Scotland's Bard through the ages - uncovering 19th century Leith's love of Burns

Conservator Nic Boyes displays the relics found in a 19th century time capsule

A time capsule discovered in Leith containing relics from the 19th century has offered a glimpse into locals’ love of the national bard, on the eve of Burns Night.

The cache of mementos was unearthed by contractors working on the City of Edinburgh Council's Trams to Newhaven project in December, when the Robert Burns statue on Baltic Street was temporarily removed to make way for construction.

Conservators and archaeologists excavating the site found the lead time capsule beneath a lead sheet in a purpose-carved socket in the plinth underneath the statue. It is believed to have been placed there when the statue was erected in 1898, though on opening the capsule today (24 January), conservators learned that it has been subsequently opened and resealed in 1961.

Found inside the capsule from 1898 were newspapers, coins of all denominations from the time, a pamphlet including information on crimes investigated in Edinburgh in 1897, a small leaflet containing rules and the constitution of the Leith Burns Club and a letter from the club, who also erected the Burns statue, detailing members, information on the statue and a Burns poem. From 1961, there were also newspapers and a letter from the people who had opened the original timecapsule.

Council Leader Adam McVey said: “It was extremely exciting to witness the unveiling of these historic artefacts, which shed some light on life in 19th century Leith, and just what Burns meant to residents. 

“Our contractors and archaeology team are working hard to make sure the historic elements of the area are preserved and to maintain its unique character as works progress. I’m looking forward to seeing what the newest generation of Leithers plan to bury beneath the Burns statue when it is returned!”

Council Archaeologist John Lawson said: “It’s not every day that we unearth direct messages from our past and information on what people felt was important to commemorate Robert Burns for future generations.

“We’ll be sharing our own messages with the future when the statue is returned, by placing a new time capsule, and we’re looking forward to working with the local community to find out what they think is important about Leith today and what they hope Leith and Edinburgh will be like in the future.”

Conservator Nic Boyes, who has been working on behalf of Morrison Utility Services, said: “For me it was an utter delight to have done work to reveal the contents of this time capsule and I must pay credit to the people who opened it in 1961. They retained the container which has been a perfectly functional vehicle to bring these items, yet to be really processed, into our knowledge.

“Once we’ve read these newspapers and properly assessed all of these items we’ll have a three-dimensional understanding of how in 1961 they regarded Burns and, more importantly, how in 1898 they regarded Burns - and how they came to build that fabulous statue.”

Moira Burke, Secretary of the Edinburgh Burns Group, said: “This is fascinating. I would hope that, within the documents from the Leith Burns Club, there is a full description of how the statue came about – how it was conceived, how they had the idea, how they raised the money - because it would have been a lot of money - who was responsible, how many arguments there were about it, where in Leith it should be sited. And then, who on earth would decide what to put in the time capsule!”

Construction and enabling work by Sacyr Farrans Neopul Joint Venture (the Infrastructure and Systems Contractor) and Morrison Utility Services (the Swept Path Contractor) for the Trams to Newhaven project began on Constitution Street and Leith Walk in mid-November. This involves road excavations to allow utility diversions, track-laying, installation of tram infrastructure, public realm improvements and heritage and archaeology works.

It also includes the Robert Burns statue on Baltic Street being removed and undergoing restoration works to be returned once construction is complete. Before the statue’s return, it is intended that a new time capsule is put together by the local community to give future generations an insight to the lives of those in Leith and Edinburgh today.

The Trams to Newhaven project will be holding two drop-in events during February, when members of the public can meet the team and ask any questions about upcoming works. These will take place:

Tuesday, 4 February, 2pm – 7pm, first floor in Ocean Terminal
Tuesday 11 February, 2pm – 7pm, McDonald Road Library

Work is being carried out in two sections of Constitution Street. These are:

1. Foot of the Walk to Coatfield Lane – scheduled to be completed by Spring 2021
2. Queen Charlotte Street to Constitution Place – scheduled to be finished by Summer 2020

Further work will take place between:

1. Coatfield Lane and Queen Charlotte Street - starting Spring 2021, scheduled to complete Spring 2022
2. Constitution Place and Tower Place - starting Autumn 2021, scheduled to complete Autumn 2022

A wide-ranging £2.4m Support for Business package is currently in operation, devised in consultation with businesses in the area. This includes a popular itison voucher scheme, with £5 vouchers offering £10 to spend in shops, bars and restaurants in the area, an ‘Open for Business’ campaign across a range of media, a business continuity fund and free business improvement courses.

For further information please visit www.tramstonewhaven.co.uk. Alternatively, you can contact us via email at [email protected] or by phone on 0131 322 1122.

Published: January 24th 2020