A day or two after I posted the Deuchrie Dod walk, a message drops into my inbox from a lady called Annie, a member of The Waggonway 1722 set, who invited me to walk the route of the oldest railway in Britain. Long before steam help’d drive an engine along the tracks, in 1722 a wooden wagon travel’d by gravity alone from the coal pits at Tranent to the saltmakers at Cockenzie. Downhill it did anyway, a horse went down with the wagon so it could be haul’d back uphill to those working plugs of Scotland’s ‘Great Seam.’
“Do you have a dog,” I ask’d Annie. She responded in the positive, & last Wednesday we met up near the original starting point of the Wagonway in the Butts car park across the road from The Brig Inn at Tranent. The same place people used to practice archery in Medieval times. Annie and her dog, Rakija, were waiting for us; she recognised wee Daisy from my blog & right from the off we were all fine companions.
The Butts car-park has an easy access to the Waggonway, but my delightful hostess, being so passionate about her subject, wanted me to see everything. Crossing the main road we reach’d the rear of the pub, next door to which is a private garden, where a wee peek over the wall reveals an old tunnel under the main road where the Waggonway began its gentle flight to the sea.
Passing under the main road we began our 2.5 mile hike to the coast, most of which was spent listening to Annie’s effortless, effervescent & quite relentless volleys of facts. She is a former English teacher, who spends her retirement teaching creative writing on exotic luxury cruises – & she is as fit as a fiddle, trust me.
I never knew this walk existed, & I wish I had, for when I get my car done at the impeccably honest & highly efficient Reilley’s garage in Tranent, & have to wait a couple of hours, I usually end up walking Daisy through the town’s streets & playing fields. Not next time, however, I’ll be back, this really is an excellent pedestrian thoroughfare.
After a wee while we reached the old corner of Tranent & the almost cyclopean walls of the parish kirk. Annie began to regale me with tales of the Battle of Prestonpans, of how a mortally wounded Government general, Gardiner, was taken to the manse to die; & of how earlier in the battle a group of Cameron Highlanders had lodg’d themselves behind the kirkyard walls, but were dislodged & wounded by Government cannon. As every gunshot was huzzah’d by the redcoats that hoary evening in September, it seem’d to them that their superior firepower & training would carry any battle against these undervictual’d savages from the bens.
That was day one of the battle, the night of which saw the entire 2,500 strong Jacobite army led through Tranent by a local lad, Robert Anderson. They went three abreast in silence, over a wooden bridge across the marshes, to pitch themselves on the eastern side of the bamboozl’d government forces – also about 2,500 strong – just as a fine & bright September day was breaking. Patrick Crichton – a Whig – recorded the weapons of the Highland host (his spellings).
I observed these armes, they wer guns of different syses, & some of innormowows lengh, some with butts tured up lick a heren, some tyed with puck threed to the stock, some withowt locks & some matchlocks, some had swords over their showlder instead of guns, one or two had picthforks, & some buts of sythes upon poles with a cleek, some old Lochaber axes
It is clear from reports that the East Lothianers of those days weren’t happy to have a Highland army in their laps – but the ever-glamorous Charlie was a different bag altogether. As he rode around Tranent, he just happened to pause by the house of Anderson of Windygoul – the aged uncle of Robert Anderson. He had fought alongside Robert’s father in the ’15, & wanting to toast the Prince’s health, order’d his daughter to bring out some wine on a silver platter. She grew too shy, alas, & the job was given to Anderson’s niece. After downing his goblet, the Prince then proceeded to heartily snog Anderson’s niece in the French fashion, rendering Anderson’s now jealous daughter ‘blate’ & piningly declaring, ‘eh, but I had kent.’
Continuing along the Waggonway, we passed under the A1, coming out near the Meadowmill sports center. In front of us appeared the Mayan pyramid that is the battlefield viewing point, which we nipp’d up in what felt like a force-ten gale. The view is remarkable, the epicentre of the county, where the story of the battle is expertly told via a series of pictoboards. Gazing around the sweeping scene, the battlefield is in a reasonable state of preservation – modernity has certainly done its work in altering the landscape – but certain battlefield features still standing give perspective & distance, like Gardiner’s own Bankton House & the ruin’d but still impressive Preston Tower.
