In pictures: Leith docks, then and now

LEITH was Edinburgh’s window to the world in the centuries before railways and air transport.

Ten centurion tanks are loaded on board en route to Sweden in 1952. Picture: TSPL

The famous old port brought prosperity to the capital by exporting and importing goods of all descriptions and providing employment for thousands of dock workers, merchant seamen and shipbuilders.

The main harbour was once the present day Shore, where ships could sail into the natural harbour formed by the Water of Leith. Archaeological excavations in the late 1990s uncovered remains of wharfs built in the 11th century, making the former burgh one of the oldest ports in the country.

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Leith became Scotland’s principal port in the 14th century, replacing Berwick-upon-Tweed which was captured by the English during the Wars of Independence.

A cargo ship berthed at No 7 shed in Imperial Dock, 1959. Picture: TSPL

Following the Act of Union in 1707, Glasgow claimed that title as it offered shorter voyages to the colonies in America and the West Indies.

The modern Leith docks, built to the north of the Shore, took shape in the 19th century. The enclosed Queen’s Dock opened in 1817, and was followed by the Victoria Dock in 1852, the Albert Dock in 1869, the Edinburgh Dock in 1881 and the Imperial Dock in 1904.

The docks’ present form was completed in 1969 when a huge state-of-the-art sea lock was installed, transforming the tidal harbour into a deepwater port.

Shipbuilding in Leith continued for more than 600 years until the closure of the final yard, Henry Robb, in 1984.

A view towards Leith docks in 1962 with Commercial Street in the foreground. The old East Dock in the centre of the picture was later infilled and is now the site of Victoria Quay, a 1990s office development housing civil servants.

The site is now occupied by the Ocean Terminal shopping centre, one of a number of commercial ventures that have opened in Leith in the past 20 years.

The amount of commercial shipping docking in Leith declined in the late 20th century as the docks could not handle the largest modern container ships.

The busiest Scottish commercial port is now Grangemouth, 26 miles to the west.

But the Port of Leith remains the largest enclosed deepwater port in Scotland and tentative plans to expand its capacity for larger cruise liners and ships servicing the offshore industry were revealed last year.

A group of workmen enjoy a lunch break in 1945. Behind them is the North Carr lightship, in dry dock for repairs.

A joint statement released by Scottish Enterprise, Forth Ports Ltd and Edinburgh City Council said: “Leith has the potential to support offshore wind developments, however, it is widely recognised that the industry has not progressed as quickly as first anticipated. Whilst there are a number of projects in development which could utilise Leith, market conditions mean these will develop over a longer period of time.

“However, we are continuing to progress consents and work up detailed proposals for a range of port infrastructure enhancements at ports across Scotland, including Leith.

“Leith remains a vibrant and busy port bringing skilled employment opportunities and significant economic benefit and it continues to be in a strong position to accommodate offshore renewable energy operations in line as the sector develops.”

A tug boat crew enjoy a break in 1963. Picture: TSPL
The Tiger Bay ahead of its naming ceremony at the Henry Robb shipyard in 1960. Picture: TSPL
Charlie, the last horse working at Leith docks, is led along the quay by his driver Willie Nolan in 1963. Picture: TSPL
Ships from the Soviet Union were regular visitors to Leith docks until the late 1980s
The 850-strong workforce of Henry Robb shipyard, threatened with more than 400 redundancies, march through Leith on April 8, 1983, to raise public support for their fight to save jobs. The yard closed weeks later. Picture: George Smith
The present-day Port of Leith. Picture: Ian Georgeson
HMS Somerset arrives at Leith docks on April 24, 2015