It’s A’ Oor Ain Riding of the Marches!

The first documentation of Musselburgh’s ancient ceremony can be found in the Town Council Minutes on the 16th of October 1682. Earlier written records of the event held by the council were destroyed in a fire at the Town House in 1544.

Council Minutes Oct 1682 Riding of the Marches

1682 Council Minutes

It is thought that the ceremony could date further back to the granting of Musselburgh’s first charter in 1124 from David I. The marches or common ridings are believed to have started as a religious pilgrimage following a route of crosses. The reformation and continuous conflicts between the Scottish and English borders changed the nature of the religious processions to civic ceremonies. The church which could no longer offer its protection to the townsfolk, common land and property led to opportunist barons and lords posing a threat to the boundaries with their small but intimidating armies. Thieving neighbouring landowners also took advantage of lost and overgrown markers by adjusting boundaries.

1893 Riding of the Marches

1893 Riding of the Marches

In response every twenty one years the local lord would appoint a townsperson to ride out to reinforce the rights of the townsfolk and inspect the boundaries or ‘Marches’. The appointed Turf Cutter protected by the town champion would be followed by an entourage of squires, town officers, magistrates, councillors, burgesses, seven trades, townsfolk and piper. Marking out the boundary stones by announcing their claim the Turf Cutter would ride out and cut a piece of turf from the ground. This action was an important ritual of the ancient ceremony of Sassine. At twelve locations along the route the turf was cast over his shoulder and at each marker he cried out “It’s A ‘Oor Ain!”. This custom has barely changed since 1682.

Early records describe the procession of 1732 in which a dispute took place between the weavers and tailors over the order of precedence in the parade. The weavers won the argument but were subsequently beaten by the butchers who took sides with the tailors.

1893 Riding of the marches

1893 Riding of the Marches

The First World War saw a break in tradition with the 1914 event being cancelled. In 1919 a ‘Peace Riding’ celebrated the victorious end of the war and remembrance of the fallen. From 1919 the procession became its current weeklong event. In 1935 the celebration took place alongside the Silver Jubilee of George V. The ceremony was said to be the “greatest Riding of the Marches ever”. The success of the 1935 riding saw the creation of The Honest Toun’s Association.

Riding of the Marches decorations on shop front 1935

Decorations on shop front 1935 Riding of the Marches

In 1956 a special ceremony took place in which the Queen Mother presented the Turf Cutter with a ceremonial spade and witnessed the digging of the turf. The local government re-organisation threatened the future of the event when the Musselburgh Town council was replaced by East Lothian District council in 1975. This was not to be as the importance of the event was clear to all principles and burgh Councillors who has witnessed previous events and experienced the benefits to the community and its historical importance. From this welcome decision this wonderful display of Musselburgh’s ancient heritage remains today.

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Best Days of Your Life? Memories of Schooldays in East Lothian

You may remember Best Days of Your Life?, an exhibition we held at the John Gray Centre about schooldays last year.  As part of the research we did a number of interviews and I thought it would be nice to share some of the memories here.  A big thank you to the members of Haddington Remembered and Haddington Active Memories who were interviewed for the project.

Many of our interviewees grew up during wartime. Cathie went to School in Cockenzie and remembers playing outside in the girls’ playground as a spitfire and Messerschmitt battled overhead. Eventually the German plane was shot down and a local fishing boat helped to pull it to shore.  The girls were excited rather than frightened, they had never seen an aeroplane before.


Mr McKenzie's Class, Cockenzie School, 1940s

Mr McKenzie’s Class, Cockenzie School, 1940s


John was brought up in the South Side of Edinburgh and went to Sciennes Primary. He was evacuated to Fife at the start of the war along with his brother and two sisters.  He remembers his Mother bundling their clothes into parcels because they didn’t have suitcases.  They went on the train to Cupar and were taken to a reception hall to await billeting.  Each child was given a brown bag with sugar and biscuits but they never saw these again!  They only stayed in Fife for about three weeks and then Mother came and took them home again.  To the delight of John and his brothers and sisters they didn’t go straight back to school because the schools were closed.

Many schools had air raid shelters built in the playground. The shelters at Knox Academy were built from brick with no doors and windows, just a trap door.   Even now  Rena recalls the feeling of claustrophobia as overwhelming – the children had to crawl in on their hands and knees and sit in complete darkness.


