Am I actually breaking away from the Death-Star grip of the Gododdin Heritage Trail for 2020? Indeed I am, & I’ve found a cool one to start. It begins by parking the car just to the south of the Ruchlaw Mains pig farm, which lies on the road between East Linton & Stenton. You can’t really miss it for the smell, I mean, the family business farms over 27,000 sows and 1,000 ewes & they make a decidely interesting pong.
Cars are a bit fast here & you park right by the road, so pop your dog(s) on a lead before you let them out. Crossing the road will only take a few wee doggy leaps, by the way, to the stony stile, which forms the entrance to what will be a circuitous walk.
You are now in a field with, on one side, excellent views of the rocks of East Lothian – Traprain, North Berwick Law & the Bass. On the other side you’ll catch a glimpse of the pastel white, 3-storey L-plan Ruchlaw House.
Built in the early 17th century for local nobleman Archibald Sydserff of Lowden, Bailie of Edinburgh, this baronial property was bought in 1950 by famous Scottish playwright, screenwriter and physician James Bridie. Well, this was a pseudonym actually, for Osborne Henry Mavor, who took his pen-name from his paternal grandfather’s first name and his grandmother’s maiden name. After serving as a military doctor during World War I, he turn’d his attention to writing comedy plays, becoming a full-time writer in 1938, the first chairman of the Arts Council in Scotland & founder of the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow (1943).
He returned to the army during World War II, again serving as a doctor before becoming instrumental in the establishment of both the Edinburgh International Festival & the Glasgow College of Dramatic Art, part of the Royal Conservatoire today. The Bridie Library at the Glasgow University Union is named after him, as is the annual Bridie Dinner that takes place in the Union each December. All of that form lofty laurels indeed, but there’s more, for Bridie even worked with the director Alfred Hitchcock in the late 1940s on Under Capricorn (1949) & Stage Fright (1950).
For film buffs, Under Capricorn is renowned for this epic double-shot six and a half minute sequence (a 1m40s take combined with a 5m20s take); elaborately staged to move in and out of the house and back and forth through multiple rooms, while the new guest (Wilding) pieces together the subtext being revealed, all of it leading up the dramatic introduction of the mistress of the house for the first time in the film. Quality stuff & among of the last pieces of art Bridie would have enjoyed before his death by stroke in Edinburgh, 1951.
Follow the path to the trees, but instead of hopping over the wall into the woods (we’ll be coming back this way), turn left instead & skirt the trees for a while.
You will soon enough get a fine view of a fine wind turbine, with a wonderful vista of eastern East Lothian as a backdrop. The big white spinny thing caused quite a flutter among the agricultural community when it was first erected on account of it being the brainchild of a prodigal son returning from university. Jamie Wyllie of Ruchlaw Mains Farm had studied Agriculture and Business Management at Reading University, & having completed his dissertation on renewable energy, basically blagged his dad it was a good idea to set up a Vergnet turbine for all their power needs & benefit from the Feed‐in Tariff that sells the excess back to the grid. One expects that from the recent exploits of Storm Chiara & Storm Dennis they’d have made a few extra bob.
‘It’s worked well,’ pointed out Jamie at the time, ‘ it’s more immersed in the local landscape than a larger turbine may have been,’ & it definitely does blend in quite well to the contours. Jamie also stated that, ‘we can see exactly how much it produces every day through information fed back to our mobile phones,‘ which is just so, well, real!
Back on the walk, continue skirting the trees til you come to an opening & a rising track – take this. It leads you to a handsome field, which you should skirt to the left.
You eventually come to a drop into another field, at the bottom right corner of which is the access to the woods. There’s no opening as such, just a load of fallen moss-covered stones, a bit like when copper coins turn green in fountains.
So we’re now in the woods, which has lots of uppy-downy bits, riverside snowdrops, budding wild garlic, plus a tangl’d heap of well-marked out paths. The general idea is to head west – you can’t really go east anyway – & cross the Sauchet at a bridge.
There are 3 sub-loops to the main path, a kind of vegetated quarry vibe at the start, a brilliant riverside loop in the middle, plus a neat little riverside diversion just before the bridge. I mean, this walk isn’t the longest in East Lothian, but its certainly one of the most satisfying, & the loops are ideal to stretch out the time a bit.
It was by the Sauchet Water that a Late Bronze Age axe was discovered, a Kalemouth variant of the Type Portree. It is untrimm’d, socketed, with a smooth green surface brittle in places, haft ribs, plus scratch marks on the blade. Measurementwise its length is 73 mm, mouth 22 x 28 m,m,. cuting edge 47 mm & weight 205. All records of its original owner have been lost.
Once satisfying a natural compulsion to do the loop, carry on beyond the second entry point, this time keeping right, you’ll soon come to a y-shaped fork. Turning back on yourself on the right prong will take you back to the beginning of the walk, but first things first we’re gonna carry straight on & reach the bridge, cross the Sauchet & up ourselves into Stenton.
Once over the bridge you turn left & climb up some woodpath steps. You then reach a point where there’s a playing field to the right – ignore the entrance to this & keep following the path straight ahead.
The path hits the back walls of Stenton & turns sharp left, which brings you to a door that says BOWLING GREEN. Now I’d say you can tell a lot about a community from the state of its bowling green, & OMG Stenton’s is immaculate. Perhaps the finest I’ve ever seen. The rest of the village aint bad either, by the way, & well worth a wee wander as long as you remember to pop yer dogs on their leads.
Stenton bowling club was instituted at a meeting in 1876, with the following being the first minute which appears in the Minute Books.
Stenton, August 2nd, 1876
On the evening of which a meeting was held inthe School of those favourable of the construction of a Bowling Green for theparish.
