This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Friday, 3 February 2012

John Paul Jones and the building of the Leith Fort

In August of 1779, during the height of the American War of Independence, or Revolutionary War as it is more often known in the USA, a flotilla of three vessels of the American Navy under the command of Scottish-born John Paul Jones unexpectedly appeared in the Firth of Forth just off Edinburgh. Jones had come round the north coast of Scotland, thus avoiding the heavy British naval presence in the English Channel. His orders were to provide a diversionary attack on British assets there whilst a French and Spanish invasion fleet launched the main attack on southern Britain. Jones may have been surprised to find the Scottish capital completely undefended against attack from the sea: there were no Royal Navy warships in the Firth at that time, and no coastal battery fired upon the Americans as they cruised around looking for an opportunity.

Above: the American depiction of John Paul Jones

Ashore, the news of his arrival created panic in the city. Jones had attacked the English port of Whitehaven the year before, and had led a raid upon the Scottish home of the Earl of Selkirk in an attempt to kidnap him. His ferocious, rapacious reputation very nearly won Jones the spoils of the city without a shot being fired, for many of its less impoverished citizens suddenly remembered at this moment that they had relatives elsewhere they must visit in a hurry; in no time there was neither a carriage nor a horse to be seen. Banks were closed, the garrison in Edinburgh Castle closed their their portcullis gates, church bells rang out the invasion alarm. In the event, a gale of wind prevented the Americans from landing, and Jones sailed off south to look for other pickings. The episode underlined the vulnerability of Edinburgh and its port of Leith to such an approach by enemy forces, and the local authorities hurriedly set up a battery of nine cannon on the shore at Leith to cover the approaches to the harbour.

Above: John Paul Jones as he appeared in British newspapers

This battery was the beginnings of the construction of a fort at Leith, parts of which survive to this day. The site chosen for the first battery was not ideal, being only twelve feet above the high water mark. The intention seems to have been to prevent the landing of boats rather than to deter the more distant approach of larger vessels; Jones had led his previous attacks on Britain in small boats, leaving his ships safely offshore. Edinburgh lacked any suitable overlooking height within range of the anchoring ground called the Roads of Leith where any enemy ships would have to moor, and the battery at Leith could not elevate their guns high enough to hit such ships. It was not a perfect solution to the problem then, but it was far better than nothing and consolidation of the battery's position went ahead, beginning with the construction of a stout defensive casement to protect it from bombardment from the sea. It was still felt to be too vulnerable however, and the designer of the city's New Town, James Craig, was urgently commissioned to draw up plans for further defences in the form of a fort on the site. 

Craig was a civilian planner rather than military architect, and his design reflects this anomaly. The high curtain wall would certainly prevent any casual intrusion, but it was not stout enough to withstand cannon fire and there were no buttresses from which defence of the walls could be properly maintained. Inside the fort, Craig's classical aesthetics produced columned and arcaded stone buildings more suitable for service as schools, libraries or courthouses than as guard blocks and barracks. To the north-east of the fort a terrace of brick-built terrace of houses comprised the officer's quarters, and this became locally known as 'London Row' due to its similarity to the fine Georgian housing then being built in the southern capital. 

Above: soldiers and civilians at Leith Fort, c.1910

The fort was finally completed in 1793 and was garrisoned by Captain Rimmington's blue-coated Royal Artillery company. Apart from a Martello Tower built near the pier at Leith in 1810 the fort remained the only defence of this coastline during the long French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It is perhaps as well that the enemy did not test it, for there is little doubt that in the artillery sense the fort was almost useless. By the mid-1790s, brick buildings had even been allowed to be built directly in front of the battery, thus rendering over half of the cannon quite useless. Had an invasion of Leith taken place by any reasonable force in that period, there could have been no doubt about the outcome. In fact just such an invasion was planned at one time by the French and their allies in the (Dutch) Batavian Republic, but that story deserves a blog post to itself and will appear here in due course.

Above: Leith Fort before the flats were demolished

Leith Fort continued in active military use until 1955, latterly serving for National Service training. Upon being decommissioned the site was acquired by the City Council who demolished those buildings not legally protected and in the 1960s built several blocks of low-grade tower housing, still surrounded by the incongruous fort walls and guard houses. The development was not a happy one and social problems there brought notoriety to the area. At the present time the flats are being demolished prior to redevelopment of the site. Details of the nature of the plans are available here: http://www.edinburghnp.org.uk/neighbourhood-partnerships/leith/local-info/fort-house-regeneration/


  1. Colin, you have a natural talent for history! I really liked how you led readers through the historical past to present day Leith Fort.

    I also liked how Jones almost won the spoils of the city without a shot being fired! That took some strategy!

    I always learn something new when I visit your blog. As such, I wanted to congratulate you on winning the sunshine award. The details are on my blog post at:



  2. Many thanks for the award and also for your comments, Christy.

  3. Yet another place in Edinburgh I haven't been. Must get around to going down there at some point, just to see it before they tear down the sixties buildings. My brother--a policeman--got stabbed there once, which kind of put me off it...

  4. Oh dear. Yes, the flats acquired quite a reputation in their time. Do visit: Craig's two guardhouses remain, with the boarded-up flats looming behind them, a neat architectural metaphor for long-term decline.

  5. thank you for this history
    i would like know if you have information Bathfield or bathfield house near leith fort.
    Where come from the name bathfield : a human or a place
    do you know the history of this house (governement, admiralty, heir)
    it seems to me that that there is a link between leith fort and bathfield

    thank you
    Alexis legrix aaalegrix@gmail.com