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North Berwick, Haddingtonshire

Historical Description

BERWICK, NORTH, a burgh, market-town, and parish, in the county of Haddington, 10 miles (N. by E.) from Haddington, and 22 (N. E. by E.) from Edinburgh; containing 1708 inhabitants, of whom 1028 are in the town. It derives its name of Berwick from its situation at the mouth of the Firth of Forth; and though its origin is involved in obscurity, the manor appears to have belonged to the Earls of Fife, in whose possession it remained till near the close of the fourteenth century, and of whom Duncan, who died in the year 1154, founded a convent here for sisters of the Cistercian order. This establishment was amply endowed by the founder, and by numerous other benefactors, with lands in the counties of Berwick, Roxburgh, Edinburgh, and West Lothian; and continued to flourish till the Reformation, when the site and revenues were conferred by James VI. on Sir Alexander Home, of North Berwick. After the death of Isabel, the last Countess of Fife, the manor passed into the possession of William, Earl of Douglas, who in 1373 obtained from Robert II. a charter constituting this place a royal burgh, with the privileges of a market and port, a custom-house, and other advantages. In 1455, the manor became forfeited to the crown, on the attainder of James, Earl of Douglas; but it was restored by James III. to Archibald, Earl of Angus, the heir male of the Douglas family, and erected into a free barony in his favour. After the grant of the monastery and part of its lands to Sir Alexander Home by James VI., the barony, on the failure of that family, passed into other hands, and in 1640 was confirmed by act of parliament to Sir William Dick, from whom it passed to Sir Hew Dalrymple, president of the court of session, and ancestor of the present proprietor.

The TOWN is advantageously situated on the south side of the Firth of Forth, near its junction with the sea, and consists principally of two streets. One of these is of considerable length, extending from east to west, and is intersected near its eastern extremity by the other, a shorter street, which is continued to the harbour. The houses in the first are irregularly built, and many of them of antique appearance, while those in the other street are of a superior class, and mostly inhabited by the gentry and more opulent families. On both sides of the latter street are rows of trees, giving it a pleasant and cheerful appearance; and the scenery surrounding the town combines many interesting and picturesque features. A subscription library has been established, which is well supported, and contains a good collection; and a branch of the East Lothian Itinerating Library is also stationed here. The waste or common lands on the west of the town are much frequented by the members of a golf club, who hold meetings for the celebration of that game, which is also the favourite amusement of the inhabitants. The only manufactory is a foundry for the construction of steam-engines, machines for making tiles for draining, and other articles. The trade of the port consists mainly in the exportation of agricultural produce and of lime, chiefly for the Newcastle and London markets; and the importation of coal, rape and oil cake, and crushed bones for manure: the exportation of grain and lime has materially decreased, but that of potatoes very much increased, within the last few years. There are four vessels registered as belonging to the port, of the aggregate burthen of 273 tons. The harbour is spacious and secure; it is dry at low water, but is commodious, and several sums have been expended on its improvement. Fishing is pursued on a limited scale. The market is chiefly for the supply of the town and neighbourhood: fairs are held in June and November, and facility of communication with the adjacent towns is maintained by good roads, and by the North Berwick branch of the North-British railway.

The inhabitants obtained their earliest charter in the reign of Robert II. It was confirmed in 1568 by James VI.; and the government of the burgh is vested in two bailies, a treasurer, and nine councillors, elected according to the provisions of the act 3rd and 4th of William IV., cap. 76. The magistrates hold no regular courts, but act as justices of the peace within the royalty of the burgh; all criminal jurisdiction is referred to the procurator-fiscal and sheriff of the county, and petty misdemeanors are punished by temporary confinement. A town officer is appointed by the magistrates, who also choose a town-clerk and a shore-master. The town-hall is a commodious building, and there is a small prison. Since the Union the burgh has united with Haddington, Dunbar, Lauder, and Jedburgh, in returning a member to the imperial parliament; and by the act 2nd and 3rd of William IV., cap. 65, the right of election, previously vested in the corporation and burgesses, was extended to the £10 householders, resident within the parliamentary limits of the burgh. The bailies are the returning officers.

The surface of the Parish is greatly varied. A range of rocks of various hues intersects it from east to west, presenting in some parts a barren and rugged aspect, and in others being clothed with wood. About half a mile south of the town is a hill of conical form, called North Berwick Law, crowning a gently sloping eminence, and rising to an elevation of 940 feet above the sea. It was occupied as a signal station during the war; and the remains of the buildings, which were suffered to fall to decay, have the picturesque effect of an ancient ruin. The hill is wooded near its base, and the other parts of its surface, comprising an area of nearly seventy acres, afford pasturage for sheep; the views from it are extensive and strikingly diversified. In the mouth of the Firth of Forth, and about a mile and a half from the shore, is the well-known rock called the Bass, nearly a mile in circumference, rising abruptly from the sea, in a circular form, to a height of 420 feet. It is of very rugged aspect, extremely precipitous on the north side, on the south more resembling a cone in form, and accessible only on the south-east, where are two landing-places. About half way up the steep are the remains of an ancient chapel. The rock is perforated, from the north-west to the south-east, by a cavern, which is dry at full tide; and on the side commanding the landing-place are the remains of an old fortress, and of the dungeons formerly used for state prisoners, for which purpose it was purchased from Sir Andrew Ramsay in 1671. Its surface is estimated at seven acres, and it forms an object both of scenic and historical interest. It is supposed to have been the retreat of Baldred, the apostle of East Lothian, in the sixth century; and in 1406 was the temporary asylum of James I., in which he was placed by his father, Robert III., previously to his embarkation for France, to avoid the persecution of his uncle, the Duke of Albany. On its purchase in 1671, it was converted into a state prison for the confinement of Covenanting ministers; after the Revolution of 1688, it was no longer used for such a purpose. This rock, which is let on lease to a keeper, affords pasturage for sheep, which are in high estimation; and is frequented in great numbers by Solan geese, which, when young, are taken by a hazardous process, and conveyed to the opposite shore. Opposite to the town, and about a mile from the coast, is the island of Cragleith, a barren rock about a mile in circumference, abounding with rabbits, and resorted to by sea-fowl, of which the puffin is the most conspicuous. The coast of the parish is boldly rocky, and indented with bays, one of which, of semicircular form, reaches from the west of the harbour to Point Garry; and a still larger bay, about two miles east of the town, and directly opposite to the Bass rock, called Canty Bay, is the residence of the tenant of that rock and his assistants. To the west the shore is a flat sand, and towards the east a line of precipitous rocks, terminating in a lofty eminence, on whose summit are the picturesque ruins of Tantallan Castle, noticed hereafter.

