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Sketches of Tranent in the Olden Times
Chapter I. General Review

TRANENT is a small town or village in East Lothian, with a population in the present year (1881) of 2,233. is built on a gentle slope, about 300 feet above the level of the sea, and about a mile and a quarter from the estuary of the Forth. It is described in the Gazetteers as being a place of no importance, and ‘ one of the poorest looking towns in the three Lothians, though in recent times it has shown some signs of renovation. It consists of two streets of commonplace houses and two or three squalid lanes.

Yet in this insignificant theatre, as will be seen in the following pages, some extraordinary tragedies were performed in the olden time, at which all Scotland gazed with breathless and horrified interest. Tranent can boast of a venerable antiquity. The name which was formerly spelt Travernent, is said by Chalmers to be a Cambro-British word, a relic of the language of the great tribe of the British Ottadini—a Celtic tribe that inhabited the district in the second century. An urn filled with human ashes, which was lately discovered in the vicinity, proves that the place was peopled in Pagan times. A few quaint old houses still remain, and carry the mind back to a more recent, although still ancient date. It is lamentable that the old church was demolished at the end of the last century. It is said to have been of great antiquity, as is still evident from the portions that exist incorporated into the hideous barn, where the present Parish Minister swings his sacerdotal flail and thrashes out the straw of the Gospel once a week. It was built in the form of a cross with a square tower, supported on pillars and arches in the centre. The roof was vaulted and covered with stone. The writer of the first statistical account of the Parish says: The windows are few and ill constructed, and in a dark and gloomy day serve only to make darkness visible. Either the church has originally been sunk below the surface of the ground, or the surrounding burying ground has been much heightened by the immense number of bodies interred in it, for the access to the pulpit is by a descent of four steps from the churchyard.’ Nothing now remains of the ancient church excepting the north wall with two buttresses, west gable, and the north end of the transept. The absence of mouldings or other ornamention in the pointed west window, which is still visible, although built up, and the rounded arches cut in the lintel of the transept window, seem to show that the building was of an older date than the reign of David the 1st. The masonry is good, and the nicely squared stones with which the ancient church was constructed have been utilized by the tasteless Goths who erected the new.

In all probability the most ancient relic in Tranent, and one that gives the place a peculiar character is the coal waste. Other towns are built upon the solid earth; but Tranent stands upon a crust a few feet, say eighteen on an average, below the foundation of the houses. There is a vast and gloomy cavern called the waste—a seam from which the coal had been excavated by Scotch slaves. So thin is the sandstone crust that those who possess domiciles where it is twenty-four feet in thickness chuckle over the security they enjoy above their neighbours. In some of the houses an entrance might be had to the waste by lifting up the hearthstone. Cattle have been known to drop through the pasture in the neighbourhood into the waste, and the story goes that a man who was smoking his pipe at his own door suddenly went down, doorstep and all, but was fortunately rescued.2 The waste extends under the churchyard and is used as a burial vault by at least one family. There is a tradition that a woman—a coal-bearer— was lost in the waste to the west of the town for over fourteen days, during which time she had nothing to eat but the candles which at that period were used in the pits instead of lamps. She had, however, an abundant supply of water, which no doubt helped to sustain life. People outside were much alarmed at her absence, and drums were beat and bagpipes played in the labyrinth in the hope that she might catch the sound and find the way out. She was at last found sitting on her coal-creel or basket. At a later date a party became bewildered in the waste, and only discovered their situation when they heard psalm-singing in the church above their heads.

In 1566 Tranent had the honour of a visit from royalty.

On the 10th of February in that year, Darnley was blown up with gunpowder a few minutes after his affectionate wife had left his sick room, where she had been playing the part of a tender nurse for some eight or ten days. She was obliged to leave him in a hurry to attend the wedding of one of her maids. She was suspected of being an accomplice in the murder; and it did not escape attention that two weeks after her husband’s death, whilst in the country and in the city all were shocked at the late occurrences, and felt them as a stain on their national character, the Court of Seton was occupied in gay amusements. Mary and Bothwell would shoot at the butts against Huntley and Seton, and on one occasion after winning the match, they forced these lords to pay the forfeit in the shape of a dinner at Tranent.

The town was famous in the olden time not only for its coals, but for its butcher meat. ‘Send saut to Dysart and puddings to Tranent' was a proverb. The wreck of an ancient building has been swept away within the memory of man. Probably it was originally used for purposes of war, but tradition says it was latterly occupied as an inn, and that butchers had booths around it. It bore the name of the Pudding Tower. Another proverb testifies not only to the abundance of animal food in Tranent, but also to the scarcity of water. ‘I can wash tripe with as little water as any woman in Tranent,’ was the quaint saying of those who wanted an excuse for declining to do anything with insufficient means. In 1791 a butcher market was held in Tranent twice a week, from which Prestonpans, Ormiston, and the adjacent country were principally supplied. About 250 oxen, 70 calves, and 1350 sheep and lambs were annually slaughtered.

