Trinity House and Edinburgh’s maritime past

If you have followed my blog, you know I love ships and the ocean. So when the Trinity House opened its doors as part of the advent activities in Edinburgh, I just had to visit. The building is available to visit normally only by appointment and is located, naturally enough, near Port of Leith, in northern Edinburgh. Take it away, wiki: “Trinity House was the headquarters of the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners, a trade incorporation and charitable organisation founded in the 14th century when the shipowners and shipmasters of Leith formed a Fraternity”. The charity existed to help the families of seamen, and was funded by a tax on ships coming to Leith port. The building was built in 1816 over the basement of a 16th century almshouse, on an old thoroughfare to the shore called Kirkgate, but now only the church opposite Trinity House and its cemetery remains of the old street.

This lovely thing is a deviascope and the top pivots.

The entry hall is grand with a double winged staircase and a 1930’s war memorial leaded glass window on the halfway landing. From there, you can go visit the 14th century basement (a nondescript door on the left) and a small masters’ room with a magnificent collection of paintings about Leith. When I visited, they had a small collection of rare objects which we could handle, wearing a pair of the white cotton gloves they provided. There was a WW2 era flare gun which was surprisingly heavy, two carved whale tooth decorations and a mystery object that we could try and guess what it was. It looked like a fossilised sea shell, but much thicker and heavier. Spoiler: it turned out to be a fossilised whale ear drum. It was massive for an ear drum, about the size of my palm.

But upstairs is where the main collection is housed in a fabulous Georgian room. It’s worth a visit just for the ceiling, which is pink and pale blue and richly decorated with white reliefs depicting seamen, globes, ships and tools of the trade. There are also several 18th and 19th century portraits in the room, portraying some of the more distinguished people of the era. And in the middle of the room is a long table, covered in fascinating objects from the history of shipping and sailing. Sextants and maps, whale bone objects, a narwhal tusk and sawfish blades, compasses, weapons and tools of the trade. Imagine going to sea with just a sextant and a selection of paper maps! Sailors 200 years ago had a set of brass balls, I tell you.

The port of Leith has seen its fare share of exciting history. Mary Queen of Scots arrived there when she returned to Scotland after spending most of her life in France. She also gave Trinity House the license to collect the tax, when it became questioned. A portrait of her hangs in the convening room of Trinity House. And I bet you didn’t know either that the first ship to ever traverse the Suez Canal departed from Leith. There was a drawn map of the canal on display to commemorate it. And King George IV arrived in Leith on his much celebrated visit to Edinburgh in 1822. As I have no doubt mentioned before, I have a huge fond spot for him as it is largely due to his interest, carefully cultivated by Sir Walter Scott, that kilts and tartans came back into vogue after they were banned in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellions. There is a water color print of his arrival in the collection as well.

The Suez map. This is from the pdf I mention below as it is better than my photo of it.

When I left the museum, I stepped across the pedestrian street for a brief visit to the church opposite the museum. The church wasn’t open, but I strolled awhile around the cemetery, where many of the seamen who perished at sea were buried. The tomb stones were a bit hard to read as dusk was falling and time had taken its toll on the engravings. Perhaps I manage to visit at a better time later.

If this teaser got you interested and you can’t make it there in person, do download a 43 page (!) leaflet about the house, Leith and the museum at the link below. It showcases the most interesting items in the collections, the history of the museum and the building, and many of the artwork in the building. Fascinating stuff.

 

Sources:

More about the building: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/archives-and-research/publications/publication/?publicationId=e843af05-c1bc-4163-a6a9-a6c60122a70a

 

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