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Athelstaneford, Haddingtonshire

Historical Description

ATHELSTANEFORD, a parish, in the county of HADDINGTON, 3 miles (N. E. by N.) from Haddington, and 9 (W.) from Dunbar; containing 991 inhabitants, of whom 274 are in the village. This place, which is noticed by Camden, is said to have derived its name from Athelstan, an English warrior, who was killed in battle together with the greater number of his forces, about the commencement of the ninth century, and was interred here. The parish is about four miles in length and three in breadth, and bounded on the north by the streamlet of the West Peffer. Its surface is abruptly irregular, consisting of large tracts of low land, and elevated ridges of rock sloping in some places gently towards the plain, and in others forming a nearly horizontal level of considerable height. The scenery is greatly diversified, affording in parts a striking contrast of richly cultivated fields and barren and rugged rocks. From the higher grounds are obtained extensive and interesting views of the Firth of Forth, the Bass rock, and the county of Fife. The lands are watered by the two branches of the Peffer stream, which rises in a meadow in the lowlands: the East Peffer joins the sea below Tynninghame bay; whilst the West Peffer, flowing westward, falls into Aberlady bay. The channel of the Peffer was widened, and made deeper, some years since, on which occasion several stags' horns were found, at a depth of nearly three feet below the surface of its bed, and large oaks were discovered embedded in moss on the banks, which, previously to the practice of draining the lands, were nearly covered with the water that stagnated on the adjoining woodlands.

The number of acres in the parish has been estimated at more than 4000, of which nearly 3800 are arable, and the remainder, with the exception of about fifty acres of hilly pasture, are in woods and plantations. The soil has been much improved by draining, and great quantities of marshy and unprofitable land have been rendered fertile; the chief crops are, wheat, for which the soil is extremely favourable, oats, barley, potatoes, and turnips. A considerable number of sheep are reared, and fed principally on turnips. The substrata are mostly whinstone and porphyry, of which the rocks consist: coal is supposed to exist, but it lies at so great a depth from the surface that none has yet been discovered. Some beautiful specimens of rock crystal are found in the quarries, which are wrought for building purposes and for the roads. The annual value of real property in the parish is £7996. Gilmerton House, the property of Sir David Kinlock, Bart., is a splendid seat. The only other residence of note in the parish is an ancient baronial mansion formerly belonging to the Earls of Winton, a quadrilateral building, of which a small part only is now inhabited, and the remainder is in ruins; the principal room is still preserved, and attached to the house are a large garden and a bowling-green. Great facility of intercourse is afforded to the inhabitants by the North-British railway, and its North Berwick branch.

For ecclesiastical purposes the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Haddington, synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. Sir David Kinloch, Bart., is patron, and the stipend of the incumbent is £262; the manse is a comfortable residence, and the glebe comprises five acres, valued at £15 per annum. The old church, which belonged to the monastery founded at Haddington by Ada, Countess of Northumberland, mother of Malcolm IV., was used till the year 1780, when, falling into a dilapidated state, the present church was erected, in a more convenient situation, for a congregation of 500 persons. The parochial school affords education to about eighty scholars; the master has a salary of £35. 10., with a house and garden, and the fees are £48: the schoolroom is one of the best in the county. On the spot where Athelstan is said to have been buried, a stone coffin was found by some men who were quarrying stone for mending the roads, a few years since. This coffin, consisting of five stones cemented together, was lodged in the rock, which had been excavated for its reception, about two feet below the surface, and contained a human skeleton in a state of almost total decomposition. The lands on which the battle was fought, were anciently given by the king of Scotland to the Culdee priory of St. Andrew's, in acknowledgment of the victory obtained; and at the Revolution of 1688, they were bestowed upon the royal chapel of Holyrood House. On the lands constituting the barony of Drem are the remains of a Pictish town, consisting of various houses built round the brow of a low hill of conical form, which had been strongly fortified by three tiers of ramparts, with a deep circumvallation below: these works are supposed to have been thrown up as a defence against the Romans, who had a station about half a mile distant, on the alleged site of which, various Roman relics have been found, including an urn of superior workmanship containing burnt bones. There are some remains of the ancient church, built in the early part of the twelfth century by Ada, and in which service was originally performed by the monks of Haddington.

Among the eminent men of the place, has been the Rev. Robert Blair, author of The Grave, who was for fifteen years incumbent, and was interred in the churchyard, in which a monument was erected to his memory. His son, the late Robert Blair, lord president of the court of session, was born here, during the incumbency of his father. John Home, author of the tragedy of Douglas, was incumbent after the death of the Rev. Robert Blair; and Archibald Skirving, an eminent portrait painter, who, having perfected himself in the study of his profession at Rome, exercised it here for many years with great success, was a native of the parish.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis


Online maps of Athelstaneford are available from a number of sites:

CountyEast Lothian
Postal districtEH39
Post TownNorth Berwick