Two hundred years ago Leith was Scotland’s bustling chief port and the focus of the country’s seafaring community. It was at this time, in 1816, when Trinity House –which was to be the new headquarters of the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners – was constructed.
Now to help mark its bicentenary, Trinity House is set to celebrate its own, as well as Leith’s, rich nautical history and heritage with a special event showcasing the Leith of two hundred years ago.
Taking place on Saturday 11th June, Trinity 200 will see different aspects of the House’s rich seafaring past brought to life and retold. Visitors will have the chance to explore the building and discover more about the Masters who helped shape Leith’s maritime heritage. They’ll even get a closer look at some of the 1,600 nautical objects and artefacts that make up the House’s unique collection, including a whale’s eardrum, navigational equipment and a 200-year-old-harpoon which was used by Scottish whalers in the Arctic.
Throughout the day visitors will have the chance to find out what passenger travel by sea might have been like in the 1920s from costumed performers portraying passengers from the Royal Fusilier steamship, which provided faster, more comfortable passage between London and Leith until the 1940s. There will also be hands-on activities including object handling, as well as nautical themed arts and crafts sessions inspired by the history of the House and the area.
The Georgian building in Leith’s Kirkgate played an important role throughout the area’s maritime past. It was the headquarters for the charitable foundation that assisted sailors and their families and went on to lead the way in improving the welfare and safety for those at sea. The Incorporation invested in training, eventually helping establish the Leith Nautical College, piloting programmes to help ships navigate through Scottish waters and even the building of lighthouses, such as Bell Rock off the coast of Angus.
The Incorporation itself can trace its origins back to 1380, when it was given the right to levy a tax, known as prime gilt, on goods coming into the port of Leith. These funds were then reinvested in projects and causes for the benefit of the local community. The Masters and Mariners of Trinity House was the largest and most successful Incorporation in Leith and at one time boasted over 100 members.
Commenting on the bicentenary, Historic Environment Scotland’s Regional Collections Manager for Edinburgh, Rachael Dickson, said: “This month marks an important milestone in the history of Trinity House. Its bicentenary is a truly exciting time and the perfect opportunity to celebrate its historic role within the Scottish seafaring community in Leith, as well as the area’s wider maritime history and heritage.
“Trinity 200 will provide visitors with a real insight and experience into different periods throughout Scottish nautical history as well as Leith’s own maritime past and its time as Scotland’s chief port. They’ll have the chance to discover more about the House, the Incorporation and the important activities and programmes they helped support. As well as this they’ll have the opportunity to view a selection of the House’s one-of-a-kind collection of maritime memorabilia; some of which are not usually on public display.”
Meanwhile, ahead of Saturday’s event, pupils from Leith Primary School are set to step back in time themselves as they take on roles as the newest batch of Trinity House Junior Tour Guides. Working with Illuminate UK the initiative, now in its third year at Trinity, has involved primary six and seven pupils learning about the House and its important role, as well as their own local history. Dressed as sailors and whalers of the day, the pupils will now bring Leith’s maritime history to life at Trinity House sharing their knowledge with visiting school groups and at local community events.
As part of the bicentenary, the pupils also took part in a time capsule competition. Pupils in every class throughout the school submitted ‘message in a bottle’ entries describing what it means to them to live in Leith today. The winners from each class received special prizes and golden tickets for a VIP tour of Trinity House.
The unique project drew inspiration from the original time capsule which was buried in the House’s foundation in June 1816. All of pupils’ work will form part of a special exhibition that will go on display in the House’s grand Convening Room, marking the bicentenary. The winning messages will then be sealed in a new time capsule that will be placed in the House, later this year.
Craig Fletcher, Senior Learning Manager at Historic Environment Scotland, added: “Trinity House is a fantastic educational resource for Leith. These innovative projects form part of our learning programme providing opportunities for young people and members of the community to engage with the House and be inspired by the history of their local area. This year’s Junior Tour Guides will become ambassadors for their own heritage, sharing their learning with others and developing skills for life and work along the way. This is made doubly special this year as they contribute to our bicentenary celebrations.
“The time capsule competition really engaged the pupils who took great pride in describing what they would like the people of the future to know about the Leith they live in today. Drawing inspiration from the 1816 time capsule that we know the Masters buried in the foundations, it’s a wonderfully fitting tribute to two hundred years of Trinity House.”
Trinity 200 takes place at Trinity House on Saturday 11th June from 10am-4pm. This event is free to members and non-members. For more information, please visit the What’s on section of our website.
Trinity House at 200:
- Trinity House is home to a special collection made up of over 1,600 objects and unique items spanning more than 400 years of naval history, from a whale’s eardrum, navigational instruments, maps, furniture, paintings and even a 200-year-old harpoon.
- It was once the Headquarters of the Incorporation of Masters and Mariners. It’s still used today in an official capacity by the Masters, who regularly meet in the Masters’ Room.
- Since its founding there have been at least 79 Masters. The earliest on record is Captain John Broune in 1684. Captain Stewart Lee is the current Master. Today there are 16 members of the Incorporation. In order to be a member of Trinity House you must have a foreign-going Masters Certificate and be a Sea Captain in the Merchant Navy.
- Set up in the 1300s, the Incorporation collected port taxes and provided assistance to Leith’s seafaring community for centuries.
- The Georgian building dates back to June 1816 and was designed by Edinburgh-based architect Thomas Brown, who was also responsible for other significant buildings throughout Leith, including The Exchange Buildings on Constitution Street.
- A time capsule formed of a crystal bottle was buried in a hollow foundation stone by John Hay, Master at the time, and included, a copy of the by-laws and regulations, a copy of a ticket of admission, newspaper cuttings of the time, a list with the names of the Incorporation’s 100 members, along with a selection of coins and a copy of the contract with the builder, Thomas Beattie.
- It sits on the vaults of a 16th century hospital, which stood for over 250 years. The vaults were used for stores by Cromwell’s troops in 1652, who prised open the Trinity House Charter Chest – which was used for the safekeeping of money and valuables by the Incorporation – and took its contents to Stirling Castle where they remained until 1654. The chest is now on display to visitors at the House.
- Two detailed carved stones from the original 16th century hospital were incorporated into Brown’s designs for the House.
- Colina Grant was the only woman ever to be made an Honorary Member of the Incorporation. Born into a ship owning family, she had a great interest in nautical and seafaring matters, today her portrait hangs in the House’s impressive Convening Room.
- The House’s grand staircase is dominated by a detailed stained-glass window which pays tribute to the men of Leith who lost their lives in the First World War. Gifted by Colina Grant, it dates back to 1933 and was designed by local artist Walter J.R. Cook. In 1945 it was rededicated to commemorate those who died in the Second World War.
- Amongst the House’s other features are:
o A painted stone fireplace, which was specially commissioned to mark Admiral Duncan’s great victory at Camperdown in 1797 – this is one of the few fittings from the old hospital building to exist.
o A ‘strongroom’ with iron door which was once used to hold money and important records belonging to the Incorporation.
o A set of chairs featuring the arms of the Incorporation which were carved by celebrated Edinburgh furniture maker William Trotter.
o Four paintings by the famous Edinburgh-born painter Sir Henry Raeburn, including a portrait of Captain John Hay, the Master who oversaw the construction of Trinity House.
- Today the House plays an important role as an educational resource for the local area. A community learning programme supported by the Historic Scotland Foundation delivers a number of projects to engage young people and members of the community with the Trinity House collections and the wider maritime history of Leith.