Mr. Sydserff of Ruchlaw was unanimously called to teh chair. The Rev. Mr. Marjoribanks shortly addressed the meeting, & stated that he heartily approved of the scheme, & believed that it would conduce to the moral well-being of the parish.
The chairman & others having also spoken approvingly of the movement, the following Committee were appointed.
My Sydserff, Mr. Majoribanks, Mr. Fraser, Mr. Higgins, r. Purves, Mr. Tweedie, Mr. Stewart, Mr.Cockburn, Mr. Duncanson, Mr. Harrower & Mr. A. Dickson. Mr Sydserff of Ruchlaw to act as Chairman – & Mr Marjoribanks as Secretary & Treasurer.
The meeting resolved to meet the next evening for fixing upon a site for the green.
Two possible sites popped up – one behind the old well – where the village hall now stands – & of course the site where it settled for eternity. In those days the land lay at the back of Mr Duncanson’s garden in Mr Purves’s field. By March the next year the green was ready – at a coast of £109…8…4 – , & the minutes tell us that a Mr. Lees from Archerfield was invited to inspect the work – & approved most heartily, resulting in the first ever game of bowls at Stenton on the 17th August 1877. This saw Linton’s Hamilton (skip) & Pettigrew beat Trotter (skip) & Cockburn 39-20 over two matches.
Retracing your steps, turn left at the gate & enter delightful Stenton.
The older properties are built of locally quarried stone and are predominantly roofed with red clay pantiles – it gives the core of the village a really unifying character.
I mean, its just a well-preserved time capsule of a place. Alright, there a re a few new builds cottages on the eastern edge, but the central core is such a compact package of antiquity, I dare anyone not seeing it for the first time to marvel at its magic.
Although it never seems to have had the status of a burgh, its layout reflects the burghal pattern in miniature. Thus, houses and businesses with long, thin garden plots lying behind behind line either side of a road. Stenton once housed a baker, tailors, clothier, grocer, shoemakers, a couple of general merchants (licenced) and a spirit dealer as well as what later directories call ‘dealers in sundries’ – corner shops today.
But that was then & this is now & what Twenty-Twenty Stenton seriously lacks are useful amenities – there’s been no shop or pub for years, while the gallery & the fruit farm at Ruchlaw closed down a decade or so ago. I rememeber when I stayed at Heather Lodge I used to cycle to the fruit farm to buy an ice lolly more for the novelty effect of spending money in the neighbourhood, but thosee days are gone. You can buy kilts in Stenton, but otherwise the only way to actually spend real money is to hop on a bus to Spott, Dunbar & Innerwick…
What I also love about Stenton is that Blind Harry mentions Stenton in his poem, ‘The Wallace,’ describing how William Wallace had rewarded Sir Robert de Lawedre with the lands of Stenton in 1297. Now I couldn’f find the reference – its a volumous epic – but it reminds me of the time I blended Harrys Wallace & Barbour’s bruce into a single poem called The Scotiad – here’s an extract where I transliterate one of Blind Harry’s most famous bits.
18 The Blind Minstrel’s Lament
Upon a rock oer foaming flood,
Oor haggard-eyed, blind minstrel stood
With master’s hand & prophet’s fire,
He struck deep sorrows with a lyre;
“Alas, to whom shall we complain?
Alas, who shall restrain oor pain?
Alas, we have lost oor good light?
Alas, who shall defend oor right?
Alas, more pain approaches near
&, sorrowful, is set in fear,
Alas, oor greatest governor
Has come unto his fatal hour,
Alas, where shall oor comfort be?
Who shall now make poor Scotland free?
Where is the soul of freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty dead
Beneath the turf where Wallace lies
& all of us puggl’d by sighs,
His name is found like flowers wild,
His deeds across the country piled;
Castle & tower, butt & leap,
The bed where Wallace once did sleep,
The camp, the isle, the well, the seat,
The stone where Wallace wash’d his feet,
The port from where his boat set sail…”
About him flew a phrenzied gale,
Stood on the summit of a ben,
God’s grandeur there reveal’d to men,
Then aiming lungs toward the south
He piped a song that mouth-to-mouth
Had pass’d down ages since the times
The Picts made music to their rhymes.
In 1681, the Hamiltons of Pressmennan and Biel secured an act enabling a weekly market and a twice yearly fair at Stenton; the remains of the market tron still mark the site where the markets were held in to the middle of the 19th century: now a pleasant green on the north side of the village. A tron was a public weigh post and beam, used for the bulk measurement of, in Stenton’s case, the wool clip and hides sold at the market. This wool would have come from the Lammermuir sheep, which hills the parish of Stenton pierces for several miles.
Back in 2020, & as far as the walk goes, help yourslef to a potter & an explore, tho don’t go passed the wee school at the western edge of the village, or the kirk to the east. Once you’re done, you need to head to the village hall, back at the central green & its annual colony of crocus.
Stenton Village Hall was built in 1913 and recently refurbished and extended as part of a community project completed in 2017. I was there on a Thursday, which sees the weekly 2 hour visit of the post office whith every emenity availbale as you would in the high street.
Passing the hall to its left & a playpark to your right brings you to a wee playing field, at the far right hand corner of which is the entrance to the path & the return mission. Simply retrace your steps & when you come to the fork in the photo, turn left.
You soon come to a stone stile over which you’ll find yourself at the end of the path that shoots spear-like to the start of this, what can only say, cool walk. The Sauchet water & its hair which flows like a bonnie woman’s ribbon of hair is one of the county’s secret & very special waterways. While Stenton needs to be seen to be believed!
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