Parish identity

Graeme Morton

Belonging to a community continues to structure the world we have lived in since 1945. By offering a sense of place and geographical firmness, it gives a home to our many contradictory loyalties, those orientated through family, work, nation and state. Despite the incessant growth of towns and cities and the drive of global, economic and cultural relations, the parishes of East Lothian present the compact feel of a knowable community. In the mid-1990s the county’s population stood at 91,280: its largest town, Musselburgh, had a population of 18,649 and its administrative centre, Haddington (population 8,486),flagged itself as an ‘historic market town’, displaying proudly the ‘traditional’ brown heritage signpost. The protection of East Lothian from encroachment by an ever-growing capital city had been achieved with the buffer of a ‘Green Belt’, created in 1957 and designed to safeguard countryside access and aid Britain’s farming community after war. But still the county was subject to urban and cultural spread that, for some, threatened the essence of established parish identity. The immediate post-war years found a small but significant number of Italian prisoners of war and Polish servicemen remaining in the county. The overspill from Glasgow’s inner city dispersal resulted in a gaggle of Glaswegians sent east in the 1950s and 1960s to Haddington and Dunbar. And then there were the commuters – to Edinburgh primarily, but also to Stirling and Perth and to the west – who came because the parishes of East Lothian offered a lifestyle the city could not match.

This process was not new for Musselburgh as it had long been a dormitory town of Edinburgh, but it did much to resist absorption and maintain cultural distinctiveness. Its economy grew upon the fishing industry, before specialising in textile, paper and particularly wire manufacturing. John D Brunton, son of the founder of Brunton Wireworks in the town, bequeathed the Brunton Hall and Theatre, opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1971). Manufacturing industry and culture intertwined here, but the town’s past was best represented by the parade through the town of fisherfolk wearing the ‘traditional fisher dress’, marking a conclusion to the summer’s work. Although not held in the mid-1960s, the ‘Fisherman’s Walk’ continued to be a part of the burgh’s identity as it was in Prestonpans and Cockenzie. Musselburgh’s Walk was augmented by the annual Honest Toun Festival, first held in 1936, with the selection of a lad and lass to represent the town, and the Riding of the Marches (claimed to date back to the eighth century), which was held every 21 years. The most remembered Riding was in 1956 when Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and her sister the Honourable Lady Elphinstone (a resident of Inveresk) were given the freedom of the town and witnessed the Town Champion, his Squires, the Turf Cutter and assistant mark the boundaries of the parish (Lindgren, D. 1995 pp i-iii).

Each parish was forced to renew itself after the cessation of hostilities in 1945 and local festivals were a simple way to build community cohesion, but practical and spiritual paths were also followed. A ‘welcome home’ fund and week of events, culminating in a charity concert by Sir Harry Lauder, was held in Dunbar in 1946. The same year saw a new Cistercian monastic order established at Nunraw House in the Lammermuir Hills, moving to Nunraw (Sancta Maria Abbey) on the edge of Garvald in 1952. The lasting memory of East Lothian residents during wartime featured the county’s airfields – at Macmerry, Drem and East Fortune. Macmerry was later used by the Edinburgh Flying Club from 1946 to 1953, and East Fortune took over as Edinburgh’s airport from April to August 1961 while Turnhouse underwent refurbishment, with some 99,800 passenger movements recorded in the period. The National Museums of Scotland’s Museum of Flight was opened at East Fortune Airfield in 1975, becoming one of a limited number of visitor attractions in the county. The tourist identity of the East Lothian parishes had long been one of countryside and coastline, with few obvious ‘Tea & Pee’ stops, despite the county’s award-winning public toilet facilities. The Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick (opened in 2000) and the Centre for the Scottish Flag at Athelstaneford (the memorial was built in 1965 and restored in 1993) have offered a focus, along with the Preston Mill and Phantassie Doocot, Inveresk Lodge Garden and Lennoxlove House, outside Haddington. The internationally renowned conservationist John Muir (1838-1914) was commemorated in the name of the Haddington headquarters of the re-organised council (1996), but throughout 2000 and 2001 fierce debate followed plans to re-build the interior of the house of his birth (which had opened as a museum in 1982) with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. To the west of Dunbar was the John Muir Country Park, established in 1976 and encompassing 1,760 acres of dunes and woodlands, free for the naturalist to explore. Landscape remained fundamental to the identity of the parishes of East Lothian, and this was no better seen than from the golf course. By 2000, there were 19 courses, ranging from the oldest nine-hole course in the world at Musselburgh (1672, and possibly earlier) to the five courses around Gullane, including the prestigious Open Championship venue Muirfield). With this advantage, Gullane grew faster than any of its neighbouring villages.

Sport played an essential role in community cohesion in other ways throughout the county. Following closure of the region’s outdoor swimming pools, East Lothian Council took leisure to the communities and made it the focus of the localities. The Loch Centre at Tranent and the Aubigny Sports Centre in Haddington were the first of these developments, to be followed by Meadowmill Sports Centre at Prestonpans/Tranent (1991), Dunbar Leisure Pool (1992), Musselburgh Sports Centre (1994) and North Berwick Sports Centre (1996). The annual East Lothian Inter-Town Sports Tournament moved round each site (the 2000 event was hosted by North Berwick), organised jointly by the county’s community councils and East Lothian Council, and was designed to foster community integration.

