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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XXVII - Dunbar and the Berwick Road

THE highroad that leads from Edinburgh to Berwick through Dunbar and over the end of the Lammermuirs is spoilt by houses and coal-pits until you crest the rise at Gladsmuir. That is a parish, but the houses in the centre are scarce big enough to form a village. You have just passed over the battlefield of Prestonpans. The Jacobites, who for many reasons went much by tradition, called the affair after the name of this place, from an old saying "on Gladsmuir shall the battle be." Principal Robertson was once minister here, and the folk of these fields (you suspect) found his elegant diction and sonorous periods "a cauld harangue" and promptly fell happily asleep. The schoolmaster of the parish took me many years ago to the churchyard and showed me a curious stone with a hollow in the centre. He said it was the "Crawstane," and that devout Alexander Peden had foretold that in the evil time coming "the Crawstane of Gladsmuir should be filled with blood?" In the dark days of trouble the old Scots found a morbid pleasure in those wild, gloomy sayings, and Peden the prophet dispensed them with a liberal tongue. The battle of Gladsmuir might be taken as fulfilment, but in Peden’s time, as well as before and after, you were safe in prophesying blood about any event in poor distracted Scotland. I have since sought for the Crawstane but it is clean vanished. Perhaps some vandal has ground it to powder for road metal, as the heritors once thought of doing with the ruins of Sweetheart Abbey; perhaps some collector has conveyed it. There is a time of danger to all such things. For centuries they are accepted as part of the universe, like the seas and the stars, and then a questioning spirit possesses the land. The thing is defaced as of bravado, or it is cunningly seized on before the public conscience is roused to protect, add injudicious improvement, and you explain the ruin of most of the historic buildings and monuments in the kingdom. As the name implies, there was a great waste here once, where now you see fertile field or game-stocked wood. Much was owned by the town of Haddington, but the council let it go in the dark days for an old song, though they still appoint a Baron Bailie of Gladsmuir, who does nothing, for the excellent reason he has nothing to do. You touch St Lawrence House, a western suburb of Haddington. Here was of old a huge bare structure used sometimes for barn, but latterly ruinous. Tradition would have it the one-time Lazar House. Bad food, neglect of every sanitary precaution played sad havoc in the old Scots towns. The leper was a constant menace. The pest spread like wildfire, and you cannot wonder that the wretch was thrust forth on the instant. And then in those days St Lawrence House was a good way beyond the walls, and there he spent the few and evil remnant of his days. But the Lazar House, if such it were, is down, and who now recalls the dread and terror of that distant time?

Beyond Haddington the road runs at the most picturesque of elevations; raised somewhat above the plain through which here flows the Tyne, yet well below the summit of the hills. Such are the pilgrim ways that converge on Canterbury, though it is said they are older and that the very first roads were so made, not for scenic effect but for safety. The King’s Highroad is supremely interesting to the right-minded traveller. There are always noteworthy people on it. This stretch is infested with tramps, valiant and sturdy beggars as the Elizabethan statutes called them. If you are fairly young, and blessed, or cursed, with the true wandering spirit, the life is well enough in summer-time. The farmer scarce dare refuse you the shelter of his barn at night. A match is quite unobtrusive, a neat hayrick a very common object hereabouts. You beg or steal a meal, or the wherewithal to get one. There are all the diverting incidents of travel and no grinding toil to weary or worry you. I had no stake, save one purely sentimental, in those fair fields and was free to persistently ignore the persistent request. I gave nothing but some tobacco which one cunning rascal, producing an empty pipe, begged with an air no smoker could resist.

Burns has thought out the rough as well as the happy part of vagabondage:

"To lie in barns and kilns at e’en,
When banes are crazed and bluid is thin,
Were surely great distress."

And he moralizes even there content would make for blessedness. Yes, but who would be contented? Not the passionate Robin of all men. Now you have climbed out of the green depths of the Croakers’ Hedges, a dark corner set round with woods. Here highwaymen were wont, it is averred, to spoil all and sundry who passed by. It was the very spot to suggest highway robbery to the timid wayfarer.

