Scottish archaeology - Leith Fort rediscovered

05 June 2014
imports_CESC_0-5vxa5i9a-100000_06135.jpg Scottish archaeology - Leith Fort rediscovered
Kevin Paton and Charlotte Douglas of AOC Archaeology tell the story of recent excavation which led to the rediscovery of 18th-century Leith Fort. ...
Scottish archaeology - Leith Fort rediscovered Images
Kevin Paton and Charlotte Douglas of AOC Archaeology tell the story of recent excavation which led to the rediscovery of 18th-century Leith Fort.

2013 marked the start of a new era for the site of Fort House in Leith. In April last year, planning permission and Listed Building Consent was granted to the City of Edinburgh Council’s 21st Century Homes for a new development of 94 colonies-style affordable homes. Fort House’s residents were relocated and the 1960s tower block was demolished. City of Edinburgh Council’s Archaeology Service and AOC Archaeology Group (AOC) worked together throughout the demolition and initial development phase to ensure that members of the community could share in the rediscovery of Leith Fort.


Leith Fort represents an important but relatively unknown period in Leith’s history. In 1779, during the American Wars of Independence, three mercenary ships led by Scotsman John Paul Jones fighting for the cause of the Americans threatened Leith Harbour. Stormy weather prevented the armed vessels from launching an attack. This close shave highlighted how vulnerable the town had become since the removal of Cromwell’s citadel and the town’s defensive ditches, and prompted the building in 1780 of a new fort designed by renowned architect James Craig.

Ambitious young architect James Craig (1739-1795) had begun building his reputation in the 1760s, when he entered a competition to design a ‘new town’ for Edinburgh, to be located to the north of the overcrowded Old Town. His winning grid-plan design was centred on George Street, with the spacious St Andrew and Charlotte Squares at either end. Such is his renown today that UNESCO saw fit to make Craig’s ‘New Town’ a World Heritage Site in 1995.

Craig’s design for Leith Fort included nine guns that pointed out into the harbour, to defend against any hostile ships that might approach Leith from the sea.

Behind this redoubt there were also officers’ quarters, kitchens and a garden. However, the guns were never fired with intent as the harbour was not threatened again.


Archaeologists from AOC monitored the removal of the foundations of Fort House in February 2013, recording any archaeology uncovered in the process. This was followed by three weeks of excavation in November 2013, which aimed to investigate the surviving remains of the early 19th century extension to the gun battery and fort designed by James Craig.

The excavations focused on six areas around the perimeter, where substantial built remains survived beneath the current ground level. A number of walls and foundations were revealed that related to the various phases of the fort’s use, and the use of old maps along with analysis of the structural forms helped us interpret each feature.

Foundations dating to the late 19th century were revealed, all of which were constructed of concrete with some areas of sandstone walling still attached. One of these later structures included a brick built boiler room containing a coal chute, ventilation shaft and staircase.

From the earlier phases of the fort (circa 1804) the remains of a large stable block, the ordnance store, the gun shed and the powder magazine were revealed. The walls of the powder magazine were especially thick in case of an explosion. Iron hoops attached to the boundary wall in the vicinity of the gun shed may have been related to the securing of firearms.


However, the excavation also revealed evidence for the site’s use before the fort was built: a boundary ditch and post holes for a fence were discovered along the north-west edge of the site, along with evidence of ploughing. These agricultural traces along with associated sherds of medieval pottery demonstrate that farming activity was taking place prior to the fort’s construction.

Although much of the excavation work was conducted while the heavy plant was onsite, three weekend open days provided a safe and informal environment for members of the community to participate in the rediscovery of the Fort’s remains. Around 100 participants of all ages helped with the excavations and attended workshops on artefacts, survey methods, ceramics and kite aerial photography.

AOC’s public archaeologist also worked with three local primary schools, delivering archaeology workshops to around 150 pupils who later visited the site for themselves to see the archaeology as it was uncovered.

Parts of the original Fort architecture are due to be retained with the guard house and the Fort shop being retained as well as parts of the perimeter wall where the gun shed is located.

Furthermore, the two cannons that used to sit at the entrance to Fort House will be returned to their positions alongside the guard house. Fort House may no longer exist, but the Fort certainly retains a place in local memory.

For more on the work of AOC Archaeology, visit the website.

(Images copyright AOC Archaeology)

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