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Port Seton

History Today Visiting  
Historic view of the Palace of Seton
The Palace from Blaeu's Atlas c.1654.
© National Library of Scotland
Seton Palace, 1635.
Seton Palace and Forth Estuary by Alexander Keirincx, 1635.
© The National Gallery of Scotland
Queen Mary Stuart at a Game of Archery at Seton.
Mary, Queen of Scots at a game of archery at the Palace of Seton, 1560's.
The Seton Collection © 2005
The Seton Collegiate Church.
The remains of Seton Collegiate Church founded by George, 3rd Lord Seton.
The Seton Collection © 2005

One Hundred Years New - Cockenzie and Port Seton

Written by Dr. R. Turner, Pub. 1980 by Sound and Visual Products and Cockenzie and Port Seton Community Council

The Old Harbour, the Boat Shore and the First New Harbour

The Noble Setons

There is little doubt that the earliest haven to be used at Cockenzie was the tiny but perfect natural harbour, between the two present harbours, known as the Boat Shore.  It has been said that the village took it name from this inlet – that the original name for the Boat Shore was the Celtic, Cul Cionnich, “the Cove of Kenneth”.  The earliest written record giving the name of the village spells it Cowkany – this is in the Charter of 1591 in which James VI created the village a free Burgh of Barony, in recognition of the work of Robert, Lord Seton in constructing a harbour.  It is commonly assumed that the harbour he built “by the sea shore at his town and lands of Cowkany” was on the present site of Cockenzie Harbour – but evidence recently discovered shows that it was in fact at the Boat Shore itself.  This is apparent from an old map, drawn in 1710 by the great navigator and cartographer John Adair of Tranent, and also from a guide to the coasts of Britain by the same man.  On the map, (Figure 11) which is very carefully drawn, the position of what Adair called Cokeny Old Harbour coincides unmistakeably with the present Boat Shore.  And in the book, A Description of the Sea Coast and Islands of Scotland, published in 1703, Adair mentions a harbour at Cockenzie with a stone pier, the entrance being very narrow, with a rock off shore which appears only at low water.  Without any doubt he means the “Corsik” rock, ruling out any possibility that he was referring to the West Harbour site.  The Boat Shore is still used as a harbour, by one or two small boats which are dragged up on a shingle.  There was a furious row about it in 1904, when a local developer attempted to close off the right of way from the High Street down on to the beach.

But who was this Robert, Lord Seton, whose efforts won Cockenzie such dignity?  In fact, he was the Eighth Lord Seton, of a most noble line.  The Setons had been, since 1061, one of the great families of Scotland.  Maitland, in his remarkable history of the Setons, written in 1559, tells us that they were granted the surname Seton as a great honour, and that it came from the name of the Village, Sea-Town: “the Town is neir to the sey, and at that time was nearest to the sey of ony town ane grit space theirabout.”  Not a great deal is known about the early Setons.  It is of interest that about 1450 a Seton widow married the Laird of Johnstone, in Annadale, whose later children stayed in the area of Cockenzie and doubtless founded the numerous families of Johnstone living here today.  One of these children, Gilbert Johnstone, married the heir to the Elphinstone and became laird there.  Heir half-brother George, Lord Seton, started the choir of the present Seton Chapel.

His son, George Seton, founded the religious college of Seton Chapel, and built the original palace at Winton (since destroyed and rebuilt).  He was a man of great vigour, with many illegitimate children, fond of music and intelligent company.

The third George Seton, was Lord for only five years, and was slain at Flodden with King James IV in 1513.  Each of these Setons added to the great Castle of Seton, which occasionally suffered severe damage at the hands of the English in their periodic raids.  The Setons were always loyal to the Kings of Scotland, and remained Royalists and Catholics long after the Reformation.

George, sixth Lord of Seton, was a brilliant falconer, the historian tells us.  He died in 1549 and had to be buried in Culross Abbey, because the English were in control of East Lothian.  However, when they left his body was returned to Seton Chapel where it now lies.