Evacuees leaving Edinburgh, 1939

Evacuees leaving Edinburgh, 1939


Tommy remembers the first time the air raid siren went off at Macmerry.  The arrangement was that if you were on your way home and you were nearer school than home you went back to school.  School was out and the boys were playing football on Macmerry Green.  So intense was the game they took no notice of the siren or the teacher who came out to get them back to school: “Just the winning goal, Miss, just the winning goal”.  When they did eventually go back to school 10 or 12 of them were taken out and belted for this misdemeanour.

Discipline was always strict. Gordon was brought up in Leith and remembers ‘the wee science teacher’ who used to call us out and give us the belt for ‘what was about to happen’.  “Ach You just took it as it came.  Sometimes you opened your hands and got it on the knee”.  Aside from the belt other favourite punishments were the chalkboard duster and lines.  In the 1960s the  boys at Dunbar put up a petition to get a changing hut built at the rugby pitches.  They didn’t get the hut but they did get 100 lines for impertinence.

If you were caught playing truant you were in trouble at school but often worse at home. Jake was born in Dundee:  “I never plunked we called it – a whole day.  It was the last two periods if we didn’t like it.  I’d go down to the snooker hall and play snooker”.  Jake never ‘plunked’ again after the truant officer paid a visit to his father.


Athelstaneford School, about 1900

Athelstaneford School, about 1900


Not every teacher believed in the belt and many are remembered with affection, such as the elderly cooking teacher at Dunbar who used to leave shortbread to cool on the windowsill that looked on to the girls’ playground. It tasted awfully good.   Pat, who went to school in Athelstaneford and North Berwick, was inspired to train as a teacher herself.  After training at Moray House her first job was at Macmerry school.  Teaching her own class was completely different to college.  The other teachers were very helpful but so was a teacher’s guide written by Enid Blyton with all kinds of lesson plans.  Pat remembers the curriculum being more flexible then. The pupils didn’t enjoy visits from the school doctor, Dr Anderson, because this usually meant getting a jag.  The doctor used to say ‘izzy wizzy let’s get busy’ and stick the needle in, and on one occasion she injected Pat first as an example to the pupils!

Sometimes the school buildings left a lot to be desired, especially the toilets. Nessie went to Whittingehame  school  at Luggate Burn and would avoid using the toilet at school if she could: “The girls’ toilet was a long plank of wood. There were three holes in it, three little holes. Underneath there was a stone with constant water running and that was it.  And it only flushed when the headmaster flushed his toilet in his adjoining house.  So you can imagine ….. it was absolutely horrific”.

This is just a taster from the oral histories we collected. Next year we are staging an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the SWRI. If you are a member of the rural, or have been a member and would like to share your memories with us we would love to hear from you.  Pop in to the Archive and Local History Centre at the John Gray Centre,  or telephone us 01620 820695, email











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Film Appreciation Club: collecting and collections

The Film Appreciation Club (FAC@JGC) will be having its third screening and discussion on Thursday, June 16th 2016. As part of the John Gray Centre’s audience development initiative, the theme for this screening, ‘Collections’, aims to promote a discussion and awareness about the role of Museum Collections and resources available  to everyone.  In particular this will be linking to the Whirrs, Cogs & Thingamabobs Exhibition which will be visiting the John Gray Centre for the summer.

Do you collect something? Coins? Theatre programmes? Fossils? Why do you collect it? There are a range of reasons we are motivated to collect. I know I keep (hoard? collect?) things that remind me of people and places I like or love. For others the motivation can be knowledge, pleasure, socialising, nostalgia, competition, investment, altruism or even control. The next question is why do museums collect things, or more specifically why do local or community museums collect things? I think it is all about memory and identity. What do you think?

Edwardian Wedding Dress 1911

Edwardian Wedding Dress 1911

The collection we have in East Lothian is varied and offers an insight into our shared history, culture and values at different levels. The collection can be used in different ways, to explore stories, historical and cultural themes, for learning, creativity, information and entertainment. Many items in the collection can be used to explore generic historical themes such as this beautiful Edwardian wedding dress, modest yet feminine, subtle yet embellished. Other items have a very specific local story with wider regional and national connections, such as these bricks made at Prestongrange.

