Janet Helen Hunt (nee Forrest, 1946) – North Berwick 1950s & 1960s, and family memories of Lowe’s farms in Musselburgh & Longniddry

I have spent most of my life living on or near the coast of East Lothian. My family were farmers and market gardeners, well-known in the Musselburgh area as David Lowe & Sons who expanded eastwards towards Longniddry as Elvingston estates. The farms with their old houses and their lands were full of history, birds, wild flowers and lovely gardens, leaving me with a love of such things which has stayed throughout my life and enriched my upbringing on the coast at North Berwick.

My childhood in the 1950s and 1960s was a happy amalgamation of the coast and the farm. During the week we had the sea and the open-air pool to swim in. There were shops full of smells and delights like Edington’s the grocer, where they ground coffee from morn to dusk (or so it seemed), the nursery on Station Hill, which was pervaded by the sweet smell of plums in summer, Coventry the fish-monger, where the fish displayed on the tiles were kept permanently cool and fresh with running water and Dank’s, the newsagent, where you could buy everything including sealing-wax and browse for hours amongst piles of books, always finding something unusual. On wet afternoons or evenings we had the cinema which, thanks to Mr Scott’s excellent management, was beautifully run. But, above all, in a small town with few cars at that time, there was the endless freedom to go anywhere in safety. The high school was in the country then and my route, up Traynor’s Brae, was a bumpy country lane, bounded by fields and trees, but never a lonely way for we all walked to school together in those days.


The weekends were often spent away staying with cousins or having large family gatherings at Stoneyhill, my grandmother’s home just outside Musselburgh. It is a miracle we are all still in one piece for, apart from my brother falling off a horse and breaking his arm, none of us ever had any serious injuries from running loose on the farm. The most exciting entrance to the farmyard was through the first-floor bathroom window, down onto the billiard-room roof, along the ridge, down the other side and drop into the yard – there were easier ways, all more lady-like!

David Lowe & Sons grew vegetables, fruit and flowers using, for many years, fine old horses to work the fields. Everybody was sad when the day came to replace them with tractors and I never got used to the quietness of the stable yard. But looking back, I feel very lucky to have the memory of the horses and of the fields, once full of Musselburgh’s famous leeks, now full of houses.

In the early l980s my husband and I decided to return to my old home in North Berwick to give our children the advantage of an upbringing by the sea. It has been an interesting experience to regard my home from such a different angle. In the course of time things change and North Berwick is no exception. I look at green areas in towns as important breathing spaces whereas our planning department seems to regard them as building opportunities. Consequently North Berwick has expanded hugely since the 1970s, bringing large numbers of people to fill the schools to over-flowing and choking the streets with cars – not a good time to lose our cinema, our much-loved open-air pool with its pavilion and our manned police station. However, new times bring new benefits and the Seabird Centre is giving many people much pleasure without affecting the real experience of visiting our islands with Chris Marr in the Sula. When I was a child it was his father, Fred Marr, who took us out. Their resemblance is so strong some people have not noticed the transition! The growth over the years of a music department at the high school has been a wonderful thing generating in the children a love of music and giving those with ability the opportunity to study at a much higher level.

Everything was delivered to the door when I was young – groceries, fish, meat, bread, milk, vegetables, papers and laundry. With the arrival of washing-machines and cars came the decline of house deliveries and for many years it was greatly limited, but more recently – perhaps to woo the shopper back from out-of-town shopping-centres – it has seen a revival. This is a great help to me as I don’t drive which in this age makes me something of a dinosaur!

As the children grew older, finding more time on my hands, I began a study of the botany, natural history and history of the few miles around me, which I had previously taken so much for granted. In doing so I also discovered there was much interesting archaeology still to be seen, these rich coastal shores having been heavily populated by peoples of the Bronze and Iron Ages and in more recent mediaeval times.

I was able to find a focus for these interests at Archerfield estate which lies between Dirleton and the sea. Whilst wandering through Archerfield one afternoon, my husband and I came across a round cairn, the first I had encountered in East Lothian, and on its surface an ancient human tooth. We informed Historic Scotland whose Principal Inspector of Monuments came down to verify that it was indeed a Bronze Age round cairn. It is now a Scheduled Monument, affording it some protection. The tooth was also verified as being of the same period and is now in the National Museum of Scotland. The cairn lies in a ride within what is known as the chequerboard woodland, which includes Scots Pines planted about 50 years ago from seed taken from the Loch Maree area as an experiment.

Nearby lies Eldbotle Knoll, where various bronze artefacts, including a penannular wire brooch and a needle, have been found as well as an antler tool and some mediaeval pottery. On it is the traditional site of a motte (castle), for which a licence was granted in 1135/62. There are several charters which mention Eldbotle Castle and the visits to it of Malcolm IV and David I, the latter staying there on at least two occasions. The castle was owned by the de Vaux family but was abandoned by 1220 in favour of a stone castle at Dirleton.

In the 18th century, the Eel Burn would flood in the winter, creating what was known as the North Loch. The burn is now confined and the land is drained but then there must have been a wonderful wetland for birds and plants alike.

At Hanging Rocks there are two splendid caves known to have been occupied as far back as the Iron Age. Looking west along the coast towards Gullane and east to North Berwick Links lies the largest and most complex area of lichen-rich dunes in the Lothians. Their botanical interest is the main reason why this area is scheduled as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and amongst its interesting flora is included a nationally rare species of grass.

In July and August, thousands of moulting eider ducks can be seen along this stretch of coast. At this time they cannot fly and are vulnerable to disturbance. The area is nationally important for breeding eider, cormorant and ringed plover, as it is for wintering waders on the shore such as turnstone and purple sandpiper and offshore for wintering divers, grebes and sea duck.

We need our quiet, wild places just as our towns need their green spaces, but developers cannot seem to resist the urge to infill with expensive housing and golf-courses. Fourteen years ago, at a planning inquiry regarding proposed developments in Archerfield, my husband quoted from an East Lothian District Council Booklet on East Lothian Archaeology

‘The countryside is still rich in archaeological remains which have luckily escaped being destroyed by industrial or agricultural development. Our distant forebears have left traces of their houses and farms, strongholds, graves and sacred places, and these remains are to be regarded as an important aspect of our National Heritage.’

That statement is as true today as it was then.