North Berwick and the Pilgrims’ Ferry

When it was obvious in the ’seventies of the last century that the long-stay tourists were never going to return, North Berwick was content to let itself become an upmarket dormitory suburb and retirement destination for Edinburgh. An agitation against the Beeching cuts in the early ’sixties, because the train delivered tourists, had providentially saved the railway for the town; it meant that in the future the train journey was acceptably short for its new role.

Since the First World War ended, up to the ’sixties, North Berwick was synonymous with douce holidays. It avoided the brashness of Blackpool. The tourists were predominantly working and lower-middle class. In the ’fifties attractions included the now demolished, and much lamented, open-air swimming pool, although latterly there were fewer and fewer people to swim in it. Mass tourism had discovered the hotter climates of Greece and Spain. East Lothian might be “bracing”, but people discovered that they could afford warmth.

However, there was an earlier wave of tourism, dating from the coming of the railway in 1850 till the First World War. It is now almost beyond living memory. This was up-market tourism. Working-class people didn’t normally get a paid holiday, and they couldn’t join in. Heads of families would rent large houses in North Berwick, which the town council promoted as “The Biarritz of the North” and move their complete household there for the summer season, including numerous servants. Sometimes they owned the houses. That belonging to the Coates family, who had made their money by making sewing thread in Paisley, was later converted into the Golf Hotel. The Astors came from the south, and the Keillers (of marmalade fame) from Dundee.

The attraction was golf (apart from the bracing qualities of the climate, already mentioned). This development was perhaps inevitable after the future Edward VII visited, in 1859.

The cachet of the place was helped further by the presence of the Conservative Prime Minister from 1902 till 1905, A.J.Balfour, who spent his summers in Whittingehame House, in the next parish east.

All this was ended by the First War. Large houses became uneconomic, and servants to run them next to unavailable.

Holidays with pay became common for working -class people, and the householders of North Berwick began catering for them. The working-class came in their thousands. This is what people get nostalgic about, rather than the earlier invasion of “the quality.”

These two waves of tourism were divided by social class; both sought relief from their hum-drum daily round.
But for four hundred years from the mid-1100’s a very different type of tourist was serviced by North Berwick: the pilgrim.

They wouldn’t have thought they were tourists, indeed they would have been bemused by the word, but they were a floating population of transients for which the town had to cater. There were 15,633 in 1413, and supplying their needs brought 1422 Scottish merks to the town. This was real money in those days.

It was North Berwick’s position on the coast that made it the terminus of a ferry to Fife. At the head of a blunt peninsula, it had the shortest crossing to the county on the other side of the Firth of Forth before the sea proper started beyond the Bass Rock.

The pilgrims were on their way to the great shrine at St.Andrews, where St.Regulus had brought the first saint’s remains. The shrine was pushed hard by the powers that be; it emphasised that St. Andrew was not St. George, and pilgrims were coming to venerate the patron saint of Scotland. They came from all over Britain, and from the Continent.

So important was the ferry to the town that its coat- of- arms depicted a semi-stylised ferry-boat. It has the very tall prow and stern of a medieval ship, with four oarsmen in the well between these sections, coxed by a grim-faced Earl of Fife who is seated at the rear of the ship, suitably elevated.

The Earl of Fife owned land in North Berwick, as well as in Fife. Earlsferry near Elie was the ferry’s other terminal.
He had made over the ferry to the Cistercian nuns of North Berwick, whose grant of land for their convent (and the parish church) was confirmed by Malcolm, Earl of Fife, in 1199.

They operated a hospice for the pilgrims whose exact location is unknown, but seems to have been somewhere near the parish church and the landing-stage. This was behind the present Seabird Centre. In 1656 the parish church was destroyed in a great storm. All that’s left is the entrance porch, which looks like a bothy. Long after the hospice had been made a memory by the Scottish Reformation. In its heyday the church was beautified and extended by the nuns who owned it.

The convent of North Berwick also operated a similar hospice at Earslferry. The nuns felt obliged to feed the poorer pilgrims, who would have expected it. We have no knowledge of the operation of these hospices, but elsewhere you could dry clothes, even get new ones, probably essential after a stormy crossing of the Firth.

There was a crossing of the Forth up-river, which was much shorter. This was started by Queen Margaret, hence “Queensferry.” That North Berwick remained popular was down to the road system. No-one since the Romans, a thousand years before, had attempted new construction. Roads were often impassable in winter, and most of them were not suitable for heavy carts. Pedestrians, which most people would be of necessity, made more progress.
It must have been very tempting to use the crossing at North Berwick, if you were coming from the south, and spare yourself the journey to Queensferry and back, through Fife.

The ferry continued after the Reformation, when pilgrimage became unpopular, but finally ended in1692.
In the past, North Berwick always thrived when catering for someone. In 1832, after the pilgrims, but before the railway brought the first flush of tourists, a surveyor of taxes observed of the town, “It appears to have been long quite stationary, and there seems no reason to anticipate any alteration of its climate in this respect.”

The tax surveyor was wrong. The town wasn‘t “quite stationary.” North Berwick has given up on tourism and, thinking of the extra council taxes, now seems quite content in its role as far-flung residential suburb for Edinburgh.

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