Prestongrange bricks

Prestongrange bricks

It is interesting to explore how we have come to have this collection. The bulk of the items we hold have been given to us but some have been actively collected. Some of the items we hold are reflections of how towns and regions used to be governed and organised in the past, such as a provost’s chain and medal or robe. Similarly we have numerous paintings and photographs of local dignitaries. Other parts of the collection have been acquired as representative of organisations in the region such as regalia used by Friendly Societies. Some items come with or connect to wonderfully detailed stories or personal connections, such as school or military medals. We also have a number of collections (eggs, butterflies, bottles) that have been donated as a collection & are interesting both as objects and collections.

The film that we have selected for you is a modern look at how individuals and societies interact with each other and the collections that you find in a Museum. It is directed by an American film maker who has a keen eye for urban landscapes and this film brings together people from both sides of the Atlantic.  It is a gentle exploration of these topics with the concept of friendship at the heart of it, and how the past and the present interact.  It looks at how a Canadian woman who is visiting a sick relative is befriended by a security guard working at Vienna’s Art History Museum.  Through their eyes we see both the collections and modern Vienna.

There are lots of questions raised by this film including how we explore collections, what we can understand about the past and also how we are as people in our societies – including asking us to look at what we value.

We hope to see you next week when you can explore this with us.

P.S. Because of licensing and copyright restrictions, we are not permitted to announce the film titles that we are screening on our website and social media. The titles are, however, available in the promotional posters and the FAC@JGC 2016 brochure. These can be obtained at the John Gray Centre itself, in East Lothian Council libraries and museums across the county and several other public venues. Information can also be found on the events page of our website and on Facebook.


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All Smiles in the Archive

It is all smiles in the archive today, well Smiles – as in the family.

One of the most time consuming tasks that take place when we are closed to the public is the stock check, this involves going over materials assessing their condition and ensuring that everything is where it should be.  Local History was the target of the most recent check – with the work being done by our cheerful colleagues in Libraries, as they worked through the volumes  a few oddities were discovered.  And aren’t we glad that they were!

Smiles family bibleThe best discovery from this process was that what looked like just another Bible is in fact the family Bible for the Smiles family who lived in Haddington in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

Their most famous son, Samuel Smiles (born 1812), went on to be a government reformer and to write a book entitled ‘Self Help’ which was described as ‘the bible of Victorian liberalism.’

His birth can be seen here in the list of other family events.

It was a common practice for families to record Births, Marriages and Deaths in the front of their bibles as it served as a reference point for the family to show how the family changed over time and how it has been passed down through the generations.

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Don’t forget your toothbrush or social media for museums!

Of all the facts I learned in a very insightful day at ‘Connect 4: East Lothian Council’s 8th Annual Tourism Conference’, the one that has stayed with me is this:  more people in the world today own a mobile device than own a toothbrush.

Tourism Conference bannerAs I entered the Brunton Theatre that day, clutching my notebook, I thought I was doing well embracing digital channels.  I thought I understood the impact of communicating with our visitors through social media.  I learned very quickly that I had barely scratched the surface! With 70% of visitors using websites to plan their visit, Tripadvisor alone being used by 60% , and 65% using Smartphone technology to find their way around when here, I realised we need to be on top of this if we really want to reach as many visitors as possible.

As Steve Tassell, Head of Business to Business Marketing at Microsoft UK told us (yes I am name dropping!)’ if you’re not in the conversation, people will be talking about you anyway!’ In 2016 it’s not enough to have a website; the website needs to be mobile friendly.  Pictures work much better than text on social media posts, and use every opportunity you have to drive visitors on to your website so they get to understand everything you have to offer, not just the 140 characters you are tweeting.