Such strengthening of local parish identity was also achieved by reference to the wider world. The scheme to create ‘twinned’ towns came about after 1945, and the county embraced the concept more strongly in later years. Musselburgh was twinned with Champigny-sur-Marne, France (1961) and with Rosignano Marittimo, Italy (1983). Haddington was twinned with Aubigny-sur-Nere in France (1965); North Berwick was twinned with Kerteminde, Denmark (1999 ); and Dunbar was twinned with Lignières, France (1994), and through John Muir was sister-linked to Martinez, California (1981), to Haines, Alaska (1999) and to Meaford, Canada (2000). Indeed, the county of East Lothian was itself twinned with Kreis Spree Neisse in Germany (1999).

Twinning gave an identity to the localities in the way nature and industry once did. The flat and prosperous farm land of East Lothian remained the backdrop to parish life, although it no longer sustained significant numbers of jobs. The council was the largest employer (4,435) and Scottish Nuclear was the next biggest with 620 employees (East Lothian Business Database, June 1998; East Lothian Council, Personnel Division, June 1998). Deep mining ended with the closure of the Prestongrange Colliery in 1952 and Monktonhall in 1997; the council then favoured tourism and modern technology for job creation, campaigning hard to restrict the Scottish Executive’s search area for potential open-cast mining, their experience based on the 25-year, much-extended lifespan of Blindwells Open Cast, Tranent, which closed in 2000 (Lothian Structure Plan – Issues for East Lothian, c.2001). Yet power generation was supported: the coal-fired power station at Cockenzie was opened in 1968, its two 500′ chimneys dominating the skyline. The Torness Advanced Gas Cooled Nuclear Reactor (commissioned in 1988) became a tourist spot, with a strong campaign to promote its visitor centre (although by 2001, full-time opening was no more.) Tranent was another former mining town, locals having worked its ‘Great Seam’, which was just below the surface. It became home to an industrial estate at Macmerry (1963) and the nearby Elvingston Science Centre at Gladsmuir, which opened in 1998.

Thus by the end of the period, the link between employment and locality in the parish had been all but lost. The reality was that many used the parishes of East Lothian as a base from which they commuted to work. Longniddry was a village which experienced remarkably little development until 1916 when 20 cottages were constructed by the Scottish Veterans’ Garden Cities Association, but it was in the 1950s and the 1960s that private house building changed completely the topography and identity of that settlement. Its population doubled from 1,499 in 1971 to 2,993 in 1991 at a time when the percentage of the Scottish population living in small towns increased from 36% to 38% (Planning in Small Towns 1997).

Any balance which had previously been preserved in catering for the housing needs of both ‘locals’ and ‘incomers’ was now completely destroyed. The whole character of the village was altered in the space of a very few years and the population of Longniddry is now overwhelmingly composed of people in the professional and upper-and-middle management brackets. Whether we like it or not, Longniddry is now little more than a residential suburb of Edinburgh.

Robertson, D.M. 1993 p 61

Interestingly, Tyninghame was designated a conservation village in 1969, and attempts were made to give Spott the same status in the 1990s. This stresses the idealised pull of parish life and goes someway to explaining why, with the county projected to need 4,700 new homes, that those in situ would now [2002] prefer the creation of a separate town than see expansion of existing communities (55% in favour of a new settlement; according to an online poll begun 11 January 2002 in the East Lothian Courier).

This viewpoint was, and is, new: it had been a feature of East Lothian’s development in the 1945-2000 period that, with three-quarters of its property built since1945, as Table 1 shows, urban growth had been spread throughout the county, not focused on one site:

Age of Property as Proportion of Local Plan Areas
Pre- 1919 19.3
1919-1945 6.3
1946-1959 14.6
Post- 1960 59.4
Unknown 0.4

East Lothian Housing Plan, (1990)

To ‘locals’ this spread appeared to undermine the knowable community of each parish, yet, conversely, such growth was their lifeblood, as the councillors of East Lothian acknowledged:

The Council is … increasingly concerned about the viability of some of the rural communities in East Lothian and recognises the pivotal role of housing provision in the maintenance of other services such as schools, shops and transport. For this reason the Council now consider the provision of family houses in these settlements to be a special need. East Lothian Housing Plan 1990

No matter how much it looked to the rural past, parish identity in East Lothian was forced to evolve along with the changing composition of its settlements; the proposals for more homes in the county from 2001 onwards will continue this trend.

Further reading & references

  • East Lothian Council (c.2001) Lothian Structure Plan – Issues for East Lothian. A
  • Memorandum from East Lothian for the Information of all MSPs
  • East Lothian District Council (1990) East Lothian Housing Plan, 1990-95, Volume 2
  • Lindgren, Donald (1995)Musselburgh in old picture postcards Volume 3: Riding of the Marches edition, European Library
  • Registrar General for Scotland (May 1998) Figures for mid-1997: Population Estimates Scotland
  • Robertson, D.M. (1993) Longniddry, East Lothian District Library
  • The Scottish Office (1997) Planning in Small Towns: Planning Advice Note PAN 52
  • Alister P. Tulloch (Ed)(1987) The Way We Were in Musselburgh and Fisherrow East Lothian Community History and Arts Trust

Population figures from: Area Information

Other web pages used:

Image: Gala Queen Parade Dunbar 1972