Humbie Church Wood

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This morning I woke up to the smattery scattering of snowflakes that are the field scouts to the Xerxes-like ‘beast from the east’ thats about to blanket Britain, & especially East Lothian, in snow.  Throughout yesterday daytime, however, there was hardly a flurry, into which I went walking with my mate, John Wood of Haddington. For almost fifty years this delightfully kind, honest & chatty fellow was a vital member of the East lothian Courier team, at first as a compositor & in later years as a proof reader.

A drawing of pilot Archie McKellar who was killed hours after the end of the Battle of Britain

We set off in the car with a freshy groomed Daisy – courtesy of a nice lassie in Aberdlady caravan park -, out towards the SW corner of the county & the parish of Humbie. The original name was Hundeley, as in Keith Hundeley, which joined with the lands of Keith Symmars to create the modern parish. In this instance, Keith is not a man’s name, but ‘large wood’ or ‘forest.’ The area is most famous nationally for being the place where the first German plane of WW2 was shot down by ‘Forgotten Ace’ Archie McKellar from his supermarine spitfire, a Heinkel on the 28th October 1939.

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Parking up at the Upper Car Park, we followed the road downhill, during which potter Humbie Kirk came into view – a splendid sight indeed, nestled unegregious in a beautiful sheltered glen. Built in 1800, one enters the kirkyard via a free standing aisle near the gate erected by the Broun family. Once inside, old graves mingle with the new & I must admit that just as Shelley mused, ‘it might make one in love with death, to be buried in so sweet a place’, after seeing the Protestant Cemetery in Rome – where his ashes would one day be interred – I rather like the idea of spending my eternity in Humbie Kirkyard, so pleasant & so sweet a spot it is.

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The Kirk’s incumbent minister is a German lady, the Rev. Aniko Schuetz Bradwell. Apparently she is pregnant, so stand-ins are taking her services at the moment, information I found out in a flash from my companion on the scene. Very much a religious man, Mr Wood is a member of the 35,000 strong Episcopalian church in Scotland. Back in 1977 – the year after I was born – he became a part-time non-stipendiary minister, which basically means he didn’t get paid. Still, he did bring faith to the nooks & crannies of East Lothian’s Episcopalia, conducting bus stop services at Dirleton, Yester, Bolton, Garvald & Gifford.

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Older graves…
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Newer graves

The yearly sacrament at Humbie in the end of July was a great event. Being a widely scattered parish, members had to come long distances from the hills., etc, for the occaison. The church being a pretty long distance from the villages of Upper & Nether Keith, provisions of bread & cheese, ale, etc., had to be priovided in the minister’s barn & offices during the inetervals of service. William Langlands, the innkeeper at Upper Keith, was long the provider of the refreshments, & a good quantity used tt be consumed.John Martine (c.1900)

There have been many notable persons who have worshipped at the kirk, but there is also an unusuality mentioned in the 1845 Statistical Account. There is just something ‘unevolved’ about the chat which I found both fascinating & disturbing, reading; ‘it is a melancholy fact, that there are 8 insane persons in one family, & one in each of two others; but all of them are harmless & inoffensive. The parents of these individuals are correct in their conduct & industrious, though they discover such a degree of mental imbecility as might indicate that the malady is hereditary.’ 

The inhabitants are industrious, & satisfied with their conditiuon. – It is not in the recollection of the oldest person among them, that an inhabitant of this parish has been punished for any crime. Dram-drinking, so prevalent in other parts of Scotland, is a vice utterly unknown, as might be expected from a people, among whom no manufacture has ever been established, & whose sole employment, that of a very few indiviuals, is agriculture. Stat. Acct. Scot. (1799)

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Leaving the kirkyard, we passed under an arch at the old stables, beyond which a renovated Doo-Cot came into view on our left. Once home to 500 nesting pigeons, its now a private residence. From here, the road forges forward to one of the oldest bottleheads in the area. Crossing over the Humbie Water since 1645, the ‘Kirk Bridge’ linked the drovers roads of Haddington to the Borders & beyond. It was originally built at his own expense by Adam Hepburn, a senator for justice & large landholder around Humbie. The bridge was only just remade last year, tho’ retaining much of its original shape & structure