As I stood immers’d in the moment & the history, it reminded me of why I had objected so strongly (I think I swore at someone in an email) to the recent plans of property developers to hack away at our cultural heritage & build over the last bits of greenery of the battlefield. Annie inform’d me that it seems as if this very modern battle had been won, but I didn’t pry too much into the situation.
A similar malarky is happening with a block of 1930s red sandstone shop-buildings in Leith, earmarked for gentrification & soul-less student flats, completely ignoring the small businesses & joi de vivre that dwelt in said buildings. Defending cultural heritage against money-gluttonous property developers shall always remain one of the just wars.
Back down on the road again – the Waggonway was tarmac’d over at this point – we had to negotiate some busy traffic, passing the old monument of the battlefield, before finally reaching a leafier, dog-friendly section. It was signed with a shiny ‘Wagonway 1722,‘ sitting proudly beside the battlefield signs. The two histories are intrinsically entwin’d, actually, for Sir John Cope lined his army up near the tramway itself, & thus one can walk straight through the phantoms of his lines.
At this point in the walk, my phone ran out of juice, which means that the photos which follow are either from Annie’s phone, or from my very professional return to the walk at the weekend – the weather was scintillating then, so made for better photos.
Half-way along this section of the Waggonway, there are two recently created table-top monuments, structurally based upon a tomb in Tranent kirkyard, which lists the regiments who fought in the battle. I’ve already mentioned how East Lothianers weren’t too hot for the Highlanders, but the reception they gave the Government troops was very different. Henderson records that, ‘nothing was wanting for the conveniency of men or horse. The gentlemen supplied the officers with delicacies, & the private men with every proper refreshment, while the people joined to send them tuns of Scots beer & spirits, while workmen flocked in to enter the most difficult tasks upon the first orders.’
I’m a big fan of the Jacobite rebellions. The 300-strong ‘Manchester Regiment’ were the only Jacobite forces to join the Prince south of Carlisle, & were led by a Burnley boy, Francis Towneley. Therefore I’ve always leant towards the blue bonnets & I’ve written some poetry about the ’45, including this wee drama set during the Battle of Prestonpans itself.
Gorgeous morning yer highness, Prince of Wales
A wonderful manoeuvre come to pass
As the English sat at their stakes like snails
Yer army made its way thro the morass
Tracked thro the marshes, measuring their stealth
& now rest hard upon his other flank,
But not for long! the boys did toast yer health
& for this, Grace of God, did duly thank
Those men who eat dry crust & lie on straw
Shall fecht like kings, now watch them charge to war!
Good work Lord Murray, now take up the right
A cannonball shall signal the attack
& now sir Jonathan your men must fight
Not slip away as at Corrieyairack
That cuckold marched two thirds of the kingdom
Not one chieftan has proffered him his sword
Let us announce the end of that empire
Ye gentlemen, ye warriors, now come
Join me in solemnity to our lord
‘Gloria Angele Dei!’ now men, fire!
After an exchange of artillery they highland army embarks on its charge
See how they gan! & what a gory sound
The highland roar, as if the Earth did quake
With furious groan, come see their cannons pound
Brave Camerons, line gis an awfa’ shake
But on they run! & wi’ a mighty crack
Oor muskets reap those eves o’ redcoat corn
& now they rush intae the killing ground,
By broadsword & scyth’d pitchfork limbs be torn
Carrying great slaughter to the English
To be in England, aye, their dying wish!
Sweet salutations sire, yer battles won
Peer thro the smoke & see those fleeing shapes
An entire English army on the run
Lord Percy shall see none of them escapes
The ghoul of Hanover must bare defeat
The field is littered with his bastard dead
Back to Berwick flies Jonnie Cope’s retreat
Wi’ not one of ‘is bayonets stain’d red
Tae praise this day there is nae better word
Tis Victory! God bless King James the Third
Ours is the day, the field, the glory
Go spread its fame – fly north, south, east & west
Fly to Vienna, London& Paris,
Fly to Ferrol, Ostend, Dunkerque & Brest
& let us war! But ‘fore the march we sound
Carry the wounded to a better bed
At Holyrood let casks of wine be found
To toast our heroes & libate the dead
The motions of destiny are at hand,
Come tomorrow let us invade England!
