Discover the Past of Edinburgh's Great Port Trinity House

by Lexa Pennington /
Lexa Pennington's picture
Oct 20, 2009 / 0 comments




There’s a special chance for visitors to discover more about Leith’s ancient links with the sea when Trinity House maritime museum opens its doors for free on Saturday, 24th October.

This lovely Georgian Mansion is packed with around 1,000 fascinating objects and works of art from portraits by the great Sir Henry Raeburn to secret wartime charts used by British merchant seamen.

Historic Scotland
, which cares for the museum, is carrying out a major conservation programme which involves cleaning, repairing and researching many of the objects in the collection.

Newly back on display after some expert TLC are three tokens of the kind used by 18th-century Leith traders to tackle the national shortage of small change – while promoting customer loyalty and acting as a form of advertising.

They look similar to official coins, have a set value (often something like half a penny) and – like the points on shop loyalty cards – could only be used at the store that issued them.

Hugh Morrison, Historic Scotland collections registrar, said: “The Trinity House free open day is a chance to explore one of our area’s real hidden gems.  The museum is packed with art and memorabilia reflecting Leith’s centuries-old links with the sea and its past as a great Scottish port.”

“The tokens, which have now been cleaned and put back on display, are just one example of the unusual objects in the collection.  Nowadays it’s difficult to imagine there being not enough small change, but back in the 18th-century there was a real shortage so traders started making their own tokens to get round the problem.”

“They were useful to encourage customer loyalty, pay staff wages and even beat problems with the amount of forgery taking place of official coinage.”

One of the example on show was from the business run by John White of Kirkgate.  On one side it shows a ship entering the harbour and says ‘Success to the Port of Leith’. 

At the harbour entrance is the tower and flag used to signal ships in the Forth during the Napoleonic Wars.  The other side has a seated Britannia-like woman with a balance, beside casks of gin and tea. While White’s name does not appear in any contemporary directories, the token suggests he was a dealer in luxury imports.

The free open day is between 10am and 4pm on Saturday, October 24.  Staff will be on site to answer questions about the exhibits and there will be free information sheets providing themed “taster tours” of the museum.  The museum makes a great family visit, but is likely to be of most interest to children aged 10 or above – all children need to be accompanied by an adult.

Trinity House is at 99, Kirkgate, Leith. Tours, available by appointment, can be arranged by calling 0131 554 3289. Parties are limited to 15. Prices are £4.20 for adults, £3.20 concessions, £2.10 children.

● The museum contains treasures and curiosities collected by sailors across the centuries. Among them is the narwhal tusk used as a walking cane by Captain John Wood, who owned a fleet of whalers. Narwhals live in the Arctic Ocean and their spiral tusks were often claimed to be unicorn horns. The tusk can be seen in the Henry Raeburn portrait of Captain Wood which hangs in Trinity House.

● The Incorporation of Masters and Mariners of Trinity House has been based at the same site since at least 1555. The current building is Georgian but the vaults are medieval.

● An important feature is the stained glass window that commemorates the merchant seamen of Leith who died in World War I. This was gifted by Colina Grant, the only woman to ever join the guild, who was made an honorary member in 1933.

● Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae. For further details visit:

● Historic Scotland’s Mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

● Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.