City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Significant Clue to Leith's History Found in Pilrig Park


By edg - Posted on 13 December 2006

The remains of an English fort from the 1560 Siege of Leith have been discovered in Pilrig Park, Edinburgh, in one of the most significant archaeological finds in recent years.

The remains are thought to be of Somerset's Battery (or mount), one of two major forts linked by trenches that encircled Leith in 1560. Experts believe the finds are the only 16th Century siege works found in Britain, and therefore in military terms, are some of the most important in the country, if not Europe.

John Lawson, City Archaeologist for the City of Edinburgh Council, said: "We are extremely excited about the results of our investigations. The remains are of international importance in terms of our understanding of Renaissance warfare as they are a unique example of 16th century artillery siege works in the UK."

Following on from earlier geophysics work in both Leith Links and Pilrig Park as part of the Leith Open Spaces Project, Pilrig Park was identified as a site of interest. This was backed up by historical evidence with the contemporary Petworth Map showing fortifications and siege works in the area. Four evaluation trenches were dug last month, with work carried out by archaeological contractors GUARD, and overseen by John Lawson and one of the UK's leading battlefield specialists, Tony Pollard from GUARD, and Director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University.

Commenting on the significance of the find, Tony Pollard said: 'The fortifications at Leith, which in the mid 1500s was occupied by the French, were based on the latest Italian design and were ten years in advance of anything else in the British Isles. The siege itself was the largest to take place in post-Medieval Britain until the Civil war period in the mid 1600s. Despite the massive growth of Leith and Edinburgh over the almost 450 years since the siege it seemed almost too much to hope that anything would survive. However, the excavations at Pilrig Park have unearthed elements of one of the most important artillery forts built by the besiegers, from where they fired their cannons against the town's walls. We have found evidence for the ditch at the back of the fort which had in it what looks very much like a blacksmith's forge and possibly a building. This makes sense as you wouldn't want to be playing with fire inside a fort packed with gunpowder! It's amazing to think that all of this was just waiting underneath the grass where people play football and walk their dogs."

The work also uncovered the remains of a WW2 air raid shelter and the 17th and 18th Century walled gardens and park associated with Pilrig House, which was built 80 years after the siege, on top of remnants of the fort.

Once evaluation of the latest findings is complete, the results will be fed back into the Leith Open Spaces project and the information will be used to undertake improvements to this and other parks in Leith which will reflect their historical significance.

The Leith Open Spaces project is looking at the regeneration of the Leith community's open and green spaces. It includes the interpretation of the area's history and archaeological story.

It is hoped this find will lead to further investigations and research into the Siege at sites throughout Leith which will in turn lead to a greater understanding of this important event in Scottish history.

Some background

In 2002, the results of a site investigation revealed the remains of 16th century Ramsay's Fort, built between 1548 and 1559. The remains of the fortress were approximately 1.5m high, 2m wide and 30m long. Seven cannonballs, believed to have belonged to the French defenders of the Fort, were also uncovered. Mary of Guise, the widow of James V of Scotland, ordered the fort to be built and brought in French troops to protect it. Ramsay's Fort was attacked by an English army led by Somerset, the Earl of Hartford, during the Siege of Leith and was subsequently destroyed.

In 2001, two walls discovered were thought to represent a fortification of 1649 with an 18th Century sea wall built against it.