On 2nd May, I was supposed to be making my first visit to Shetland – by train and ferry, from capital to capital, via Aberdeen. However, with the restrictions on travel and interpersonal contact imposed as a result of Covid-19 virus still in place in the UK, I cannot go until the lockdown has been lifted. My visit will now be virtual.
From Leith to Lerwick
During my initial research, I discovered that when, in 1836 the Aberdeen, Leith and Clyde Shipping Company extended a route from Leith Docks to Lerwick, Shetlanders started using it to trade wool, lace and knitted items for the markets down south. I have lived in or very close to Leith for many years and this started me thinking – perhaps I could also make a return trip, but in reverse, and maybe I would find out what it was and is like to cross 216 miles of North Sea. It must have been a real culture shock, coming from a rural crofting community to a noisy city. I remembered how hard the lads from Fife farms had found it when they started dance college in London – many returned within the first term.
I have thought a great deal about home and belonging over the years. I am English, born a ‘Kentish Maiden (KM)’ south of London. (It depends which side of the River Medway you were born as to whether you are a KM or a ‘Maid of Kent’). Also referred to as the ‘Garden of England’, Kent is where I am staying at the moment, with my mum. I left home when I was 18 years old, spent some time in Wales in my 20s, and moved to Edinburgh where I have lived for 30 years. In 2016, I began a new phase: six months of each year travelling in Europe, and six at home. I feel comfortable when I am away, I am not homesick and my and others’ relationship to their homeland is something I want to continue to try and understand more through this trip.
Walking and talking with women about home
I was hoping to invite women to walk with me when I was there, and talk about their home on Shetland as well as what it is like to leave, live elsewhere, and then go back. I am interested in what brings about a sense of belonging. The act of walking is one which can ground us, ease the flow of conversation, and connect with what can be called ‘home’, the earth. As I walk where I am and they walk where they are, I hope we can have a fruitful chat about this subject.
While I cannot go in person, I can identify some benefits in making an imaginery journey. As an inveterate walker, I had planned to explore as much of the mainland as possible on foot. I knew I would start in Lerwick for practical reasons, but from there it would depend on invitations received and what turned up, caught my interest. Now that I will be travelling virtually and ‘meeting’ folk on the phone or Zoom, I can zip backwards and forwards from Bressay in the east to Papa Stour in the west, from Unst in the north to Sumburgh on the southern tip without having to worry about ferry or bus connections. Although I would prefer to smell the real scent of the Loch of Spiggie and hear the actual squawks of the skua on the Noss coastal path, it will be quicker to get around!
Here is Christine De Luca speaking in Shetlandic, the dialect of the archipelago, sometimes called auld or broad Shetland / Shaetlan. Recorded by Wikitongues.
‘I wis boarn and bred in Shetland an maist o mi childhood wis spent in Waas….. – it means ‘Inlets o da sea’, an hit hed a fundamental effect on me, bein browt up in a croftin/ fishin community aa mi childhood. Whin I cam awa tae Edinburgh whaar I bide noo, an I’ve bidden for 50 year, hit wis redder awe-inspirin an scary.’
Direct from Christine De Luca recorded by Wikitongues
I recently lead a walk in Leith focused on some of the women who lived there in the past (Walking Between Worlds) although I was unable to find much information about women from Shetland. I am on the look-out for stories about women from these far-flung northern Isles, accounts of the sea trip (the route has been discontinued), or people who have passed-down tales from friends and relations.
Get a female perspective of the Isles – now and in the past
Look at the topic of ‘home’: leaving home, returning, living and working there and away, in general
Start to understand a particularly female viewpoint of home and belonging, specifically the northernmost islands which have a chequered relationship with Scotland and Scandinavia.
Thanks to Isobel Cockburn for the title photo of a loom in the Textiles Museum, Lerwick
In Walking Between Worlds – 2, we had got as far as the North Leith Burial Ground. So, I pick up the account there.
Along the road and down to the right beside Coburg House artists studios (well worth a visit) is the gloriously orange, former St Ninian’s Chapel (you can see St N (360 – 432 AD) carved onto the doors of fellow Saint, Andrew’s House in Edinburgh. Ninian represents the Picts). A 15th century bridge chapel, it is part of the complicated history of North Leith Parish Church which can be found on Wikipedia to get you started.
As we crossed Sandport Bridge, I drew attention to Broad Wynd on the left, where the Leith Dispensary and Humane Society hospital and clinic were first situated (of which, more later).
