Past Industries Associated with and Dependent Upon the Old Harbour

Saw mills, flour and meal mills, sugar refineries, engineering works, breweries, distilleries and bottling plants. Ship building, cement making, colour making, leather manufacture, rope, twine and sail making. Coopering, tanning, brass cloth weaving and chemical works. Glass making, soap making, lime juice making, ginger beer making, vinegar making and biscuit making. All these industries were dependant on the river and the old harbour.



From the late 13th century until 1707 when it was overtaken by Glasgow, Leith was not only Edinburgh’s port it was the gateway to Scotland and Scotland’s busiest port. Indeed, well into the twentieth century Leith ships traded with the Baltic, the Low Countries, France, America and the Mediterranean, carrying coal, grain, fish, hides and various other goods and returning with spices, cloth, whale oil and wine. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries The Netherlands was Scotland’s most important trading partner. From the Port of Leith went out wool, salmon, coal, juniper and other products, whilst in return a huge range of luxury goods were imported – spices brought in by the Dutch East India Company, tea and coffee, tobacco, brandy and genever.



One of the oldest shipbuilding firms in Leith was Messrs. Sime and Rankin’s, building several warships in the days of the old "wooden walls." Their yard, now built on, was opposite the Custom House, but their drydock, dating from 1720, and the oldest in Leith is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. In 1882 13 iron steam vessels were launched at Leith and 4 yachts were built. In 1883 there were 7 ship building yards in Leith. Between 1877 and 1882 15 wooden steam trawlers were built. The first line-of-battle ship, the Fury, ever built in Scotland was launched at Leith. The yard of Messrs. Menzies was at the Old Dock gates. In 1837 the company built the Sirius, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, which she did in eighteen days, arriving a few hours before the Great Western, which had set out three days after her. The yard of Messrs. Ramage and Ferguson built about 90 high class steam yachts, but, in addition to yachts, they also turned out many fine types of sailing ships, and passenger and cargo steamers, including light-draft passenger vessels for service in China. They also built the 5 masted KOBENHAVEN sail training ship for the Danish Navy.



Leith was Scotland’s chief port for many centuries, trading across the North Sea and south to France. Shipowners and merchants imported corn and timber from Norway, wine from Bordeaux and many fine goods from Holland. Exports included wool from the Border abbeys.

In the days of the British Empire, British commercial shipping stretched right across the globe. Several successful shipping lines, including Gibson & Co., Currie & Co., Ben Line and Christian Salvesen were based in Leith. The vessels owned by these companies were part of the Merchant



Leith offered ferry services to many Scottish ports as well as many European ports, including Copenhagen, Reykjavik, Hamburg and Oslo. Merchant ships sailed in and out of Leith



Whaling was the mainstay of Leith for centuries. Originally focusing on local waters (the last whale in the Firth of Forth was caught in 1834) and on Icelandic waters, by the mid 19th century ships were travelling to the Antarctic. This was latterly all under the umbrella of the Christian Salvesen Company who had many whaling stations in the South Atlantic. One in South Georgia was named Leith. The whale ships from Leith brought the very first penguins to Edinburgh Zoo around 1900.

The Anchor Soapworks was established on Water Street around 1680. This largely used whale oil in its production. The works survived until around 1830.


Rope, Twine, and Sail Making

The making of ropes, twines, and sailcloths formed some of Leith’s largest and most specialized industries. The well-known Edinburgh Roperie and Sailcloth Company was founded in Leith in 1750 by a number of Edinburgh and Leith merchants who combined to advance the interests of the industry. From a small beginning the trade eventually reached immense proportions, giving Leith a celebrity in the manufacture of ship rigging unsurpassed in any country in the world. At the height of the company the works in Bath Street covered an area of twenty-five acres, employing 1000 men. At that time it would turn out on average 30 tons of cordage weekly and 2,000, 000 yards of sailcloth yearly.



Scotland's largest leadworks, the Leith Leadworks, stood on the corner of Mitchell Street and Constitution Street. Founded around 1760 the operational part worked until the 1970s and the empty buildings stood until the late 1980s. The company specialised in lead pipes for water supply and lead drainpipes. They also produced lead sheet for roofing and lead shot for weapons. Up until 1920 they provided 90% of all Scotland's lead (including sheet, pipe, and pellet shot).



Leith used to possess flourishing cane sugar refining businesses, starting as early as 1800 . The sugar-house in Breadalbane Street carried on an extensive trade, turning out 250 tons of refined sugar every week.


Glass manufacture

Glass manufacturing started in Leith in early 17th century. In 1746 The Leith Glassworks stood on Baltic Street and around 1770 it produced one million bottles per week. In 1770 Edinburgh Crystal started on the same site. In 1790 7 glassworks, each with a large cone, were in operation on the Shore of South Leith making various kinds of glass goods.


