Article and pictures by David Flintham (except where stated), all rights reserved.

Located on the Firth of Forth, 2.5km to the north-east of Edinburgh, Leith is regarded as the Capital's port. Yet in earlier times, Leith was, in fact, a rival to Edinburgh as a potential capital. Indeed, during the 16th century, Leith came into direct conflict with its near neighbour. The reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-67) was marred by conflict and disturbances brought about by the regency, the Scottish Reformation and Mary's own relations with France. The second conflict of what would become known as the "Marian Wars", in 1558, saw the Protestant Lords of the Congregation, in opposition to the wedding of young Queen Mary to the Dauphin of France, march on Edinburgh. With their English allies, they had little trouble in taking control of the town and forced the Regent, the French Mary of Guise (and widow of James V) to fall back on Leith with her own French allies. The French commander, Monsieur D'Essé, immediately realised the strategic importance of Leith. If fortified it would be a safe retreat should he be defeated by the English, and at the same time was critical to communication with France. In addition, there was an opportunity to exploit any rivalries with Edinburgh.

Leith was fortified as part of a chain of citadels'which also included Eyemouth, Dunbar and Inchkeith (the latter was initially held by the English, who were quickly driven out by the French). Leith was fortified by Piero Strozzi in accordance with current Continental thinking1 [Figure 1] with the result that Leith could boast the most modern fortifications to be found anywhere in the British Isles (generally, artillery failed to produce any noticeable change in Scots fortification2). Two stone bastions'were built, one either side of the Water of Leith where it enters Leith harbour. The one to the right was known as Ramsay's Fort. These two works formed an adequate defence for the harbour against attack from the sea. Leith itself was enclosed by an earth rampart.

From May 1560, the English blockaded Leith from both land and sea. The French garrison, now under the command of Monsieur D'Oysel, numbered some 3,000 experienced troops and mounted a number of successful sorties, on one occasion driving besieging troops as far as the walls of Edinburgh. Attempts to storm the town met with little success (on one occasion, English troops attempted to scale its walls, only to discover that their ladders were too short), eventually, sheer weight of numbers and resources began to tell. Whilst the English fleet blockaded the Forth, on-land, the English constructed substantial siege-works, including a line of trenches and ramparts, more than 1.6km in length, to the south-west of Leith, the open flanks covered by guns at the extremes of the line and by cavalry based at Restalrig and Newhaven. There are six known gun positions (traces of one are said to still be visible today in Leith Links [Figure 2]), the most substantial being Pelham Mount to the south and Somerset Mount to the south-west. Both these forts were large, perhaps 1.2 hectares in area with ramparts nearly 4 metres high3.

The approach of the trenches forced the garrison to retire into Leith itself, from where their stubborn defence continued4. Having failed to take Leith by force, the English now resolved to see what diplomacy could do, and a truce was made. However, it was the death of Mary of Guise of dropsy in June5 which led to the French surrender on 7th July, following which the opposing sides agreed to the Treaty of Edinburgh shortly afterwards. Under the treaty, English and French troops alike were to be withdrawn from Scotland and military works, including Leith, were to be slighted6.

There is a contemporary map of the siege, located in the archives of Petworth House in Sussex, and deserves to be ranked among the most immediate of all records of the siege. Whilst not dated, it purports to show the siege works and the deployment of heavy artillery as they were on the day of the surrender and considering that (according to the Scottish chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie) both the French and the English armies were gone by 16 July, there is little doubt that the information it records so precisely and in such detail must have been gathered by 7th July or within days thereafter. In 1991, Stuart Harris studied this map and his subsequent paper plots both the defences and siege-works on a map of modern Leith.7

Destruction of the Marian defences was not total, however, as in 1639 the remaining defences were strengthened to hold back an English landing during the first Bishops' War and they were still in place a year later8. The fortifications were again improved in 1649-50, this time to counter Royalist threats9, and during the summer of 1650, Leith faced a new English threat. In response, the mason John Mylne (1611-67) and the wright John Scott strengthened Edinburgh's walls and constructed artillery emplacements [Figure 3]. A line of earthworks linked Edinburgh to Leith (Leith Walk now occupies the line of these defences), and a boom placed across the mouth of Leith Harbour10. But following defeat at Dunbar (3rd September 1650), Edinburgh fell to the English (the castle held out for a further two and a half months). Mylne, now working for the English Commonwealth, quickly built a new fort at Leith.

