ancillary trades such as sail making, rope manufacture, the import of timber and a rise in the number of general merchants that supplied the many ships that were using the port.”

The whaling industry brought jobs and prosperity, however the decision to amalgamate the port with Edinburgh in 1920 simply magnified the differences between the two.

“Anyone born or brought up in the port is still immensely proud of their rich and individual heritage,” adds Tom. “When asked where they come from, the answer in most cases would still be ‘Leith’.”

• Glimpses of Times Past: Leith by Tom Wright is published by Luath Press, £8.99.