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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
West Port, Etc.


MANY anecdotes, traditionally handed down, and stories of persons and events which have happened in and around Haddington in former times, might be written, and be interesting in these days. Suppose one starts for a walk from the West Port of Haddington, and goes the length of St Laurence House, round by the “Bauk,” and home by the Pencaitland road, he will find, as he goes along, many things worth recording as relics of the past. The West Port toll-house stood for many years on the outside of the burgh, and just about where the monument stands to the memory of the late Robert Ferguson, Esq., of Raith, elected M.P. for the county in 1835. The town's customs were collected there, as they still are. A good story is told of Willie Baird, or “Bairdie” as he was commonly called, which happened there. Willie was a town-officer, drummer, and a great official in his day. At that time soldiers on the march frequently passed through the town. On one occasion some disturbance about payment of custom took place with the drivers of the baggage-carts, which called for Willie’s interference.

On being summoned by him to go before Provost Deans, to answer for their conduct, they refused, upon which Willie shut and locked the' toll-gate, and thus stopped the march. The officer in command threatened martial law against Willie for stopping the march of the king’s troops, but Willie defied his authority, and asserted that the Provost of Haddington’s authority was above his. Willie carried his point, and the drivers had to go before the Provost before they were allowed to proceed on the march. There was some “spunk” in old “Bairdie.”

On the south side of the road, above Ferguson’s monument, there stood for many years a good-sized thatched house, which was called the Riding-School. It has been taken down within these few years, and the ground levelled to form part of the monument pleasure ground. The ground was feued from Richard Miller, merchant in Haddington, afterwards Laird of Bran-dram, for the purpose of drilling cavalry recruits.

In the days of cock-fighting, now happily abolished, “mains” were often fought in the Riding-School, and patronised by Maule of Panmure, Hamilton of Dalziel, and many others of the same “kidney.” On one occasion, when a great battle betwixt rival cocks was to take place, a worthy deacon of the Shoemakers’ Incorporation had got into the pit without leave, and when he was about to be ejected, he cried out, “If I had only a bit stick I would not be so easily put out". “Lettie,” a well-known character, picked up his exclamation, and he was known by the name of the “Bit Stick” ever afterwards.

The Riding-School and Smart's Garden were long tenanted by old Smail, and afterwards by Robie Anderson and his spouse. The present Robie Anderson is still tenant of the garden and orchard. The Smails and Andersons, old Haddingtonians, have possessed the same for one hundred and fifty or two hundred years.

Smail’s Pond, with its abundant supply of pure water, refreshed the weary nags of the Haddington carters on their return from Edinburgh, &c. Its existence now is a matter of history, having been filled in by the Gas Company. Davie Johnston, an old Haddington carter, husband of the famous Nannie Cairncross, and whose nickname was “Credit,” used to say, on being told that his horse was thin and poor, “How can it be poor when it stands always at heck and manger, and gets its fill of Smail’s Pond.”

The strip of ground from the U.P. Manse to Bellevue was of old, and still is, known by the name of the “Gallows Green.” Criminals were hanged there long ago, and hence its name. When digging the foundations for Bellevue House in 1805, a large stone, with a square hole in it, was found, which was thought to have been the site of the “gallows tree.”

Witches of old were burned in the Gallows Green. Sir Walter Scott had no doubt these atrocious events in his eye when, in his novel of the Bride of Lammermoor, he describes an interview betwixt old Alice, Ravens-wood, Henry and Lucy Ashton, in the following words: —“They think,’ said Henry Ashton, who came up at that moment, and whispered into Ravenswood’s ear, 'that she is a witch that should have been burnt with them that suffered at Haddington.'

“‘What is that you say,’ said Alice, turning towards the boy, her sightless visage inflamed with passion; *that I am a witch, and ought to have suffered with the helpless old wretches who were murdered at Haddington?’”

In an old record of the burgh which the writer has seen, of date 1500 upwards, it is stated that a man convicted of stealing cloth at the “Giggen Hill” (near the Byres) was sentenced to stand at the Gallow Tree for an hour, and afterwards taken down to the bed of Tyne, and dipped until he was “clean deed.” The houses built on the Gallows Green pay a yearly feu to the town of Haddington, which yields a handsome amount of money.