Following the end of the Third Civil War in 1651, the English Commonwealth could now turn its attention to controlling Scotland and decided to build five modern bastioned forts: Ayr, Inverness, Inverlochy, Leith and Saint Johnstone (Perth)11. The English could not afford to underestimate the Scots and their experience of fortifications - during 1644-46, the Scottish Army of the Solemn League and Covenant had amassed a great deal of experience at siege warfare during their campaigns in England, whilst during the Third Civil War, the Scots Royalist forces had employed field fortifications extensively (for example at Worcester in 1651. The English Commonwealth, therefore, resolved to build these Citadels in the latest formidable style while their size alone, containing barracks and administrative buildings, had not been seen in Scotland since the largest French forts of the previous century. Each citadel was different - in size, shape and contents12.

Leith Citadel was probably a five-sided citadel13, (according to William Maitland, writing in 1753, it was pentagonal in shape with a bastion at each corner and one gateway, facing east14) and was begun on 26 May 1656 on the site of the former 1650 fort [Figure 4]. It was obviously an impressive fortification, in General George Monck's own words, Leith Citadel was there to "keepe in awe the chief citty of this nation"15, and cost the local population (who were forced to pay for its construction16) an estimated £10,00017. The Citadel became Monck's headquarters as the English commander-in-chief in Scotland. According to local legend the house built over the entrance to the Citadel [Figure 5] was the meeting-place of the officers and men who were Baptists. However, the building dates later than the Commonwealth occupation, something demonstrated by the stair to the house being outside, instead of inside, the Citadel gateway18.

Monck left Major-General Thomas Morgan in command of the garrison when he left Scotland in early 166019. Following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the garrison was retained, in case there was a need to suppress any armed resistance to the Restoration20. By the spring of 1662, the remaining forces in Scotland numbered two regiments of foot and a troop of horse, centred on Leith Citadel. These refused to disband until arrears totalling perhaps as much as £30,000 were paid. With the arrears paid, the troops either departed for foreign service (Portugal or Tangier) or were paid-off and the citadel given to the Earl of Lauderdale. Lauderdale promptly persuaded (some say blackmailed!) Edinburgh to buy it back from him21 and within 10 years it was largely disused and partially demolished. The remains of Leith Citadel became a prison and were captured by the Jacobites in 1715, following a sea-borne landing commanded by William Mackintosh of Borlum22, and prisoners released. By the time of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, what remained of the Citadel was still substantial enough to offer some protection to Hamilton's dragoons, fleeing from Coltbridge, although the approach of the Jacobite army forced them to flee once more, this time to General Cope's army at Dunbar23. Today, only a gateway survives [Figure 6].

During the American War of Independence, John Paul Jones commanded a fleet of seven ships intending to destroy British commerce in the North Sea. He intended to capture the port of Leith and hold it for ransom, but a gale thwarted his plans. Never-the-less, the scare led to battery of nine guns being hastily erected to cover the entrance to the harbour. The authorities then decided that a more substantial defence should be built and James Craig, who had won first prize for his design for the New Town, was commissioned to draw up plans for a fort in Leith, finally built in 1780 [Figure 7]. In September 1793, the Royal Artillery occupied the fort together with a detachment of infantry from Edinburgh Castle but no guns were ever fired in anger. During the Napoleonic Wars, Leith Fort was enlarged to house French prisoners-of-war and then, for the next century and a half, was a barracks.

A renewed threat from commerce raiding during the Napoleonic Wars prompted the Board of Ordnance in 1807 to propose the construction of a Martello Tower at Leith harbour to protect the town and the new docks (built 1806). Whilst the Board would provide funding for the tower, the actual construction was to be carried out by the Edinburgh City Corporation (whilst they accepted the proposal, what followed was a saga of procrastination and sharp practice which resulted in the tower not being actually completed until thirty years later)24. The initial design set out by Major Alexander Bryce, RE, Commanding Engineer North Britain was for the tower to be curved "better to resist and break the force of the waves...after the principle of the Eddystone Lighthouse"25. The tower was to be 16m high (5m of this would be below sea-level), a base diameter of 13.5m, tapering to a gun-platform diameter of 9.8m. With no central pillar to support the bomb-proof arch, there was just a single, square central chamber over a low basement26. In 1810, Lieutenant-General Morse, Inspector General of Fortifications, modified the design, increasing the diameter to 24.6m and the above sea-level height to 13.8m.

