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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XXIX - North Berwick and the Shore of the Firth


NATURE has given you an admirable coign of vantage from which to view North Berwick, for just behind it is the Law, "with cone of green," in Delta’s hackneyed phrase. It is only 612 feet up, but then it rises straight from the sea. The strip of level ground on which the old town stands is scanty indeed. There it is as in Edinburgh and Heidelberg and Salzburg. If you saw them as left by Nature you would think each site exquisitely inappropriate, but stick down your houses and how admirable the effect! A road rises steeply from the High Street to the still steeper Law, and the climb though brief is fatiguing. It is just sufficiently off the perpendicular to remove the idea of danger. At the top are some ruins. Be not deceived by their weather-beaten aspect, they only date from the great French wars. Here dwelt the men who kept watch and ward night and day, so that if Napoleon had in fact landed at Aberlady Bay—he had marked it as a possible spot—the Beacon Fire had on the instant flared through the Lothians and thence over all Britain. Here too lie the jaws of a whale, making a gateway where there is no road, and not letting you in or out of anywhere! You ask the why and the wherefore of those superfluous bones. In earlier days whales were not rare on that coast. They still strand thereon at irregular intervals, and it was the fashion to use their jaws for gate-posts. You look right down on North Berwick. There is the old kernel of the town. In it the High Street running east and west, and at right angles on the east Quality Street, with plane trees which give a pleasant shade in the few torrid days of the northern summer, and the old harbour. Then all about along the main road east and west, down by the shore, and up the hillside, are piles of villas, all built after the fashion of suburban Edinburgh, so that the place is fitly named Edinburgh-super-Mare. Every now and again is a huge hotel. Not often can you so clearly distinguish the old from the new and grasp so clearly how the old was featured. Till 1848 North Berwick had no railway. A stage-coach ran to Edinburgh once a day. The parish-minister in the well-known New Statistical Account lauds it as conducted with great propriety. He goes on to lament the thirteen public-houses, one to every fifty of the population. The average consumption of whisky he computes at five gallons per head. Possibly tippling was the only recreation of the populace, hard put to it to fleet the time through the unrelieved dreadness of the winter months. To-day it is an exclusive watering-place. Let the cheap tripper take note; it is no place for him. There are no bands, no promenade jetty, no trains on Sundays, nay, the very butcher and the baker, if they do not "repulse him from their door," will receive him without enthusiasm and without popular prices.

The extant antiquities of North Berwick are scanty. They are, in fact, little more than two heaps of stone, one on a field by the station, the other by the harbour. The first was a Cistercian nunnery. The inmates had at any rate a fair view of the world they had renounced, and they took an annual outing, or pious picnic, to the near island of Fidra, for devotional purposes, doubtless, but looked forward to as the one excitement in their humdrum year. The stones by the harbour represent the former church, where were enacted the unholy pranks of the North Berwick witches, temp. 1590. Duly captured and duly tortured they made the usual astounding confessions. "On All Hallow even, to the number of two hundred, they went to sea, each one on a riddle or cive, and went into the same, very substantially, with flagons of wine, making merrie and drinking by the way in the same riddles or cives." They disembarked opposite "the kirk of North Berwick in Lowthian." Their leader was a servant lass, one Gellie Duncan, who under the pilliewinks (screw for fingers) developed strange narrative powers. She told how she led the band, playing on a Jews’ harp with infernal skill, and chanting a mad rigmarole. The ceremonies in the desecrated kirk were grotesque beyond description. All Scotland shuddered in delicious horror. None more than sapient James VI., for who so expert a witch-finder? He applied himself diligently to the matter, and his profound observations thereon were much admired in Court circles. As for Gellie Duncan and her companions, they were hustled out of the world with all possible speed. But where were the rest of the two hundred? Every old woman in the ‘Lothians was half dead with fright lest she also should be worrit at the stake and burnt like other innocents. Yes. Satan was at work in the land but all on the side of the accusers. Those old Scots were perfect fiends upon occasion.

