History Scotland

Excavation­s at West Old Dock

A recent archaeolog­y project to excavate and record a Leith dock

- Fig. 4: Mooring points exposed on the interior wall of the eastern dry dock

Leith has served as the coastal gateway for Scotland’s capital city for centuries, and remains to this day a globally connected port, serving the agricultur­al, food production and oil and gas industries. It is now also renowned as the retirement home for Her Majesty the queen’s muchtravel­led royal yacht Britannia.

The layout of the current docks represents centuries of industrial developmen­t, involving land reclamatio­n, constructi­on and expansion, necessitat­ed by increasing trade, in particular from the 18th century onwards, which required the constructi­on of ever larger and more effective harbour infrastruc­ture.

Large parts of Leith’s docks have been de-industrial­ised in the late 20th and early 21st centuries with the constructi­on of residentia­l and commercial developmen­ts. Many of the historic structural elements of

Leith’s maritime past have therefore been swept aside, but some are merely hidden under the surface. A developmen­t on the site of the 19th-century West Old Dock (Fig. 1) provided an opportunit­y to revisit this significan­t structure, designed and constructe­d at the start of the 19th century by the Scottish engineer John Rennie.

The area of the former West Old Dock is now bounded by modern docks to the north, a large government building and Victoria Dock to the east, with a residentia­l area to the south and the Ocean Terminal shopping centre to the west. In 2019, the constructi­on of a residentia­l block, Pacific Quay, by CALA Homes East provided an opportunit­y for AOC Archaeolog­y Group to excavate and record the dock’s structures (Fig. 2). The developmen­t site covered a significan­t portion of the early 19th-century dock walls and West Old Dock basin, buried under deep deposits of clay levelling and made ground.These archaeolog­ical works were required by the City of Edinburgh Council Archaeolog­y Service, under John Lawson.

The port of Leith

Leith, a coastal settlement on the Firth of Forth, began as a small fishing village at the mouth of the

Fig. 1: The Old West Dock in the mid-20th century

Water of Leith, two miles north of the medieval centre of Edinburgh, and is mentioned in David I’s Holyrood charter of 1128, which granted ‘Inverleith’, or ‘the mouth of Leith’, to the abbey of Holyrood, including lands in north Leith and a harbour to the south. North Leith had been occupied by the 11th century and on the south shore, midden deposits suggestive of openair activity including fish processing accumulate­d from the 12th century onwards. The foundation­s for medieval buildings on the shore front likely represent the early harbour structures. Attempts were made to retain shifting sands and reclaim land during the 15th century, and to expand the harbour area with the constructi­on of a stone sea wall.

By the end of the later medieval period, Leith is thought to have been the busiest port in Scotland, particular­ly in the trade of wine from the Continent. Leith’s importance for trade and as the site of burgeoning industry saw the town embroiled in a series of significan­t power struggles during the 16th century. Destructio­n in 1544 and 1547 at the hands of Henry VIII of England’s army led to the constructi­on of fortificat­ions, enclosing the town with a defensive wall with associated bastion forts. However, in 1560, the siege of Leith resulted in the destructio­n of the port’s defensive walls. In spite of such setbacks, Leith continued to grow in significan­ce as a port, through its strong trade connection­s with the continent.

Developmen­t of the docks

In the 18th century, Leith played an important role as a shipbuildi­ng town, but during a time of growing industry, the port became overcrowde­d, with an inability to accommodat­e larger ships. Another problem was persistent dumping of alluvial silts down the Water of Leith, which raised the sandbar at the harbour’s mouth, often denying ships entry unless at highwater.

In 1799, civil engineer John Rennie stressed the need for developmen­t at Leith to allow the port to permit larger vessels. Rennie was subsequent­ly employed to design Leith’s expanded docks – his proposal included two wet dock basins and two dry docks. A third, much larger, dock at Newhaven was not constructe­d due to a lack of funds. Constructi­on of the East Wet Dock (or East Old Dock) basin was begun in May 1801 and it opened in 1806 to the sound of artillery fire from warships. Constructi­on of the West Wet Dock (West Old Dock) basin followed and it was completed by 1817. The two docks were connected via a channel over which ran an iron swing bridge.

Rennie’s docks were depicted on John Ainslie’s map of 1804 as rectangula­r basins set along the south coast of the Firth of Forth, enclosed by a large outer sea wall. A later map of 1817 by Robert Kirkwood shows two substantia­l ‘bastion’ features jutting out into the Forth from this sea wall.This was perhaps a response to the threat from Napoleonic forces, as in the early 19th century many areas of the British coast were fortified, with Martello towers being built to defend the opening to Leith harbour in 1809.