Along Tolbooth Wynd we wandered, and on to Queen Charlotte Street, named after the Queen of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). She is remembered in Queens Square, Bloomsbury, London with a statue (see above). The Leith stories were starting to fit into themes: Charlotte was an immigrant and did not support slavery. Also a botanist, she founded Kew Gardens, was married to King George III, had fifteen (that’s 15) children and was, famously, painted by Allan Ramsey and is owned by the Scottish National Galleries (also an anti-slavery campaigner) in 1762 when she was aged 17 years. Recent articles have posed the question, is she of African origin?
At the Hideout Cafe (where I had a delicious and expensive hot chocolate on a previous occasion), we turned onto Constitution Street which is currently shut to traffic on account of the endless and frustrating tram works, but is therefore blessedly quiet to walk along. We continued on, past St Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic church, to the South Leith Parish Church and its graveyard.
Hail, Queen of Heav'n, the ocean Star, Guide of the wand'rer here below! Thrown on life's surge we claim thy care, Save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, Star of the sea, Pray for the wanderer, pray for me
Based on the anonymous Latin hymn, Ave Maris Stella
I spent some time researching the women in this kirkyard, trying to find out their stories, but to almost no avail. I focused on another Charlotte, Charlotte Lindesay (1780-1857 aged 77), and discovered that she was one of a brood of six from Feddinch in Fife, and that her parents were William Lindesay and Elizabeth Balfour. In 1805, she married her cousin, Patrick who was very active in the community. Amongst other things, he was the president of the Leith Dispensary and Humane Society (see above) which was formed 1825 on Maritime Street, later to become Leith Hospital on Mill Lane, and bringing healthcare (via a clinic and hospital both initially in Broad Wynd) to the poor. I like to imagine Charlotte accompanying him, or even visiting the needy with a basket over her arm as portrayed in countless Jane Austen films, but I am woefully ill informed about her particulars.
Some of my information was gleaned from ‘The Jacobite Grenadier’ by Gavin Wood.
(Incidentally, the Leith King James Hospital was demolished in 1822, and part of the wall can still be seen today, forming the boundary between the Kirkgate and the South Leith Kirkyard).
Some other women associated with this church
Mary of Guise (also called Mary of Lorraine), ruled Scotland as regent from 1554 until her death in 1560. A noblewoman from the Lotharingian House of Guise, which played a prominent role in 16th-century French politics, Mary became queen consort upon her marriage to King James V of Scotland in 1538. (Wikipedia). She worshipped at this church in 1559 and her coat of arms is displayed in the entrance today. Mary had fortified the town and she was in Leith being guarded by the thousands of French troops stationed there at the time.
There is also an altar dedicated to St Barbara who had a very sad and sorry life – wanting to dedicate herself to Christ instead of marrying the man her father wanted her to (Dioscorus 7th century), she was tortured and her head was chopped off by said dad. He got his comeuppance, apparently, being struck by lightening and reduced to ashes. She is, therefore, invoked in thunderstorms and is also the patroness of miners, although I am no sure why. (From the Britannica and Archdiocese of St Andrews on facebook).
When excavating for the trams, they found mass graves. There were 50 per cent more bodies of women than men, and everyone was smaller and showed signs of malnourishment compared to the national average. An exhibition and book were made and it was posited that it had something to do with the plague and/or that they were from the workhouse.
As a way of paying respect to the women whose names I discovered here, I read out a list of them, together with their relationships, but omitted the names of their male relatives. I was attempting to recognise how many there were who we know so little about, and the manner in which they were remembered.
I have used the original spelling from the graves. They are referred to by their maiden names.
Elizabeth P. K. Smith Known as Betty by her friends
Helen their daughter whose dust reposes in the Church-yard of Thurso in Caithness being there suddenly cut off in the flower of her age
Elizabeth Maxwell, Maiden Lady Daughter of…who liv’d much esteem’d and Died regrated by all who had the Pleasure of her Aquaintance
Mary Jackson his Spoufe who departed this Life…much and juftly regrated, being poffeffed of the moft amiable accomplifhments…also near this lyes three of her Children who all dyed before herfelf
Ann McRuear Relick of…
Barbara Adamson, Spouse of…
In memory of his grandmother Mrs Ann Kerr… aged 76 years, His aunt Jean Tait.. aged 40 years, His mother Robina Tait… aged 44 years, His niece Jane Briggs Dickson …aged 33 months
Here lyth Jeane Bartleman Spouse to…
Sacred to the memory of Jessie Blacke..Beloved Wife of…Also of her infant baby…aged one month
Juliana Walker Wife of …. Janet Scott their third daughter of…
Catherine Stewart Rennie (wee Kitty daughter…)
Mary Finlay or Best …. And of her Grandchild Margaret Dick who after a few days illness … aged 18 years Let the Young Reflect on the Uncertainty of Human Life…
Once in Robbies bar on the corner of Iona Street and Leith Walk, more or less opposite the start, I summed up the walk: It had taken us approximately 2.5 hours and we mused and meditated on boundaries and borders – between one community of people and another, day and night, on the cusp of the new moon; on women’s stories and how they are so often seen through the lens of their menfolk and are hard to celebrate in their own right; of the hardship of life in centuries gone by; and death, its symbols and community rituals.
