Stenton | Environment

Pressmennan | Whiteadder reservoir | Land ownership | Townscapes, Buildings & Landscapes of Distinction

The parish boundaries, which have remained the same since 1891, remained largely unchanged in 1983, when the southern portion of the adjoining Spott parish was re-assigned to Berwickshire. The coming of the Whiteadder reservoir (1969) lost the fixed river boundary between Stenton and Whittingehame parishes (see also Whittingehame parish).

On the whole Stenton and East Lothian have enjoyed a milder climate since the war, but bad winters have still occurred.

I came home from college in the middle of the great snow storm of 1947…I had to walk from East Linton, because the road was blocked yet again. The next six weeks were spent in wellington boots, helping with the lambing. There were ewes and lambs in every available corner of the steading, and the first job for the horses in the morning was to make paths in the lambing field so that the ewes could walk. Our tractor went daily to East Linton to pick up food supplies and mail for the village of Stenton. The Beesknowe crawler took them on from here, and brought back the milk from Pressmennan. The staff spent this time either feeding stock or trying to keep roads reasonably open. Any surplus energy was expended in moonlight sledging – the so-called ‘spring’ of 1947 must linger still in many memories.

Elliot Jeffrey, Bielgrange

Summer floods continue to cause problems. Mary Stenhouse recalls the impact of the 1948 rains at Millknowe

We had to climb out of the bedroom window…and there were drowned sheep floating past the house

and there was flooding on 12 August 1948 by the river at Biel Mill. Afterwards the river was cleared back to its proper course leaving a silt and sand base.

In 1963 there was a bad snowfall in the parish, which persisted for many weeks and hill communications were cut off. Naval helicopters made many trips to the Stenton area, landing at Ruchlaw. Deep snow and heavy rain held up progress on Whiteadder reservoir. The winter of 2000-2001 was also severe and heavy snow made travel difficult. There was also the inconvenience of four days without electricity.

Since the Countryside Premium Scheme started in 1997, farmers are now paid to farm in an environmentally friendly way. New woods and shelterbelts were planted and some hedgerows were reinstated. The CPS, and its successor the Rural Stewardship Scheme from 2001, encouraged the establishment of wildlife habitats.

Pitcox farm joined the CPS in 1997. Hedges have been coppiced and replanted and amenity woodland established. A wild flower meadow has been incorporated, and beetle banks established. Three ponds have been built and all water margins are protected from agrochemicals. The Game Conservancy Farm Ecology Unit has pioneered a scheme to reduce broad-leaved herbicide on the outer six metres of field; this allows weed flora to develop, which is crucial to hosting beneficial insects – key food for chicks of partridges, pheasants and other wildlife.

Stella Findlay

Peter Obrzud shares his experiences of wildlife seen in the Pitcox area since the early 1980s:

In 1999 the first pair of common buzzards were sighted nesting in a local wood and since then five confirmed pairs have been nesting in the area. Sparrow hawk and kestrel also nest in the parish. Merlin and the occasional peregrine falcon hunt in the surrounding area. Tawny owls and barn owls are relatively difficult to spot but on the last count the number of pairs stood about ten of each.

Foxes are always around. Badgers are not so common but they are, and have been, living in three woodlands not far from the village; the last count was about 14 badgers in the parish. The deer population has also stayed constant. There are many hares around here.

Brown trout and sea trout move up and down the swollen burns. Dippers, moorhens, mallard and kingfisher (not many) have all nested on the banks. Stenton has an abundance of wildlife in and around the burns. Only when these ecosystems become polluted from the sewage waste from cottages and farms is there a serious problem, which can take several years to recover or even no recovery at all.

Stenton is fortunate in that as well as one Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it has Pressmennan lake and woods, and a share of the Whiteadder reservoir. The SSSI is at Rammer Cleugh, south of Pressmennan. It is designated for its botanical and geomorphological interest, and the woodlands here are almost entirely sessile oak.


The diversion of northerly-flowing streams – Bennet’s Burn – by ice sheets and the subsequent melting of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age some 10,000 years ago led to the formation of a glacial overflow channel, of which the Pressmennan valley is a part. The site’s geology is mainly Silurian – Llandovery greywackes, siltstones and mudstones, although at the western end there is a small area of Upper Devonian/Lower Carboniferous red sandstone giving rise to brown forest soils.

Lying just to the north of Deuchrie Dod and 1.5km south of Stenton, Pressmennan lake was formed in 1819 when Bennet’s Burn was dammed, and the resultant lake was stocked with trout from Loch Leven. It proved a rich source of eels too.

Curiously unproductive, a bed of yellow irises and associated marginal and marsh vegetation at the west end is perhaps the lake’s most interesting botanical feature. Brown trout and three-spined sticklebacks inhabit the lake, and frogs and toads spawn in the shallows. Otters are known to frequent the lake and its shores.

In winter, the lake may support up to 150 or so wildfowl, mainly mallard (which use the site largely for daytime roosting) and tufted duck. Wigeon, teal and goldeneye occur in much smaller numbers. Very few waterfowl nest here – only one or two pairs of dabchick, mallard and moorhen. A pair of mute swans nest on the island but their cygnets have for the past few years, mysteriously died.