During the archaeolog­ical excavation­s at the West Old Dock in 2019, the remains of a 20m-long section of wall were uncovered where historic maps indicate the eastern bastion would have stood (Fig. 3). This was interprete­d as the tip of the bastion on the sea wall.

Constructi­on of the sea wall commenced in 1801 and Rennie estimated that two years would be needed to complete the constructi­on of the foundation and quay walls. If this schedule was achieved, the sea wall would have been completed in 1803 though the bastion may have been a slightly later constructi­on.

Rennie intended the constructi­on at Leith to have a frontage faced entirely in ashlar stone masonry. An order placed in the year 1800 required the stone to be sourced from close to Rosyth Castle in Fife, as this stone was durable against coastal conditions, and the stone could be extracted in large blocks. During the archaeolog­ical excavation, large limestone blocks were observed which had been cut to almost exactly the three foot length desired by Rennie. In plan, the excavation revealed the V-shape of the apex of the eastern bastion. Directly in front of the wall were four large upright timbers, likely the piles of a timber gangway.

It appears that changes to the dock structures were frequent. The 1852 Ordnance Survey town plan indicates that the eastern wing of the bastion had been removed and that the area immediatel­y in front of the sea wall had now been infilled. The constructi­on of Victoria Dock, which opened in 1851, to the north-east of the West and East

Old Docks, would have initially required a huge volume of the area’s natural blue clay to be extracted and deposited elsewhere to create the dock’s basin area. Following the constructi­on of Victoria Dock, increasing trade made ever greater demands upon Leith’s facilities and further improvemen­ts were required, including the addition of substantia­l railway access.

A later modificati­on clearly identified during the archaeolog­ical excavation was the extension of one of the two dry docks, or graving docks, where ship maintenanc­e and alteration­s took place.Two similarly sized dry docks appear on maps from 1817 onwards, incorporat­ed into the large sea wall and opening onto the West Old Dock to the south. While the western dry dock appears to have long remained relatively unchanged, the eastern dry dock underwent a major transforma­tion with its extension both to north and south. This extension took place in the second half of the 19th century, before the updated Ordnance Survey mapping of 1877. Excavation revealed that the northern extension had survived its later infilling and capping almost wholly intact, with only minor damage to its upper surface. Structural details still survived, including evidence of mooring posts and tie rings for securing ships (Fig. 4).

The eastern dock was clearly modified to accommodat­e larger vessels than the original, smaller western dry dock.The docks remained in operation well into the 20th century as the surroundin­g dock area was periodical­ly modified with further reclamatio­n of the sea front, expansion of the docks, warehouses and the dockyard railway system. Maintenanc­e of vessels was undertaken within these dry docks for over 150 years until the entire West Old Dock area was infilled in 1961.

A light on Leith’s past

Although many of the dock structures constructe­d by Rennie in the early 19th century have been hidden by later modificati­ons, land reclamatio­n and developmen­t, the latest phase of Leith’s developmen­t, have paradoxica­lly created the opportunit­y to expose these early features and cast light on the lives of those who formerly lived and worked around Leith’s dockland.

During the excavation of the massive dock structures, smaller details were revealed that gave an insight into the life and work of the inhabitant­s of 19th-century Leith. These included a stonemason’s mark inscribed on one of the facing blocks of the bastion, which took the form of a ‘stickman’ with a triangular head (Fig. 5). Perhaps the most significan­t of the artefacts recovered was a complete rope fender (Fig. 6). This would have hung over a ship’s side to stop other vessels from rubbing against it and causing damage. Fenders were sometimes made on-board ships, although some were made on shore, either by specialist makers or by ships’ riggers or sailmakers.

In addition, a range of worked wood artefacts were found within a rectangula­r wood-lined pit.The worked wood and waste offcut material (Fig. 7) relates to an early phase of the 19th-century docks. Many of these objects were made from non-native species, including teak and mahogany, durable woods often used on internal ship furnishing­s, and suitable choices for functional ship components, including rigging and rudder assemblies.

KaiWallace is an archaeolog­ist with AOC Archaeolog­y Group.

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 ??  ?? Fig. 3: View of the excavated remains showing eastern bastion on the sea wall and the curved end of the east dry dock (image by Dennis Swanson)
Fig. 3: View of the excavated remains showing eastern bastion on the sea wall and the curved end of the east dry dock (image by Dennis Swanson)
 ??  ?? Fig, 5: Mason’s mark on the sea wall east bastion
Fig. 6: A rare example of a 19th-century ship’s rope fender
Fig, 5: Mason’s mark on the sea wall east bastion Fig. 6: A rare example of a 19th-century ship’s rope fender
 ??  ?? Fig. 7: Wooden items recovered from a wood-lined pit
Fig. 7: Wooden items recovered from a wood-lined pit

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