The story of the A1 in the county

Sonia Baker

The fluctuating fortunes of this road as it crossed the county were played out over a backdrop of 55 years of economic boom and bust, of varying local and national responsibilities for road development, and at a cost in lives lost in accidents that unfortunately continued into the 21st century. In a move that seems incredible today, in the 1960s, the speed limit through Musselburgh was increased to 40mph, and a similar proposal had been mooted for the road between Belhaven and Dunbar. The later popularity of the private motorcar was indeed foreseen, but post-war minds perhaps had no perception that its use would permeate all sections of society. The result was that the upgrading and re-routing that this major road evidently required, was continually subjected to plans and proposals that came and went, and towns like Musselburgh and Tranent became increasingly congested. Nevertheless there was some local opposition to a by-pass, particularly from traders. Throughout the period, the local newspapers reported and discussed, and reported again the road’s future. The period ended with the final piece of the road – between Haddington and Thistley Cross, Dunbar – about to begin its final upgrade to a dual carriageway ‘expressway’. It would take to Christmas 2003 for the main route through the county from near Dunbar to the Scottish capital to lose its single carriageway status; that being said, one suspects that accidents will continue, as the dualled sections of road south of Dunbar are to remain interspersed with confusing portions of single carriageway.

…the A1… is one of the most dangerous and ludicrous roads in Europe …
Edward Black (4 October 2002 Scotsman)

By 1945, a few fortunate towns had already been bypassed by the A1, although these roads were not by-passes in the modern understanding; the roads merely went past the burghs, not through them, and remained narrow and twisty. From the 1930s, the A1 road bypassed Dunbar, East Linton and Haddington. Its route past the first two was complicated by the proximity of the main east coast railway line and, at East Linton, by the River Tyne. The A1 was, in places, three lanes, the central one for overtaking, either way. During the post-war years, roadworks of any size were hampered by financial limitations; one exception was the straightening of the double bend south of Dunbar at Broxmouth in 1949. A Tranent by-pass (to the south) was proposed as part of the 1953 County Development Plan: delayed over the years by the problems associated with mining subsidence, and by promises made and broken (in 1964, a six-year delay was announced), Tranent’s by-pass was eventually opened in 1986 (33 years later), running to the north of the town.

By the 1960s, calls for a Musselburgh by-pass had become increasingly vociferous, with the Town Council protesting to the Secretary of State at the delay. The removal of the town’s rail service by Beeching in 1964 only served to make congestion worse; by 1967, the Town Council’s stance was supported by the County (Midlothian) Council. Delays (and promises) continued through 1971, and by 1975 the new Regional Council was pressuring the Musselburgh Town Council for a decision on the route for the by-pass. By this stage, Edinburgh Town Council’s deliberations on the route of the city’s outer ring road were having a knock-on effect, and the Musselburgh town council were reluctant to make a decision until Edinburgh had made theirs. By the end of October 1975, the decision-making processes were no longer the cause of delays – but the economic situation was: the Secretary of State halted the process.

A1 at Gladsmuir, 1957

In 1978, the Musselburgh by-pass was scheduled to begin in 1982, to complement the completion of the Tranent by-pass. A year later, financial restrictions had put paid to that plan, and the announcement that November that the work would after all go ahead was greeted locally with scepticism. February 1980 saw an announcement that both by-passes were to go ahead, and be completed by 1985. In the event, work on the Tranent section began in May 1984, and was officially opened on a very blustery day – 27 March 1986. The much needed Musselburgh by-pass was opened by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind in December the same year. The 9.2km dual carriageway cost £9 million.

Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the county, one of the worst accident spots was at the Beltonford end of the Dunbar by-pass. The Edinburgh road formerly joined the by-pass with a tight, and deceptive, bend, with a much-damaged tree marking the point at which drivers realised their mistakes. The Beltonford Smiddy was demolished in 1962 and a roundabout created. In 1963, the Scottish Development department refused the County Council’s application for a new Dunbar by-pass – the traffic being described as ‘too light’ – while the County Council described the existing road as a ‘country lane’. In 1968 the County Roads Surveyor, Mr WH Rankine, described the Dunbar by-pass as ‘probably the worst bit of road we have’

In 1967, the breathalyser was introduced; the Dunbar by-pass death toll continued to rise. A four-phase road improvement plan to run over five years incorporated a new roundabout at Beltonford (opened January 1967), and road straightening improvements from Thistley Cross to Eweford (from June 1967). Even so, the AA could not even find a safe site for one of their emergency boxes – ‘the last … was removed rather forcibly by a lorry.’ (Haddingtonshire Courier1967 June 9).

