Serving the Port of Leith | A maritime treasure house
Serving the Port of Leith
Trinity House, together with its remarkable historic collections, provides a fascinating insight into Leith’s celebrated maritime past. The present building served as the headquarters for the Incorporation of Mariners and Shipmasters in the Port of Leith for nearly two centuries. This charity was established to support the needs of injured and retired seamen and their families. Its origins can be traced back to 1380, when it was granted the right to levy a tax, known as prime gilt, on goods imported into Leith.
The building that now stands on the Kirkgate, opposite South Leith Parish Church, was built in 1816 on the site of a former Trinity House and hospital dating back to sometime before 1550.
A maritime treasure house
The layout of the building and its historic furnishings retain many of the unique features associated with its former function.
The War Memorial Window was designed by W.J.R Cook in 1933 in remembrance of merchant sailors from the Port of Leith who lost their lives in the First World War. It was rededicated in 1945 for those who died in the Second World War. The window represents the different roles of those who served in the merchant navy and features the emblems of Leith and Trinity House.
The ground floor features a grand entrance and inner hall. A unique collection of chairs here was specially commissioned by the Incorporation from the Edinburgh cabinetmaker William Trotter. They feature the Trinity House emblem ‘PERVIA VIRTVTI SYDERA TERRA MARE’ (‘The earth, the sea and the stars are conquerable by men of courage)’, surrounded by a coiled rope and anchor design. Off the hall is the Master’s Room. This cosy room has a fine collection of topographical paintings showing Leith when it was a busy commercial port in the 18th century and 19th century, in the ages of sail and latterly steam.
The chief highlight is the magnificent Convening Room on the upper floor. This was where the Incorporation held its meetings and administered the charity’s affairs. The ceiling is decorated with ornate plaster friezes depicting maritime subjects. A long mahogany table and chairs dominate the centre of the room. The table is now used to display a fascinating variety of objects relating to merchant shipping, navigation and the whaling industry. Items include navigational instruments, wartime charts, whaling harpoons and rare objects such as narwhal tusks and incense burners brought back from overseas voyages. Displayed elsewhere around the room is a fine collection of ship models, from early whaling ships to modern merchant ships.
Portraits of former Masters of the Incorporation and celebrated mariners are hung around the walls of the Convening Room. The portraits of George Smith and George Hay, former Masters of Trinity House, Peter Wood, a prominent Leith whaler, and Admiral Duncan, victor of the Battle of Camperdown, were commissioned by the Incorporation from the celebrated Edinburgh artist Sir Henry Raeburn. A large oil painting by the Scottish artist David Scott depicts Vasco da Gama encountering the Spirit of the Storm on his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.
Below the building are 16th-century vaults that once served as a school for young mariners.