Inveresk Musselburgh

Parish Representative:
Sheila Henderson


The largest settlement in the whole of East Lothian is Musselburgh, in the parish of Inveresk. The landward section of Inveresk parish is discussed in a separate account; here the old burgh boundaries (valid to 1974) have been used to roughly delineate where Musselburgh ends and the rest of the parish begins. It is acknowledged that the 55 years of economic and social history of a town the size of Musselburgh cannot be comprehensively addressed in an account as short as this. However, the contributors have endeavoured to include many of the key issues of the period.

Musselburgh lies six miles east of Edinburgh and extends to about 871 acres. It is bounded to the north by the Firth of Forth, to the west by the Magdalene Burn and to the east by the Ravensheugh Burn. Transected by the river Esk, Musselburgh is a place of two halves – Fisherrow to the west and Musselburgh ‘proper’ to the east of the river. The town centre is a designated conservation area and contains much that dates from its days as a burgh. The town is the most diverse of all the settlements in the parish, combining homes, workplaces and leisure facilities all in close proximity to each other.

Between 1945 and 2000 infill development in the town continued apace and provided homes for the many Edinburgh commuters; 1990s house building at Stoneyhill filled the primary school there to capacity and this proved to be the main limiting factor on development elsewhere. Housing development on brownfield sites was also extensive – including that at Millhill. Other uses for such sites included the development of a number of industrial estates – such as Musselburgh Business Park and Esk Mills Industrial Estate.

The post-war burgh

In 1945 the river Esk wound its pollution-filled way downstream from the discharges of the Penicuik paper mill via Dalkeith through to Musselburgh, where industrial works – the wire works, the net mill, Musselburgh’s own paper mill, the two breweries and more – so crucial to the town’s employment – added even more effluent. The west bank of the river mouth accommodated an open sewer, which spread its load aromatically around the shingle; the spit grew throughout the 1950s. To the east of the river lay mud flats behind a largely ineffective wartime breakwater. The gas works sat to the east of the river mouth and there was a tip at Levenhall. The Lothians’ coal mining industry discharged its water into the North Esk and South Esk but in the period of nationalisation (post 1947) the quality was controlled by statute enforced by the Forth River Board. However, no such control could be placed on the old disused mines where highly polluted water overflowed at many points into the rivers and streams adding greatly to the general pollution of the Esk at Musselburgh. Action is presently being considered to deal with these old mine discharges. Nonetheless, in 1965, it was felt that the local coal board was not above discharging ‘volatile material’ into local rivers (Councillor T. White, Musselburgh News 1965 September 3).

Periodically all would be cleansed when the river Esk flooded following heavy rain, as on 13 August 1948 when the town was engulfed. At Millhill, James Street and Shorthope Street many homes were flooded to about 2′ deep; this was some 14″ higher than the last highest flood level of 1891 and the river was running some 8’6″ above its ‘normal’ level.

Regarding the flooding in 1948, it was a Musselburgh holiday, and the damage in the High Street was caused by the DUKWS (a type of military amphibious boat) patrolling up and down the High Street.

George Montgomery

As well as the traditional ‘heavy’ industries, the town boasted a range of other occupations: there was an active fishing fleet – about 20 boats in number; and market gardening flourished, with David Lowe’s firm a particularly important employer. The mining industry in the area seemed to be set for a fair and long future and the burgh accommodated many of the miners who worked locally.

For most of the period the main thoroughfare through the town centre was the main Edinburgh to London A1; post-war vehicle numbers were such that this did not pose an immediate problem and there were two railway stations and a tram service to serve the town’s needs. George Montgomery recalls that it was ‘3d from Levenhall to the zoo, change at Corstorphine’. Later the A1’s traffic levels became a big problem for the town.

Post-war Musselburgh still, of course, retained many of its older buildings, many of which were swept away later, when the town was ‘modernised’. The burgh itself was over-populated; housing was a continuing problem and many people continued to live in slums until well into the 1950s. The everyday needs of ordinary people were taken care of by the Co-op and, like Co-ops elsewhere, the Musselburgh and Fisherrow Co-operative Society prided itself on caring for all its members’ needs.