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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
Haddington in the War Times


IN the year 1803, when Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to invade Great Britain, and a landing on our shores by the French was expected, the burgh of Haddington had its share of the “pomp and circumstance of war.” In a short time it was made the station of a regular military encampment. Barracks were erected around the town to accommodate nearly two thousand troops. Old Haddington people to this day still speak of the “time of the barracks,” which were the golden days for shopkeepers, tradesmen, innkeepers, &c., the great circulation of money doing much good to the burgh. All classes in the county were animated with a strong burst of patriotism against the French, and almost all able-bodied men became soldiers, and enrolled themselves in fencible, volunteer, and yeomanry corps to resist the common enemy. Happily, “Bonny henned,” and under the kindness of Providence his threatened invasion never took place. Had he come with his legions to invade our land, he and his forces would have met a hot reception. An extract from a review of the life of Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, shows the spirit of the times:—“For my own part,” he says, “I wish the French would come and have done, for the people here keep up such a devil of a drilling that a sober-minded Christian can get no peace for them. Gentlemen and clowns are at it from morning till night. The butler drills the footman with a cudgel in the servants' hall, and the cook instructs the flea-catchers with a ladle in the kitchen ; nay, the very cows and hogs at the approach of a hostile cur draw up in battle array, in imitation of the two-legged bumpkins who are sporting the exercise under every hedge in Annandale!” Little boys caught up the enthusiasm of the time, and cried out, in knocking down a lot of nettles, “Down with the French.” East Lothian was as forward as other counties in taking energetic measures to resist the enemy, as the probable landing was expected somewhere between Dunbar and Musselburgh, perhaps about Jovie’s Neuck, or Aberlady Bay. A proclamation, dated July 7, 1803, was issued by the Earl of Haddington—then Lord Lieutenant of the county, Henry Davidson, Clerk, C.G.M.—in which the tenantry were enjoined to carry off the horses, corn, meal, and flour, and cattle of every description. The proclamation concludes as follows :—

“To animate the inhabitants of this county to a strict observance of these duties, it is proper to inform them, that the first principle laid down by Government, is an indemnification, from the community at large, to the individuals for the value of all stock which may be removed in consequence of an invasion, if not restored to the respective owners; as also, for whatever property may be destroyed by our arms to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy, provided the proprietor has come forward, and entered into such arrangements as are proposed to preserve it, either by personal attendance at the time, or otherwise in some mode of service at the moment of invasion. It must at the same time be clearly understood, that no indemnification whatever will be allowed for the property of any person who is of an age and in a state of health to aid the public service, and whose name does not appear in the roll of his parish, for some one of the duties mentioned in a plan transmitted by Government, and to be afterwards particularly communicated at the parochial meetings.”

Major-General Don, a gallant officer, who had seen active service in Egypt under Sir Ralph Abercromby, when the French were routed in the battle of Alexandria, was in command at Westbarns camp. He issued particular orders of instructions for the yeomanry cavalry and regiments of volunteers in the county of Haddington, in the event of the enemy landing at Dunbar or Musselburgh. Each man was ordered to carry sixty rounds of ball cartridge and two days’ provisions in his knapsack, a particular account of which is narrated in Miller’s “History of Haddington.” General Don added much to the spirit and courage of the officers and men by telling them that they must dip their legs in the salt water, and receive the enemy at the point of the bayonet, and not allow them to land as the French allowed the British to land in Egypt.

The Honourable Lieutenant-Colonel Hay Mackenzie of Newhall first commanded the Haddington regiment of Volunteer Infantry, and was succeeded by Lord Sinclair of Herdmanston in 1805. The Volunteers continued in force until 1808, when they were embodied as the Haddingtonshire Local Militia. The Haddington Volunteers consisted originally of five companies. There were three sets of barracks, viz., the cavalry, infantry, and artillery, capable of lodging over one thousand nine hundred men. The canteen was where Mr Hislop has now his coachworks. Mr James Roughead was barrack-master, and afterwards received from Government a similar appointment at Piershill. The daily drilling of nearly two thousand regular troops, besides the Volunteer corps, in the fields around Haddington, including the Haugh, Lennoxlove, Amisfield, and Clerkington Parks, and the field-days at Teuchit Muir and Gladsmuir, made a stir which Haddington may probably never see again. When the “Peace” came in 1814, the barracks, which were wooden huts, were sold and taken down. At the time of the peace, Jamie Newton, nicknamed the “Coder,” who kept a small shop at the Custom Stone, put up in his window the following notice:—“No more fighting, no more killing; beef a groat (per lb.), meal a shilling (per peck).”

Many curious characters flourished, and rare events took place in Haddington during the “time of the barracks.” The presence of many officers of regiments of the line, whose lodgings were at Goatfield, and in houses in the town, infused a higher tone to the society and aristocracy of Haddington than formerly, which, after their removal, took a long time to sober down. Public and private balls were frequently given, which were numerously attended by the belles of the town and country. A certain “scarlet fever” mightily raged at the time, but it is understood that few conquests were made. Talented and respectable play-actors frequently visited the town, and had their theatre in the barn betwixt the parish manses, in which the famous Stephen Kemble once performed.

A class of men, known as “foragers,” who provided the barracks with straw, corn, grass, rations, &c., had many a tough battle to fight with officious sergeants and quarter-masters. David Common and George Amos were the chief of the class, and although both clever and active men in their way, could hardly stand their ground, and many a dispute had to be settled in Baillie’s Hut, in the “Hole of the Wall,” or Tom Clark’s—all public-houses in the vicinity of the barracks. Fleshers and bakers often came in for a deal of abuse when the rations they supplied did not please discontented soldiers. On one occasion some soldiers tossed a baker of the town up in the air in a blanket, because his “tammies” had not pleased. The Haddington carters and carriers of that day enjoyed a monopoly in hires for cartage of rations, provisions, coal and candle, and munitions of war to the barracks. The old race of carters has now died out, and nothing like the characters of that day now exist. There were Huron, Clephen, Telford, and Tait, T.U., Tam Wilson, and Tam Wait, Keppies, Runcimans, Winton (“the Earl”), Richardsons, Brownhills, &c., all stalwart, “beanie” men. It is narrated of Tam Wait that he once took two carts of wool from Haddington to Kilmarnock, and brought back cheese for the merchants of Haddington within eight days—a remarkable feat in those days. They kept good horses, and made it a custom to give them young cut grass and an extra feed on the 4th of June (George III.’s birthday).

The old institution of newspaper clubs was in its glory in these exciting days, and many a backshop meeting took place on the arrival of the newspaper by Laidlaw’s coach from Edinburgh, to hear the news read. It is recorded of a well-known candlemaker of the town, when he was reading the account of one of Wellington’s victories in the Peninsula, that a girl came into his shop wanting a penny candle, and he told her to come back after, for he could not be fashed at present. The Edinburgh newspapers in these days were of small size, and cost sixpence—a striking contrast to the papers of the present day. Every year is thinning the ranks of the generation of “the time of the barracks,” and in a short time the Haddington military station will be only remembered as a thing that has been.


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