The one word that is the key of North Berwick’s present day prosperity is golf. The links here are as famous as those at St Andrews. The holes and bunkers therein are classic, and each has its individual name, known throughout the universal world of sport. Every other man or woman you meet carries a club. Listen to scraps of talk at hotel or restaurant, or on the beach, and you catch endless chatter about astounding strokes made or marred, and the merits of this or that bit of green, and this or that man’s play, and so forth. Golf is not a poor man’s game; it is the sport of statesmen and was that of Kings. The old Stuarts dearly loved a turn on the green. It is the Royal game, the votary whereof is clad in purple or some such raiment that shines quite as gorgeous. Also it lets fall crumbs for the needy. All the poor boys, or what would elsewhere be poor boys, are caddies. It is the game first and last, everywhere and always, so that unless you are interested therein, what do you in North Berwick? That is the question the player would like to ask, especially if you rashly take to strolling on the links. Here you are between the golfer and the deep sea. You may have a legal right but not (it is held) a moral one. The balls fly about as in a battle, and no genuine sportsman will divert his stroke because your shins or head happen to be in the way. Stick to your perch on the Law, there only is safety, and the prospect is superb. The islands solicit your particular attention. First and foremost is the Bass, the most noted, yet but one of many. A fair way out in the North Sea is the May, but quite at hand are mighty rocks, quaint in shape, quaint in name: Craigleith, the Lamb, or "Lambie’s isle," as Scott has it, Fidra and Eyebroughty, and some of these have antiquities and traditions of note and interest.

You descend the hill, pick your way westward through the maze of villas, and are on the highroad once more. Presently you come plump into Dirleton, built round a large green. Quite a model village, an English place lifted bodily into Scotland, as it were. It has been spoken of in this fashion. It was offered as a bribe to Logan of Restalrig by the Gowrie conspirators, anxious for his support. The classic phrase about the place is his laud of it as the pleasantest dwelling in Scotland. There are the crumbling ruins of a castle which has its own record of sieges by the "Auld Enemy," and again in the Cromwellian period, and round about the ruin is an exquisitely fair garden. Yet I should not put it before Gifford or Tyninghame, to name but these. It is set on a frequented highway and thus draws attention. A famous Scots lawyer of the Restoration, Sir John Nisbet to wit, was possibly of Logan’s opinions. He got it at any rate. His descendants still hold it, and have embellished their property, now an old possession. As yet it is evident they are not "feuing" their estate. It is worth noting that when proprietors of land in Scotland deliver it to the builder, speculative or otherwise, they do not follow English methods. The land is chopped up into small parcels in both cases, and an annual payment is exacted, but in England the landowner is still the landlord, and when the lease of ninety-nine years or what not runs out he, or rather his representatives, have house and land entirely as their own. In Scotland the landowner becomes the superior and the tenant his vassal, but the yearly payment is perpetual, and as long as the actual holder pays he cannot be disturbed. The words superior and the like are curious terms of the old Scots system of conveyancing; it was a relic on paper of the Scots feudal system, and was practically intact within the memory of living lawyers. It was cumbersome, but historically very interesting. The legislation of the last fifty years has made sad havoc of its ponderosities. I may be excused this disquisition since we are passing over ground the practice of the law gave to two lawyers, Dalrymple of North Berwick and Nisbet of Dirleton. The latter took his title as Lord of Session from the place. You remember his town house yet standing in the Canongate. His Magnum opus, Dirleton’s Doubts ("better than other men’s certainties," said Lord Mansfield) lies dusty and neglected on the upper shelf of many an old law library. According to a saying of Lord Bacon’s, the River of Time lets weighty matters sink and brings down trifles. Near seventy years ago this couplet was current in Dirleton parish:

"For a’ that fell at Flodden Field
Rowny Hood o’ the Hul cam hame."

Who Rowny was no tradition tells, nor whether this was said of him in praise or blame. The parish minister preserves it in the New Statistical Account published in 1845. When a thing of this sort gets into print—and what now does not get into print?—it has a new and changed life. In tradition there comes a time when the oldest inhabitant fails to repeat and the legend vanishes. Once printed it is known at least to the reader, though the common folk of the countryside never heard the words for which they are the authority.

