Old Bridge Gallery


History Today Visiting

The Old Musselburgh Bridge, East Lothian.
Old Roman Bridge at Musselburgh, rebuilt by the Seton's in the 13th and 16th centuries

The Musselburgh Old Bridge of 3 arches, with cut-waters, measuring 248' in length by c. 14' over the parapets.

The Romans had bridged the river here near the end of the 1st century AD, and later building the more permanent stone-bridge, which foundations are dated of 6th-century workmanship, and there has been a bridge on this site ever since.

The original Roman Bridge foundations were built over with a two arch structure in mediaeval times, during the early 13th century, and in 1296 the Old Bridge carried the Scottish army marching to the Battle of Dunbar.  In 1314, the English army crossed it following its defeat at Bannockburn.

A watching brief was carried out during the excavation of an engineering trial pit over the centre arch of the medieval bridge. The pit showed that all old road surfaces had been removed and replaced with modern concrete and sand over the original stone bridge structure.

It was first settled by the Romans in the years following their invasion of Scotland in AD80. They built a fort a little inland from the mouth of the River Esk and bridged the river here. In doing so they established the line of the main eastern approach to Scotland's capital for most of the next two thousand years. Musselburgh is the oldest town in Scotland and has the oldest golf course in the world.

The name Musselburgh is Old English in origin with mussel referring to the shellfish, and burgh derived from the Old English for 'town'.

The bridge built by the Romans outlasted them by many centuries. It was rebuilt on the original Roman foundations some time before 1300, and in 1597 it was rebuilt again, this time with a third arch added on the east side of the river. The Old Bridge is also known as the Roman Bridge and remains in use today by pedestrians. To its north is the New Bridge, designed by John Rennie the Elder and built in 1806. This in turn was considerably widened in 1925.

Musselburgh’s claim to longevity comes partly from its connections with the Romans. That the Romans fortified Inveresk Hill to the south of the town, where the town church now stands, is well established. There is also compelling evidence that they had a more substantial settlement here and maybe even used Musselburgh as an administrative centre for their northern territories.

Evidence from elsewhere in the empire may suggest the settlement is older still. The Romans were inclined to build fortifications where there were existing settlements as a means of controlling the population. If this is the case then Musselburgh could well have been settled well over 2000 years ago.

One of the few remnants from the time of the Romans is Musselburgh’s Roman Bridge. Rebuilt in the 13th and 16th century, we could say that it survives, albeit in altered form, to this day. There have also been a number of Roman bricks found in some of the older buildings in Musselburgh, such as St Michael’s church, said to owe its foundation to the 6th century St Baldred.

Musselburgh’s claim does not just rely on its Roman connections. It is argued it was the first town to appear on medieval records too. The town was named Eskmouth by the chronicler Simeon of Durham in the 7th century, before the area had been fully established as part of the Scottish kingdom. In 1018 Malcolm II secured the area once and for all for Scotland at the battle of Carham and in the treaty Muskilburgh is mentioned. The emphasis here is on ‘burgh,’ a charter which gave town certain rights. This is said to be the earliest evidence, albeit indirect, of burgh status being granted to a Scottish town, even if it was granted by the kings of Northumberland. It was the Saxon tongue of the Northumbrian kings which was used to name the town: so named because the Forth was, and is, rich in mussel fishing.

Regardless of the controversy over the age of the settlement it became an important and famed part of Scotland. In 1201 the nation’s nobility gathered there to pledge allegiance to the future Alexander II, aged just 4, in the presence of his father William the Lion. In the fourteenth century the Regent of Scotland died in Musselburgh after a long illness during which he was cared for by the local people. When his successor offered to reward the people they refused saying that they were only doing their duty. As a result the townspeople became famed for their honesty: since then Musselburgh has been known as the ‘Honest Toun.’




It may well have been built, as is traditionally said, by Jane, Lady Seton, who died in 1558. It may incorporate part of a stone bridge that was certainly standing in 1547, supposing this to have been subsequently damaged or destroyed, as might have occurred, for example, in 1548, when Musselburgh was burned by the English.

An act was passed for the repair of a bridge at Musselburgh, and the third arch was added in 1597; it was again before Parliament in 1625 and 1639, and repairs are mentioned frequently in Town Council records of the 17th century and later.

During the 16th century ‘Rough Wooing’ (a name given to a period when England attempted to further its territorial ambitions on Scotland by forcing a marriage between Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots) Musselburgh was the site of the important battle of Pinkie Cleugh. The battle is regarded as being the first ‘modern battle’ (involving coordination of the different branches of the armies including naval bombardment to assist land forces) fought in the British Isles and the last major battle between the Scottish and English states. Fought on the banks of the Esk in 1547, the Scots were routed: half of their 30,000 number were slain and half were captured.

Several of Musselburgh’s oldest buildings come from the late 17th century, probably as a result of rebuilding after the destruction of the war. Buildings such as Pinkie House and the Tollbooth remain amongst Musselburgh’s most emblematic.

While crossing the bridge after the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, several of the Scottish army were killed by shot from the English ships lying off the mouth of the Esk, however the sea has receded considerably since.  Prince Charles Edward Stuart led his Highland army across the bridge to the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, and again in triumphant return to Edinburgh.

Stirling records that during repairs in 1809, 'the face of one of the buttresses' was opened up and 'inside the outer building, remains of still older masonry resting on transverse oaken beams was found.'

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