Timber and Coal

The time when Scotland could supply its needs with regard to timber is long since past. Import of timber into Leith has played an important part of the life of the harbour. To begin with the timber came mainly from Sweden and Norway and later from the Baltic.

An important factor in the growth of Leith’s timber import lay in the connection between the coal and timber trades. North Russia, Sweden, and Norway had no coal supplies of their own, and as Leith was situated near coalfields its ships’ cargo would be coal on the outbound voyage and timber coming back.


The Wine and Whiskey Trade, Vinegar making and Coopering

As early as the twelfth century the mariners of Leith brought wine from abroad for the use of the Abbot and Canons of Holyrood. In the days of the early Stuart kings, after Holyrood had become their court, the king’s wines all came via Leith. In the days of Mary Queen of Scots claret from France was the chief wine imported into Leith. This trade continued to grow for about two hundred and fifty years until the time of the Napoleonic wars, when wine increased greatly in price owing to the duty imposed on it by the Government. Sherry from Spain and port from Portugal then began to be imported in increasing quantities.

Wine storage in Leith dates from at least the early 16th century. At its peak there were around 100 warehouses storing wine and brandy. The oldest building associated with the wine trade in Leith is the Vaults between Giles Street and St. Andrew Street. The oldest date on the Vaults today is 1682, when the great building, much lower then than now, was either reconstructed or rebuilt. Messrs. J. G. Thomson began business here in 1785 and raised the Vaults to their present height. In the late 1880s, due to the collapse of wine harvest in Europe, most of the warehouses were "converted" to whisky storage. Around 85 bonded warehouses stood in Leith in the 1960s. Jointly, these matured around 90% of all Scotch whisky. One of the largest warehouses, Crabbies on Great Junction Street, stored whisky for some of the foremost whisky distilleries. Crabbies also had a famous Green Ginger manufactory alongside its bond. The last bond in Leith, on Water Street, closed around 1995.


One of the wine firms was Messrs. Bell, Rannie and Company, who began business in 1715. Amongst their old ledgers were found the wine bills run up by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Another, Cockburn's of Leith was founded by Robert Cockburn in 1796. They are the oldest surviving wine merchants in Scotland. Cockburn’s has had many famous customers; among them, Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, who on one occasion ordered 350 dozen bottles of wine and 36 dozen of spirits. In 1822, the company was awarded a Royal Warrant after supplying wines to King George IV for a state banquet.

Most wines were imported in the cask. When the wine arrived at Leith it was first clarified and then bottled. Offshoots to the wine industry were several vinegar works.

The first legal distillery in Leith was most likely that of Robert Kemp who in the 1799 had distilling premises in Yardheads as did the partnership of Balenie & Kemp who had a large pot-still malt whisky distillery at Bonnington, known as the Leith Distillery. The most extensive of the Leith distilleries was erected in 1852, covered 1½ acres, had not fewer than 40 vats for British wines and cordials able to hold from 5000 to 1200 gallons each and employed 40 women in the warehouse department. Throughout the twentieth century Leith became a centre for whisky with a number of broking, blending, bonding and bottling concerns and home to many of the major companies in the whisky industry.


By the late 19th Century 3 breweries were operating in Leith.

The export of whisky from, and the import of wine into Leith, gave it a large trade in coopering. At one cooperage buoys for the Northern Lights Commissioners, as well as casks, are made, and, at another, 900 casks can be easily completed in a week by the employees who numbered about 100.


Lime Juice

Rose's lime juice was founded by Lachlan Rose in Leith on Commercial Street in 1868. This was originally and primarily focused upon provision of vitamin C to seamen.


Biscuit Making

In 1813 Mr. William Crawford started making biscuits in a small shop at the Shore of Leith, right in front of the spot where in 1822 George IV. landed on his visit to Scotland. Having expanded, the business moved to Elbe Street where it employment to hundreds of Leith men and girls.



The wheat used in the Leith mills was almost entirely foreign, although native wheat also entered into the mixture. Leith flour millers also use wheat from Canada, Russia and Hungary, the United States, Argentina, Australia, Manchuria and India, all imported by ship.


The Leith Flour Mills (locally known as Tod’s Mills) in Commercial Street were the largest in the Port. The original mills were burned down in 1874. At one stage it had capacity of producing over six hundred thousand bags per annum. Junction Mill was a flour mill and also an oatmeal mill. Swanfield Mill in Bonnington Road was a flour mill, while Messrs. Inglis had a large oatmeal mill at Bonnington. In 1883, 5 flour and meal mills were operational in Leith as well as 9 saw-mills.


Other industries

By the late 19th Century the largest of the many engineering works employed more than 400 men. There were 14 cement factories, 7 colour making works and 8 leather companies. One firm, engaged in tanning and currying leather, had more than 330 pits, and could turn out 300 hides weekly. Leith also had 8 chemical works and a company making woven metal cloth.