Scottish fact of the day: Leith Docks

Unloading a cargo of timber at Leith Docks in 1964. Picture: TSPL
Unloading a cargo of timber at Leith Docks in 1964. Picture: TSPL
Share this article
Have your say

Although it wasn’t until the 1770s that Leith Docks began to flourish, the origins of the port can be traced back to 1544, after a wooden pier was constructed during Lord Hertford’s invasion of Leith in the ‘war of the Rough Wooing’ - part of the Anglo-Scottish wars.

A Scottish army observed the English sea-borne army landing at Leith but did not engage.

The capital’s Provost was compelled to allow the English forces to sack Edinburgh and Leith, until artillery forces at Edinburgh Castle fired a few warning shots at the English who, lacking the time or resources to attack the castle, sailed off, loaded with captured goods and two ships belonging to James V of Scotland.

Lord Hertford had also been asked to destroy St Andrews by Henry VIII, but he pointed out the extra distance would be troublesome, and so St Andrews survived.


Dry docks were built in 1772 and 1787, following the construction of a stone wharf on the east side of the Water of Leith river.

In 1779, during the American War of Independence, John Paul Jones - the Scotsman credited with founding the US Navy - set sail on August 14th as commodore of a seven-ship squadron charged with destroying British commerce in the North Sea.

He aimed to capture the port of Leith and hold it for ransom, but a gale on September 16 prevented him from reaching the port, and he was stalled at the mouth of the Firth of Forth.

This scare led to the rapid construction in 1780 of Leith Fort, designed by New Town architect James Craig.

The fort was in active use until as late as 1955, serving as a National Service training facility in its latter years. Most of the barracks were demolished to make way for a council housing scheme which won an award in the mid+-1950s, before being demolished in January 2013.

The site is still to be developed, with two of the fort’s gatehouses surviving at the scheme’s southern entrance.

Construction and expansion

The need for a large wet dock was communicated and although construction started on one, it was never completed.

When the bridge at Sandport Place was replaced with a drawbridge, this enabled access to the upper harbour, and allowed a new quay at the Coalhill to be built.

Another drawbridge was built at Bernard Street at the turn of the nineteenth century, and in 1806 the first of the wet docks - the Old East Dock - was completed, and followed by the completion of the Old West Dock in 1817.

By 1852, the Victoria Dock had also been completed, with the Dock Commission having been instituted by an Act of Parliament in 1838.

The Harbour and Docks Act (1860) cleared all outstanding debts the City owed to the Treasury, and gave the green light for the completion of new wet docks on the East side of the river - the Albert Dock (1865); the Edinburgh Dock (1881) and the Imperial Dock (1902).

The East and West Breakwaters were completed by 1942 and a complex scheme for the impounding of the docks using a sealing dam and lock gates was completed in 1969, paving the way for the deep water facilities enabling cruise liners to berth in the port’s Western Harbour today.

The Dock Commissioners were succeeded by the Forth Ports Authority in 1968, becoming Forth Ports plc in 1992.


There are suggestions that ships were being built in the Leith area as early as 1505 - even before the origins of the port of Leith itself.

Among the more prominent shipbuilding firms were Henry Robb (1926-1983); Hawthorns & Co (1881-1924); Cran & Somerville (1894-1926) and Ramage & Ferguson (1878-1931).

Around 500 ships were built at the Henry Robb shipyard alone, which was formed by the amalgamation of four previous shipyards.

Henry Robb himself leased dry-docks from Ramage & Ferguson, setting up on April 1, 1918 with the aim of repairing ships damaged during the First World War.

By 1926, he had acquired the Hawthorns & Co and Cran & Somerville shipyards, and formed Henry Robb Ltd.

The yard built a large number of naval warships for the Royal Navy ahead of World War II, and during the conflict built 15 frigates; six corvettes and two mine-layers as well as armed trawlers and rescue tugs.

At the same time a number of Merchant vessels were completed along with tugs for private companies.

Henry’s son, also Henry, took over the running of the firm in 1951 following his father’s death and oversaw the construction of a number of large cargo and passenger steamers.

After taking over the Caledon Shipbuilders yard in Dundee in 1968, the firm saw a lack of orders, and the Caledon Robb yard was closed down in 1981.

The Leith yard built a passenger/vehicle ferry; a dredger; two crane barges; two oil rig supply ships; two tugboats; a lighthouse supply vessel and two ferries, before going the same way in April 1984.

The last ship built at Leith was the second of the two ferries - the St Helen - which was launched on September 15, 1983.

The closure of the yard brought to an end over 650 years of shipbuilding in Leith, and the loss of around 700 jobs. Ocean Terminal now sits on the site of Robb’s shipyard.


Leith Docks, or the Port of Leith, is Scotland’s largest enclosed deepwater port, offering facilities and cargo handling services for a range of vessels and cargoes.

It maintains two dry-docks and is a key destination for the north European cruise industry, welcoming around 40 vessels and over 20,000 passengers every year.

The port also handles around 1.5 million tonnes of cargo each year.