Today's visitor to Edinburgh can be forgiven for overlooking the once distinct communities which now make up what is by any standards a fairly compact city. This is especially true along the shore of the Firth of Forth, where what was once the separate village of Newhaven is now almost indistinguishable from the west end of its much larger neighbour, Leith.
Almost indistinguishable, but not quite. Beneath the overlay of modern development it is still possible to find traces of an older pattern of life. At the heart of this are two elements. The first is Newhaven's Main Street, which parallels and stands a little inland from the modern main road along the shore.
The second, nearby, is Newhaven Harbour, dwarfed by Leith's neighbouring Western Harbour and as a result all too easy to overlook.
Newhaven's origins date back to the 1480s. The harbour at Leith, in and around the mouth of the Water of Leith, was becoming increasingly busy. The local fishing community responded by moving their base of operations just over a mile to the west. The name Newhaven was coined simply to distinguish the new port from the old one, though whether there was actually a harbour at this time seems debatable. It is more likely that the fishing boats would simply have been pulled up on the shore. Meanwhile oyster cultivation took place in the Forth, adding further to the economic activity of what by now was a fast growing village.
James IV, who came to the throne of Scotland in 1488, was an ambitious king who oversaw significant expansion of the Royal Scots Navy. One of the problems he faced in building bigger and better warships was that Leith couldn't offer sufficient depth of water for the vessels he had in mind. James responded by developing a Royal Dockyard at Newhaven, where water and tide conditions were right. Work began in 1504 and the dockyard appears to have been fully established by 1505.
Two years later, in 1507, construction began at Newhaven on the Great Michael. This was intended to become the ultimate warship, and when it was launched on 12 October 1511 it was the largest ship in Europe, and probably the world, and had cost £30,000 to build. She weighed 1,000 tons, was 240ft (73m) long, and had a crew of 1,420, comprising 300 sailors, 120 gunners and 1,000 marines. Building her had reputedly wiped out stocks of oak trees across parts of eastern Scotland.
Great Michael became the flagship of the Royal Scots Navy under the command of Sir Andrew Wood and supported the French against the English during naval conflict in 1513. After the disastrous Battle of Flodden in 1513, in which the Scottish army was wiped out by the English, the Great Michael was sold to the French. The ship is remembered in Newhaven by the naming of "Great Michael Close".
The Royal Dockyard did not long survive the demise of James IV and the village itself was badly damaged by English troops in 1544. Nonetheless it continued to thrive as a very busy and successful fishing village well placed to take advantage of the markets offered by the growing population of nearby Edinburgh. Newhaven was also the traditional terminus of ferries across the River Forth to Burntisland and Lower Largo.
A new harbour was built at Newhaven in 1837. This was enlarged in 1876, and again in the 1890s, when a new fish market was also built. During the 1800s and early 1900s herring was the main catch at Newhaven itself, but the market also traded in a number of other species of fish caught further afield. Another catch is hinted at by the street sign in Newhaven for "Whale Brae". Today fish is still sold in part of the fish market, while another part has been converted into a large seafood restaurant. A little commercial fishing still takes place from the harbour, but it is mostly home to leisure vessels.
Newhaven really began to lose its distinct identity with the construction of Leith's Western Harbour between 1936 and 1943. This involved a huge breakwater being built out into the River Forth, whose landward end effectively incorporated Newhaven Harbour. Later decades saw the fortunes of both Leith and Newhaven fluctuate, until the arrival of the new millennium also saw the dawn of a new era of riverside redevelopment. One result was the Port of Leith's retreat from its Western Harbour, which has since increasingly become home to major shopping and residential developments.