Tamara Lohan, Chief Technology Officer at the aspirational hotel listing brand Mr & Mrs Smith, talked about how they are no longer printing paper copies of their hotel guides, but have moved the entire operation online. Tamara also discussed the difficulty of converting online ‘likes’ and followers into actual customers. I was heartened that those who are seen to be at the top of their digital game don’t have an answer to this, but those ‘likes’ and followers all show potential visitors who are aware of what you are doing, which can only be a good thing surely!

asset_f_logo_lgSo, are we doing anything different in the wake of all this digital enthusiasm?  Well, East Lothian Museum Service now has Facebook pages for each of our core Museums, including brand new ones for John Muir’s Birthplace and Dunbar Town House Museum and Gallery in addition to the John Gray Centre and Prestongrange Museum pages already in existence, not forgetting our original East Lothian Council Museum Service page. Now we can take advantage of the fact that we have different audiences for each of our venues and direct information to those who will benefit most, however we can also attract new audiences by announcing events and exhibitions across all sites.  twitterWe also have Twitter accounts for most of the museums, @JM_Birthplace, @DunbarTownHouse, @JohnGrayCentre and @ELMuseumService, which are really useful for taking part in conversations with visitors, supporters and colleagues at other institutions.

We invite you, our ‘digital fans’, (yes, quoting Microsoft again) to not just ‘like’ our pages, but to use them to tell us about yourselves, what exhibitions and events you have enjoyed or would you like to see.  We want to have a conversation with you and not just broadcast to you.

Now, there’s my phone but where’s my toothbrush…..

Tracy Robertson, Visitor Services Officer (East)

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Film Appreciation – Family Ties

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

? Leo Tolstoy, ‘Anna Karenina’

Family portrait

Family portrait

            The Film Appreciation Club (FAC@JGC) will be having its second screening and discussion on Thursday, April 14th 2016. As part of the John Gray Centre’s audience development initiative, the theme for this screening, which is ‘family history’, aims to promote genealogy research facilities and resources available in the Archive & Local History Service at the Centre.

            This time around, I have chosen to screen a Japanese film which is considered to be among “one of the greatest films of all time” by British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine and by various film critics, academics and cinephiles from across the world! The chosen film has also been a great influence on many great directors of the last half century, not least for its purity of expression; it remains one of the most approachable and moving of all cinema’s masterpieces.

Family and dog

Family and dog

The film is beautifully directed by a prolific Japanese master filmmaker who, in this case, meticulously composed deep-focus shots and never moved his camera up, down, forwards or sideways. This classic, from 1953, is one of cinema’s most profound and moving studies of married love, ageing and the relationship between parents and children. The story follows an elderly couple, Tomi and Sukichi, on a journey from their rural village to visit their two married children in bustling, post World War 2 Tokyo.

            Today, in the West, Japanese culture is fashionable for Manga, for martial arts, for extreme cinema, and for the playful pop culture of novelist Haruki Murakami.  But in my research I have discovered that many find themselves enraptured by this particular filmmaker’s delicate watercolour emotions and his mastery of simplicity and reticence, in which he presents glimpses of explicit pain and joy. I chose this film because it is certainly a masterpiece – tender, profoundly mysterious and desperately sad. But the film’s exquisite melancholy is not derived from something obscure or out of the ordinary. It stems from very real human anxiety which is instantly recognisable. Without giving too much away, the film poses the following questions. How do we care for our elderly parents as they confront imminent death? How far can we afford to expose ourselves to their secret pain and fear? And when it is our turn to grow old, can we expect our children to share the burden?

Ladies in a Victorian family

Ladies in a Victorian family


            Some film lovers believe that it is dangerous to start watching Japanese cinema because it is so extensive and dazzling that one might quickly develop a taste for nothing but Japanese films. And this does not only refer to the action-packed films of Akira Kurosawa or to Studio Ghibli animated films by Hayao Miyazaki! To find out if this notion is true, do come and join us for a wonderful evening of visual pleasures and vibrant conversation. Doors open at 6.30pm and screening starts at 7pm. Anyone interested in joining our Film Appreciation Club need only pay an annual membership fee of £10. Individual screenings are also open to non-members for a donation of £3 towards costs. And more importantly, there will be refreshments available at the screenings!

            Finally, look out for my next film blog in June with the theme of ‘collections’.

P.S. Because of licensing and copyright restrictions, we are not permitted to announce the film titles that we are screening on our website and social media. The titles are, however, available in the promotional posters and the FAC@JGC 2016 brochure. These can be obtained at the John Gray Centre itself, in East Lothian Council libraries and museums across the county and several other public venues. Information can also be found on the events page of our website and on Facebook.

