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Edinburgh, Leith, The Shore, Harbour

Harbour (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Edinburgh, Leith, The Shore, Harbour

Classification Harbour (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Leith Harbour; Water Of Leith; Leith Pier

Canmore ID 281739

Site Number NT27NE 1566

NGR NT 2710 7663

NGR Description Centred NT 2710 7663

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian

Archaeology Notes

NT27NE 1566 centred 2710 7663

Shore [NAT] (centred NT 27120 76590)

OS 1:1250 map, 1970.

For (successor) Leith Docks or Port of Leith, see NT27NE 57.00.

See also:

NT27NE 1568 NT c. 268 764 Dry Dock (Robert Dryburgh, 1774)

NT27NE 121 NT 26987 76512 Sandport Street, Dry Dock (John Sime and son, 1771).


Scottish Record Office [SRO]

Eastern pier and Western pier and breakwater. Copy letter to Leith Dock Commissioners from William Chapman regarding method, cost and the bearing of that cost.

1827 GD 18/5842

Financing of the building of the East and West Piers.

Letter from the Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

He states that the city only undertook the building of the East Pier on condition that the West Pier would be financed from public funds.

1827 GD 51/2/1015/2

Financing the building of the West Pier.

Letter from the Navy Board.

It refuses to finance the work from public money.

His Royal Highness will not give an opinion of Mr Chapman's plan.

1827 GD 51/2/1051/1

(Undated) information in NMRS.

(Location cited as NT 270 764). Leith, Edinburgh: the estuary of the Water of Leith must have served as a shelter for shipping at all periods of the past, and the existence of a port is implied, by the charter of Holyrood Abbey, as early as 1128. In early times, craft were presumably beached on the on the foreshore, especially on the right bank, where the street fronting on the water is still called The Shore. Improvements, however, were certainly in progress by 1398, when Edinburgh, which owned the port but not the adjoining land, received permission to dig up earth and sand for the building or enlargement of the port. The right to bridge the river was also obtained. It may have been at this time that The Shore acquired the form it still retains, of a combined street and quay. The first bridge [NT27NE 7] was probably built at this time too, as there is nothing to show that Abbot Bellenden actually built the bridge for which he made provision in 1493. Tolls for the repair of the harbour were authorised more than once in the course of the Middle Ages, and of particular interest are allusions, in 1505 and 1508, to the removal of stones from the entrance-channel, in view of the trouble caused later by shifting sandbanks. The first of these passages gives the further information that the channel was marked by beacons, and that a second 'bulwark' existed on the far side.

This mention of a 'bulwark', presumably a breakwater, is the earliest notice of a pier as distinct from the quays in the town, and it is corroborated by the Petworth House [Sussex] plan of 1560, which shows a pier continuing the line of The Shore and finishing on a rocky shoal or an accumulation of boulders. A similar shoal is marked on the W side of the channel, but no constructions. Another map, surveyed between 1682 and 1689 but not published until 1756, shows a pier in the same position, with enclosures or buildings adjoining its landward end which may represent an early phase of the Timber Bush. In addition, a pair of piers on the W bank, apparently just N of where the Custom House (NT27NE 89.00) stands today, are shown. These latter piers are oddly arranged, as one of them, which is continuous with the left-bank quays in the town, takes the form of a hook, forming a bag-shaped basin covered on the N by a straight pier which projects slightly into the channel. A painting (preserved at Trinity House) of about 1710 suggests that the outer pier was likewise hooked and ended in a timber section, its inner part, and the whole of the inner pier, being of ashlar, most of it rusticated. The E pier was all of timber. Adair (1703) notes the 'high and strong Peir' on each side of the entrance, and the 'fine Key of Hewen Stone built all-along from the Bridge [presumably NT27NE 7] downwards'.

Maitland states that the reason for building the E pier was to check the formation of sandbanks in the harbour mouth. By his account, 'a strong Head or wooden Rampart was erected a considerable way into the Frith' about the middle of the 16th century, and was no doubt the work shown on the on the Petworth House plan, but it proved unsuccessful, and a further length 'of wooden Fence' was added, with a westward inclination. This also failing of effect, 'the present [1753] Stonern Pier, at the northern End of the said Fence, was erected about the year 1722'. He adds that, in spite of all these measures, the bar continued to form, and the necessity for procuring a deeper entrance channel was a principal factor in the planning of the new docks [NT27NE 57.00] in the 19th century.

