Turn Back Time – The West Lothian High Street

Linlithgow High Street, 1890s

Linlithgow has always been a retail and service centre.  Its situation on the main road from Edinburgh to Stirling and the North, and its association with the Royal Palace, will have provided a living for a wide range of traders ever since the Middle Ages.  The early temporary stalls and booths must have quickly made way for more permanent structures – the first proper shops.

 Shop fronts as we know them, with glass windows for the display of goods, appeared from the 18th century; some  had probably changed relatively little when the  first photograph of Linlithgow High Street (copyright of St John’s Church, Bathgate)  was taken, around 1890.  The shops are small in scale, without elaborate frontages, and the names are simply painted on the stonework of the building. Visible shops include a clothier and a flesher (butcher), both typical establishments in a town like this. 

Erskine’s bakers shop, also in Linlithgow and pictured in 1910,  has a decorative painted wooden signboard and a small hanging sign as well; there is a carefully arranged display of sweetie jars in the window to tempt passing trade.  We can see the progression towards the shop front designed as advertising, although this shop is still in the tradition of local independent retailing.

With William Low’s grocery establishment in Bathgate we are firmly in the realm of the chain store.  Although modest by modern supermarket standards, we have a store proclaiming its corporate identity, in the severe Moderne style of the late 1930s.  The glass and metal front suggests hygiene and efficiency, and contrasts with the Victorian stonework above.  The change from a vernacular high street, with shops blending in with domestic structures, to modern shop fronts designed as bold statements, is almost complete.

 Today, Linlithgow High Street is surprisingly unchanged, thanks to its status as an historic town.  In many other high streets the newer shop fronts are less sympathetic to their surroundings.  However, there has been a shift to leisure and luxury retailing.  Smaller shops selling everyday necessities have been largely replaced by supermarkets and retail parks.

High street photographs like these have informed the current BBC series “Turn Back Time- the High Street” http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00v7p71 .  Do you have any old high street photographs? Why don’t you upload your pictures and your high steet memories to the BBC’s Turn Back Time Flickr site? http://www.flickr.com/groups/bbcturnbacktime/

To view the images featured in this blog, click on the links below:

An Assaulting Accession

Boxes marked ‘Assault Vests’ don’t often come into an archive. Well not this archive anyway.  But here they are.  East Lothian Archive has taken possession of the records of Haddington Cadet Force, based at Knox Academy. Established in 1906 after a unanimous decision by the Haddington Combined School Board it was felt that as ‘The modern system of education comprises much that is of little value in a practical sense.’ it was beneficial that such a force be set up.

There were very many such cadet forces established across Scotland and the United Kingdom all with the aim of instilling certain attitudes and behaviours.  Some people decried the creation of such groups as instilling ‘the military spirit in youth’ but the organisers branded this as ‘hysterical’ and  stated that ‘The root endeavour of military training itself is to dispense with “thrashing” as far as possible, just as the aim of the police force is to maintain and not to break the law.’

The initial raft of subscriptions for ‘Uniform and Equipment’ raised £34, 3, 6, most of which came from the Headmasters of the local Schools, the Chairman of the School Board and the Clerk.  The Haddington Cadet Corps was inspected by the War Secretary R B Haldane in October 1907, where they were noted to be of ‘exceedingly smart appearance.’

Regardless of your opinion on military organisations the records of this group show how the local community responded to the changing times, and over one hundred years of history have now been passed into East Lothian Council’s care following the disbanding of this group.

Tricky Rogues

The Linlithgowshire Rogue’s Gallery held by Edinburgh City Archives is a fascinating 19th century record packed with mugshots of Victorian villains and details of their known crimes.  People of all ages hailing from places throughout Scotland and beyond can be found in the gallery. Their crimes range from serious assaults to fraud and petty thefts. The Linlithgowshire Rogue’s Gallery was created at a time before policing procedures were consistent. Some entries are more detailed than others and often contain quirky anecdotes and stories.

One curious entry relates to David Brook, a criminal who pretended to be deaf and mute when brought before the courts. The 1872 entry for David Brook, a native of Cornwall, lists an assault and fraud charge. Alongside David Brook’s entry, there is a newspaper clipping describing the criminal history of a John Macdonald and his tactic of pretending to be deaf and mute to avoid trial and prison time. It is not clear if David Brook was an alias used by John Macdonald, or if they were two different people using the same trick to avoid the law. To read a transcript of the newspaper article about John Macdonald, who may have used the name David Brook, click here. If you are also interested in looking at other entries in the Rogue’s Gallery, click here.

