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The Origins of Newhaven

Newhaven Pier 1871Our Lady’s Port of Grace’, as Newhaven used to be called, was founded in 1488 by James III.  It consisted of a few houses and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint James.  


Newhaven originated in the general impetus given to trade and commerce during the pros­perous reign of James IV (1488-1513). Owing to the depth of water, a yard and a dock were erected for shipbuilding, and a harbour constructed for the recep­tion of vessels, whence it received the name of New-haven, the ‘Old Haven’ being Blackness further westwards towards the Royal Palace of Linlithgow.


In 1510, the King conveyed to Edinburgh the feudal superiority for the new port lately constructed.  Thereafter, the burgers, jealous of the patronage bestowed on Newhaven by the King, pursued a policy of studied neglect effectively strangling it at birth.  Newhaven sank into a mere fishing village. The first fishermen to settle in Newhaven were Flemish who had come to Scotland to escape religious persecution.  Until modern times, much of the architecture was of Flemish style.


On 1 May, 1544, during a despicable period of Scottish relations with its English neighbours called “the Rough Wooing”, the English force under the Earl of Hertford landed, of which the historian, John Hill Burton, says that ‘it will scarce be possible to point to any expe­dition so thoroughly destitute of all features of heroism or chivalry.’


The Society of Free Fisherman, a charitable organisation founded in 1572 on a similar model to a Flemish guild, assumed the responsibilities of local government.  Its principal function was to tend to the welfare of the fisherfolks.  Income came from membership dues, public donations and land and property rents.  It also assumed the responsibility for managing the lucrative oyster beds.


Newhaven carried on its largely self-contained, insular existence for around 250 years catching and selling fish and oysters, building boats and providing pilotage for the treacherous waters of the Forth.  By the mid 19th century, the harbour was large enough to support a hundred boats, providing income for around 400 fishermen and their families. Newhaven Main Street looking East circa 1908


In 1896, Edinburgh Council had a new Fishmarket built next to the harbour to reflect the importance that Newhaven had become in the source of fish, not only for the City and its environs but for much of Lowland Scotland.  The colourful and instantly recognisable fishwives continued to ply their trade in the streets of Edinburgh right up to the demise of the fishing industry in the South of Scotland in the 1950’s.


By the late 1950's - early 1960's, it was largely recognised that the houses of Newhaven were lacking many modern amenities and not suitable as dwellings.  Accordingly, the decision was taken to demolish much of Old Newhaven and replace it with modern council houses although effort was made on the north side of Main Street to replicate the architecture of the stepped gables, pantiled roofs and external staircases that once had made Newhaven so picturesque.


The community that was once Newhaven still lives on in the modernised village today.  And the sense of belonging still exists with many families and their antecedents wherever they live in the world.