"There is definitely a buzz about Leith": Mary Moriarty reflects on the changing face of the port
MARY Moriarty is a Leith legend. A “well-kent-face” to anyone with a connection to the Port.
For 25 years the sprightly octogenarian was landlady of the world-famous Port O’ Leith Bar on Constitution Street, a bar once described as the nearest thing on Earth to the Star Wars’ Cantina, so colourful were the characters who drank there.
While she may originally have been a Corstorphine girl, today, at 80-years-young, there is no denying Mary has earned her honorary title, Queen of Leith.
“You could say it’s fitting”, she laughs, reiterating, “80-years-old!”
After a moment she adds with a mischievous twinkle in her eye: “As I share my birthday with my twin sister Elizabeth (Elizabeth and Mary, we’re two queens) I don’t know if I can get away with halving it? Can I be 40?”
Mary moved to Leith in the Eighties to take over the afore-mentioned hostelry, however, her connections with the area go back a lot further.
“When I first came to Leith there were lots and lots of derelict buildings. It was run down.
“Then, suddenly, in the big abandoned whisky bonds, artists starting using the space as studios and then they brought their own friends to Leith. What transpired was that, maybe a wee shop would open on The Shore selling things like olive bread, croissants and German sausage, things that were more artisan. More and more little businesses sprung up.”
All very different to when Mary took over the Port O’ Leith in the Eighties. Then The Shore was still a place to be wary of going for a drink, Nobles still had go-go dancers and Malmaison was still a run down Sailor’s Mission.
“Before the pub, I had a warehouse here in the Seventies,” reveals Mary, explaining: “My American brother-in-law at the time was coming to Scotland and buying antiques to sell in the USA.
“I had a Transit van so I used to go to the auctions, buy stuff, and store it in a warehouse in Links Gardens East – that used to be Rankin’s the Florists’ warehouse. When I had enough to fill a container, I’d ship it over to him.
“So I’d been in and out of Leith quite a lot before I moved here and I really took to Leith and its people.”
Many of those people were locals in her bar where judges, writers, sailors, working girls, actors and labourers all drank side by side – as near to a microcosm of the area itself as you were likely to find.
Mary retired from the bar trade eight years ago.
The highlight of her time behind the bar was meeting people from all over the world, she says – the bar was the first port of call for sailors docking in Leith.
“I met so many ships’ crews from so many different countries, which was very interesting and, of course, Leith was full of its own characters too.
“Some of them might have been a wee bit dodgy but they were good fun and enjoyable company and the pub did attract quite a broad spectrum of locals and visitors.”
When Mary first walked past the bar after its recent refurbishment, she admits to being surprised.
“What really took my breath away were the new windows. When I was there, we had little coloured glass windows that you couldn’t see through.
“Now there’s a great big huge plain glass window and you can see right through to the other end of the bar.
“I thought, ‘Oh dearie me!, That would have been a no-no back in the day.”
But then, back in the day, Mary could also be found “walking over barrels of beer in high heel shoes.”
“I don’t think I could even step onto a barrel now, let alone walk over them,” she laughs.
A turning point for Leith was the arrival of Tall Ships Weekend in June 1995.
“About a million people came to Leith over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” she recalls.
“We were opening at 6am in the morning at that time, and around about 8am on the Friday two elderly ladies came to the bar and asked for cups of tea.
“I took them over and asked if they’d ever been to Leith before, they said they had not.
“So I asked, ‘Where have you journeyed from? They said, ‘Morningside’.
The “gentrification” that started around that time has continued, although perhaps that’s the wrong word to use.
Mary explains, “I see the changes as all good. Maybe that’s because I choose to see them like that.
“But there is definitely a buzz about Leith, it has its own character – the way it smells, the way it looks, the way people behave here. It’s unique.
“I don’t think the character of Leith has changed at all, I think the people who come here learn to go with it and become Leithers.”
An example of that is the recent Save Leith Walk campaign, a “grass roots public campaign” to “protect the heritage of the Walk”, which thwarted the Drum Property Group’s plans to redevelop the old railway buildings near the foot of The Walk. It reinforced Mary’s belief that Leith’s community spirit is as strong as ever.
“I’m happy that people have earned the ability to object and that they get listened to, but hopefully it doesn’t mean that area will be lying derelict now, unoccupied and sitting there doing nothing.
“When I first came here I could never have imagined what Leith has become, it’s a different world.
“Even Lamb’s House, where Mary Queen of Scots stayed when she arrived in Leith, had been allowed to become derelict.
“Leith was forgotten and it’s the local community that has driven the change.”
Mary is still very much at the heart of that community through her work with the annual Leith Festival.
“Leith Festival has grown over the past few years through the efforts of many capable people and we’ve kept it a community day and week of events,” she says, proudly. “We have a lot of talent in Leith.”
So what is her secret for staying so fit and active? She has a revelation to share: “Every day I step out of my door I’m happy to say hello to the people who say hello to me, but three months ago I quit smoking having smoked for 60 years.
“I wasn’t well one Friday – and I’m never unwell – so I stayed in bed and didn’t smoke. The next day I got up, there were the cigarettes on the table, I couldn’t face them, the next day passed, then the next and I thought, ‘Blimey, I’ve never had a cigarette for four days. I’m not going to bother smoking again.
“All these years, when you think about it, I would have been better taking my tenner, lighting it and throwing it in the ashtray.”