Custom House Exterior

Custom House

Our Projects > Custom House

Summary

Custom House is one of Leith’s most distinctive Georgian buildings and a reflection of the town’s status as Scotland’s premier port for over six centuries. As such, the building has the unique potential to become a focal point for both the modern Leith community and an exploration of area’s history.

Architect:

Richard Murphy Architects

Project Stage:

Feasibility Study

Custom House Exterior

HISTORY

Throughout its history, Leith’s proximity to Edinburgh has ensured that its port is one of national importance. Until the late twentieth century, the existence of a Custom House close to the harbour was essential for the effective management of such a port. As a result, every major port in Scotland had a custom house and similarly-grand examples were built in Greenock, Glasgow and Dundee. However, the Leith Custom House pre-dates these and is the only survivor of the group to have so far escaped modern redevelopment.

The Custom House was commissioned by the Scottish Boards of Customs and Excise and constructed between 1810 and 1812. The chosen site, previously used for shipbuilding, was auspicious in that it was prominently visible from the sea and lay adjacent to the entrance of the new East Dock, which was completed in 1806. Once the West Dock was completed in 1817, they could hold a combined total of 150 ships, all of which had to pass immediately behind the Custom House when entering or leaving.

The building was designed by Robert Reid. The architecture was specifically intended to give the building a severe and commanding character, reminding people of the power of the government. Reid utilised the increasingly fashionable Greek Revival style, most obviously visible in the two large Doric columns on the façade. The original carved and painted Royal Arms, used by the monarch of the time King George III, have survived in the central pediment and indicate the governmental purpose for which the Custom House was built.

As the space needed by the Customs and Excise Office began to shrink, other organisations moved into the building. This included a Post Office in 1906 and the Mercantile Marine Office in the 1960s. Finally, in 1980, the decision was taken to sell the building. It was bought by the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (now part of the National Museum of Scotland). Despite plans to open up sections of the building for temporary exhibitions, it was used almost exclusively as storage space for the Museum’s reserve collections.

CUSTOM HOUSE TODAY

Following the completion of a new collections facility in Granton, the National Museum of Scotland planned to sell the Custom House for redevelopment in 2015. However, SHBT quickly stepped in and instead City of Edinburgh Council purchased the building and then leased it to SHBT. Initial repairs, funded by the council, have enabled the building to be opened up to the public and used for a variety of interim purposes whilst SHBT develops plans for its long-term future. It has become a local arts hub, with artists’ and designers’ studios, an art school, and a gallery used for exhibitions and events. The adjacent car park, leased by SHBT from Forth Ports, has also become a community centre as the venue for the weekly Leith Market.

PROJECT

Following an initial round of public consultation, SHBT have appointed Richard Murphy Architects to produce a feasibility study for the Custom House. This will consider a range of options for the building’s future use, with financial sustainability and public access being given primary importance. It is anticipated that a number of items relating to the history of the Custom House and the wider history of Leith will go on display in the building once the project is completed.

Custom House Main Ceiling

Hire or Let

The many light-filled rooms at Custom House offer both a convenient and stunning location for private events as well as long-term working spaces within a creative community.

Learn More

Donate

SHBT is at the start of our
fundraising campaign and have a long way to go. Every donation helps towards the upkeep and restoration of this important building.