Leith Festival: Edinburgh's port’s people’s pageant, were you there on a float?

Leith Pageant, it's one of my earliest memories, standing on Ferry Road with the hundreds of others who lined the street waiting for the floats. Hyper with anticipation, I held a couple of old pennies in my hand, ready to donate them to Leith Hospital.

By Liam Rudden
Friday, 10th June 2022, 4:55 am

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Memory plays tricks and it was a long time ago, so you might have to keep me right, but I can still recall the excitement of the Leith Pageant, a cavalcade of low-bed lorries decorated with themed tableaux and peopled by precariously balanced locals drawn from Leith-based organisations, businesses, clubs and social clubs.

​Along with the accompanying Gala Day, the pageant was very much a highlight of the Port's year when I was growing up. It was a fundraiser for Leith Hospital as I've already mentioned and I have vague memories of throwing those pennies I’d be given onto my favourite floats but may well have just dropped them in a collecting bucket carried by one the many fancy-dressed characters walking alongside the floats.

Children on the Forth Ports Authorty float (with OXCAR) take part in the Leith Pageant, which opens Leith Festival, in June 1987 Pic: Stan Warburton

Back then, the pageant seemed to take in the whole of Leith and last forever, threading its way through the streets where, it appeared, practically the whole population of the area had come out to play their part in proceedings by cheering the participants on.

It was in 1907 that the first Leith Pageant snaked its way around the Port and it continues to be an integral part of the modern Leith Festival some 115 years later, although this weekend’s pageant, which takes place on Saturday, June 11, is a simpler affair but while the seemingly never-ending convoy of lorries long gone, the community participation continues with vibrant musical performance and colourful fancy dress - way back in 1959 that was youngsters doing their best cowboys and Indians impressions, the winners of the fancy dress getting to ride on a horse. You're unlikely to see any 'cowboys and Indians' this year.

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In 2009, Evening News reader Annette Gowans, then 60, remembered the annual Leith Pageant as a high point of her year while growing up in Coburg Street.

A view of the Leith Pageant passing by Leith Links, 1971 Pic: Joe Steele

She said, “It was massive - a bit like the Festival parade. It was something we always looked forward to. People would spend weeks putting the finishing touches to their floats.

“They would all be done up on different themes. My great-uncle would take it very seriously, and I remember him sitting up all night to finish the decorations. It would start in Pilrig and then end up on Newhaven Road. We would all stand on the pavements and wave. Then we would all go to the park afterwards and there would be fairground shows and stalls. We would all meet up with friends and relatives. It would be a wonderful atmosphere.”

Other highlights were captured over the years by Evening News photographers and include an aerial view of the pageant passing by Leith Links in 1971, taken the same year that a Girl Guides’ float commemorated Mary Queen of Scots landing at Leith.

Young people of the area have long played a big part in the pageant, children on the Forth Ports Authority float and the Leith Division Guides and Brownies were photographed taking part in the event in 1986.

Floats and lorries coming down Leith Walk in the Leith Pageant in June 1986 Pic: Albert Jordan

Also from 1986 there is a shot of floats and lorries coming down Leith Walk, while a year later, Leith Scouts, Brownies and Guides combined to star on a float promoting canoeing, fencing and karate. Do you recognise anyone in the pictures?

In 1990, however, the pageant was upstaged when hundreds of Hibees turned out to give a massive show of support for the Hands off Hibs campaign when the campaign's open-top battle-bus carrying former Scotland footballer Gordon Strachan and pop twins Craig and Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers passed the crowds gathered to watch the pageant and received one of the biggest cheers of the day.

For full details of this year’s event, click here.

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A Girl Guides float commemorating Mary Queen of Scots landing at Leith - Leith Pageant in August 1971 Pic Joe Steele

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Crowds watching the Leith Pageant in August 1971 Pic: Joe Steele
Leith Scouts, Brownies and Guides on a float promoting different activities and sports (canoeing, fencing, karate, Scouting) in the Leith Pageant, which opened Leith Festival in June 1987 Pic: Stan Warburton
Leith Division Guides and Brownies taking part in the Leith Pageant in June 1986 Pic: Albert Jordan