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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
Custom Stone, Church Street, Sands, Etc.


IT is singular perhaps to notice, that in towns, burghs, and populous places, there are particular places in the streets, where people are wont to congregate at “orra” times to “crack,” and hear the news. Such was, and still is, the case at the West Port of Haddington, where four roads meet, and also at the Custom Stone, where four streets diverge.

The corner of the Custom Stone, at John Hume’s tenement, and just where the tablet recording the Haddington flood of 4th October 1775 is placed, has ever been a favourite meeting place of idlers, both on “Sundays and Saturdays.” The pavement there is narrow, and half a dozen men or lads block up the way, much to the annoyance of ladies and other passengers.

A story is told of the late Dr Lorimer, for nearly sixty years the esteemed minister of the first charge of the parish of Haddington.

In coming home one fine summer Sunday night, he came on a number of young men, at the corner, talking loud, and disputing. He stood a minute, and then in a very serious manner, said to them. “Young men, is this the way you spend your Sabbath evenings?” His well-timed reprimand made them quickly disperse, and afterwards, whenever they happened to see the Doctor approach, they made off.

Opposite the Custom Stone, and in old St John’s Street, there stood the chapel of St Ann’s, a monastic establishment. In 1804, the Town Council bought the ruins (which were long a domicile for beggars and tinkers) from Thomas Shanks, wheelwright, and Widow Borthwick for £310 for the purpose of widening the street. In 1813, the Town Council sold the whole area to Mr James M'Watt, builder, who built the present substantial tenement out of the materials. Tom Shanks, in his day, was a well-known character. He was a famous maker of spinning-wheels and reels. They were well known to industridus town and country spinners both far and wide, and went by the name of “Tam Shanks.” His son, “Young Tam,” was a rebellious and turbulent character, and often in mischief. On one occasion, he quarrelled with “Old Tam,” struck and abused him. In consequence, he was brought before Provost Roughead, to answer for his bad conduct. Old Tam declared that he threatened to make a “Lewie” of him (viz., to cut off his head) which he denied with an oath. He was sent to prison for some time, and bound over to keep the peace. It is said he “listed” and was killed in battle, at the Cape of Good Hope, when Sir David Baird took that country from the Dutch in 1806.

In a part of old St Ann’s, George Henderson, horse-shoer and smith, had his smithy. He was a well-known town character, and on account of his talkative powers, went by the name of the “Parrot.” He was a popular man, and his smithy was frequented by loungers, who discussed the affairs of the town, county, or nation; no doubt not a little scandal was at times promulgated from the “Parrot” smithy. He kept a slate to mark down his jobs, and mischievous boys and lads used to rub it over with candle grease to make George angry when the pencil would not mark.

In this time, a wide gutter was in existence to carry down the water from the High Street, into an open drain, into which the Loth and Myles burns ran down to Tyne.

George was fond of a “glass,” and on many occasions got well filled up with the “Friday’s choppin.” One wet night, when the gutter was more than ordinarily full of water, in coming home with the “Dyer,” he was walked up and down the gutter several times, when he exclaimed, “I have often crossed ye, but ye was never so broad as ye are the night.” The Dyer and his cronies delighted in such tricks.

The following rhyme has been handed down:—

Dumpling Tam o’ the dooket,
And Strap of the Custom Stone;
Blinking Jock o’ the Nor-East Port,
The drouthie “Parrot" of St Ann’s;
They ga’ed a’ todlin hame.

The wide gutter and open drains were improved and covered over in 1813, by act of Council, to the great satisfaction of the inhabitants. Adam and George Jack, extensive masons, lived in Church Street: they had many large jobs in their day. They built and owned Jack’s Land, which name still exists. Tyne Close, a very ancient place of the burgh, leads to Tyneside. There was long ago a tannery and skinnery at its termination, where Mr George Richardson has now his malting premises. The Skinner’s Knowe is still known as the place where sheep-skins were washed, but it is now much altered, the river having at one time run close to the chapel garden wall. Being immediately behind the ancient Dominican Convent, on the site of which the Episcopal Chapel and Parsonage are now built, Tyne Close would, no doubt, be a place of considerable importance in former days.

In Tyne Close there once lived an old lady of the name of Miss Annie Howden. She was connected with old East Lothian families. She was very eccentric, and had strange notions. She believed that old people when they died, after a certain period of probation in paradise, were returned again to this world as infants, and that there was a curious mill in heaven, into which old people were put, at one end dead, and came out at the other end resuscitated and quite young. She harped on the same strain, over and over again, to all her acquaintances and visitors. She left legacies of china and other plates, tea sets, chairs, tables, horn spoons, linen, and napery, blankets, &c., to numerous friends and acquaintances.

John Fraed, a well-known old dragoon veteran and pensioner, also lived in Tyne Close. He had lost a leg in battle, but long went about quite actively, and diverted youngsters with stories of battles he had been engaged in. He died at a very old age.

It was the custom long ago for itinerating preachers to travel the country, and make a livelihood by preaching eccentric sermons in lofts, bams, and the open air.

