The Honest Toun

Agricola’s Roman legions, who reached the mouth of the River Esk in 80AD, were not casual tourists. Their long-term goal was to make Musselburgh, just six miles east of Edinburgh and one of the oldest settlements in Scotland, one of the principal staging posts in their conquest of Scotland. Their work included building a fort at Inveresk, a bridge over the Esk and a harbour near the present harbour Fisherrow.

Musselburgh, which was given its name because of rich mussel beds at the river mouth, grew in significance over the years. During the 12th century, King David gave the lands to the monks of Dunfermline, who dedicated their church, next to the old fort, to St. Michael. In 1201, the nation’s barons gathered at Musselburgh to swear allegiance to Alexander, son of William the Lion. Alexander raised the town’s burgh status to that of Regality in 1239 but it would be another century before Musselburgh’s greatest honour occurred.

In 1332, Regent Moray took ill in Musselburgh after one of many battles with the English. Residents hid him in a safe-house and looked after him until his death on the 20th of July. His nephew, the Earl of Mar, the new Regent, offered his uncle’s carers a reward, which was politely declined. The townsfolk felt that they were only doing their duty. An impressed earl proclaimed them to be honest folk and conferred on the town, the title ‘Honestas’. The title is still on the town’s crest and local folk rejoice in being one of only two ‘Honest Touns.’

The town became a popular destination for pilgrims, who flocked to the holy shrine at the Chapel of Our Lady at Loretto situated in the grounds of the present day Loretto School. The chapel was known for miraculous cures and one of its most famous visitors was James V, who visited it in 1536. The salt, coal, weaving, brewing and fishing industries all flourished because of Musselburgh’s growing popularity. But the sunny days were soon replaced by the dark clouds of war.

In 1544, an English army, under the leadership of the Earl Hertford, invaded the town. The chapel of Loretto was severely destroyed. It was eventually rebuilt but even more damage soon occurred. In 1547, Hertford, now Duke of Somerset, began another attack, but faced a better prepared Scottish army. The two armies engaged at Pinkie, where the Scots attacked from both land and sea, but were hopelessly routed. There would be no more battles between the Royal armies of Scotland and England, through Somerset had another attempt at attacking undefended Musselburgh in 1548 when the burgh’s archives were lost.

After the Reformation, residents destroyed the Chapel of Loretto and used the materials to build the tollbooth, an exercise which prompted the Pope to excommunicate the town’s Burgesses. In 1567 at Carberry Hill, Queen Mary of Scots surrendered to her lords before her imprisonment at Loch Leven Castle.

The Covenanting Wars in 1638 coincided with a royalist army, led by the Marquis of Hamilton, facing thousands of Musselburgh residents, who wanted to defend their religion. In 1650, Cromwell occupied the town for two months, basing himself at Inveresk House.

After more than 300 years of bitter feuds, Musselburgh returned to being a peaceful town. Coal mining, fishing and three great mills flourished and provided much needed employment. The original Roman Bridge was re-built and another town bridge was built by John Rennie of Phantassie. Labourers had to be imported to meet the demanding work schedule. A new harbour was also built at Fisherrow to help the growing fishing industry.

Many fine houses were built at Inveresk by wealthy merchants and burgesses of the expanding burgh. The town’s peaceful environment encouraged the extension of tower houses at Carberry, Pinkie and the stately Newhailes. During the 17th century, grammar schools started emerging and one of Scotland’s most respected schools, Loretto, was built.

Musselburgh also played a significant role in early sporting activities, particularly golf and horse racing. The Links has the oldest golfing layout in the world and the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club still plays for the oldest trophy in golf. Although the official crest of the club carries the date 1774, there are two sources which point to an earlier date.  The Silver Arrow is considered to be the oldest trophy in global sport, with the first medal being presented in 1603 and this competition by the Royal Company of Archers (the Queen’s bodyguard in Scotland) is still competed for.

Since the medieval period, horse racing has taken place on the Links, though the first official track wasn’t built until 1816. This makes the racing track at Levenhall the oldest racing track in Scotland and Musselburgh Links one of the oldest in the world. Other sporting events that it hosts include trotting [harness racing] at the annual Fair Day meeting and the renowned New Year Sprint, which sees people, not horses, in action.

Famous 19th century painters and engravers; the Brunet brothers, and William Walkers hailed from Musselburgh.

Other notable people who hailed from The Honest Toun include James Patterson [1770-1840] who invented the modern loom for tying knots in fishing nets; David Macbeth [1798-1851] writer and physician who became known as ‘Delta’ in the Blackwood magazine; John Brunton, businessman and benefactor, who left £700, 000 for the building of halls for the community; Alexander Handyside Ritchie, the eminent sculptor and the Parks, a talented golfing family.

The Fishermen’s walk, held every September,  is one of the highlights in the Musselburgh calendar. This colourful occasion sees men, women and children dressed in traditional fisherfolk clothing march through the streets. The Honest Toun Festival began in 1936 and the marvellous sight of horses and riders led by the annually elected Honest Lad and Lass can be seen every July.

A slow decline of the town’s traditional industries occurred in the 20th century. Young’s was the last brewery to be closed in 1969. Brunton’s Wire Mill and Monktonhall Colliery both closed in the 1990s, and the harbour is now used mainly by pleasure craft. Nevertheless, today thousands of exiles return to Musselburgh every year to participate in the sporting contests and to enjoy the town’s unique traditions.

Article originally published in East Lothian Life

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