From the mid 1960s it was increasingly difficult for large lorries to manoeuvre under the railway bridge at Beltonford, where the A1 bent sharply to accommodate the arched bridge; several got jammed, and as a result, action had to be taken. In 1969 it was announced that a new railway bridge would be built at Beltonford, and the road lowered and re-aligned. The new railway bridge was in place during summer 1972, and work was completed the following year.

In January 1981, the opening of the section of the diverted A1 between Broxmouth and Dryburn – the concrete road built by Blue Circle – allowed the expansion of the cement works. The A1 had previously run to the north-east of the railway. Also in the 1980s, the part of the A1 that passed by Torness Power Station was upgraded after concerns about safety there. Apart from these and other minor works here and there, the A1 upgrading had all but ceased in this part of the county. The accidents continued; and the development of the Pencraig viewpoint near East Linton in the 1960s – on the ‘wrong’ side of the road – was to prove another blackspot.

In July 1990, it was announced that the A1 south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was to be upgraded, and a second announcement that the dual carriageway from Edinburgh was to go no further than Haddington were not well received in the county. The £10 million by-pass of nearby Cockburnspath and accompanying crawler lanes (soon deemed unsatisfactory), and the promise of £50 million worth of ‘improvements’ on the existing A1 from Edinburgh to Morpeth caused resentment; the promised crawler lane on Pencraig was, in fact, delayed so long that it was superseded by later plans.

From 1993, the A1 at Spott junction, Dunbar had the dubious distinction of being the location for the first roadside speed camera to be used on a Scottish trunk road. In December, a Scottish Office statement declared that the dualling of the A1 from Tranent (Bankton) to Haddington would go ahead the following year.

A new road bridge was built at Dunglass in 1994, and in May it was announced that the A1 should be 2-laned from Edinburgh to Dunbar by 1997. July saw the proposed route being amended to accommodate archaeological remains at Overhailes; one advantage of the delays over the years was that the lack of development permitted the retention of such remains, and made them available for modern research.

The long-awaited Tranent to Haddington dual carriageway was opened in 1996; the 12.5km road cost £26 million. There were hopes that the go-ahead for the final phase would be given. The election of the Labour government in 1997 meant that the blanket moratorium it placed on all road development in June that year included the A1. After 18 years of battling with the Conservatives to get the road completed, the local Labour MP, John Home Robertson, was effectively scuppered by his own party at the last fence.

With devolution impending, further delays arose as the UK government refused to progress with the roads programme, as this would be a responsibility of the devolved Scottish Parliament. In November 1999, the Scottish transport minister gave the go ahead for the upgrade – costings varied from £32-£44 million. A start date of 2001 was given, to link Haddington to a point at Thistley Cross, east of Beltonford; by 2000, concerns had been raised locally, especially from East Linton folk, that the road had no access off between these two points. The village – which had recently greatly expanded – and North Berwick, were not accessible from the new road, and the local fire brigade would be unable to gain access in an emergency; safety concerns were expressed. This was matched by a feeling that further delays with such as a Public Inquiry would mean that the money would be reallocated, and that the single carriageway between Dunbar and Haddington would remain a death trap.

On a cold day, the 22 December 1999, Sarah Boyack MSP, the Minister of Transport and Environment, opened the A1 dualled section running from the west of Spott junction to Oswald Dean. In March 2000, the go ahead for the Haddington/Thistley Cross section was confirmed, but, at the same time, the Minister made it known that the 1.7km of road between Spott road and Thistley Cross was not to be upgraded at the same time. In fact, initially it was planned that this section was to remain single carriageway; this was later amended. Work on this small section began before that on the Haddington/Dunbar sector and the road was dualled.

Archaeological work began in 2000, and construction work on the Haddington/Thistley Cross part of the road began the following year. It remains to be seen how drivers cope with a road that still offers the unexpected – like the filters off the road at the Dunbar/Pinkerton and Innerwick/Thurston sections that take drivers across the opposite carriageways, and the remaining sections of single carriageway at Skateraw and Dunglass – especially after nearly 30 miles of fast dual road from Edinburgh. The Minister’s engineering advisors stated that dualling was not necessary beyond Dunbar, and that the

Route Action Plan [is] designed to deliver discreet sections of upgraded road to provide unambiguous opportunities for drivers to overtake …
Letter from Sarah Boyack to Stephen Bunyan, Chairman, Dunbar Community Council, 7 March 2000