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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XXIV - Haddington


A MAN whose daily task was to mole among gas-pipes and the like under every part of the burgh of Haddington told me that wherever he dug he found human bones, and the most he judged to have come there by violence of fire, flood, plague or slaughter. To-day the town is trim and quiet, in its broad streets, with here and there grass between the stones. Some places have old-time names, as Poldrate, The Lang Causey, the Butts. It lies low down by the Tyne, which divides it from the suburb of Nungate. There are trees and abundant green in it, and about it,—as where not in Scotland?—the all-saving presence of the hills—the Garleton ridge to the north, the Lammermuirs to the south. These last change even as living forms under change of weather. Now they gather round and bend over the town, and again they withdraw to far-off horizons, and they smile bright or frown dark, but always potent.

I remember quiet Haddington quainter than it now is. In the admirable Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, by MacGibbon and Ross, are drawings of the Roundles at Bedlam Close, Farmer’s House in the Nungate, and the so-called Bothwell Castle. Those competent judges thought them most important and interesting. The first two are clean vanished, and Bothwell Castle is a crumbling, deserted ruin. The whole of Nungate was once a jewel of rare excellence. Miry and malodorous, dirty and disreputable, it was yet the very image of the old Scots town of centuries ago. It was crammed with every feature of old Scots architecture. Roundles, pends, closes, wynds, outside stairs, everything! Nobody built, nobody pulled down. It culminated in Farmer’s House, some work of the wealthy, ancient Abbey to which Nungate belonged, and there was and still is the ruined old chapel of St Martin, of forgotten origin. When the moonlight scored and underlined the fantastic shadows of the old houses, and you looked across the Tyne at the river front of Bothwell Castle, with its dim yet authentic tradition of Mary Stuart and her wicked spouse, and you caught a snatch of old Scots rhyme, simple and romantic, sung by children at play, you had found the supreme moment for Nungate of Haddington. I shall never walk in it again. There is a new bridge over the Tyne, and a new flour-mill with a new name, and the house-breaker and the house-builder are busy, and Nungate is swept and garnished. If I lived in it I should be delighted, but I would that some millionaire of antiquarian taste had bought all fifty years since, and carefully dusted and preserved it under glass as a unique specimen of what is now gone and cannot return.

The parish church, or Auld Kirk, dedicated to St Mary, was known as Lucerna Laudoniae, the Lamp of Lothian, because it was splendid, or some say because it carried a light to guide the traveller over these dreary wastes and moorland that are now fertile fields. But most church towers of old carried a light; and though the tower be square, and massive, and imposing, yet it lies so low down that I doubt the efficacy of the light. Moreover, just as the old church builder loved his gargoyle and his pinnacle, so the old church writer loved his picturesque phrase and his parable. Does not the light of the lamp admirably image forth spiritual and temporal splendour? The antiquary here puts his spoke in the wheel. The real lamp, he will have it, was a bowshot off—a Franciscan monastery, in fact, whereof not a stone remains. I cannot tell. This at least is served heir to every species of church that ever was in Haddington, and with its comely stone, its fair shape, and a certain restraint and dignity in all its lines, it is a beautiful relic of other days. An old woman who had lived all her life under its shadow told me that as she grew up everything in Haddington shrunk and became less to her save this old church. It has been fearfully mauled about. The "Auld Enemy" with his torch, and the too early Restorer with his compass, the passionate Reformer, the callous Philistine, all did their cruel worst. The choir is a ruin, what is left shored up with difficulty, and every stone has marks of some evil touch, yet it is fair and impressive in spite of everything. The mediaeval world could do one thing, at any rate, supremely well: it could big a kirk. The best your modern can do is to imitate. He cannot always manage even that. If you look across towards the river you will think that same vanished world could do one other thing, and that was, build a brig! The Nungate bridge, which connects with that suburb, is straight and narrow, and it is steep to climb, but it has the same beautiful stone as the kirk, the like graceful arch, the like formal symmetry. The last restorers, to give them their due, have been modest and discreet; they have destroyed the destroyers, and looked back rather than forward. You see brig and kirk to-day under the best conditions.

