Amisfield

Its back to the county capital for this latest walk, & a lovely delve into the forgotten landscape of Amisfield Park, elegant home in the modern-day to the Haddington Golf Club.

The best place to park the car is in the vicinity of St Martin’s Kirk, a robust Romanesque ruin on the edges of the Haddington’s oldest quarter. Tho John Knox might have attended services in St Martin’s as a boy, the church’s chancel was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation in 1560, of which Knox was the primary architect.

But let’s not try such a large digression at such an early part of the walk. Instead head towards the football courts & skatepark area, beyond which to the left is a footbridge over the River Tyne.

Once over the water turn right, where beyondthe playpark is a footpath that shoots straight as an arrow by the side of the Tyne. Take this.

You are now coming to a fine bridge which you must surmount. To do this head left & up onto the road, heading right. At this point on the left is Abbeymill Farm, which is roughly the location of the original Cistercian abbey founded in 1139 by Countess Ada of Northumberland, who married Prince Henry, heir of David I, & received the lands as a wedding gift from the King of Scotland.

Following the tarmac in the direction of the Lammermuirs, you soon reach some estate walls to the right, & a little after an old lodge house & the entrance to Amisfield.

Through the entrance & a little to the left rise the epic fortifices of the Amisfield Wall’d Garden, where we shall be wandering for a wee while. You’ll always find this vast walled garden, with its four sprectacular circular corner pavilions, buzzing with those green-fingered, lottery-funded volunteers who have in the past few years transformed the garden from an overgrown wasteland to a vibrant horticultural paradise selling its own produce & educating teh community. If you want to volunteer yourself, contact: volunteers@amisfield.org.uk.

The garden is a true relic of Amisfield’s once glorious & noble past, a forgotten landscape pleasant parkland now home to Haddington golf club. Following four centuries of Cisterican singing, the abbey declined with the Reformation & the lands disposed of in 1560.

The first known house on the site was Newmills, built in 1681 together with a mill on the River Tyne. Its owner was Englishman, Colonel James Stanfield, a relic of the Cromwellian assault on Scotland & eventual MP for East Lothian in the Scots parliament. By 1686 Stanfield found himself in some financial difficulty due to the extravagance of his wayward son Philip and was preparing to sell off assets to pay the debts when he suddenly met an untimely death, that set the scene for a terrible trial for murder. Phillip was the clear candidate, having recently been disinherited for his debauchery, with Amisfield being willed to the second son, John Stansfield. Philip Stansfield drunkenly declared he would cut his father’s throat, and lo & behold thats just what happened to James, discovered in his bed with blood spurting out of the side of his neck. An Edinburgh jury found the prisoner guilty of all the facts laid in the indictment —- viz. of treason, cursing his father, and being accessory to his murder. with the Lords of Justiciary ordering him to be hanged on the 15th of February, 1688 at the Cross of Edinburgh, and his tongue to be cut out for cursing his father, and his right hand to be cut off for the parricide, and his head to be put upon the East Port of Haddington, as nearest to the place of murder, and his body to be hung up in chains betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, and his lands and goods to be confiscated for the treason.

Next into Newmills & with it the change of name to Amisfield, Francis Charteris. He’d named it Amisfield after the ancestral family estate, near Dumfries. He was a womanising, duelling, professional gambler who amassed a vast fortune by tricking the wealthy out of money & lending back at exorbitant interest. He is said to have bewitch’d £3000 from the Duchess of Queensberry using mirrors. He was also accused of raping a woman servant, convicted & sent to Newgate. Fog’s Weekly Journal of 14 March 1730 reported ‘We hear no Rapes have been committed for three Weeks past. Colonel Francis Charteris is still in Newgate.’
As a convicted felon, his property should have been forfeit under the doctrine of attainder, but he petitioned the King for its return. In composition (fine) for his offence, he paid substantial sums to the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex. He was also suspected of having given substantial gifts to various important individuals. Jonathan Swift commented on Charteris in several poems. In Lines on the Death of Dr. Swift (1731), he explains “Chartres” as, “a most infamous, vile scoundrel, grown from a foot-boy, or worse, to a prodigious fortune both in England and Scotland: he had a way of insinuating himself into all Ministers under every change, either as pimp, flatterer, or informer. He was tried at seventy for a rape, and came off by sacrificing a great part of his fortune.”

