Musselburgh politics: a personal view

Gavin Strang MP

From the end of the war to 1983, Musselburgh was part of the constituency of Edinburgh East. From 1983 to 1997, Musselburgh was part of the East Lothian constituency. In 1997, Musselburgh itself was split, with part remaining in the East Lothian constituency and part rejoining the eastern part of Edinburgh, in the constituency named Edinburgh East and Musselburgh. I was first elected to represent the Edinburgh East constituency in the House of Commons in the 1970 general election and have served continuously as a Member of Parliament ever since.

The Edinburgh East constituency was represented by a Labour Member at Westminster throughout the period from 1945 to 2000. The Rt Hon Pethwick Lawrence, a prominent supporter of Women’s Suffrage was the Member from 1935-1945. He was followed by The Rt Hon George Thomson who only served for two years; he in turn was followed in 1947 by The Rt Hon John Wheatley, and he by The Rt Hon George Willis who served from 1954 until 1970.

When I was first elected, Musselburgh had its own town council. The local town council’s responsibilities included housing which in those days was a very important local government function. Although the Council served a small population it was well regarded, and it built many high quality council houses, which were well maintained and managed. In 1970 most Musselburgh residents still aspired to rent a decent council house. Owner-occupation was for the better-off. At that time Musselburgh was in Midlothian and the Midlothian County Council had responsibility for schools where again there was respect throughout Scotland for the priority given by the Council to education. Following the major local government reorganization in 1975 Musselburgh was transferred from Midlothian to East Lothian.

In 1970 the inshore fishing and deep mining coal industries were both important to the economic wellbeing of the area. Around 15 fishing boats were owned and operated by men who lived in the Fisherrow part of Musselburgh. By 2000, the number of Fisherrow boats had fallen to two.

While some fish were caught off the northeast coast of England more often the fishermen would be operating further afield. The boats would be left in places like Peterhead or harbours of the northwest of Scotland and the men (usually about four to a boat) would drive home to Fisherrow at the weekends.

Throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s the Lothian coalfield was supplying huge tonnage of coal to power stations and other outlets. In the 1960s and 1970s many of the older pits within travelling distance of Musselburgh – such as Newcraighall, Lady Victoria and Dalkeith -closed but the two large modern deep mines at Monktonhall and Bilston Glen continued to produce coal into the 1990s. There was some opencast coalmining in East Lothian but by the end of 2000 the long tradition of coal mining in Lothian was at an end.

The importance of the fishing and mining industries in the locality was not just in the number of people who directly obtained their livelihood from these activities. The ancillary industries in Musselburgh included Brunton’s wire mill (which made wire ropes for the mining industry and other customers) and Stewart’s net mill which made nets for the fishing industry. Another source of employment in Musselburgh throughout the period that is worthy of mention was the Inveresk paper mill, which closed in the early 1970s, and there was a cotton mill that employed large numbers of local women.

As the Member of Parliament I had a lot of contact with local industry. During the 1970s I was in regular dialogue with the Fisherrow Fishermen’s Association about the implications of the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Economic Community for the industry. There were ambitious plans to mine the rich seams of coal under Musselburgh bay, which I strongly supported. The plan involved bringing the coal up at Monktonhall colliery with a satellite shaft in Musselburgh for the men to travel down when going underground. One of my first experiences as the newly elected Member for Musselburgh was to meet the Chairman of Inveresk Paper Company to try to persuade the Company to reverse its decision to close the paper mill. The Company also owned a number of houses in Musselburgh for its employees.

By the end of the 1990s, Musselburgh was benefiting from the huge growth in the Edinburgh economy. The growth in the Edinburgh financial sector in particular, along with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament has created many new jobs in Edinburgh. As part of the Edinburgh travel-to-work area, Musselburgh has shared the job opportunities and relative prosperity.