In the middle of a heatwave, it is always jolly nice to go for a walk, but not as much fun to write it all up. But here I am, on a slightly cooler Sunday morning, ready to etch down my strollings of a couple of weeks ago around the western portions of an area known as the spoon-rhyming Saltoun. On the way I dropped off some junk at Macmerry recycling centre, & learnt the fabulous news that despite the Sword of Damocles that has been hanging over its extremely valuable service in recent months, East Lothian Council has decided in its infinite wisdom not to close it down.
So to the Saltouns; the villages of East Saltoun and West Saltoun – about a mile apart – a large number of farms and tiny hamlets, with the gothic grandiosity of Saltoun Hall at its heart. We park’d up at the prettily situated car-park by Saltoun Big Wood, one of East Lothian’s last Red Squirrel havens, & a great spot to explore in its own right.
Acquired by Sir Francis Ogilvy – the nephew of the Queen’s cousin Princess Alexandra – from the Dumfries & Galloway Council Pension Fund in the 1990s, he has very kindly let the public enjoy its beauties, among whom was a guy I met there called Graham, who comes to the woodland quite regularly from Edinburgh to photograph the colourful Damselflies & Dragonflies.
It was taps aff in the sunblaze, & the dog & I would be only spending a small portion of our day in the Big Wood, tracing a route on the edges, always keeping a grand open field on our right. The fernerie & leafage were in optimum succulence as we meander’d among the trees quite gaily, before arriving a good few metres above the gurgling Brins Water.
From here the path descended & thro’ a gate opened out into a grassy meadow, in which pathways had been recently strimm’d, At the other end of the meadow rose the rooftops of Barley Mill. As our steps took us closer, we reached a gate, to the left of which, like the Loth Stone itself, in a garden, stood a monolithic chimney of an old mill. It was on this spot that the first barley mill in Scotland was established in 1712, and the British Linen Company set up its bleachfields not long after the Battle of Culloden – a similar ‘bleachfield’ but this time stain’d with clansman crimson.
The state of bleaching in Scotland at that time was backward to say the least, & most linen sheets were sent brown to London or Haarlem. As prices rose, & returning sheets steadily became damaged or discolour’d, or both, it became essential for the Scots to create their own bleachfield, & so this little corner of East Lothian won the ticket! By 1773 the enterprise had ended, & the company moved into banking instead – The British Linen Bank – & within 20 years the field had reverted into the delightful pasture ground of today. The bank would last as an independent entity until being bought by Barclays in 1919. Fifty years later exactly, Barclays sold the British Linen Bank to the Bank of Scotland in exchange for a 35 per cent holding in the latter bank.
But that’s all a bit high finance for a poet’s stroll with his beautiful wee puppy, so let us return to our walk. Beyond the gate we reach’d tarmac, which then took us to a larger road, where we turned left over the handsome old Milton Bridge. We were now on the roads, but Daisy was fine connected to our psychic leash. With my flip-flops living up to their name, we pass’d a posh quadrant of houses on our right – & its curious large garden full of geese – before turning right at a road-fork heading in the direction of Pencaitland.
This was a fine stretch of road, with the Lammermuirs looking lovely behind, & the bowl-like depression in which Saltoun sits clearly evident. After a couple of 90 degree angle turns, we came to a crossroads, where we turned sharp right & headed towards the old gates of Saltoun Hall.
On entering the estate, I switched off Daisy’s psychic leash & sent her scampering delightedly thro’ fresh woodland. In a wee glen to our right the Brins water continued its course to a confluence at Pencaitland with the Tyne. To continue our walk we had to cross it via a bridge, with the singular problem that cattle wandered freely all around. This I had discovered on my scouting mission here on an earlier occasion, but upon this day we were assisted by the strong sun which kept the cows prostrate in the heat, lazily swatting flies with their ropey tails.
