£15m vision for Leith’s historic Custom House building revealed

It is a Georgian landmark which remains a lasting legacy of Scotland’s rich maritime history in one of its most thriving waterfront areas.

Thursday, 21st April 2022, 5:06 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd April 2022, 9:22 am

Now the historic Custom House building which once connected the port of Leith with the rest of the world is set to be reinvented as the heart of the local “20-minute neighbourhood.”

A blueprint for a 15 million transformation of the A-list building, which dates back more than 200 years, would become a hub for heritage, culture, the creative industries, retail, hospitality and the local community.

Artefacts charting centuries of nautical history on Ediniburgh’s waterfront would be brought under the roof for the first time in a building long touted for a “Museum for Leith”.

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Leith's Custom House building has been earmarked for a £15 million makeover.

However new studios, exhibition galleries, event spaces and units for shops, cafes and restaurants would also be created at the Custom House complex, in the heart of the Shore area, under the preferred option which has emerged from a feasibility study into its future.

Led by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT), the project is hoped to create a new “landmark destination” to compliment attractions such as the Royal Yacht Britannia, a new whisky distillery currently under construction, the Ocean Terminal complex, which is earmarked for redevelopment and the Shore’s award-winning restaurants.

It would include the creation of a new “street” of small businesses between the main building and an adjacent former store, where a temporary gallery, studios and a cafe have already been operated.

Custom House, where ship masters had to declare cargoes and pay duties, was built in 1817 following the creation of new docks capable of holding up to 150 ships. It remained in use until 1980 and then became a storage facility for the National Museum of Scotland’s collections until 2015, when it was sold to the council to ensure it remained in public hands.

It is hoped the new-look Custom House will be open by 2028.

The SHBT’s study states: “The ultimate vision for Custom House is the creation of a vibrant cultural and community venue within this iconic heritage asset for the people of Leith and beyond, a place for everyone to enjoy, create and learn, to tell stories, engage with the past and develop their future.

“The challenge is to transform what is an austere, and essentially secure, historic building into something altogether more outward-looking, attractive and engaging.

"The building itself not only has its own story to tell - with links to international trade, smuggling and political history - but has also borne witness to great change in Leith as well.”

SHBT chair Maggie Wright said: “We welcome the paper being presented to the council’s committee, which will consider the outcomes of the feasibility study to provide a long-term vision and sustainable future for Custom House, giving it back its rightful place within the heart of the Leith community.”A council spokeswoman said: “The preferred development option to ensure the future of this important, category A-listed building in the heart of Leith community will create an open and welcoming building, whilst generating sufficient commercial income to ensure it has a sustainable future.

Custom House was brought into use for the Message From The Skies project during Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival in 2019. Picture: Ian Georgeson

"The project is the latest example of the council’s ongoing constructive relationship with the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, who have worked with us to develop Riddell’s Court and also have a lease for the Tron Kirk.”

Leith's Custom House building is expected to be a new hub for culture and the creative industries.
Custom House in Leith has been proposed for the new museum.