Setting sail on a voyage to discover Leith's sea links

A TINY white penguin egg sits in a glass cabinet among dozens of other fascinating objects.

Across the room, on top of a large 19th century fireplace, is what appears to be a light brown seashell. It is, in fact, a whale's eardrum.

In the early 20th century the eardrum would have been painted pink and decorated with a tartan tammy with ribbons, eyes, one curly eyebrow, and a dark moustache – an activity that kept whalers amused on their way back to Leith, souvenirs in tow, from the South Atlantic.

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Opposite the eardrum, on a huge rectangular table in the centre of the room, is a swordfish all the way from Singapore and a narwhal tusk that was used as a walking cane by the late Captain John Wood, who owned a fleet of whalers.

The objects are just a small selection of over 1,000 exhibits on display at Leith's Trinity House maritime museum, and which reflect the port's ancient links to the sea and international trade.

Members of the public can now view these items – which were collected by local merchant sailors across centuries to commemorate their life at sea – for free at an open day on Saturday 24 October.

Trinity House was established in 1555 by the Fraternity of Ship Owners and Ship Masters, a charity which used the building as its headquarters. The building also operated as an almshouse for retired seamen.

The part of the building that operated as an almshouse, providing money to poor and retired sailors in Leith, was replaced with a new building in 1816.

Hugh Morrison, 44, Historic Scotland collections registrar, comments: "The gentoo penguin egg, dated 1955, was brought back to Leith by whalers from Paradise Bay, South Georgia, in the South Atlantic.

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"The first six penguins to arrive at Edinburgh Zoo in 1914 were also brought back to Leith by whalers.

"The whalers kept the live penguins in a compound on deck, there must have been an arrangement that they would give them to the zoo."

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He adds: "Whaling was a huge industry in the 18th century. With no petrochemical industry at the time, the oil from the whales was used for lighting, and the bones used for things like corsets and dresses.

"The sailors would take considerable risks and go right up into the north Arctic and harpoon the whales from the rowing boat, and then pursue them.

"They took enormous risks and there were enormous casualties. All these risks that they took was the reason why the charity existed – people would come back from voyages with injuries or not at all, leaving families and wives.

"The whales would be slaughtered on board with the blubber and bones brought back."

A photograph showing two harpooned whales lies on the large rectangular table in the upstairs convening room, which contains the majority of the museum's artefacts.

The table is surrounded by mahogany chairs and overlooked by splendid chandeliers. Two black and gold fireplaces sit at either end of the room. Charity members would discuss issues at the table, such as how the Port of Leith was being managed.

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The beautiful green and coral plaster ceiling above depicts various maritime scenes and was produced for the princely sum of 50 guineas.

On top of one of the fireplaces is a flying fish wing which was brought back by Leith sailors on their way home from Sydney after a voyage in 1904, and a bottle of seaweed captured in 1905, also from a voyage to Sydney.

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The fine Georgian building is also home to portraits by the great Sir Henry Raeburn, as well as secret wartime charts used by British merchant seamen to find the location of mines scattered in the River Forth.

The Fraternity of Ship Owners and Ship Masters, now the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners, was set up by seafarers for the benefit of needy sailors and their families in 1380. In its heyday it had more than 120 members, but there are now just a handful. Although they still meet at Trinity House, Historic Scotland officially took over the responsibility of running the Kirkgate building on 27 September 2004.

Hugh adds: "The museum is not typical of a Historic Scotland property. It is very much preserved as it has been found and we are trying to keep the essence of it as it has been inherited."

A winding staircase leads visitors downstairs where they can admire a beautiful stained glass window in memory of the merchant seamen of Leith who died in the First and Second World Wars.

It was gifted to the charity by Colina Grant, the first woman – apart from the housekeeper – to set foot in the building. The daughter of famous ship owner, Mungo Campbell Gibson, she was made the only female honorary member of the charity in 1933.

Resting on top of the fireplace in the room downstairs are two sperm whale teeth. The whales were killed by whalers in the Antarctic around 1937. Next to them is a penguin carved out of what is thought to be whale tusk.

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"Our attitudes to whaling now have changed but whaling is very much an aspect of Leith's history," says Hugh. "It is part of a tradition that goes back centuries.

"Sailors would make things from different parts of the whale to amuse themselves on very long voyages."

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The Royal Fusilier is just one of many merchant and passenger vessels featured in models and paintings at the museum, with an advertisement for the model ship stating, "The newest and finest steamer on the coast. Leith for London every Saturday. Music room, smoke room and baths (hot and cold)".

"It used to be a very stylish way of going from Leith to London between the wars in around 34 hours," laughs Hugh.

Photographs of Leith Nautical College's training ship, TS Dolphin, are also on display at the museum.

The college trained young cadets into a life of seamanship, and the photographs show the youngsters taking part in a number of tasks. A life belt from TS Dolphin – the vessel no longer exists – is also on display.

Visitors to the museum can also enter the original medieval vaults, which date back to 1555, where imports such as wine and brandy were thought to be stored.

Hugh adds: "The museum is packed with art and memorabilia reflecting Leith's centuries-old links with the sea, and its past as a great Scottish port.

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"We have a wonderful mixture of maritime history and quirky and interesting stories about Leith's past."


THE general public can discover more about Leith's ancient links with the sea at a free open day at Trinity House maritime museum on Saturday, 24 October.

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Staff will be on site to answer questions about over 1,000 exhibits on display and information sheets will also be provided.

Historic Scotland staff will be located in each room of the museum to provide assistance on the day.

Historic Scotland collections registrar, Hugh Morrison, 44, said: "The Trinity House free open day is a chance to explore one of our area's real hidden gems.

"We are making it free so local people will feel able to come and enjoy what is a wonderful part of our local heritage."

The museum, which had its last open day in 2007, is likely to be of most interest to children aged 10 or over.

All children must be accompanied by an adult at the family event, which runs from 10am to 4pm.

Trinity House is located at 99 Kirkgate, Leith.

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