“A Celebration of All Things Leith”. The slogan, which was boldly printed on a colourful poster, caught my eye. What really got my attention was the line “Open Day at Custom House and Custom Lane with Local Exhibits”. It’s a rare thing that this building opens its doors to the public and it was a great opportunity for me to see it. That and the fact that I could wander around Leith Market, with a bigger-than-usual number of stalls, drew me in like a bee to honey.
The event was a great way of spreading the word about some of the things going on in Leith. The historic Custom House building opened its doors for the day, along with Custom Lane, The Edinburgh Tool Library, Williams and Johnson Coffee Company and the Kestin Hare Store. There were lots of local groups and businesses there such as DOK Artist Space, Leith Theatre Trust, Coburg House Artist Studios, SS Explorer Preservation Society and many more. The market, but especially the Custom House, was buzzing with excitement.
The Port of Leith was the principal port of Scotland until Glasgow took over that role in 1707. The Custom House on Commercial Street was the gateway to Edinburgh and it was where all the shipmasters came, when they arrived in the Port, to pay the duty on their cargos. The building was closed as a Custom House in the 1980’s and bought by the National Museum of Scotland, to house its reserve collection. In fact the gallows for the last person who was hanged in Edinburgh are stored in the building.
It was used as a storeroom for the Museum, with the shutters closed, until June 2015. The City of Edinburgh Council bought the Custom House from the National Museum of Scotland and leased the building to the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. They gave the charity the responsibility of coming up with a financially sustainable business plan for the building. On the 14th June 2015 the SHBT held an Open Day at the Custom House. It was the first time in 30 years that the building was open to the public.
The Scottish Historic Buildings Trust is dedicated to regenerating significant historic buildings for the benefit of others, through conservation and sustainable re-use. One of the aims of the SHBT for the Custom House is to bring some life back to the building. They are working alongside the community and authorities to ensure Custom House can be restored to serve the locality in a meaningful and sustainable way. SHBT are calling now for proposals on how space inside the building can be used for short term community projects. It’s a great opportunity for people to realise their ambitions and turn the building into a hive of creative activity.
There are 12 artistic tenants working in the building but there is plenty of unique space with rooms available for studios, performing arts, meetings, conferences, weddings, offices, workshops, recitals etc. The Open Day on Saturday was a great start to this call for community interest in the building. When I got there the place was thronged with people. I was surprised by the maze of rooms on both floors. Some were big main halls and others were smaller studio spaces with lots of different types of artistic work.
The ground floor rooms on one side, led out onto Custom Lane where Chris Rutterford the Muralist was painting and people were visiting the Edinburgh Tool Library. The atmosphere was great and quite a few people were wandering out to Leith Market next door to have a browse amongst the stalls. I wish the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust the best of luck in rejuvenating this amazing historic building. It would be great to see it becoming a thriving hub in the Leith community.