Remembering Edinburgh's lost Leith Fort used as a prison and military base

leith fort
-Credit: (Image: Google maps)


Many Edinburgh residents may not know the story of the Leith Fort - a former housing estate, prison and military base.

That's because the majority of the structure was demolished in 2013 to make way for affordable housing, but not without uproar from locals who fought against the decision.

If you look on Google Maps, evidence of the original 18th century fort, built to defend the Port of Leith in 1779-93, remains, with a clear image of the dilapidated housing block and fenced of perimeter on Lindsay Street.

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In 1779, the founder of the American navy, sailed up the Forth with warships and threatened to attack Leith - but the town (as it wasn't part of Edinburgh at this time) had no defences.

Fortunately strong, powerful winds blew and forced the American ships out of the Forth - but Leith locals were left terrified by the attempted attack.

As a result the Fort was built in 1780, designed by famous architect James Craig, the designer who created Edinburgh's New Town.

In the 19th Century the fort was extended in order to act as a prison for French captives from the Napoleonic Wars before becoming the base for the Royal Artillery in Scotland until after the Second World War.

Gate and north guardhouse at Leith Fort, Leith, Edinburgh
The housing block built on Leith Fort was plagued with a bad reputation -Credit:Jonathan Oldenbuck/WikiCommons

However, in 1950 the majority of the Fort was demolished.

As a result, Fort House was built in 1957 - a huge public housing building which split opinion among Leithers.

The perimeter wall, entrance gate and guardhouse were all left in tact - causing the flats to retain the look of barracks.

The vast block became synonymous with drug abuse and antisocial behaviour - an image unaided by CCTV cameras and lights on oversized poles and an electronic access system.

Leith Fort flats
1960s Council housing contained within the walls of a Georgian barracks erected in 1780. -Credit:Kim Traynor/WikiCommons

However those who lived in the estate hold fond memories - a former resident of Leith Fort, Barry Rafferty, told Edinphoto:

"Many years ago I was a school kid at Leith Fort School. That was about 1953. I know because we all got Coronation Mugs.

"My dad was in the army and was in Leith Fort and our married quarters was next to the back wall of the school. If I forgot my 'piece' my mum would lean out of the window and throw it to me."

Another, Marc Day, said of the housing block :

"Well true, it isn't the most salubrious of places, but really it isn't that bad once you get in the flats themselves. The residents are friendly to strangers visiting and largely know each other. To me as an outsider I thought the place was absolutely unique."

Finally the flats were demolished in 2013 to make way for new affordable housing - without the reputation of the accommodation housed in the location before it.

Ronnie Elder added: "Leith Fort was hilarious. For some unknown reason I was put in charge of the petrol, oil, and lubricants (POL) stores, issuing such to many other Edinburgh units, many of them exotic, such as the army kinematic corps who each day brought their small trucks loaded with Jerri cans to be filled, as they produced signed chits, I accommodated them. Of course I didn't realise until later the scam being indulged.

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"Being on overnight guard duty wasn't unduly tiring. One could manage plenty of rest, for nothing stirred in Leith Fort during the night, especially the Duty Officer.

"If you happened to draw the 'final gate shift' before standing down, after reveille, you might here a hissing noise coming from outside. This would be the provost corporal who lived next door to the Fort, he would in a loud whisper ask if the adjutant had come on duty. (His office was in the guard room area.

"We always said no, as the adjutant was never known to surface before ten in the morning. The provost would sidle into the guardroom, and ten minutes later would sally forth suitably decked in all his martial glory ready for action, first to receive a volley would be us poor gate guard.

"'Hey you, get yer hair cut or ah'll put you on a charge.' As we always helped him to arrive late on duty without anyone being aware, we thought this was rather unfair.

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"I managed to survive until release came along, but the army did manage to increase my weight to nine stone and I gained almost four inches in height.

"Leith Fort was a wonderful military relic of bygone days, it should have been retained as was, and developed as a military museum."

In April 2013 the 1960s flats were finally demolished to make way for new affordable housing.

This article was originally published on 23/05/2021.