Next was Pencraik. The wind was up. It played on the telegraph wires as if these were an Æolian harp built for its private use. It made a grander and more sonorous wailing in the fir wood on the slope. That is the real song of travel. Who can hear it and not wish to wander over the hills and far away? As you crest the ridge you catch a glimpse of Hailes Castle in the hollow with Traprain just above it. A little way along, but on the other side, is an older and simpler memorial. It is a "Stannin’ Stane," to give it the country name—a strange, weather-beaten, almost shapeless yet upright block in the midst of a field. Tradition puts it down as marking the grave of a Saxon prince. Rather some aboriginal chief slept here long ere a Saxon foot touched our shores. Though well down from the summit you can view from it a great stretch of hill and plain, and see all the beautiful and familiar figures of the East Lothian landscape. That grave on the wild hillside features those graves on the hill slope between Maidstone and Rochester. The surroundings have many points of likeness. The same race digged them, or at least the same thoughts filled the minds of their makers. Here the chief could look far and wide over the fields where he hunted, or ruled, or fought. It is the select site in East Lothian where one would choose to build a house, and alas! that would be one other spot made common and vulgar. There is nothing to detain in East Linton unless the view from the bridge. Up the stream is a very characteristic and charming piece of Tyne scenery and below is the Linn that gives the town its name. You see a mass of rock and a great deep pool, and if water happens to be plentiful—not a too frequent occurrence—there is a reasonable din, foam-churning and commotion generally. Most of the six miles between this and Dunbar is clear level road, and as good for cycling purposes as the ways about Ripley or the slope of Hindhead, but now the motor has mauled it sadly. You enter Dunbar by Belhaven, the sands of which you see some way to your left. White, fine, beautiful, they must catch your eye.

A famous place this for the mustering of yeomanry horse. It has a more sinister renown. By some play of currents, if you should unfortunately lose your life at the mouth of the Firth, you will come to land here though, it may be after many days. A corner in Dunbar churchyard is the last haven of those who have thus perished.

You find Dunbar perched on its moderate height. There is one fairly broad High Street, and closes run down from it to the beach. Lauderdale House shuts up one end of the street; beyond this is the Castle. The High Street twists away round in the south-east direction, and presently again becomes the high road to Berwick. By the way, that town is still something more than an artificial division. Your tramp, in real or affected ignorance, will ask the way to Berwick but not further. Beyond it is the beginning of another world.

The quaintest thing about Dunbar is its odd little Tolbooth, some three hundred years old. Take a good look at the outside, then go into its narrow rooms and reflect that here was prison and council chamber, and indeed the centre of all the town’s life. So the old Scots existed in those little burghs. The keeper showed a gigantic key which fitted an equally gigantic lock. He explained with a smile that a Chubb as long as your finger were a harder matter to pick. No doubt! but the moral effect on the malefactor of that mass of iron must have been tremendous. The sea is the great thing at Dunbar. You may escape the sight but not the hoarse murmur, for it is never quite still on that iron-bound coast. The rocks are worn by its fury. Each winter has its tale of disaster. Down the closes, and so a little hidden away, the fishermen dwell in their ancient houses, always in sight and hearing of the tyrant who takes their toil and often their very life. Perched on that headland you have as much of the ocean wave as if you were afloat, and "when the hoarse sea swings bodeful," as Carlyle says of it, and your dwelling rings under the buffet of its stroke, you fancy you are. He needs must be strong who would brave the winter months at Dunbar. The salt sea spray bites like fire, the bitter east wind stings like an adder. Dunbar is no place for soft dalliance. Yet it finds favour as sea-side resort. You can golf, and bathe, and take a strong man’s holiday if there be a spell of decent summer weather. I did not find it so on my last visit. It was a September day, chill, and dark, and dreary, and I mourned for a summer that had passed without having arrived; but if to-day is dreary and commonplace the story of Dunbar is tinged with romance and colour, Thomas the Rhymer, Black Agnes, Mary Stuart, Cromwell all played leading parts on the stage of this little theatre, and for the minor actors, Johnny Cope and the rest, their name is legion.

Ah, that castle, more tragically bound up with Mary Stuart’s history, as Mrs Maccunn truly says, than even Holyrood or Fotheringay, how worn and shrunken it is to-day! Have human needs or winter waves been the more cruel? You see a fragment kept erect by props on one rock, and on another a shapeless mass of masonry. It is a castle reduced to its last elements before disappearance—nay, a Philistine Provost urged its destruction by powder as unsafe, wherat the folk murmured, hoarse and angry as their own sea, and things were left so that some stones still remain for history and tradition and romance to garland with evergreen.

What were these ruins like? Captain Grose, whom you picture stout and rubicund—has not Burns touched him off so for all time? He lives more by the half-comic yet altogether kindly mention of him in one or two delightful lyrics than because of his own proper antiquarian renown—has a drawing of the remains, extensive and imposing, and the local historian writing in 1840 tells of them even then as considerable. You could not now trace Queen Mary’s room or hall or dungeon, for new harbour works destroyed much, and neglect and the North Sea did the rest.