Charteris was the inspiration for characters in William Hogarth’s paintings, A Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress (where he is represented as the fat lecher in the first plate), and in Fanny Hill. He was condemned by Alexander Pope in his Moral Essay III, written in 1733. Parallels were drawn between Charteris’ sexual excesses and the greed of politicians such as Robert Walpole.

His son was a much better man – another Francis – who commission’d English palladian architect, Isaac Ware, to Amisfield House in 1755 for and extensively remodelled the landscape. Built in red coloured Garvald freestone, the mansion house had a seven-bayed frontage & ionic portico, & it is a true loss to the people of Haddington & beyond.
This Francis, the 7th Earl of Wemyss through marriage, built eight acre the walled garden, which started off life off cultivating tropical fruits including pineapples. This ‘called pinery-vinery’ meant the consumption of vast resources such as a constant source of heat.

The Earl then moved to Gosford near Longniddry, but kept Amisfield going. During the 19th century the parkland played host to the Tyneside Games held annually for 20 years from 1833. Up to 6000 spectators would gather to watch ‘sports’ between all classes of locals – including gentry – such as quoiting, putting the balls, sack races, & the great final race – a run along the river Tyne for a mile & back the other side. The race finish’d by runn thro the river then up a slope of a 100 yards to winning post. A contemprary account describes the final frantic dash.

IN they rushed, the water being so deep as to cover them to the shoulders, & pressing through the stream, happy was he who put his foot upon the side, & came in winner amidst the shouts of the assembled multitude.

The palladian mansion house was demolished a century ago – the site is now occupied by Haddington Golf Club’s clubhouse – tho’ the avenue of ancient lime trees & rococo summerhouse still remain.
Amisfield also saw service during the wars as both a miltary camp a POW camp. The grounds of Amisfield House were first used as a military training camp for the Lothian and Borders Horse Regiment in the First World War. The house was used as accommodation for the officers, and wooden huts were constructed in the park for the soldiers. Football fields and parades grounds were provide on the low ground by the river. A large practice trench system was also built by the river.

During the Second World War units including the Sherwood Foresters and the Polish 10th Mounted Rifles were accommodated at the camp. Part or all of the camp may have been adapted to the Prisoner of War camp in 1944, from where Karl Lasar, aged forty-four, escaped from a working party in Haddington in 1945. PC Erskine related the details in his report:

“On Sunday, 18th April 1948, about 4.20pm, the skeleton of a human being was found on the west banking of the disused quarry situated about 200 yards east from the Birk Hedges Road, in the parish of Haddington, and the remains are suspected to be those of No A989611 Karl Lasar, (44), PoW, who was an inmate of No 16A Prisoner of War Camp, Amisfield Park, Haddington, who went missing from a working party employed at Dovecot Farm, Haddington, on 7th September, 1945. The cause of death is not certified.”

It’s more than likely that Karl took his own life as Willie Downey, one of the three young boys who made the unpleasant discovery, described in 1998. He described how the boys were looking for frog spawn in the Spring of 1948 when one of them kicked what he thought was a sheep’s head in the water. A closer look led to the realisation that it was a human skull with the remains of boots and a uniform with patches nearby. Willie noticed a length of hemp rope hanging from a nearby tree which overhung the quarry and remembered that identity discs were discovered along with a watch.

So there we have it – lots & lots of history for Amisfield Park. As for the rest of the walk, return to the entrance to the Walled Garden & turn left, then left again keeping the wall to your left. You’ve now entered a bit of woodland. If you want to see the summerhouse, at a fork in the path turn right, follow the trail to the tarmac path, then cross it & drop down througmore woods to the summerhouse. After checking it out then follow the gold fourse edge a few metres then turn left up onto the tarmac & return the way you came.

Back at the woodland fork, keep the wall to your left & follow it all the way round to the fourth corner. Here you’ll see a path heading left – take this.

After a while you’ll come to an opening in the estate wall, & a little further a pedestrian gate. The gate leads onto a fairly quiet road which you can follow back to the car, or alternatively skirt the golf course to its main road, turn left, & reach the area where across the green lies St Martin’s kirk.

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