I explained that I hoped to make a map which somehow denotes and represents this event, that will contain some of its psychogeography: Wikipedia quotes Guy Debord on this: psychogeography is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” I think of it as a map with humanity, not simply measurements and precise locations, but including feelings, activities and conversational responses as well.
I would like to thank everyone who came along with me. If you have information about these women, have walked a similar walk, or would like to share anything about these subjects, please do so in the comments box below.
I chose to focus on women’s stories during this walk, because, as a woman and a feminist, it is necessary to know about who came before me, I need to know my backstory. I find that it helps me sense my place in the continuum of the generations. There were also women’s events taking place in the city that weekend, under the banner ‘Do What You Always Wish You Dared’. I was involved in the 2019 Audacious Women Festival, sitting on a panel which looked at women who travel and move to different countries: how we support ourselves, make friends, manage the language difficulties and so on. That women-only event engendered a lively discussion with the audience, women of all ages sharing their emigrant and immigrant experiences. This guided walk was open to men and women, children and dogs, and it was something I was daring to do for the first time!
After leaving the Rosebank Cemetery, we crossed Bonnington Road, a toll road at the end of the 18th century. We entered into what would have been Bonnytoun (pretty village in Scots), encompassing mills and land which was part of the Barony of Broughton (mentioned in a Royal Charter 1143). Flanking both sides of the road are modern estates as well as the much older red stone, Burns Tenements (on the right) which used to be the tannery. Incidentally, we were going to be seeing the graves of leather workers with their pincer tongs and other tools adorning them in the North Leith Burial Ground, further along the way. Using the power of the Water of Leith, there was a conglomeration of businesses in the area and there is one existing mill wheel in the mill lade at Bonnyhaugh Cottages (on the left).
Second on the right is Elizafield, named after Eliza, a native of Leith, and the woman who bore Dr. Robert Grant. I have not been able to find out anything about her and her life – her story has disappeared, perhaps deemed less important than his, despite the fact that he would not exist if it weren’t for her, not least because birthing was such a dangerous task in the 1780’s. Grant was a surgeon and left Leith in his twenties to settle, very successfully, in South Carolina (US) marrying Sarah Foxworth. The rice plantation he established in Georgia (US) was also named Elizafield, and, as was the way then, it only drew the produce and profits it did, due to the female and male slaves who carried out the work: they were, ‘the driving force behind the success of the plantation’. (Amy Hedrick, author on glynngen.com)
Historically it [birth] was thoroughly natural, wholly unmedical, and gravely dangerous. Only from the early eighteenth century did doctors begin getting seriously involved, with obstetrics becoming a medically respectable specialty and a rash of new hospitals being built. Unfortunately, the impact of both was bad. Puerperal, or childbed, fever was a mystery, but both doctors and hospitals made it worse. Wherever the medical men went the disease grew more common, and in their hospitals it was commonest of all.
We turned our backs on Elizafield to view Flaxmill Place. Flax was used to make linen, most of which was exported. It was so successful (employing 10 – 12000 workers, many of whom would have been women although the data is unavailable), that we know the Mills were able to loan Edinburgh Council a great deal of money. The Bonnington Mills, on the banks of the Water of Leith, made woollen cloth as well as linen and much of the wool was produced by women in their own homes nearby. The owners were always aiming to improve profits and cut corners, which resulted in the controversial introduction of Flemish and French workers (accommodated at Little Picardy(ie), the current Picardy Place). The women and girls spun the cambric yarn (for the close-woven, light type of linen), to try and improve the quality of the cloth, but this took away the local jobs (sound familiar?)
In 1686, the first Parliament of James VII passed an ‘Act for Burying in Scots Linen’, the object of which was to keep the cloth in the country. It was enacted that, “hereafter no corpse of any persons whatsoever shall be buried in any shirt, sheet, or anything else except in plain linen, or cloth of hards, made and spun within the kingdom, without lace or point.” Heavy penalties were attached to breaches of the Act, and it was made the duty of the parish minister to receive and record certificates of the fact that all bodies were buried as directed. On hearing this, we can imagine that the women in the graves we were visiting may have been bound in just such a linen shroud, made right in this place.
Before the Industrial Revolution, hand spinning had been a widespread female employment. It could take as many as ten spinners to provide one hand-loom weaver with yarn, and men did not spin, so most of the workers in the textile industry were women. The new textile machines of the Industrial Revolution changed that. Wages for hand-spinning fell, and many rural women who had previously spun found themselves unemployed. In a few locations, new cottage industries such as straw-plaiting and lace-making grew and took the place of spinning, but in other locations women remained unemployed.
