Leith Festival, Scotland’s biggest community festival, will soon be upon us once more – nine days of shows and celebrations across the district, kicking off with the 109th Gala Day on 11 June. Festival regulars Citadel Arts Group work year-round with the community in this independently-minded part of Scotland (there are still people who’d bristle at it being “part of Edinburgh”) collating shared memories and history to create performances and exhibitions, and have three things lined up – an audio tour of Leith; The Guid Doctor, a play about pioneering 19th century physician Thomas Latta; and Leith Docks: A Way of Life, a play about… well, Leith Docks, and how it was a way of life. Obviously, there’s more to it than that – we saw something about “ingan johnnies”, whatever they are – so we had a word with writer Laure Paterson to find out more…
Tell us how you put the play together…
Plays come along like new friends. A couple of years ago I was finishing a play called Leith At War [reviewed here] and was talking to a docker at Leith Dockers’ Club about local history. He asked me to write a play about the docks. I was sceptical … but the very first interview with a docker knocked my socks off. The stories were everywhere and many former dockers and their families came forward to share their experiences with me. I put them together – or really they put themselves together – as each person told me stories of drama, courage and humour. And some unbelievable jokes! We tried out an early scene at Hermitage Court Sheltered Housing for some tenants and a group of Leith Academy pupils to see if it worked. One pupil told us, ‘If this was a movie I’d see it 100 times!’
What’s an ‘Ingan Johnnie?’
At the end of World War II, the Onion Johnnies came to Scotland every summer from their farms in Brittany to sell onions. They pedalled round Scotland with onions draped across their handlebars and had a regular customer base. In the docks many people knew them because they kept storehouses nearby. I’ve spoken to dozens of Leithers who remember them well – but one true story was unforgettable. You’ll see it in the play.
How do you think the docks have shaped Leith and its people?
Leith and its docks are bound very closely. The docks provided Leith with virtually all its employment – not just loading cargo but building and repairing ships, ropemaking (the Roperie), sailmaking, specialist joinery, plumbing, engineering, the whisky bonds, the grain stores… you name it, everything in Leith was connected to shipping. Every docker came from a docking family. You couldn’t even be hired on the docks if your father, uncle, or brother wasn’t a docker. One man said to me, ‘Lose the docks and you lose Leith.’
“Swinging” is the adjective that always get attached to the 60s. How were the 60s in Leith? Is there an adjective that sums it up?
One docker’s response does sum it up – ‘Maybe in London it wis swingin’. But Leith’s aye ten years behind.’
How do you think the experience of Leith compares to other port cities and districts over the same period, say a place like Liverpool?
For hundreds of years Leith was central to commerce with Russia, Denmark, Sweden and France, as well as London. Constitution Street was lined with foreign consulates. Leith has a very strong history and identity. However, when the docks were changed in the 70s and 80s by containerisation and a new port authority, it lost its financial base and its workforce. Other ports suffered in similar ways, but so much in Leith – like the Auld Alliance – was central to the history of Scotland. I don’t want the stories to be forgotten.
What of Leith now the docks have been replaced by flats? What becomes of the spirit of the place?
Good question! If you walk along what’s now the shoreline, you’re walking on reclaimed land. That means many new flats stand on ground that wasn’t even there 60 years ago. The change is cultural, but not fundamental. In my own opinion the spirit of Leith is summed up in its motto: “Persevere”. Leith is still very much with us!
What makes Leith a place for you to write about?
I loved the docks from the moment I first walked them in the 70s. Leith’s history is so dramatic – sea battles, French royalty, smuggling, piracy, heroism, courage… Did you know Leith was the first place in mainland Britain to be bombed by the Luftwaffe in World War Two? Docks are always a battle target. Come on, it’s a dramatist’s dream!