On the banks, betwixt the Pegh-de-loan and St Laurence House, Sir John Cope's army encamped on the second night before the battle of Prestonpans.

The carters race, a great event in its day, was held yearly on the post road, on the Monday after Haddington Summer Fair-day, 15th July. The starting was from Smail’s Pond, and the horses ran to St Laurence House and back, and sometimes round the “Bauk.” “My Lord” and his two bailies, preceded by the town’s drum and bagpipes, with banners flying, were no small personages on that day. The procession, in its best days, probably numbered twenty to thirty riders, and the horses were decked out with flowers and ribbons. My lord dismounted at the Burgh Schools, and asked the masters to give the scholars the play to see the races. The worthy masters were no ways loath, it being alleged that they were as fond of seeing the races as the scholars. When leave was given —“Boys, you may go” —the scholars rushed out, with loud huzzas, like bees out of a step, to join the procession.

Little work was done on the race day by the tailors, shoemakers, and other craftsmen of the burgh; all hied off to the race, and regaled themselves, with ale and whisky in the tents on the “Lots.” The deacons of the crafts began on the race day to speak about who were to be the new deacons at the usual yearly election in September, and many an “offering drink” was given to begin the faction. “Lettie and a' them” were always present at the races. The race does not now exist, being numbered among the things that were, and the carters society is also extinct.

At St Laurence House a leper house once existed, which was erected by order of an Act of the old Scotch Parliament The Act narrates “that it was to be built at St Laurence House, bewast the town of Haddington.” The old tenement on the north side of the road is supposed to have been the “Leprous House."

On the Pencaitland or coal road is Dobson’s or “Dobie’s" Well. It is fed from the coal measures which crop out on the Letham lands. It is slightly chalybeate, cool, pure, and pleasant to drink.

A very pretty story is told in connection with Dobie’s Well. Andrew Shiells, born at Letham, was one of the gallant 426 regiment at the battle of Corunna in 1809. He was severely wounded, and lay for a long time on the field of battle before he was removed, sick with loss of blood, and faint for want of water. Old associations came to his recollection, and he cried out in his distress, “ Oh! I wad gie a* I hae for a drink of Dobie’s Well.** No doubt Andrew had often in his younger days drunk the pure and cool water of the well. The well was put into good order and improved a few years ago by Mr William Briggs, at his own expense. Captain Houston of Clerkington, the proprietor of it and the adjacent land, has farther improved it, and made it serviceable to the public, for which he deserves the thanks of the community. Andrew Shiells served also at the Cape of Good Hope, under Sir David Baird. In his latter days he plied the trade of mole-catcher, and on pension days, when somewhat mellow, he used to shoulder his digging spade, and tell his battle stories to wondering youngsters.

A good story is told of the builder of the house at Dobie’s Well, one Geordie Jack. The building was a contract job, and was very hurriedly and ill put up. The walls were finished on a Saturday night. On Sunday morning, Geordie went out to see how they were standing. He was seen plastering up the rents and cracks, and saying to himself, “A’ cracks and gags— a' cracks and gags. I wish they may stand until the job is paid for.” The house has now been taken down.

The "Double Dikes,” formerly a rugged, dirty water-run, supposed to have been connected with the old fortifications of Haddington, is now the good road betwixt King’s Meadows and M'Call’s park.

At the corner of M'Call’s Park there long stood a wooden house, one of the last remains of the Haddington barracks, erected in 1803 (when Buonaparte threatened invasion), and taken down in 1814. M'Call’s Park was got by the burgh, in Provost Martine’s time in 1813, in exchange for the “Lots,” which lay alongside the post road, from Governor Houston of Clerkington, acre for acre; a very good bargain it has turned out for the town.

In old George Kemp’s thrashing barn, at the West Port, now converted into dwelling-houses, a theatrical party more than once performed. The writer of this recollects the tragedy of “Douglas” being played in it, and a grand event it was for youngsters to witness. Mr and Mrs Stanley were two of the actors.

The Pegh-de-loan, on which the Gas-work was built in 1836, extended from the Pencaitland road to the post road. It was a narrow, swampy piece of ground, through which a burn ran, well suited for growing willows. The first part of the name has given rise to some discussion among antiquaries. It has been thought to be derived from the Pechts or Piets.


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