Leith Nautical College

Scope and Content

Records of Leith Nautical College, 1855 - 1987

Administrative / Biographical History

Leith Navigation School opened in September 1855, after the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act, and under the auspices of the Board of Trade Department of Science and Art. Its Managers were drawn from the Town Council and other local organisations. Under the aegis of Mr Newton, the first Master, the School prospered. However, when Mr Newton left and a Mr Burchill took over, the School declined and by the end of 1859 had closed. The School re-opened, despite receiving a smaller maintenance allowance, and was buoyed by the promise from the Government to station a ship off the East Coast of Scotland to be used as a Navigation School. The training ship never materialised, but in 1861 Mr James Bolam was appointed master. In May 1864 an unsuccessful application was made to the Local Marine board to put Leith Navigation School on the same footing as that at Dundee, by implementing weekly examinations.

The School provided proper instruction of navigation leading to Master and Mates examinations and certificates. When Mr Bolam entered office one of the terms of his appointment was to be allowed to receive boys of 10 years of age and upwards provided that the boys be intended for a seafaring life. Around 1861 it was proposed that a course of popular lectures on Nautical Science and other subjects should be delivered in the school during the Winter. Around 1864 a compulsory examination for Engineers in British Steamers was instituted. By 1868 evening classes in Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture were introduced.

The School was first located in the large school room of the Mariners' Church - St. Ninians Church - in Commercial Street. Subsequently, premises at No. 60 Tolbooth Wynd were rented. At some point between 1865 and 1881 the school moved to 2 Commercial Street, and from there to 14 Dock Place.

In 1885, a Royal Endowed Schools Commission investigated and revised all funds that existed for the purpose of furthering the cause of education in Scotland. The Bell's Trust fund that was going to be given to the University of Edinburgh was given to schools in Leith, a considerable proportion going to Leith Nautical School.

A purpose built building was required, and the foundations for this were laid when 200 was left to the school by John K. Wishart and was used to start a building fund. This was added to in 1887 by public subscriptions. In 1894 it became necessary to remove students to the Sailors' Home due to an occurance of smallpox in Dock Place. James Currie and other local shipowners amassed sufficient funds to enable the new college buildings to be erected in Commercial Street. On their official opening in 1903, Leith Navigation School changed its name to Leith Nautical College.

The College was now under the aegis of the Scotch Education Department. The College was incorporated under the Companies Act in 1904 and was administered by a broadly representative Board of Governors. The College was created a Central Institution by Act of Parliament in 1908. The Administration was run by the Principal and his assistants, who took on the duties of the previous position of Master.

The edict read at the opening described the College as a technical college, one step removed from university status. The College continued to expand throughout the two World Wars and by 1974 approximately 2000 students, ranging from young men to mature and seagoing personnel, attended per year. Seventy per cent were from outside the Edinburgh area.

New classes included Naval Architecture, Design of Marine Motors and Ship Electricity. In 1913 wireless installation and teaching of wireless telegraphy was established. Classes were given to fishermen in both Leith and East Lothian fishing ports, and included instruction in First Aid. In 1920 courses in marine engineering commenced, taught from the new wing for the Marine Engineering Department. This new wing enabled the college to be recognised as a Marine Engineering School by the Board of Trade. In 1928 lifeboat efficiency courses were established and in the same year the wireless installation was renewed in accordance with the 1927 Radio Telegraphy Convention. A new Radio Department was opened in the same year. In 1941 special courses were established for the Royal Naval Patrol Service for fishermen's certificates. Three years later the first deck boys' courses in Scotland were inaugurated and conducted on board the Training Ship (T.S.) Dolphin on the recommendation of the Merchant Navy Training Board. In 1946 catering boys' courses commenced on board the T.S. Dolphin, followed by the establishment of radar observer courses - again the first in Scotland. In 1977 new courses included Electrical Technician Training, Instrument Technician Training and aspects of Electronics including Computer Programming.

In 1960 and 1965 respectively, the premises of the King Electrical Company and the former London and Edinburgh Shipping Company were gifted anonymously to the College, providing much needed additional classroom space. Plans for the new Leith Nautical College and Halls of Residence at Milton Road East were announced in December 1974 and were officially opened in July 1978. Further developments included a planetarium with a six-metre diameter dome and a simulated ship's bridge with navigational aids astern.

In 1983 the Scottish Education Department and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities published a review of Nautical Education in Scotland. They came to the conclusion that because of Britain's shrinking merchant fleet, nautical schools were using up resources unnecessarily. Despite being well equipped, modern and full to capacity, Leith Nautical College came under threat. By 1984 it was decided that nautical education should be concentrated in Glasgow. Despite a vigorous campaign to save the college by the governors, staff and students, a phased run down was reluctantly implemented. Lothian Regional Council received control of the College and voted to merge its facilities with Esk Valley College, Dalkeith. Leith Nautical College was closed in 1987.


Records are arranged chronologically according to provenance.

Access Information

By appointment. CLosure periods may apply to unpublished records less than 30 years old and other records containing confidential information. Access to records in a fragile condition may be restricted.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogue available in the Searchroom

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for educational use and private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents. Permission to publish material from the Archive must be sought in advance from the University Archivist. Responsibility for obtaining copyright clearance rests with the applicant.

Custodial History

In 1985, records relating to the T.S. Dolphin were transferred to the Royal Museum of Scotland, with a further deposit of records being made in 1987. Following the closure of the College and the transfer of certain functions to Heriot-Watt University, responsibility for the collection was transferred to Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management and Museum Service.


Not expected.

Related Material

Royal Museum of Scotland, the T.S. Dolphin Collection.


  • Iain Crawford The Sea Dominies: The Story of Leith Nautical College 1855 - 1987published by the Board of Governors of Leith Nautical College.

Corporate Names