Despite a final cost of over £17,000, the interior of the tower was incomplete, and 1828 it was reported that the lower part of the tower was not watertight. 20 years later the Inspection of Forts, Towers and Batteries report stated that the tower "is altogether useless"27. In 1850, Lieutenant-Colonel Yule reconstructed the interior of the tower, adding the trefoil gun-emplacement at the platform and reorganising the internal accommodation28 and by 1853 the tower was reported as being able to accommodate one officer and twenty-one soldiers (it was manned by the men of the Royal Artillery, based at Leith Fort) and armed with three 32pdr guns. Whilst never armed, it was manned until 1869 when the troops were withdrawn and the tower left to the elements29 [Figure 8].

Leith Fort and the Martello Tower were both ineffective - the fort had been badly sited and the tower had never been armed - and nether would form part of the later 19th century and 20th century River Forth defences30. Leith Fort remained in active use until 1956s and then its interior was demolished to make way for housing, although the perimeter wall, entrance gate and guardhouse were all left standing [Figure 9]. The Martello Tower, known locally as the Tally Too'er, now lies half buried in the reclaimed land on what is now the eastern breakwater on the north side of the docks [Figure 10].


  1. FRY, MICHAEL, Edinburgh: A History of the City, (London, 2010), p. 103.
  2. DUFFY, CHRISTOPHER, Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494-1660, (London, 1979), pp. 85-7.
  3. HARRIS, STUART, ‘ The fortifications and siege of Leith: a further study of the map of the siege in 1560’, in Proceedings of Society of Antiquities, Scotland, No. 121, (1991), p. 364 (DOI: 10.5284/1000184). See http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-352-1/dissemination/pdf/vol_121/121_359_368.pdf
  4. RUSSELL, JOHN, The Story of Leith, (Leith, 1922), XXII.
  5. MACDOUGALL, NORMAN, An Antidote to the English: The Auld Alliance, 1295-1560, (East Linton, 2001), p. 142.
  6. FRY, MICHAEL, Edinburgh: A History of the City, (London, 2010), p. 105.
  7. HARRIS, STUART, Op Cit., pp. 359-368. Study of the map of the siege in 1560
  8. CAMPBELL PATTERSON, RAYMOND, A Land Afflicted, (Edinburgh, 1998), p. 28 and p. 37.
  9. Ibid., p. 178.
  10. Ibid., p. 187.
  11. LOWRY, BERNARD, Discovering Fortifications, (Buckinghamshire, 2006), p. 28.
  12. A description of Ayr Citadel can be found at http://www.scotwars.com/Ayr_citadel.htm
  13. CHRISTOPHER DUFFY in Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494-1660, (London, 1979), 157, says "a stone-revetted hexagonal citadel at Ayr. Similar forts were built at...Leith". However, PETER GAUNT in The Cromwellian Gazetteer, (Gloucester, 1987), p. 208, describes it as a "pentagonal stronghold with angle bastions", as does MIKE OSBOURNE in Sieges and Fortifications of the Civil Wars in Britain, (Leigh-on-Sea, 2004), p. 80, who describes it as "a monumental pentagonal citadel".
  14. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Canmore ID 51917, Site Number NT27NE 10.
  15. TABRAHAM, CHRIS and GROVE, DOREEN, Fortress Scotland and the Jacobites, (London, 1995), p. 19.
  16. FRY, Op Cit., p. 170.
  17. GAUNT, PETER, The Cromwellian Gazetteer, (Gloucester, 1987), p. 208.
  18. RUSSELL, Op Cit., XXVI.
  19. CHILDS, JOHN, The Army of Charles II, (London, 1976), p. 196.
  20. CAMPBELL PATTERSON, Op Cit., p. 227.
  21. TABRAHAM and GROVE, Op Cit., p. 21.
  22. FRY, Op Cit., p. 207.
  23. RUSSELL, Op Cit., XXIX.
  24. CLEMENTS, W. H., Towers of Strength, (Barnsley, 1999), p. 91.
  25. PRO WO 55/818 in CLEMENTS, Op Cit., p. 91.
  26. CLEMENTS, W. H., Op Cit., pp. 91-2.
  27. PRO WO 44/277 in CLEMENTS, Op Cit., p. 91.
  28. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Canmore ID 51960, Site Number NT27NE 43.
  29. RUSSELL, JOHN, Op Cit., XXX.
  30. LOWRY, Op Cit., p. 52.

Article and pictures by David Flintham (except where stated), all rights reserved.

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