But at that period, as at present, there was a great want of water. There was only one spring, but an affluent one, to supply the whole town, the water from which was conducted to the head of Tranent in wooden pipes, and thence carried in barrels upon carts to the houses of the more fastidious inhabitants. The waste water from the wooden pipe ran in an open ditch or gutter through the town, and barrels were sunk in the ground to catch a supply as it passed; but as people were in the habit of tossing their filth into the current, it soon became polluted and unfit for use. This system was superseded by a service of lead, and subsequently of cast-iron pipes, running from the fountain head to the foot of the town, the barrels being replaced by substantial stone wells. In this way, and until about fifty years ago, Tranent continued to be served with a perennial supply of the purest water, but in 1830 a pit-shaft was sunk by Messrs. Cadell in the very centre of the sandbed, where the spring was situated, and the water gradually found its way down the shaft to the pit, and thence was discharged by the day-level to the sea, leaving Tranent destitute. Crowds of poorly-clad creatures might then be seen collected around the wells, eagerly contending by day and by night for the precious drops that still came to them from the fast-failing spring, whilst women and children scoured the country in search of water, which they retailed at enormous prices. No wonder that Asiatic cholera, which paid Scotland a visit at this period, should have made fearful havoc in Tranent. The coal-proprietors and the lessees, who, to facilitate their own labours, had drained away the water from the town, expressed their sympathy with the inhabitants, but did nothing to alleviate the misery they had occasioned. But a few of the feuars, under the leadership of Mr. David Aitken, stepped forward to vindicate the rights of the community.' These public-spirited individuals commenced proceedings before the Court of Session against Messrs. Cadell, the proprietors, to compel them to restore the abstracted water to its original channel. They engaged an Agent, took the opinion of Counsel, had witnesses precognosced, and the case ready for decision, when at the eleventh hour the Coal Company offered to ‘tub’ or line the faulty pit with iron plates at their own expense, which work was done and succeeded. The water returned. In 1837 a second shaft was sunk in the c ‘sandbed’ with the same result, although in a less degree, when the village Hampden and the dauntless feuars again stepped to the front, and forced the Coal Company after a slight show of resistance to ‘tub’ the new pit also. For thirty years afterwards Tranent seems to have been blessed with an abundant supply of water; but about the year 1867 the beneficent spring began to exhibit signs of exhaustion, and the wells were again besieged by clamorous crowds. But the cause of the dearth was not so certain this time, for not only was it known that one of the Tranent Company’s pits, viz. the ‘Smithy Pit ’ was discharging large quantities of sandbed water into the day-level; but a shaft which had been recently sunk on the neighbouring estate of Elphinston was suspected of having tapped the sandbed. Besides the old generation of feuars had passed away, and a recent decision of the House of Lords, which seemed to support the right of the proprietors of mineral fields to carry on their operations whether these led to the diversions of streams or not, made the Tranent people a little doubtful of their right, and accordingly the Police Commissioners opened negotiations with the new superior, and after many delays, during which the inhabitants suffered grievous hardships, a compromise was arrived at. The inhabitants were allowed to pump what water they required from the ‘Smithy Pit,’ a false bottom having been put into it at a depth of about seventy feet from the top, so as to retain the water from the ‘sandbed.’ But even this plan is not considered satisfactory, and a project is at present on foot for bringing a supply at an estimated cost of from £5000 to £6000 from Crichton, where coal-owners cease from troubling.

The laws which prohibit companies and individuals, whilst engaged in the pursuit of their private interests, from doing anything detrimental to the public seem to be partial and narrow, and to make superficial distinctions where there are no essential differences. To divert a stream which flows on the surface, or to pollute its waters so that trout cannot live in them is contrary to law, but to deprive a whole community of water to the danger of health and of life, or to compel them to bring it from a great distance at great expense is perfectly legal if the damage be done by subterranean operations. A law permitting thieves to pick the pockets of your breeches, but not of your waistcoat, would not be more preposterous.

But although water was scarce in Tranent in the olden time whisky was abundant. At the end of last century between 3000 and 4000 gallons were on a moderate computation annually retailed in the parish, besides what was commissioned by private families from the stills. Beer was also plentiful, and it is greatly to be regretted that this wholesome and refreshing beverage should have gone comparatively out of fashion and given place to tea, which is seldom to be had in an unadulterated condition, and at the best, is injurious to the nervous system and digestive organs, and ruinous to the pockets of poor people. It is to be hoped that the Government will reverse their recent fiscal policy—will remove all restrictions from brewing and place a heavy duty on tea. It would be well too (only it might savour of tyranny) if well-meaning but mistaken gentlemen could be prevented from opening tea and coffee shops in our cities, and thereby of spreading dyspepsia amongst the working classes.

