Trinity’s Treasure House

Trinity House, open to the public while the property of Historic Scotland, is still also the headquarters of the Incorporation of Mariners and Ship’s Masters of Leith, whose activities have catered for the welfare of its members since the 14th century.

Although the present house dates from 1816, the fraternity was incorporated as long ago as 1380 when, by royal charter from King Robert II, it received the right to levy Prime Gilt, a tax on every ship which entered the harbour.

The triple locked wooden seabox charter chest, in which the dues were collected, still stands in the entrance hall and visitors are told how, after each voyage, the captains paid in a proportion of their profits. The Fraternity thus gathered sufficient funds to provide Leith with what was virtually a local mediaeval version of the modern welfare state, paying pensions to old sailors or their widows as well as grants to any Leith bairns whose fathers were lost at sea. Trinity House continues to provide pensions and, until a few years ago, retired sailors came every week to receive their payments. Now they are delivered by post or paid through their bank accounts.

Funeral Pall

Another benefit provided by the Fraternity was the provision of a mortcloth or funeral pall so that members could be assured of a decent funeral. In past centuries, when a wooden coffin was an expensive luxury few could afford, this heavy shroud was rented to families who could pay for it and supplied free to the poor. The body was then carried in sombre procession through the streets to the kirk yard opposite Trinity House and, as the corpse slid into the grave, the shroud was removed for use at future funerals. One sad entry in the Fraternity’s records tells how, early in 1656, one of its members, sailor Robert Punton, borrowed the shroud for his wife’s funeral. When he had to request it again in the same year for the burial of their little daughter, he was allowed its use without payment.

Leith’s earliest hospital
The members of the Fraternity also provided Leith with its earliest hospital, whose vaults remain below the present building. According to Leith historian John Arthur, “In the fourteenth century, the Hospice of Saint Nicholas cared for Scottish seamen but this building was destroyed during the Rough Wooing in 1544. A new hospice was built at South Leith in the Preceptory of St Anthony, which much later became the site of Trinity House. When, in 1560, Mary de Guise was in Leith surrounded by French troops for protection, most of the monastic buildings were destroyed in the ensuing conflict with the English. Only the Hospital of the Preceptory remained standing. It was at this point that the Preceptor of St Anthony became the ‘Master’ of the hospital, a title that has continued to the present day for the Masters of Trinity House. In mid-1560 Mary of Guise died following ill health and the siege ended.”

Artist's impression of Trinity HouseOther Uses
During the middle ages, Leith was a significant importer of wine, in particular claret, some of which would have been stored in Trinity House. In 1636 a grammar school used this building and around the same time General Monk, Cromwell’s commander in Scotland, took over the vaults as a munitions store.

By the start of the 19th century, the hospital, which catered mainly for elderly retired seafarers and their widows, was in a poor state of repair and the then Boxmaster, as the head of the Fraternity was known, Captain John Hay, decided that it should have fine new premises built in the style of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, to reflect its wealth and importance. The result was the construction in 1816 by Edinburgh architect Thomas Brown of the 19th century Trinity House, where Captain Hay’s portrait still looks down over proceedings in the impressively large boardroom known as the Convening Room.

Motto at Trinity HouseIn the east wing of the present building is preserved a stone with a cross staff and other nautical instruments of the 16th century and the motto ‘Pervia Virtuti Sidera Terra Mare’ (The earth, the sea and the stars are conquerable by men of courage).

Art Treasures
Trinity House today contains a fine selection of historical works of art and the rivalry between Edinburgh and Leith is recalled by one of its proudest treasures – the gold chain belonging to the Provost of Leith, which was presented to it in 1920, the year when, much against the wishes of its inhabitants, the port was incorporated into the neighbouring city.

The collection also includes many exhibits connected with Arctic whale fishing, from harpoons to narwhale’s horns and carved whales’ teeth and other examples of scrimshaw work.

While whaling was especially risky, all early voyages entailed a degree of danger. The members of Trinity House played their part in making sea going safer by examining and appointing qualified pilots to guide vessels into and out of port. They also campaigned for lighthouses to be constructed around the coasts of Scotland – in particular on the Bell Rock. This resulted in the government in London finally establishing the Commissioners for Northern Lights to be responsible solely for this duty.

Dangers at sea in time of conflict are recalled by the colourful, stained glass war memorial window, overlooking the oval stairwell in the house. It commemorates all the Scottish seafarers who lost their lives through submarine attacks, mines and other enemy action during World War One and was gifted by Colina Grant, the daughter of Leith ship owner, Mungo Campbell, who became the first and only woman honorary member of Trinity House.

For further information about Trinity House and details of conducted tours, which must be pre-booked, call 0131 554 3289 or see the Historic Scotland website.

Pictures from Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh by James Grant

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