And what about those "fellows in the cellarage"—those silent witnesses under the soil? Impossible to recover the history of any one, yet the history of the town explains how they came there. It was four times burned. Once by chance or malice, thrice in warfare with the "Auld Enemy," of course—the enemy that meets you at every turn in Scots annals to check and thwart. It was flooded again and again. The plague, a constantly-returning dread, tore at it year by year. Less than a century since there was a severe visitation of cholera. Careful cleaning, sanitation, whitewash, pure water supply are recent things. One or two scraps of doubtful authenticity have escaped the general oblivion. The flood of 1358 threatened to sweep away kirk and town in common ruin, when a nun, seizing an image of the Virgin, vowed it should go too unless Our Lady condescended to help her own. And there is a comic interlude of a citizen of Nungate who perched on the detached roof of his hut, with dog, cat and cock for fellows.

"Row we merely (merrily)
Quo John Burley,"

japed he with sardonic mirth when he swept under the bridge, "a saying of Nungate in Haddington to this day," but the scribe himself has gone centuries ago.

Nungate Bridge, Haddington

Lothian, the capital excepted, was never keenly moved by religious change; its folk took things as they came, yet that did not save them from trouble. In Reformation times religion and politics were strangely mingled. Haddington was held by the English, and in 1548 was closely besieged for some eighteen months by the Scots and a body of French auxiliaries. The folk in the walls had a hard time of it; there was plague within and assaults without. One of the foreign besiegers, a certain Monsieur Beague, has left an account in very lively French. Like others of his tribe he takes for granted the common incidents of daily life, and so leaves untold what had now been of rare interest. This incident he gives. A Highland kern among the Scots admired the dashing French style of attack, he would do something in emulation. On the next sally he rushed up to the foe, gripped an Englishman, threw him over his shoulder, and staggered across to his own side. The captive struggled frantically, but in vain, though he bit him in so brutal a fashion on the shoulder that his life was in danger. The French captain rewarded the exploit with a coat of mail and twenty crowns. The Celt was effusive in his gratitude. No wonder! He had never been so well armed or so well in pocket all his life. The thing had its usual ending. What was there to get in that savage country but hard fare and hard blows? So the foreign friend and the foreign foe presently departed, and the place was left with "a mean number of the ancient inhabitants to re-build and venture as best they could." So Knox sums up the siege in a brief phrase. He does not think it worth while to record that he was born there, though he once reminded Bothwell, in strangely, kindly and pathetic words, as you deem, reflecting on all that passed between them, that he and his had served the Hepburns for generations. Had he condescended on the place of his nativity he had solved a once keenly-contested point. The whole weight of evidence is in favour of the spot by the well in Nungate that you see from the bridge. One odd custom for long kept the folk of Haddington in memory of their former troubles. The Town officer paraded the streets at nightfall throughout the year, and with tuck of drum chanted a rough, rude rhyme warning against the danger of fire. It was known as "coal and canle" from its leading words. This too is long disused.

Those old citizens had a miserable time. Were they not tempted to flee the place altogether? Far from it. So you gather from a series of entries in the burgh records. For all offences there was one penalty: the offender was "banished ye towne." If he came back he was scourged or branded, or both, and again thrust forth. If the fatal attraction of Haddington lured him yet again, there was a gallows in frequent use at the West Port, just outside the wall, and there was presently no more of him. The local hangman, by the way, had perhaps from frequent practice a more than local reputation. His services were in request in other quarters. The unpleasing name of Gallows Green preserved the memory of the fatal spot till recent times. It was not found a choice term for a spick-and-span suburban villa, and the owner changed it to something more commonplace. Not criminals alone were summarily thrust forth. The same fate befel beggars, Egyptians and all afflicted with the plague. It was to the citizens a dim, menacing outer world inhabited by English invaders, impost collectors, marauders, savage contending Scots barons as bad as any. They barred their gates against all manner of intruders and strangers, they kept themselves cosy in their quaint little houses, and so in some fashion or other the burgh life went its course through centuries till the stream of time floated down Haddington to the present day, always oddly enough with about the same number of inhabitants.