Brew-houses on a humble scale were numerous in Tranent in the olden time. Some of them belonged to women. In the churchyard a mouldering tomb-stone informs us that one David Mather, who closed his useful life in 1687, was a ‘Quaigh-maker,’ and that his son John, who died in 1756, followed the same trade. The quaigh used in Tranent at that period was probably not the little wooden cup which now bears that name, and which was used in the Highlands for drinking whisky, but the small tub, built with hoops and staves, also called a bicker or cogue, out of which beer was and still is quaffed in the Lowlands. Tradition says that a leglen or milking pail of excellent small beer could be bought in Tranent for twopence halfpenny. The small beer drunk at that period and long afterwards was not the dead, bodyless, cask-washings, that now usurp the name; but a brisk, throat-cutting, nose-twisting, and exhilarating liquor, which every lover of his country would like to see come into fashion again.

Cakes and ale, as one can even learn from the tomb-stones, were abundant in Tranent in the olden time. The heavy wheels of life were moreover occasionally greased with a holiday. The third Thursday of June was a festival which old and young dreamt of for months before it came. All the ploughmen in the district, with their horses well curried and gaily decorated, rode through the streets in procession, with a lord elected for the nonce at their head, and a race terminated the amusement of the day. Showmen, mountebanks, vendors of sweeties and gingerbread, ballad-singers, and fiddlers, etc., flocked from all quarters to swell the jovial throng. This festival (a shadow of which survives in the Tranent Games) was called the ‘Carters’ Play.’

Cock-fighting was a favourite sport in the dull winter days. A main was fought in the school-room every year under the patronage of the school-master, who claimed all the run-away cocks or ‘fugies’ as his perquisite, and who also received half a guinea or half a crown from the owner of the victorious cock, according to the circumstances of the boy’s father. On Fastern’s e’en and Yule a main was fought, and tradition says that the notorious Deacon Brodie used to come with his birds to enjoy the pastime. Brodie’s passion for cock-fighting, and his curiosity to learn the result of a main in Edinburgh, and how his favourite black cock fought, was the means of his being traced to Amsterdam, where he was apprehended, brought to Edinburgh, tried for robbing the Excise Office, convicted and executed in 1788. He himself died game.

Tranent, no doubt from the dearth of water and abundance of filth, was not a healthy place in the olden time. During the latter half of the last century, about one-fourth of the deaths were those of infants under one year, great numbers of whom were cut off by small pox and hooping cough. The town was, as already mentioned, severely scourged by Asiatic cholera in 1832. The old sexton (now superannuated) used to speak with much unction of the prosperous times when he entered the trade, but his successors need not despond. All who know the present sanitary condition of the town will agree that if cholera again visits Scotland it will not forget Tranent.

Of the original proprietors of Tranent we know nothing, but Robert de Quincy acquired the manor from William the Lion, who made him justiciary. He was succeeded by Seyer de Quincy, the Earl of Winton, who died amidst the Holy War in 1219. It then passed to his son Roger de Quincy. It was forfeited by the adherence of its owners to Edward the 2d, and Robert Bruce conferred it on Alexander de Setoun. The Seton family was ennobled by James 1st, and Robert, the eighth Lord (one of James the Sixth’s favourites), was created Earl of Winton in 1600.5 Tranent remained in possession of the Setons until it was forfeited in 1715. It was bought by the York’s Building Company, who introduced many improvements in mining, and amongst others built a harbour at Cockenzie, and in 1722 made a tramway from it to the pits, a distance of about two miles. This railway, said to be the oldest in the world, was laid with wooden rails, which were replaced by Mr. Cadell in 1816 with iron ones. The York’s Building Company became bankrupt in 1779, and Tranent was purchased by the Messrs. Cadell, who had been previously taxmen. It now belongs to Mr. Poison.

Tranent, according to Chalmers, has been inhabited in succession by Cambro-Britons (under Roman rule for some centuries), and by Saxons, Piets, and Scots. For some years a large immigration of Celts from Erin has been going on, for nature dislikes a pure race, and in many ways, often unnoticed by the historian, introduces a cross.

A few years ago Tranent had no head—no magistrates— no police. Pigs wandered at their own sweet will through the muddy streets, or basked in the sun on the pavement.

Petty offenders where often tried before Judge Lynch and ducked in the pond. From time immemorial a drummer had been in the habit of perambulating the streets at four o’clock in the morning for the purpose of arousing the miners to their work. But this ancient functionary became at length intolerable. He was knocked down, and the ends of his drum kicked in by some people he had disturbed. So will democracy ere long serve every relic of feudalism. Tranent is now governed by six Police Commissioners, elected by the rate-payers.

From time immemorial, down to the beginning of this century, the inhabitants possessed the right of pasturing their cows upon an extensive moor situated at the east of the town. At a certain hour every morning, a herd passed through the streets blowing a horn, on hearing which the cows issued from their respective byres, and in a drove went to the moor. Another blast collected them in the evening, every cow retreating into her own house as the drove passed through the town until all were at home. This moor, when land had become precious in consequence of the French War, and the dearth of bread which it had occasioned, somehow became the property of Mr. Cadell the superior, who divided it and let some of it as arable ground for seven pounds an acre. This conveyance was not effected without remonstrance from the people of Tranent, but the principal opponents were bribed with cheap feus, and the inhabitants in general were deprived of their right to the moor. It is expressly stated in the feu-charters, granted in the present day, that the feuars are to have no right to pasturage on the moor.

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