Mike Fraser

The lake is surrounded by extensive woodland and is a well-known beauty spot. The wood originally extended to 85 hectares and was formerly part of the Biel & Dirleton estate. From c1948-52, the old hardwoods in Pressmennan were felled. The south bank was bought from the estate by the Forestry Commission in 1955 and, with the exception of a thin lakeside strip, any remaining oak woodland was clear-felled and replaced with a variety of non-native, fast-growing conifers such as Sitka and Norway spruce, European larch, western hemlock and western red cedar. The Forestry Commission later enlarged the site to 1415 hectares.

The public have been able to walk in the wood since Sir William Strang Steel opened the Forest Trail in 1971. As well as a leisure resource, the trail was also to be of educational value to schoolchildren. The Yates Legacy was used by the Forestry Commission to fund the laying out of the trail; 30 acres of oak, beech and coniferous ‘nurse’ trees were planted.

The Forestry Commission wished to sell their part of the wood in the early 1980s. An Action Group led by Alasdair Morrison saved the woods for the local community. The Woodland Trust gave £50,000 towards the purchase price, the Scottish Countryside Commission gave £25,000 and Stenton Community Association had to raise £25,000. The Woodland Trust now manages the area as a nature reserve. A programme of woodland restoration, involving the removal of non-native trees (such as conifers and sycamore, which out-compete indigenous plant species), is ongoing. The remaining rhododendrons will be removed as they suppress ground flora. The southern, Woodland Trust, side of the lake is open to the public. Parking is provided and there are some delightful woodland walks to enjoy and plenty of wildlife to look out for.

The steep northern bank of the lake is privately owned. It supports a very fine stand of oaks with a rich under-storey and very few non-native trees. In May 1996, the owner put forward a proposal that the oaks here should be felled, and in December 1996, permission was granted for the felling of more than 360 trees. In 1997, this plan became the subject of heated controversy. After lengthy consultations between the owner, interested parties and conservation bodies, an agreement was finally reached by which far fewer trees were removed and replanting took place concurrently. Whereas clear-felling, or anything approaching it, is ecologically very undesirable, carefully controlled timber extraction and other management can be beneficial as it allows for replanting to vary the age structure of the trees and to improve the habitat for a broader range of wildlife, in addition to encouraging natural regeneration.

Native mammals found at Pressmennan include badger, red deer, stoat, weasel, fox and smaller species such as voles, mice and bats. The American mink and grey squirrel are regrettable members of the mammal list.

Whiteadder reservoir

By 1945 there was not enough water for East Lothian. Work on Whiteadder reservoir – which is half in Stenton parish and half in neighbouring Whittingehame – began in 1963 and was completed in 1969. In May 1968, William Anderson, Chairman of East Lothian Water Board, performed the flooding. The reservoir supplies 30 million litres per day for drinking water.

The reservoir is a stable habitat for wildlife providing a welcome shelter for ducks and, in winter, Whiteadder is an important roost for greylag geese. It is also a popular brown trout fishery. It is used for sailing by local schools.

Land Ownership

For many years, Biel & Dirleton estate owned large areas of the parish; the village provided craftspeople and workers for the estate, and the farms required employees and seasonal squads; both estate and farm employees lived in tied accommodation, and the seasonal workers were often housed in a bothy.

In 1945, the owner of Biel & Dirleton estate was Lt Col Nisbet Hamilton Grant of Kilgraston; he died in 1950. Biel then passed to his relative, Vice-Admiral Basil Brooke (who died in 1982). Biel was sold to Charles G. Spence (of Pitcox from 1948) in 1958, and the Spence family still own Biel in 2000. The Brooke family retained some of the shooting rights and land in Stenton; the bowling green still belongs to the Brookes and would revert back to them if the green ceased to be used for recreational purposes.

In 1945, only two of the nine farms in the parish were not owned by Biel estate: Deuchrie, which was owned by John Jeffrey; and Millknowe, which was owned by the trustees of Captain F. Grant-Suttie. All the other farms were tenanted; over time, the farms were sold, many to the tenants.

By 2000, many of the farm cottages had been sold; other cottages were modernised and rented out. Throughout the period, at least Pitcox maintained a policy of not selling off its properties; by 2000, only one house was being used by an employee, and a further ten were available to rent.

Townscapes, Buildings and Landscapes of Distinction

Most of the village dates from the late 17th and 18th centuries. The use of local red sandstone, clay pantiles and slate make it a village visually unmatched elsewhere in East Lothian. There are a number of listed buildings, including the A listed Roodwell and Biel House (see below). The doocot (part of the original church), the Joiner’s House (1692), and the former manse (1783) with its unusual arcaded windows are a few of the many attractive buildings in the village.

The A listed Biel House was altered in 1952, when Admiral Brooke had William Atkinson’s 1814-18 additions, and Rowand Anderson’s 1883 Episcopal chapel, demolished. The Piscina, credence, sacrament house and bellcote have been reset in the terrace walls. The house, now essentially reduced to its original size, is entered through Atkinson’s porch re-sited in 1952. In 1957 there was an auction sale of furniture, silver, china and portraits from Biel House; Charles G. Spence bought Biel the following year.

The landscaped gardens (LUC pp23-27) are thought to date from the mid 17th-18th centuries. Since then, the four terraces from the house to the river have been maintained, and the garden and landscape developed, by several of Biel’s owners. In 1959, many of the older trees in the grounds were past their best, and so were removed. To the south of the house is the arboretum established by the 2nd Lord Belhaven (1656-1708).

In the parish, some of the farms retain all or part of their original steading buildings, including Pressmennan, Ruchlaw West Mains, Meiklerigg and Bielgrange.