From the opening salvo, the battle lasted about 15 minutes, & ended with the complete rout of the Government troops. The future theologian theologian Alexander Carlyle witrness’d, ‘the whole prospect filled with runaways, & Highlanders pursuing them. Many had their coats turned as prisoners, but were still trying to reach the town in hopes of escaping. The Highlanders, when they could not overtake them, fired at them, & I saw two fall in the glebe.’ In the end there were 1400 prisoners & 500 corpses, with the Prince particularly praising a party of Macgregors who had been conspicuous in pursuit & slaughter.
The next stretch of the walk took us ever closer to Cockenzie. Eventually the path spills out into the open road again, where Annie was excited to show me the original Waggonway wall, so we could stick as close to the route as possible. This route was a bit busy for Daisy, but fortunately on my return to the walk, just as the path reaches the road, there is another path which veers to the left, skirting the old coal-storage depot of the recently demolished power station. This is a much prettier, bramble-bubbling way to proceed into Cockenzie.
The path eventually hit the edge of Cockenzie, where we turn’d right & reach’d the main road. Turning left we were soon in the dual fishing-village-turn’d-town that is Cockenzie & Port Seton. Of all the Facebook groups in East Lothian, these guys are rabidly fanatical about their home, & it warms me to witness such a sense of community which stretches back well into the Bronze Age. In 2002, for example, they won the ‘Scottish Community of the Year,’ & in the same year the won ‘Most Improved Town‘ in the Beautiful Scotland in Bloom competition.
Continuing the walk, we pass’d by a lovely park to our right, then cross’d the main road at Cockenzie House. Keeping this on our right, we followed its outer wall, which consisted of the Wagonway wall at the base, & some crazy Icelandic volcanic ‘hekla’ rock on the the top.
Next we came to what Annie declar’d was the best fresh fish in East Lothian, James Dickson & Son, just beyond whose complex we turn’d left into a shed load of sheds. A twist & a turn later we had arrived at the Waggonway 1722 museum.
A little non-descript from the outside – they definitely need a sign – stepping within is a completely different story, with a completed mock-wagon, models of the mines & salt-pans, finds from the recent Big Dig conducted by the group, & genuine photos from the 1850s of the Waggonway in action. I also tried some stunningly delicious home-made sea-salt, just like back in the day, but made slightly differently – no rancid bull’s blood was used in the making of this movie! The salt was then wash’d down by a spiffing cup of Earl Grey made by my genial hostess, which refresh’d us for the final leg of our long but lovely trot along her historical imaginarium.
The museum is a stone’s throw from the harbour, to where we continued our walk. Port Seton’s is more of a working harbour, with Cockenize’s used these days more by retirees having a wee splash-paddle in the Forth. It was once, however, a vital lifeline to the trade of Flanders & the Hanseatic ports. Before then, beyond the name-change from Cowkainy, we see the harbour first coming to prominence in relation to the 1284 grant of mining rights as given by James, Steward of Scotland, to the monks of Newbattle. Its always been a busy old place has Cockenzie.
At the harbour and the Waggonway’s terminus Annie continued her prolific regalement; delighting at a Stevenson pavement, pointing out the house from where the Cadell’s of Cockenzie House control’d both Waggonway & the waves, plus showing me the sites of her society’s archeological digs. One of the Waggonway Heritage group is an archeologist, Alan Brady, who has also been brilliantly illustrating aspects of the area’s history, prints of which may be bought at the museum.
Cockenzie harbour was once witness to a scene more joyous than when the supply convoy stuttered into Valetta Harbour during the WW2 siege of Malta. A group of local sailors, with a reputation for being the bravest & most dexterous on the planet, had somehow got stranded in Baffin Bay, Greenland, for months. After several rescue attempts one finally broke through, & fathers & sons thought dead appeared like ghosts at Cockenzie to the inimitable relief of its ladyfolk, who’d been keeping things going as if they were handling the Lancashire munitions factories during WW1.