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Artefact Attack at Dunbar SciFest 2016!

Dunbar SciFest_Logo 2016It was with some trepidation that myself and three student volunteers from Edinburgh University (Jo, Lewis and Tiffany) got into my car at 8am on Saturday morning to drive to Dunbar Primary School. Our purpose? To deliver ‘Artefact Attack’-a day of archaeology-themed science workshops for children at Dunbar SciFest 2016. But how many kids would we have? Would we run overtime? Would the activity work well? Would the kids (and ourselves) have fun?!

Meeting my colleague Andy, and our other workshop volunteer Colm from archaeology company Rubicon Heritage, the day got off to a good start. We had coffee aplenty, lots of pre-workshop team spirit laughter, and a great set-up in our assigned classroom. We had our amazing washing line-esque timeline strung up across the wall, our fabulous posters full of lots of interesting archaeological facts, and of course, our ‘artefact museum’-two tables full of a whole range of objects from our handling collection. This included everything from replica Palaeolithic hand-axes to a 21st century plastic micro-wave meal container!

After Andy and Colm left at lunchtime (following a lovely packed lunch provided by the event organisers), my fellow workshop organiser Louise, also from Rubicon, came along to join in the fun and lend her expertise. Unfortunately, one of our props for the workshop intro, a baked potato (prizes for guessing how to use a tattie to explain making detailed descriptions and deductive thinking!), was starting to look a little worse for wear and a bit green. Louise did an admiral job of making the best of the potato despite its deteriorating condition! Needless to say, I did not, in the end, have it for my tea that evening!

By the close of the day at 5pm, those artefacts had most definitely been ‘attacked’! The first workshop started at 10.30am, and we delivered 10 workshops throughout the day, working with 75 children in total, and even a few parents! Each child picked, sketched, measured, described and interpreted at least one object from our ‘artefact museum’, using their scientific and archaeological deductive thinking skills in the process. Hopefully they also  learnt a little bit about materials, technologies and ways of life in the past along the way!

All in all, I think it’s safe to say that the day was a great success, and both myself and the team had great fun delivering the workshop and working with all the children. They came up with a whole range of fascinating, and perfectly reasoned ideas and interpretations for their artefact choices (Ancient Egyptian warrior boomerang versus Neolithic antler and flint sickle anyone?!). We were all still smiling (and standing) at the end of the day, but our game faces paled into insignificance when compared to those of our three final workshop participants, or should I say, our menacing  Mesolithic hunter-gatherer, our masterful Medieval needle-worker princess, and our regal Roman general.  That sums up the day for me right there folks!


A trio of intrepid artefact attackers from the Mesolithic, medieval and Roman periods!

Thanks to Dunbar SciFest for the invitation to participate in this year’s festival, and of course, a big thank you to the amazing volunteers and the rest of the Dunbar SciFest team who all helped make the day not only possible, but a whole lot of fun too!

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Edinburgh Dean of Guild & the French “Outlaw”

IMG_1152 - Copy

The Dean of Guild Court, as talked about in these pages in the past, was the forerunner of what today is Building Control within the local authority context.  Their present function is as overseer to building developments within the City and although this was also the case for the Dean of Guild Court in years gone by, that authority also had other strings to its bow.  For example, it acted as the Burgh’s ‘policeman’ as far as trade within its boundaries went which meant it enforced the rules and regulations relating to manufacturing, buying and selling within the ancient limits of Edinburgh.  Only burgesses (in England known as ‘freemen’) were allowed to carry out such occupations and entry to their ‘club’ was tightly controlled.

If some ‘unfree’ individual attempted to trade within the burgh then the powers of the Dean of Guild were called into play as was exemplified in the papers of the case from which the newspaper cutting shown above, was found.  The advert placed here shows he was selling French Lace, amongst other things, from premises in Infirmary Street in 1806 but it is clear that he had done likewise in previous years since the advert shown below notes him having once operated from 16 Leith Street.

IMG_1150 - Copy - Copy

So, by 1806 it was clear that he had clashed with other merchant burgesses in Edinburgh in the past since he begins the newspaper advertisement above with a cheeky side swipe at them as follows:

Mr Simeon cannot again address the Public and omit thanking those kind Gentlemen who instigated the Dean of Guild to enter a prosecution against him, in hopes he would quit Edinburgh: but Business answering his most sanguine expectation, he intends entering business immediately, and continue his yearly visits to this City.”

