North Leith Limbo

Nov 14 2023 | By More

Slavery “central issue” in play inspired by Leith graves

The Ghosts of North Leith, at North Leith Parish Church for three nights only this week, sees the Citadel Arts Group weave together scripts based on stories behind graves in the Coburg Street Burial Ground.

Slavery is a central issue in Ghosts of North Leith, according to director Liz Hare. One tantalising stone commemorates a Jacob Stoney who died in Leith in 1820 but was born in Jamaica on the family plantation. His fine stone was raised by his sister Mary who was still living in Jamaica. Citadel’s writers have woven a story around such bare facts using detailed historical research and some inspired guesswork.

The Ghosts of North Leith cast – Mark Kydd, Deborah Whyte, Fraser Allan Hogg, Grant MacIver and Chelsea Grace. Pic: Citadel

Another grave belongs to Nellie Gladstones, who was grandmother to the 19th century UK Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone – the family later dropped the final ‘s’. Nellie was a feisty businesswoman who, in writer Hilary Spiers’ section of the play, reprimands her son John for using slave labour on his plantations when the fruits of this labour fetch up in Leith.

Hilary Spiers says: “The Sugar Boycott was a way for middle class women to show their abhorrence of the slave trade by refusing to buy slave-produced sugar. Little is known of Nellie’s life which allowed me to give free rein to my imagination. My play portrays her as something of a radical and an early feminist at odds with her family who derive much of their wealth from slavery.’

When slavery was abolished in 1833, Nellie’s son John Gladstone received the largest payment from the Slave Compensation Commission amounting to over £10m in modern currency. Some of this wealth no doubt paid for the fine family gravestone in Coburg Street cemetery.

real-life Jacobite heroine

Other graves are of well-known characters like Lady Anne Mackintosh who raised troops in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1756. Having enjoyed the Outlander books, playwright Rhona McAdam was attracted to this real-life Jacobite heroine.

‘I wondered how Lady Anne ended up in North Leith Burial Ground instead of the family estate in the Highlands,’ says McAdan. It appears Leith was a hotbed of Jacobite sympathy.

Mark Kydd as Angus MacIntosh. Pic: Citadel

The strands are linked together by one Robert Nicoll, a Perthshire lad who died in North Trinity in 1837, aged just 23, but not before his volume of poetry Poems and Lyrics, had been liked to Burns, particularly for those “written in the Scottish dialect”. A radical activist and newspaperman, Nicoll is the conscience of the play, pointing out the hypocrisies and double think of the other characters, all stuck in the limbo of North Leith, regretting their unfulfilled lives.

Hare says that the play uses pathos, humour, music to add another chapter to the rich history of the port of Leith, which Citadel has been celebrating for almost thirty years.

The cast is led by Citadel regular Mark Kydd, who says: “As an adopted Leither, I’ve always been fascinated by its concealed history… vintage maps showing different street names and open fields in what are now built-up areas.

painstaking research and imaginative speculation

“Citadel has a fine tradition of examining Leith’s past through its work, but here the writers have literally gone underground, exploring the lives of people buried in Coburg Street Cemetery though a combination of painstaking research and imaginative speculation.

“One character in the play wryly observes: “They said the deid are quite forgotten after three generations”. We hope that this production goes some way towards redressing the balance by helping to celebrate these otherwise forgotten lives.

The show will be staged in North Leith Parish Church itself, which is due to be released for sale by the Church of Scotland. This will be the audience’s last chance to see a live performance in this beautiful Georgian building, intended as the hub of Leith’s New Town.

The script was given a trial performed reading at Leith Festival in June. Director Liz Hare adds: “Thanks to the enthusiastic feedback of the Leith people and their supportive comments, we have developed and improved the script for three evening performances.

“Now we exploit light and darkness to create a truly disturbing atmosphere for our North Leith ghosts.”

Ghosts of North Leith (Citadel Arts Group)
North Leith Parish Church, 51 Madeira Street, EH6 4AU
Tue 14 – Thurs 16 Nov 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets £10, email:


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