The piers as they existed in 1777, just after Maitland's time, are shown on a plan of the town by Alexander Wood. On the E side of the channel, there is a 'timber pier', apparently founded on or reinforced externally with boulders, and prolonged in stone as described by Maitland. This combined work, of timber and stone, seems to have followed much the same line as the W margin of the present dock-area, and to have ended somewhere short of the Albert Dock entrance basin [NT27NE 57.16]. West of the channel, the place of the oddly-shaped piers and pool figured by Collins has been taken by the 'Ballast Key' opposite the Timber Bush, with an indentation marked 'Carpenter's Yard' to the W of it, and, W of this again, the 'North Pier', an angled work with its outer section pointing W of N. This last ends at a point just E of the present entrance to Victoria Dock [NT27NE 57.06], leaving a wide entrance to the harbour entrance, which was protected from the E by the overlap of the Stone Pier.

Another important feature in the harbour's development must have been the siting of the bridges. The position of the earliest bridge [NT27NE 7] is securely fixed, at Church Street, by its association with Bellenden's chapel [location unknown] and as Collins' and Alexander Wood's plans both agree with the record evidence on this point it seems necessary to infer that the Petworth House plan was wrong in placing the bridge at the end of Tolbooth Wynd. The old bridge was removed after 1791 and its function was taken over by a drawbridge [presumably NT27NE 831] at Tolbooth Wynd, to which another [presumably NT27NE 290] was added at Bernard Street, before 1826. The effect of these changes was to make more space available upstream, as is shown by the appearance, on John Wood's plan of 1825, of two dry docks above the site of the old bridge.

Other features deserving mention are the docks and shipyards marked by both Woods on the W side of the harbour, A Wood's 'New Quay' at the end of Tolbooth Wynd, and the ashlar facing of The Shore noted by Maitland.

Of structural remains, however, to match the recorded features, virtually nothing can be found, as the port has been constantly worked over from period to period and has also been completely redeveloped since the beginning of the 19th century. For example, although The Shore of today seems identical with the harbour frontage on the plan of 1560, there is nothing to suggest that any given piece of quay-face is even a part of Maitland's 'Ashler Stonern Wall', let alone of any earlier construction. Similarly, the filled-up dry-docks on the W bank correspond with those marked by A Wood, but the character of the masonry would agree with a date much later than 1777, Again, although Church Street still exists, no trace of bridge-abutments appears either at its returned end or on the opposite bank, which latter has been first adapted as a quay, and then heightened and built over. The sole portion of the estuary's banks that seems to have escaped adaptation to industrial uses is the stretch bordering North Leith Cemetery [North Leith Burial Ground: NT27NE 82]. This was instituted in 1664, but the heavily battered, dry-stone facing cannot be attributed to any particular period. On the other hands, past vicissitudes have left their imprint on the general scene, with the result that such matters as the harbour's size and shape, and the relationship of buildings to quays, bridge-sites and foreshore, have an archaeological significance.

A Graham 1971.

There is considerable evidence for early shipping at Leith, but not for an integral harbour. Rather, there were a number of extempore works near the mouth of the Water of Leith, apparently with projecting 'bulwarks' at the entrance. The dry dock at Sandport Street (NT27NE 121) dates from 1771.

These early works may be distinguished from the successive structures of the Port of Leith (NT27NE 57.00) which were built out beyond the foreshore as far as the Black Rocks (name centred NT 275 785), and eventually incorporated the protected roadstead of Leith Roads (now the Western Harbour, NT27NE 57.10) to the W.

These harbour-works were apparently centred around NT 2710 7663. The OS 1:10,000 map notes The Shore at around NT 2712 7659. The former mouth of the Water of Leith was apparently at around NT 270 768, and the lowest bridge across it (NT27NE 290) was at NT 2707 7655.

The location of Leith Pier remains unclear, but it was presumably constructed at the mouth of the Water of Leith (NT c. 270 768).

Information from RCAHMS (RJCM), 14 June 2006.

S Mowat [1994].

The SRO references cited above presumably refer to the construction of piers at the entrance to the Water of Leith (NT c. 270 768) within the original Leith Harbour, rather than the later breakwaters and embankment within the Leith Docks complex (NT27NE 57.00).

Information from RCAHMS (RJCM), 15 June 2006.


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