‘Rab and His Friends’: a Midlothian Story

Rab and His Friends








Rab and His Friends by Dr John Brown: A Midlothian Story        

John Brown was born on 22 September 1810 in Biggar, Lanarkshire, the son of a minister and bible scholar. In 1822, the family moved to Edinburgh. Brown was educated at The Royal High School and Edinburgh University, where he studied medicine under the eminent surgeon, James Syme, whom Brown revered. As an adult, Brown lived two lives: he was a well-respected doctor and also an essayist with a wide circle of literary friends, including Lords Jeffrey and Cockburn, Thackeray and Ruskin. A popular man and a brilliant conversationalist, he wrote on a variety of subjects, including medicine and theology, but he is best remembered for his entertaining essays. He died in May 1882 and is buried in New Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh.       

John Brown’s most popular work was his short story Rab and His Friends. Originally given as a lecture, Brown felt that he had not delivered it very well, but the story struck a chord with his audience and was an immediate success. It was published in 1859 and brought the author considerable fame.       

The narrator recalls his boyhood encounter with Rab, a majestic grey mastiff, and his master James Noble, a simple horse-cart driver. A few years later, James brings his wife Ailie to the hospital where the narrator is now a student. She has breast cancer and the surgeon tells her that it must be operated the following day. James and the dog are allowed to remain nearby and to watch the operation. Described as a ‘gentle, modest, sweet woman, clean and lovable,’ Ailie endures her ordeal in brave silence, commanding respect from a boisterous group of students. James nurses her tenderly, but she develops a fever and dies a few days later. ‘James buried his wife,’ says the story, ‘with his neighbours mourning, Rab watching the proceedings from a distance.’ Shortly after her burial, James also falls ill and dies. Rab refuses to eat, becomes hostile and is killed by the new driver. According to the story: ‘He was buried in the braeface, near the burn, the children of the village, his companions, who used to make very free with him and sit on his ample stomach, as he lay half asleep at the door in the sun, watching the solemnity.’       


Picture of Rab






Hugely popular in its day, Rab and His Friends is considered one of the finest examples of Victorian melodrama. Modern readers are unlikely to sympathise with its maudlin sentimentality, but the story is valuable for several reasons. It contains a vivid description of an operation carried out in the era before anaesthetics, the kind of operation John Brown would have witnessed as a medical student. The story captures the simple honesty of ordinary country people, something that the author had often experienced and greatly admired. Ailie and James accept their fate with great dignity and courage, trusting in God’s grace and their love for each other, and never uttering a word of complaint.       

Rab and His Friends: a Dog Fight


 In addition, the story reflects the extraordinary insight that James Brown had into canine temperament and the human nature of dogs. The dignity and devotion of the elderly couple are reflected in Rab’s noble behaviour towards his owners and the annoying lesser dogs that trouble him in the street. Brown further developed his ideas in his essay Our Dogs, which was published in 1862. Both stories have continued to enchant dog-lovers ever since. Rab and His Friends was very popular with Scottish exiles living overseas, in part because of its affectionate depiction of ‘auld Scotland’. The book went through numerous editions and is still in print.       


Howegate village

The story of Rab and His Friends is based on real events. A native of the parish of West Linton, John Jackson (‘James Noble’) married Margaret Todd (‘Ailie’) in Penicuik in January 1807. The couple had seven children. They lived in a small cottage in Loanstone, just east of Penicuik, although John ran his carrier business from the village of Howgate. A carrier was a delivery person, who carried loads about the country with his horse and cart. Howgate was once on the main road from Edinburgh to Peebles and further south. The Howgate Inn was an important stopping place and was frequented by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.       

Margaret Todd died in December 1830 and John soon afterwards, in January 1831. They were buried in Penicuik churchyard in unmarked graves.  In August 1920 a memorial was unveiled in Penicuik churchyard to the Howgate Carrier and his wife ‘Ailie’. The memorial was paid for by public subscription and unveiled by the Midlothian author Mrs Burnett Smith, better known by her penname of ‘Annie S Swan’.          

Postcard of Memorial