The Port of Leith lies on the southern shore of Scotland's Firth of Forth just north of the city of Edinburgh. About 70 kilometers south of the Port of Dundee and some 86 nautical miles southwest of Aberdeen Harbour, the Port of Leith was an independent town until was merged with Edinburgh in 1920. Edinburgh was home to over 453 thousand people in 2004.
The Port of Leith has long been Edinburgh's port and, before the arrival of the railroads, the Port of Leith was the entry port for travelers coming to Scotland. The earliest record of the sport of golf was recorded in the Port of Leith at the Links, where an early five-hole course was constructed in the 18th Century. The official rules of golf were formulated in the Port of Leith by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
While it is not a major city, the Port of Leith has long been important to Scottish history. The original harbor, an anchorage at the mouth of the Water of Leith, dates to the 14th Century.
As Edinburgh's major port, the Port of Leith has played a role in many of Scotland's historic events. In the 16th Century when it was the home of the Scottish Court, Mary of Guise ruled the country from Leith as Regent for Mary Queen of Scots, her daughter.
The Regency ended in 1559 when Scottish Protestants, supported by the English, drove French Catholic troops out of the Port of Leith. The battlefield is now Leith Links, a park with two mounds where the cannons were placed. The next year, Mary Queen of Scots returned to the Port of Leith to begin her brief reign of six-years.
In the 17th Century, Oliver Cromwell's forces headquartered in the Port of Leith as his roundhead army moved northward. The first docks in the Port of Leith were built early in the Century, but they were blocked by the formation of sand bars.
John Paul Jones, a Scotsman and founder of the United States Navy, assailed the Port of Leith with three French vessels during the American Revolution. The assault did not succeed, and the Port of Leith built fortifications to prevent similar events. Part of the town is still called "The Fort," although only a gatehouse still stands.
When John Rennie noted the shortage of deep water in the Port of Leith, he was asked to propose a way to surmount problem. Construction of the resulting docks to the west of the river was begun in 1800. In 1806, a procession of Edinburgh officials and high-class citizens attended the opening of the first wet dock in North Britain with great fanfare.
Construction of the second wet dock in the Port of Leith began in 1811, and it was also opened with formal ceremonies when it was completed in 1817. In 1822, King George IV visited the Port of Leith, arriving by ship at Leith shore. Soon, the docks at the Port of Leith were known as Edinburgh's port. The original gateway for the old Port of Leith still stands beside the Leith Customs House.
The Port of Leith's Victoria Dock was constructed in the middle 1800s, followed by the Albert and Imperial Docks in the 1880s. Edinburg Dock opened in 1881. In the late 1930s, work began to enclose the deep water with huge breakwaters to create the Western Harbor that was completed in 1943. After World War II, the Port of Leith underwent a period of decline. The neighborhood won a reputation for prostitution and crime.
In the late 1980s, conditions began to improve when old abandoned industrial sites in the Port of Leith were re-developed to create affordable housing and new small industrial businesses were opened.
In the early 21th Century, the Port of Leith is cleaned up and restored. Today, it's a busy port visited by many cruise vessels. It is also the home of the Royal Yacht Britannia, an ocean terminal, and offices for several of Scotland's governmental departments. Today, what was a seedy waterfront district is a center for up-scale restaurants, pubs, and hotels. A new public walkway was opened along the banks of the Water of Leith.
In 2004, Port of Leith owner Forth Ports announced its intention to close the port and redevelop the area by the year 2020. The Western Harbour will be filled, and the new development will contain some 17 thousand new homes and generous open space. The old docks will be the site of commercial, retail, leisure, and residential facilities.