Historic port landmark Leith Custom House set for new lease of life

The Custom House in Leith's Commercial Street. Picture: Neil Hanna
The Custom House in Leith's Commercial Street. Picture: Neil Hanna
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For centuries it formed part of Scotland’s busiest port, the main gateway into the country from Europe.

Now one of Leith’s best-known landmarks is set for a new lease of life – as the first visitor attraction to chart the port’s rich history, including a maritime heritage going back to the 13th century.

The new look for the Custom House, which was built overlooking The Shore more than 200 years ago for ship’s masters to declare cargoes and pay duties, will include showcases of little seen historic artefacts linked to Leith.

The transformation of the A-listed building costing up to £7 million, being led by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust (SHBT), could also include a restaurant, art gallery, artists’ workshops or drama academy.

Leith became Scotland’s main port after the capture of Berwick by Edward I in 1296. Shipbuilders Robert Menzies and Sons were behind the Sirius – the first steamship to cross the Atlantic in 1838 – while the Scottish-born founder of the American navy, John Paul Jones, threatened to open fire on the port of Leith in 1792 – but was foiled by bad weather.

Other key dates in Leith’s history include the return of Mary, Queen of Scots, from France in 1561.

The SHBT has published a detailed design brief for the site, which was acquired five years ago by Edinburgh City Council from the National Museum of Scotland.

The council has agreed a lease with the trust to allow it to draw up detailed plans and raise the funding for its rebirth on condition that it includes a museum element and “encourages an understanding of the rich history of the area and the people who have lived and worked there in the past and present”.

The trust envisages a detailed feasibility study leading to “a major capital project, which will see the building restored and take its place within the heart of Leith”.

Its design brief states: “The project will draw on and highlight the architectural, historic and cultural significance of the building over its 200-year history as a gateway to Leith, Edinburgh and beyond.”

Trust director Una Richards said: “We only have funding in place for a feasibility study at the moment. We will begin fundraising once we have a chosen a preferred option.”

A council spokeswoman said: “We’re working with the trust to explore options for an appropriate future use of the building, which will provide a hub for the local community.”