The SOIL, though various, is generally fertile, and the system of agriculture in a highly improved state; the whole number of acres is estimated at 3456, of which 3280 are arable, about 170 in pasture and in woods and plantations, and the remainder common. The chief crops are wheat, barley, oats, peas, beans, potatoes, and turnips. The principal manures are lime and rape-cake; furrow-draining with tiles has been extensively adopted, and the farm-buildings and offices are generally substantial and commodious. About 1000 sheep are annually fed; and from 300 to 400 head of cattle, mostly of the short-horned breed. The annual value of real property in the parish is £12,967. The woods are chiefly ash, elm, oak, beech, and plane. In this parish the substrata are mainly trap, sandstone, and limestone; the sandstone, which is usually of a reddish hue, is frequently intersected with strata of limestone. The rocks are principally of the secondary formation: the lower part of North Berwick Law is trap tuffa, above which is a sonorous clinkstone, and near the summit the height assumes the character of amygdaloid; the Bass rock is generally a fine granular greenstone, abounding with felspar, and strongly exhibiting the tabular structure. At North Berwick Law are extensive quarries of excellent building-stone; and at Rhodes, and on the Balgone estate, limestone is quarried to a considerable extent. North Berwick House is a fine mansion, erected in 1777, and standing in grounds embellished with thriving plantations; Balgone and Rockville are also handsome mansions, finely situated.

The parish appears to have existed from a remote period of antiquity, and its church was most probably founded by St. Baldred: on the foundation of the nunnery here, the church, with all its possessions, was given by the noble founder to that establishment. For ecclesiastical purposes, North Berwick is within the bounds of the presbytery of Haddington, synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. The stipend of the incumbent is £306. 2. 2., and the patronage is exercised by Sir Hew Dalrymple, Bart.; the manse is a substantial and comfortable residence, built in 1825, and pleasantly situated on an eminence, and the glebe is valued at £35 per annum. The church, erected in 1770, on the site of the former edifice, was in 1819 thoroughly repaired, and the interior renewed; it is adapted for a congregation of 550 persons, and has a spacious cemetery, planted with stately avenues of elms. There are places of worship for members of the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Synod: the former was erected with a view to honour the memory of the Covenanters imprisoned on the Bass rock, and the expense was defrayed by special subscription. The parochial school is but indifferently attended: the master has a salary of £34. 4. 4½, with a house and garden; the school fees are very inconsiderable. An infants' school has been established; and on the lands of Tantallan is a sub-parochial school. There are a bequest by Alexander Home, Esq., and a donation of £450 called the Edwin fund, for the poor.

About a quarter of a mile to the west of the town are the remains of the Cistercian abbey, beautifully situated on an eminence planted with trees, but so greatly dilapidated as scarcely to convey a faint idea of that once venerable and stately edifice: the vaults, which formed the principal relic, were many years since destroyed. Near the harbour are the remains of what is supposed to have been the ancient church, consisting chiefly of the entrance doorway, which is still entire; the sea is constantly encroaching upon the cemetery, and laying bare the remains of bodies interred there. Three miles to the east of the town are the remains of the old Castle of Tantallan, seated on a precipitous eminence projecting into the sea. The outer walls, of hexagonal form, are of massive thickness; and above the entrance is a sculptured stone shield, bearing the device of its ancient proprietors the Douglases. The interior consists of numerous apartments, inaccessible from the dilapidated state of the various staircases which formerly afforded an approach; and the vaults contain many dark dungeons. The original foundation of this castle is not distinctly ascertained. It was the stronghold of the Douglas family on their obtaining the barony of East Lothian, at the accession of Robert II., and for centuries the seat of their power. The fortress was always regarded as impregnable, and was frequently assaulted without effect: it was finally besieged, and, after an obstinate defence, taken by the forces under Oliver Cromwell; and, together with the lauds, was sold by the Marquess of Douglas to Lord President Dalrymple, by whom it was dismantled, and suffered to fall into decay. About half a mile to the west of the castle is St. Baldred's Melt, a spring of excellent water. Fenton Tower, an ancient edifice, of which only the bare walls remain, is situated on a commanding eminence; and nearly adjoining are the remains of the palace of Sydserf, so called from St. Serf, the instructor of Kentigern, whose retreat was in this place.

John Mair or Major, author of the work De Gestis Scotorum, published in 1521, was born at Gleghornie, in the parish, in 1469: he became a member of Christ's College, Cambridge, where in 1518 he seems to have written his learned history; and he subsequently taught theology at Glasgow, and at St. Andrew's, dying about 1547. Blackader, one of the martyrs of the Bass, is buried in North Berwick churchyard.

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