Over the Brins, we then climbed a gate & entered the woodlands of Saltoun Hall. Although most of the parkland has been retained, some areas are now plough’d, but care has been taken to retain the large parkland trees in these fields. The grounds hold many fine specimens of trees, including a large Lucombe oak, some very old sycamores, and all three types of cedars. Two of the Lebanon cedars date back to the 18th century. A few of the mature trees have fallen victim to storms, notably on Boxing Day in 1998, but a programme of replanting is continuing. The wooded areas of the estate around Saltoun Hall suffered badly from Dutch Elm disease in the 1980s. The dead trees have now been felled and there has been considerable replanting, mainly with native broad-leaved trees.
After a wee while, a gate appeared to our left, through which we went for a few moments to gaze upon the rear of the very grand hall before us. Hugh de Morville was granted lands in the 12th century by King David I, where on the site of Saltoun Hall was built a tower or castle. Half a millennium later, the house & estate was bought by Andrew Fletcher, Lord Innerpeffer, to whose family the land still belongs. His grandson Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1655–1716) was a major player in the Darién scheme & passionate anti-unionist.
Saltoun Hall as we know it is a castellated Gothic edifice, built in 1817 by William Burn. It was the main base of the Fletcher family, who had turned Saltoun into an innovative hotbed of agriculture. In the 1960s it was split & sold off into nine rather majestic apartments, in which situation it has remained unto the present day. All the major public rooms, except the dining room were retained intact in individual flats with the central saloon and dome, along with the gardens and surrounding land being owned communally by all the proprietors.
Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun is one of East Lothian’s most colourful sons. Born in 1655, he inherited Saltoun as a 9 year old, & by 1681 was elected to the Scottish Parliament as member for Haddingtonshire, for the second time. Then with the death of Charles Stuart, the Restoration period ended & things started to get rather messy, with Fletcher seeming to get everywhere in those tumultuous times. An excellent example is the period commencing with his role as a cavalry commander in the fail’d Monmouth Rebellion, after which he was charged with high treason, & had Saltoun confiscated – the Earl of Dumbarton got the estate for a while – & his blood declar’d tainted. A few years later, however, & surfing a fresh tide of change, Fletcher returned to Britain with the more successful William of Orange, becoming Commissioner of the old Parliament of Scotland & successfully petitioning the king for the return of his estates.
Elsewhere, Fletcher had been imprision’d in Spain, he’d campaign’d against the Turks in Hungary with the Duke of Lorriane. He’d also spent time in exile in Holland where he’d studied the local farming methods. Back at home, despite engaging with the Dutch agricultural innovations, he was rather backwards in his humanity by reintroducing tip-your-hat serfdom to Saltoun. He was also a slavemaster – a healthy Scottish child could fetch £16 on the colonial markets – inspiring Burns,’
We are bought & sold for English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation
In 1698, during the expansive sociological philosophizing of the Darien period, when, ‘the whole future of Scotland,’ depended upon the scheme, he was also proscribing domestic slavery as the cure for poverty. Darien fail’d, by the way, & in the economic fall-out the bankrupted Scottish elite hitched their ancient country to the wealth of London – ‘There’s ane end of ane auld sang,’ sigh’d the Earl of Seafield – & the rest, as they say, is history.
To leave the Hall, we had to follow the path to an extremely overgrown courseway, which we took to the right. This eventually led out into a much more cerebral stretch of grounds & a road leading left passing the lovely house where the Fletcher family live to this day. At the end of the road we reached a gatehouse – built for one of the Fletcher’s mothers by his ever endearing son – & the main road where we turn’d right.
Daisy was tired, panting a lot in the heat, & stopping off for breathers in the shade whenever she found some. We only had a little more to go now, however, down to the fringes of West Saltoun, with epic farm machines trundling about & piercing the serenity like infernal satanical engines. At the road fork, turn left up a hill to Greenhead Farm, though whose abandonato Cold-War border terrain we meander’d to the very track we’d driven down to the car park at Big Wood.