The documents included in the bundle relating to this Dean of Guild Court case give us some insight into how things proceeded.  In January 1806 he was again prosecuted in the Dean of Guild Court and fined 10 guineas, a considerable sum of money for the time.  On the 3rd of February he complained that the fine was too high and asked that he be granted a ‘licence’ – at a reasonable cost – to trade for a limited period each year and went on to argue that being an ‘alien’ (i.e. a foreign national) he would never have been permitted to become a burgess and thus never attempted to do so.

The reply by the Procurator Fiscal on 4th February rejected his claims and contended that Mr Simeon was merely stalling for time to sell his wares and then fly by night as he had done before. He cited Simeon’s ‘pasquinade’ against Edinburgh’s burgesses (satirical advert in the Press) as proof of his contempt for the law and asked that the Frenchman be imprisoned until such time as his full fine be paid.  The judgement was against the accused; he was ordered to produce his licence from the ‘Aliens Office’ within 10 days and in the meantime lodge 100 guineas as a ‘caution’ or security.

We can tell from the Dean of Guild Court documents that by late March, having produced the relevant papers, he was in Glasgow and from there appealed the fine levied by the Edinburgh authorities and continued to plead for a licence to trade.  Again, his request was refused, he was ordered to pay another guinea and denied the freedom for any further appeal.

This is the end of this particular story as far as the Dean of Guild Court papers elucidate it but it clearly shows that the remit of this ancient institution was then much broader than its modern counterpart is today.

Through nothing more than curiosity I carried out a quick internet search on our French adventurer and was rewarded with an addendum to his story.  The search revealed this document ( within the People’s Palace Collections in Glasgow.  It shows that a ‘Monsieur St. Ange Simeon’ (surely our man) was by 1820, at least, temporarily or perhaps permanently settled in Glasgow and giving French lessons to some of its citizenry.  Perhaps the Dean of Guild in Edinburgh had by then finally put paid to his mercantile career but – being a lad o’ pairts’ – he had simply moved on to earn a crust (or a croissant) in another way!


Film Appreciation – Community Matters

Clapper board for Film Appreciation ClubGOOD NEWS! At least for me and for some regular members of the public who frequent the Film Appreciation Club at the John Gray Centre (FAC@JGC)! We are delighted to announce that the Club will continue film screenings and  discussions for another six times this year. What’s exciting is that our film themes will promote events and services at the John Gray Centre itself.

Our first screening will be on Thursday, 3rd March in the Star Room. We are not permitted to announce the forthcoming film titles on our website and social media because of licensing and copyright restrictions. The titles of the films are, however, available in the promotional posters and the FAC@JGC 2016 brochure. These can be obtained at the John Gray Centre itself, in East Lothian Council libraries and museums across the county and several other public venues. Information can also be found on the events page of our website and on Facebook.


Longniddry village hall

Longniddry village hall

The first theme this year is “community”. Our chosen film is set in both early 1920s and 1930s Ireland and tells the story of a political activist who revives a village hall in order to provide members of his local community a place for various social activities. His actions do not meet with the approval of the conservative proponents of the Catholic Church and this leads to problematic encounters and confrontations between the main character and authority figures. The film is made by a highly acclaimed director noted for his illustrations of social realism and it offers discussion on the politics, culture and the clichés of Ireland past and present.

Innerwick Hall

Innerwick Hall


On the whole, the film provides audiences with a sense of history and connection with the wider community. It highlights the function of village halls and other venues for preserving and promoting local heritage and for sharing experiences. This aspect of the film links nicely to the Archives & Local History team’s community outreach plans to present heritage talks at selected village halls across the county. An article on this exciting venture will appear in the Spring edition of the East Lothian Living magazine. Information on these talks will also be posted on the John Gray Centre website.

lib176_02495878FAC@JGC is inspired by and supports all other cinema groups in East Lothian. Its aim is to offer film enthusiasts from across East Lothian and beyond with an additional opportunity to watch selected films from across the world. More significantly, FAC@JGC provides anyone who loves films with the opportunity to participate in a lively, semi-guided discussion on cinematic elements that shape the particular film and evoke pleasure in the audience. But this will be conducted in a relaxing and friendly way – nothing overly academic!