You presently come on the old toll-house. Such places are scattered over the country, and like the "ducat" we saw at Tantallon are emblems of an extinct state of things, for of course all the ways are free. The road to the left leads up to the county town. I should have noted that the road up to North Berwick Law also takes you in the same direction; and again at Aberlady, at which we shall presently arrive, there is another. The ground rises from the sea up to the range of the Garleton hills and then sinks into the valley of the Tyne, wherein Haddington itself is situate. All those roads lead through the quiet, rural part of the county. The best is the way from North Berwick. It is the least encumbered with traffic; it passes through delicious woods and fields with a continual rise and fall, and it is dignified, at a little place called Kingston, by the picturesque ruin of Fenton Tower, as to which history and tradition are silent, and not even romance has whispered a legend!

In the Garleton Hills

At Gullane we are still in Dirleton. Gullane gave its name to the parish till near three hundred years ago, when the kirk was transferred to Dirleton and the name followed. The last incumbent is said to have been expelled by James VI. because he was an inveterate smoker. We all know the British Solomon hated tobacco. We can all hope that the pipe remained a sufficient consolation to the banished parson. The church was restored the other day. If there is a saint who takes golf in hand he ought to be patron here. Golf has made Gullane even more than it has made North Berwick. Many years ago I played my last game on beautiful Luffness Links. Then there was a famous training-stable for race-horses, and the place was most known from that. It was scarce a village at all, merely a few houses scattered on the hillside. There was one little inn called the Golf Tavern. The host was something of an antiquarian and, what is called in the north, "a character," and amused us by his talk. The Gullane of those days had charms that have not survived. The place has grown like an American city, so that villas, hotels, shops stretch over the fields in boundless profusion. The highway leads right through the links. They are perfection. They are of wide extent, by the sea and yet not too close, provided by Nature with bunkers and so forth in reasonable plenty, right in front of the houses and in view of the fields. Then comes Luffness proper, the village of Aberlady, and Gosford. At Ferney Point, the western limit of Gosford Bay, there is again a fine extent of turf, springy under foot and fragrant with aromatic herbs. Beyond is quaintly named Bogle Hill, with its ruined cottages, the abode, as I remember, not of bogies but cows! Some tradition, you fancy, ought to linger round a place called Bogle Hill, but the very ghosts are extinct. Legends of the spirit world do not flourish in modem Lothian. The folk are educated, intelligent and commonplace. They regard tales of bogies and such like with cynical disfavour.

A good mile inland a few houses on the roadside make up the uninteresting village of Longniddry, yet it has memories of Wishart and Knox. Some stones in a field near are called Knox’s pulpit. Here it is averred the reformer preached his first sermon. A little way to the east is a ruined tower like unto Fenton Tower, known locally as the Red House, once the residence of some old-time laird. It is a conspicuous object from the railway, and touched with a sunlit effect it glows a burning crimson and is singularly impressive. Westward you come into the Seton country. There is Seton Mains, and Seton Mill, and Port Seton, and Seton Castle, and Seton Chapel, but the famous Earls of Winton that flourished there for centuries are all gone, and Seton Castle is a puny heir to the glories of splendid Seton Palace. Seton chapel has been restored by the Earl of Wemyss as a burial-place for his own family, and the glittering marble of its modern tombs glares into nothingness those faded tablets on the wall, with their quaint Latin phrases setting forth the virtues and achievements of forgotten members of the old family. One of the Queen’s Maries was a Seton, and the family were her devoted adherents and friends, as they were in after days of her son. It was proper, nay inevitable, they should take the Jacobite side in the rising of 1715, but for that they were driven forth, and they never returned. In 1745 Prince Charles, when on a visit at Grange, was presented with a rose by a lady of this ancient house. He gave in return the thistle from his cap, with a very pretty speech about the old kindness of the Stuarts and the Setons. The fated thistle is still preserved. Port Seton to-day is but a suburb of Cockenzie, or even of Edinburgh. The road rings under the tramway, coal-pits and factories smoke and screech on either side. The Setons come not again. You leave these shores of old romance behind and enter on the most commonplace and ugly league in all Lothian! But it takes you towards Edinburgh!


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