A somewhat popular one, called Weston, used frequently to visit Haddington, and hold his meetings, which were numerously attended, in a loft in Tyne Close. On one occasion, when a number of people were coming into the loft, and making a noise, he suddenly stopped in his prayer, and said, “My friends, I would rather like to hear the rattle of your penny pieces in my plate than the noise of your cuddie heels on the floor.” The same night he preached on humility, and said, in his illustration of it, “What, my friends, is the first point in a Christian’s character? Humility. What is the second point? Humility. What is the third point? Humility. So I tell you, my friends, that I am a humble, modest man, for I never ask you to put more than a copper penny, or perhaps a silver saxpence at a time into my plate, and oh! be sure and do not put in bad siller, which is both a crime and a sin.” The loft and tenement were taken down and rebuilt by Mr Robert Richardson.

The present Episcopal Chapel was built in 1770; the parsonage in 1820. The first Episcopal congregation in Haddington is of old date. Mr John Gray, the founder of the Haddington Library, was probably the first preacher in the old meeting-house in Poldrate. Mr John Wilson was minister in the same place in 1714. Many of the ministers were eminent men, such as Parson Buchannan, who was placed in 1762; John Wilton in 1795 ; William Terrot in 1799 > Miles Jackson in 1806; Charles H. Terrot, afterwards Bishop of Edinburgh, in 1814; Thomas Scott, 1817; James Traill, 1819. In 1843 the chapel was renovated at a cost of 6800.

Elm House was built by John Henderson, Esq., of Leaston, in 1785, on part of the site of the old monastery.

He planted the elm trees in front of it, hence its name. Mr Cockburn, a Russian merchant, lived long in it. It is said that the Bowling Green was formed about the same time. It has thus been an old establishment in the burgh. The rows of fine old lime trees leading to the church were planted over 150 years ago, and are a great ornament to the locality.

The area of ground called the “ Sands ” is a place of great historical interest, being the locality where a battle was fought during the siege of Haddington in 1548 betwixt the English and French, the latter commanded by General D’Esse, who came to assist the Scots. The French came from Edinburgh and at night attacked the English, who were encamped in and around the churchyard. The English soldiers were all asleep except the watch, which was small. The shout arose, “Bowes and Bills, at Bowes and Bills,” which was a cry significative of great danger and extreme defence. Two great pieces of ordnance were fired off by the English, the bullets of which rebounded from the walls of the church to the wall of St Catherine’s Chapel in Lady Katie’s Garden. St Catherine’s Chapel is supposed to have stood on the piece of ground opposite the church, now known as Lady Katie’s Garden. Knox in his History is particular in mentioning the "Sands,” a name which is retained to this day, and hence may be well founded an additional argument, that Knox, knowing the locality so well, was born in the Gifford Gate, which is directly opposite the Sands and Lady Katie’s Garden. To this day there are marks on. the north side of the transept of the old church, which tradition has handed down as having been made by the bullets fired on the occasion of the attack by the French. A large bullet of fourteen pound weight was found lately in Sidegate Street, while the drains for the sewerage were being cut. The writer has also seen several bullets in old Justice Wilkie’s premises,, which were said to have been dug up in his garden adjoining the churchyard. These bullets most likely had been fired at the time of the attack. It is recorded that there fell more than a hundred of the French by these two shots alone.

The siege of Haddington by the French continued from first to last at least over four months. There were frequent skirmishes betwixt the opposing forces. The Sands, churchyard, and banks of the Tyne were occupied by the English, under the command of Sir John Wilford, and seem to have been the principal localities of the fights. It is said upwards of 300 of the English were killed, and as many of the French. The French finally retired to Edinburgh, and soon afterwards left the country. Modern Haddingtonians can hardly realise the fact that the “ Battle of the Sands ” forms a very important part of the history of Scotland, when Scotchmen were leagued with Frenchmen to fight against the English invaders. When one walks up the avenue to the churchyard, he may reflect that it was here and around that hundreds of opposing combatants were killed, and their bones and dust may still exist in the churchyard, showing that there was at that time extreme “violence in the land.” The Sands and the avenue up to the church gate have been, from time immemorial, the shinty-playing ground for the scholars of the burgh schools. Many a tough game has been played there, and many hard knocks and sore shins had to be endured before the “nuit” was “doulled.” An old man of the name of Adam Elder and his wife Nannie lived long in the “doo-cot.” He was beadle for many years to Dr Lorimer. Nannie was the custodier of the scholars’ shinties to the number perhaps of twenty at a time.

In the open space before Swinton’s House (now Mr Wishart’s), the Ball Alley was first erected. It was afterwards removed to its present place at the Sands. It was originally a gift to the scholars by Lieutenant Forrest, a native of Haddington, who served long in India.

The Nungate Bridge, now an old veteran, was no doubt built about the same time as the Collegiate Church. The roadway up to it seems originally to have turned to the south and up to the church, and not towards the town, as it is at present. There is still sufficient evidence in the building to show that the approach had been altered, as more convenient for the town. Marion Tudhope’s house, which was taken down for the erection of the present baths and washing-houses, was built close to the side of the bridge, and where the old roadway was.


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