Joyce Burnett (2008) This webpage has some fascinating pictures of women spinning at home and in the factory
A little further up the road was the original site of the Chancellot Mill (now on Lindsay Place) and this was where corn was ground into flour (perhaps the reason for those corn cobs on the Persevere flag?) It was steam powered and had an 185 foot high clock tower. Producing 43 sacks an hour (twice the original prediction), it was described as ‘the most handsome flour mill in the world’!
They were growing cannabis in the basement of The Bonnington and it spontaneously combusted in the middle of the night, causing the whole building to burn down. True or false?
Water of Leith
I invited the group to look into the water and think of the phrase ‘time immemorial’. Legally, this refers to the years before 1189, being the date set in 1275 as the time before which no one could remember, and therefore no legal cases could deal with events before that date. ‘Time out of mind,’ recorded from the fifteenth century, is just the plain English version of the same thing.
As we crossed Anderson Place, I read out a quote from the Tao Te Ching: The Master gives herself up to whatever the moment brings. She knows that she is going to die, and she has nothing left to hold on to: no illusions in her mind, no resistances in her body. She doesn’t think about her actions; they flow from the core of her being. She holds nothing back from life; therefore she is ready for death, as a woman is ready for sleep after a good day’s work. (50)
North Leith Burial Ground
After rounding the corner of the Water of Leith and meeting the confluence of the wonderful network of Edinburgh cycle paths, we mounted the steps onto Coburg Street where the North Leith Burial Ground is situated. According to The Spirit of Leithers (a Facebook Group) it is ‘The dead centre of Leith’!
The memorial stones are old (1664 – 1820) and varied: grand mausoleums, individual slabs – some half buried and unintelligible, and almost all with engravings worth seeing. This was a good time for a ‘treasure hunt’: to search for the grave of Lady Mackintosh; a long bone; angels and hourglasses (some on their sides and others upstanding, the sands of time sifting down through the narrow neck as life passes by).
Lady Mackintosh is famous for raising a regiment for Prince Charlie’s 1745 uprising (variously known as the Jacobite, the ’45 rebellion or the ’45). It was an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart.
In fact Lady Mackintosh is not here – she probably lies under the flats next door! How many people know that they are working or living over the top of dead bodies?
This walk was part of the Audacious Women Festival 2021 and Terminalia Festival (23//21) on Saturday 20 February, 4 – 5pm (gmt). It was an online tour for anyone who was ambulant or not, in Edinburgh or not! We toured part of the Leith boundary, the Rosebank Cemetery, the North Leith Burial Ground, and the streets in between, using a special format with information, photos, video, maps and conversation about the wonderful women associated with Leith’s past and contemporary connections.
(This walk was originally made on foot with a live group in Edinburgh on 23 February 2020, 3pm – sunset (5.30pm). This event has now taken place but it is hoped that there will be more in the future.)
The original tour was a circular one of approx. 2.5 hrs, to muse and meditate on boundaries and borders – between one community of people and another, day and night, life and death and on the cusp of the new moon.
We visited the graves of notable women in Rosebank Cemetery, North Leith Burial Ground and South Leith Parish Church. Briefly, at each stopping place, we faced the memorial stones, and learned about their incumbents.
The steps taken from one to the next, were equally, if not more important. We walked in memory of loved ones, and mused on life and mortality. It was an opportunity for exchange and silent contemplation. I made a psychogeographical map of the walk afterwards (see below).
Meeting at the join of Pilrig Street and Leith Walk, opposite the location of the Boundary Bar (now renamed as Bier Hoose) which marked the former border between Leith and Edinburgh, it terminated at Robbies (the corner of Iona St and Leith Walk, more or less opposite the start) for libation and conversation about where we had been – both in ourselves and the city.
Always wear hardy shoes or boots for tramping pavements and negotiating sodden grass between stones and at the edge of the Water of Leith. This event was free of charge.
Psychogeography is ‘The study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’
Terminus was one of the really old Roman gods – he didn’t have a statue, he was a stone marker – and his origin, associated with a physical object, and lack of the usual stories that go with the gods, may have originated from animalistic religions. He had influence over less physical boundaries too, like that between two months, or between two groups of people. Terminalia was celebrated on the 23rd February – which was the last day of the Roman Year, the boundary between two new years.
Women Who Walk
Tamsin Grainger is a member of Women Who Walk. The network is for women who use walking in their creative or academic practice. It includes artists, writers, field historians and archaeologists, psychogeographers, academics and more.
Please note that there is no religious content to this event. Dogs and children are welcome. There are no flights of steps.