The literary history of the place has its own interest. Three names occur in distinct epochs: John Knox, John Brown, and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Each of these has a less or greater reputation, but not mainly that of letters. It is said of Bacon that he was great even as lawyer. Knox was great even as writer. He is vigorous, graphic, humorous, picturesque; you wonder he is not more read. Because perhaps his manner is antiquated and his themes unfortunate. His First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women is not for times when women strenuously assert themselves the equals of men. His Historie of the Reformation in Scotland is too brutally frank and prejudiced to please any party. "These things we write merrily," he says after detailing with unmistakable relish the murder of Cardinal Beaton. However impressed, you cannot formally approve. So much for the sixteenth century. Then in the eighteenth century we have the interesting figure of John Brown, him of the Self-Interpreting Bible. It is a library in a volume, containing history, chronology, geography, exposition and reflections. Once a great work in pious seceding circles in the north, it is long antiquated. The author had a varied life, was herd laddie, pedlar, volunteer in the ‘45, divine, and finally professor in his little sect. He had the true scholar’s love for learning and a touch of graphic force in: the way he put his matter, but Biblical criticism advances on lines undreamed of by him. He died in 1787 and was buried in the churchyard here, where you can still see his modest tomb. "Here also now rests Jane Welsh Carlyle, spouse of Thomas Carlyle, Chelsea, London." So runs her epitaph in the ruined choir, in the same house as it were with John, Duke of Lauderdale, the "bloody Lauderdale" of the "killing time." Mrs Carlyle is only known as the wife of her husband. Her letters are brilliant and remarkable. Perhaps he was the upas tree that destroyed, not the prop that supported her renown. Her picture of Haddington after years of absence, her walk in the early morning among its ways and its graves, her words with one or two of its oldest folk, are touched with rare merit. They are the best that exist concerning Haddington. This band of three is oddly made up. As writers its members were unfortunate, but there were more important things to them in life than letters. Shall we make our trio a quartet and include Samuel Smiles, who was born here in 1812, eleven years after Mrs Carlyle, and only died the other day? I fear not. He made more by the least of his books than his three townsfolk did by all of theirs, if they made anything at all, which is doubtful. But the rich count as little in the Republic of Letters as they do in the Kingdom of Heaven. Here you do not deem Self Help literature at all. Its style is pedestrian, its thought commonplace, its philosophy cheap and shallow, hence possibly its success at home and abroad.

I am not yet done with literary memories. About a mile to the north of the town, in a nook of the Garleton Hills, a fair spot with fair prospects over hill and dale, and plain and sea, and set amidst soft rounded gentle hills and clumps of beeches, and stretches of green, are the scanty ruins of Garleton Castle. It nestles under the shoulder of the hill, shielded against the wild west or the bitter east wind, a rare birthplace for a rare poet, old, yet his wit was too keen, his humour too merry, his note too tuneful for complete oblivion.

"Still is thy name in high account,
And still thy verse has charms,
Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount,
Lord Lyon King-at-arms!"

This is the first of another set of three. A mile or so to the east of Garleton lies Athelstaneford, and here from 1741 to 1746 Robert Blair was minister. His poem, The Grave, was widely read. It had the fortune to be illustrated by William Blake. The pleasing melancholy of its verse still gives it a certain vogue. One poet parson succeeded another, for John Home got the living after Blair’s death and held it for two years. He wrote Douglas in that eighteenth-century English of which Doctor Samuel Johnson and Mr Samuel Pope and a few others had the trick, though the most is but dust and ashes to our taste. Would you put Douglas with the most? His own day thought not. In 1756 the piece was produced in Edinburgh and received with wild enthusiasm. "Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?" bellowed, with bathos truly sublime, a voice from the gallery. In London the play went just as well, but the Presbytery would have none of it, and in high dudgeon Home threw up his kirk and departed south, where all sorts of nice things happened. The Lothian fields impressed him. "Amazing Bass," the "fertile land," and all the rest of it adorn his page. He saw them from his study windows on the few occasions when he attended to his pastoral duties. A choice bit beginning, "My name is Norval," was a favourite passage for recitation in Scots schools before the Education Act. Bums was as bathetic on the subject as the gallery god. "Here Douglas forms wild Shakespeare into plan." The piece is not unlike the worst of his own work. The judgment of old Edinburgh and old London is not ours. We prefer Shakespeare as he is, and Robin takes our hearts not by his efforts in Georgian English but by certain pieces written in the Scots dialect, not merely for the eighteenth century but for all after generations of men and women.


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