The final part of walk was along the coast, along a wee stretch of the John Muir Way, passing by the Royal Legion & the old Cockenzie natural harbour where fishwives used to sell their wares from the rocks. It was in no time at all that we came upon the foundations of a former panhouse – which had been split into two cottages long before it fell into ruin.
This panhouse was one of twelve which had been operating since 1630, when the Third Earl of Winton opened up the market to Europe. In 1716 more salt was sold from its girnels than other in Scotland, leading a few years later to the creation of the Waggonway under the jurisdiction of the York Building Company of London, who had bought the Winton Estate. Each pan had a master salter & a servant, whose working lives have been ably described by CA Whatley in the Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian & Field Naturalist Society;
Once purchasers had been found, or a ship lay at the harbour awaiting a cargo of salt, Adam drew upon what was apparently a deep & willing pool of occasional labour. Depending upon the size of the order, two to five females were employed ‘breaking up ; salt, at 2/- each per girnel. This was effectively a day’s wage. The salt was weighed by perhaps three ‘mettsters’ at the considerably higher rate of 7/- for each chalder & if the salt was to be shipped, as well as an allowance of 2/- each for bread & drink.
This was our cue to turn away from the shore, to go winding through the quaint narrow, ad-hoc streets of the old fisher-village, then crossing the ‘High Street’ & traversing School Lane. At the intersection of the Lane & ‘New Street’ was the entrance to the old village co-op, now bricked off, but one can still imagine the life & gossip that once buzz’d about this very spot.
At the end of School Lane we came to East Lothian’s main coastal road. To our left was the grand old schoolhouse of Cockenzie, & to our right the even grander Cockenzie House. Both properties have evolved from earlier uses; the former is now BizSpace, while the latter is a dwelling-abode no more, but instead the ever-happening hub of Cockenzie’s tutelary community spirit.
It is in the house & grounds of Cockenzie House in which I concluded our walk. While Daisy & Rakija chased each others’ tails, Annie showed me the miniature salt-pan they use to make that delicious sea-salt. She also pointed me out the now paint-flaking canoe-boat-thingy with an Australian flag meant to commemorate Cockenzie’s former resident, Francis Cadell. He was the winner of the race to navigate the Murray River in Australia from Goolwa to the junction of the Darling River, spurr’d on by the bonus of £4000 offer’d by the South Australian government.
The Cadells of Cockenzie House were a cool bunch. Among them were Francis’ brother, General Sir Robert, who served in the Crimea & India with the Royal Artillery. Another brother, Thomas, was posted to India with his Regiment at the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and would greatly distinguish himself during the Siege of Delhi. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on the 12th June 1857. He was stationed at the flag-staff picquet at Delhi, when the picquet came under heavy assault from the enemy. Both the 75th Regiment of Foot and 2nd European Bengal Fusiliers were pushed back, and during the fighting, Cadell rescued a wounded bugler of his own regiment from the middle of the enemy, under heavy fire. Later that day, when the Fusiliers were retiring, a wounded man was reported to have been left behind so Cadell went back on his own towards the enemy, accompanied by three men, and brought in the man from the 75th Regiment, who was severely wounded.
An earlier Robert Cadell was a bookseller and publisher closely associated with Sir Walter Scott & the producer of the highly successful, 1827 onwards, ‘Author Editions’ of the Waverly Novels, illustrated by J. M. W. Turner. On Scott’s death, Cadell paid £30,000 for Scott’s share of the copyright on Scott’s work, thereafter owning it outright.
Entering the house itself, I was astounded to see a thriving panoply of studio spaces, all of whom seemed well worth a cheeky inquiry. The names stood out; including Jacobite Aipiaries, Goblinshead Books, Iolair Yarn, White Ward Tattoo Studio & the Authentic Bliss Holistic Thearapies, who are ‘helping you find a happy place.’
Finally it was to the cafe, for another cuppa, a biscuit & a loin-rest. To my immeasurable delight I found Annie was still talking! She’s invited me on a walk around the banana-boomerang borough boundary of Tranent, an offer which one day next Spring, I shall be delighted to take up.