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Crossing the bridge, & passing an idyllic cottage to our left, we finally entered Humbie Church Wood. Looking at the map we had three choices of route:  the 0.5 kilometre ‘Sycamore’ (green), the 2K ‘Scots Pine’ (blue) & the 2.5K Beech (red). Choosing the moderate nature of the blue route we were soon off, climbing a steep rocky path up onto a plateaux of sorts, out of which grew a great deal of forestry. In such a wood, at this time of year, the large & lovely trees appear like twisted gargoyles caught in their last moments of stycharine agony before being ossified by some errant Medusa.

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In his excellent time-capsule of a book, Reminiscences & notices of the Parishes of the County of Haddington (1894), the venerable John Martine records possible spookiness in the area;

An old tradition has been handed down about a mysterious lady dressed in white garments who usesd to appear at night walking in the lady wood (no doubt called after her) which is on the banks of the Humbie Water, opposite the church. Old people long ago firmly believed in the existence of the lady. The tradition is still current in the parish that she was a member of the old family of the Hepburns of Humbie

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Humbie Church Wood is famous for harbouring the only colony of the North African herb, Cochlearis Megalosperma in Scotland. How it get to the county no-one knows, but I am of Arabic descent myself (on my father’s side), & was also blown to East Lothian by random &  contravening winds. What are native to Scotland, however, are Humbie Church Wood’s magnificent oaks, which even gain a mention Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion

The green sward way was smooth & good,
Through Humbie & through Salton’s wood,
a forest glade, which, varying still,
Here gave a view of hill & dale,
There narrow, closed, till overhead,
A vaulted screen the branches made.

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It was in the presence of Mr Wood that I realised age is just a number. For an eighty year old man, John was nimble on his feet, tho’ he did say he finds it hard to watch a full TV programme to the end, with the inevitable head-droop cutting short the fun. John tries to go for a walk every day, proving that activity & healthy longevity are happily intertwined. The one thing about his age & generation, lets say, is that by not using the internet, his neighbour knows more about what his daughter is doing on the other side of Scotland than he does.

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Following the blue woodland route, below us, through the huge depth of a terrific valley, the Humbie water maintained its torturous course, at one point cascading down a small waterfall. Above it all & inside the trees, brushing forwards through the quantaties of spindling naked branches felt very much like being in a cave full of cobwebs. It was also extremely quiet; ears straining to hear through a complete lack of breeze the individual chirps of birds & the gentlest gurgles of stream-water. At this point our chat lay also becalm’d & we happily enjoy’d the moment.

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After a wee while the path began to drop to the Humbie Water, with the path becoming more & more mud-churned as we did so. The crossing was made via rocks in the stream – Daisy point blank refused & scampered back the way we came, resulting in a minute-long dash to fetch her back across the stream in my arms. From here the walk continued, a little disorientating, but always kept in check by well-placed sign-posts & the sacred blue arrows of our walk.

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Almost back at the car

Eventually we came to a big pile of logs on our left & ahead the woods took on a familiar look from earlier. A few minutes later we were back at the kirk & climbing the road back to the car. At this point Mr Wood began singing ‘Daisy, Daisy,’ with the most dulcet tones, a most salubrious conclusion to our mid-day walk.

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My red pepper & courgette soup – Mr Wood chose ‘cream of mushroom’

Not far away in the village lies the Humbie Hub, & we decided to get some coffee & soup there. A great wee spot – a shop & eaterie combined – Daisy was wooing all the ladies there with her cuteness  while we skimm’d through a book of old Humbie photos assemble by John Bolton. Among them was one of a certain local landowner, Miss Christian Nisbet. Apparently, way back in the day, John had to ask her permission for his Sunday School outings to have a picnic on her land at Stobshiel, where the Wanside Reservoir is. I wonder what Miss Nisbet would make of the Access Code of Scotland (2003).

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John still gets this magazine in 2018
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