Doors open at 6.30pm and screening starts at 7pm. Anyone interested in joining our Film Appreciation Club need only pay an annual membership fee of £10. Individual screenings are also open to non-members for a donation of £3 towards costs. And more importantly, there will be refreshments available at the screenings! So come and join us for a wonderful evening of visual pleasures and vibrant conversation. And look out for my next blog on our film in April with the theme of family history.


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Fishing in East lothian

Those researching family in East Lothian will very likely come across a nautical affiliation. Our current temporary exhibit of photographs, letters and fishing documents demonstrate the importance of fishing to East Lothian.

'Barking' a sail. Cockenzie Photograph taken c.1900

‘Barking’ a sail. Cockenzie Photograph taken c.1900.

Fisherrow, Prestonpans, Cockenzie, Port Seton, North Berwick and Dunbar are all existing harbours that have been used for fishing in varying degrees.

Most early fishermen did not stray far from the shallow coastal shores, fishing for seasonal Flat Flounders and Coalfish or ‘Saithies’ that bred in large shoals amongst kelp and seaweed. The Saithies were caught, dried and stored making an ideal food supply for small communities.

In 1492 a law was passed ensuring all Royal Burghs and Baronies build larger boats to encourage deeper sea fishing. Previously most fishermen typically used small rowing boats with four to six oarsmen and one or two masts. These boats were made of wood and light enough to pull up on the beach. Unfortunately they were also unstable being un-decked and were often wrecked when venturing further afield. Boats of a larger design were used primarily for sailing into foreign ports.

Fisherrow Harbour by Thomas MacNiven c.1865

Fisherrow Harbour by Thomas MacNiven c.1865

At the end of the 16th century, the continual growth of Edinburgh’s population, castle and royal household required fishermen to look toward the treacherous North Sea. This incredible bravery was rewarded with an abundance of valuable Herring.

The Dutch were the great leaders of the herring industry in the 16th and 17th century and held  monopoly over the North Sea and greatly influenced the Scots. Their efficient approach to fishing meant that fewer crew were required in comparison to the Scots and English. Fishing on the turbulent North Sea also proved to be an effective form of naval training. In many ways the Dutch success intimidated (and annoyed) the government. That said, at the end of the 17th century Scotland was importing boats from the Netherlands in an attempt to emulate their methods.

Old Cromwell Harbour Dunbar c.1880

Old Cromwell Harbour Dunbar c.1880

Boats called Busses were regarded as catching and curing factories. Slow moving, spacious  and sturdy they lay overnight with drift nets to catch herring which was salted and then placed into barrels onboard smaller boats called Yaggers or Jaggers. By the 18th century many Scottish fishing boats became larger and sturdier.

Subsidies introduced by the government encouraged men seeking a fortune. Often crofters and farm workers would work as part time fishermen. In 1785 the government introduced barrel bounties which were paid upon the amount of cured herring produced and in-turn encouraged curers to contractually guarantee a price for the fisherman’s catch.

In 1848 the Washington report (so called after Captain John Washington) was commissioned after a violent storm. The report gave recommendations for a change to the smaller fishing boats. It argued for boats to be decked to prevent water inundation. This report was met with a mixed response but was soon to be thought safer. Skaffies, Fifies and Zulus are the three types of this improved design.

Drowning at sea in the 18th and 19th century was an unsurprising occurrence that warranted the start of Sailor societies to protect the dependents of sea fairing men. Unusual superstitions were an additional way of protecting oneself from harm.

Prestonpans Sailors Benefit Society c.1890

Prestonpans Sailors Benefit Society c.1890

An 18th century account of Satan revering fishermen at Morrison’s Haven (no longer in existence) tells of a parish minister praying and protesting against the fishermen setting sail before the Sabbath was past. In protection from the minister’s prayers the fishermen made a small effigy in rags and burnt it on top of their chimneys using a form of black magic.

Fishing in East Lothian continued with varying success over the late 19th and 20th century and still continues today but on a significantly smaller scale. Fishing has without doubt made a considerable mark on the East Lothian way of life.

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