Dunbar, the learned say, means the Port on the Rock, so that the castle was in essentials the town. Even greater than the ruin of the castle has been that of them that held it. The Earls of Dunbar were mighty nobles in their day, but before the middle of the fifteenth century their power had vanished. Two of the best-known episodes in Scots history are connected with them and their castle. On the 11th March 1286, True Thomas of Ercildoune—famed through all time for his wondrous sayings was at the castle. The then Earl rallied him on his gloomy looks and inquired the cause, whereupon he foretold for the next day the sorest wind and tempest that ever afflicted Scotland. Perhaps his hearers thought that on the balance of probabilities a March day at Dunbar was like to be boisterous enough. However, it was exceptionally calm and mild. As noon passed without change the reputation of True Thomas was on the wane, when the terrible news arrived of the death of King Alexander III. by the fall from his horse at Kinghorn. This was the predicted tempest. Historical criticism was not yet, or it might have been objected that it was not difficult to make a guess at the weather, and if you were wrong lug in the first startling thing that happened to justify your forecast. About a century afterwards, namely in 1339, occurred the famous siege by the Earl of Salisbury and the not less famous defence by the then Countess. The lady lives in history, a very real and substantial person. Dark (hence her name of Black Agnes), masterful, jovial, are not several specimens of her thick mediaeval wit still extant, and held in much esteem by the Scots schoolboy? She bulks large among a very mask of shadows, for all who aided or opposed are mere names. The legends are notorious; when some huge rock was hurled against the castle she caused one of her damsels, "arrayed jollily and well;" carefully dust the spot with a cambric handerchief, or its old-world equivalent. When the soldiers advanced, protected by the penthouse, called a sow, towards the wall, a well-directed rock "delivered;" in Agnes’ choice phrase, the sow of its litter, and as the men ran everywhere for shelter, the Countess, with splitting sides, yelled herself hoarse at the little pigs. There is much more to the same effect handed down in Wintoun’s antique rhyme. Even her foes sung her praise:

"She kept a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling, boisterous, Scottish wench;
Came I early, came I late,
I found Annot at the gate."

Annot became in after years exceeding rich and prosperous, though apparently she reserved her witticisms for the family circle, as we hear nothing further.

More than two centuries pass on, and Mary Stuart begins that close and intimate connection with Dunbar Castle which runs through the years 1566 and 1567. She escaped there from Holyrood immediately after Rizzio’s murder, and though, in that same month of March, Bothwell took her back to Edinburgh, yet, giving as one among other reasons that he and his friends "dwell next adjacent to her highness’s Castle of Dunbar—Hailes Castle, his chief seat, is about eight miles to the west— she made him hereditary keeper of the castle. She was with him here after her abduction, and, finally disguised as a page, she fled to Dunbar in June, that fatal month of Carberry Hill, and the beginning of her life-long captivity. Less than a century goes by and Dunbar again appears decisively, and perhaps finally, in history. On the 3rd September 1650 Cromwell fought and won a great victory, derisively called Dunbar Drive. Carlyle has told the story, graphic, picturesque, as he knew how. Its outlines are present to every educated man. You recall that Cromwell came from Edinburgh along the sea-coast; that wary old David Leslie was on the hills above him, and the other could not draw him down to fight. Then the English moved along, and Leslie moved with them until at Dunbar the invader found himself in a peculiarly tight place. He was hemmed in by the sea and the Scots; he could only move southward through a pass, and that pass Leslie held. If you will walk along eastward from the High Street on the main road you will see exactly how things were. Cromwell’s camp is stretching eastward from the railway station; it is completely overshadowed and commanded by Doune Hill, which you observe swelling up just behind. To-day it is partly covered with wood. Obviously any move of Cromwell’s must have been difficult; he could not stay where he was and starve. If he had by some miracle been able to fall back on Edinburgh, or force his way through to England, his prestige were ruined, and both kingdoms were after all mainly Royalist, or at any rate non-Cromwellian, so that the difficulties were as much political as military. To attack Leslie secure on the hill were madness, and escape by sea probably as bad as defeat. And then Leslie descended from the hill, and all his advantage was gone. Well might Cromwell exclaim, "The Lord hath delivered them into our hand." A complete victory followed; "the crowning mercy" of Worcester was not more thorough. The common story is that the Presbyterian ministers with the army got tired of Leslie’s inaction and insisted on descending to snatch, what they believed to be, a predestined triumph. There was enough truth in this to make it pass muster, but it is worth pointing out that the Sooth lost this battle, as they lost more than half of their conflicts, by rash and almost fatuous tactics. Your old-time Scot altogether belied the traditional character of his nation; he was rash and self-confident beyond belief. Nothing but the result convinced him of his error. He assumed the battle won before it was started, and when all of a sudden he discovered the mistake the reaction was overwhelming; he assumed all lost in as great a hurry, and fled headlong. On this very spot, on 28th April 1296, there was another Battle of Dunbar. The Scots were posted as afterwards. They descended in like manner, and were routed by Warenne just as they were by Cromwell. You may be sure that Dunbar Drive was not altogether the preacher’s fault. In one respect this English victory was different from all others. Nothing more revealed the genius of Cromwell than the fact that he held what he won. Nay, he ruled so wisely that even the Scots were half reconciled to his sway. The equitable decisions of his judges in special were long afterwards spoken of with admiration and respect. But we are getting far away from our windy town on the northern sea, so here let us cease turning over the annals of Dunbar.

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