The seventh Lord Seton, again called George, built the fine wall still standing around the castle, rebuilt after the English had burnt it down.  He was ambassador to France, and was rewarded by Henry II of France with an annual pension of 1,200 francs, and sumptuous silver plate.  Mary Queen of Scots made him Master of the Household.  After her downfall he was exiled for two years, and drove a wagon and four horses for his livelihood in Holland.  But when the Scottish political scene calmed down, he returned to favour, and King James VI made him again ambassador to France.

And this brings us again to Robert, eighth Lord Seton.  Besides building up the harbour at the Boat Shore, he roofed the great hall of Seton.  He died in 1603, and his funeral was held on the day James VI was making his -journey to England to take possession of the crown.  In order not to distract the “noble company”, the King tactfully waited at the southwest corner of the orchard of Seton until the funeral was over.  The spot is marked to this day with a curiously shaped stone in the wall.

The next Seton died young.  His heir, George, tenth Lord Seton, was a very active man.  It was he who first established the salt industry in Cockenzie, with twelve salt pans.  He attempted to build a harbour at the site of the West Harbour – “at the west end of the Cockaine”, the book tells us – but this was soon destroyed by a storm in 1635.  The Hanseatic Barn may been built at that time.  Four years later, siding with Charles I in the Civil War, he lost his property to the Roundheads, who took “from his servants all the keys of his corn and salt girnels” (“gir nels” were warehouses – the land by the Royal British Legion in Cockenzie is known as “The Girnels” to this day, because the salt warehouses were there).  However, by paying a fine of 36,000 marks he was allowed to keep his estate, which later he managed to increase with lands in Longniddry, Garleton and Athelstaneford.

In 1644 the patience on the Church of Scotland was exhausted, and the “papist” Setons were finally excommunicated.  Sir Alexander, son of the tenth Lord Seton, fled to France to -join Charles II, and after Charles’ restoration to the throne in 1666, was given charge of the entire Shire of East Lothian.  Meanwhile his elder brother, George, eleventh Lord Seton, who took the title in 1650, was busy turning Cockenzie into a hive of industry.

It was between 1655 and 1665 that George built the first harbour at Port Seton.  It was called Port Seton to distinguish it from Cockenzie Harbour, and thus the village of Port Seton got it’s name.   George, elenveth Lord Seton, seems to have mastered the use of explosives for excavating rock, because he is described as opening up the passages, through the very tough whin rock, into the harbours.  Sinclair, in an early book about coal mining (1669) describes him as the greatest coal and salt master in Scotland.  He opened up a coal pit where Thomson Crescent now lies.  At that time the few square miles around Cockenzie must have been among the most productive in Britain, since agricultural yields were also excellent.  It appears that Cockenzie House was built by this Lord Seton, presumably for a  relative to supervise the harbours and salt pans.

The salt pans were operated in an interesting way.  The Salt Master, who owned the pans, paid the salt makers (who did the actual work) no wages at all, but provided them with coal to heat the pans, in return for an agreed quantity of salt.  If the salt maker managed to produce a surplus of salt (which he invariably did), he was at liberty to sell it.  The Masters salt was usually exported in quantity, and the maker’s salt sold locally, often to fishermen for the preservation of fish.  The salt pans of Prestonpans and Cockenzie produced almost half of Scotland’s salt in 1656.

At that time there was a thriving printing works in Cockenzie, which printed, in 1666, two extraordinary pamphlets written by Thomas Sydserff, Bishop of Orkney: The Scout of Cockeny, and Fresh News from Cockeny.  These “satirical broadsides” (as they are known in literature) tell us nothing about Cockenzie, but they are remarkably sophisticated and witty.

About 1675 Cockenzie House was built by the Setons, to house Robert Seaton, salt master and Baillie of Tranent.  His daughter, Margaret Seaton, was born there in 1685.  The power of the Setons came to an end in 1715, when George, twelfth Lord Seton, -joined the Jacobite cause of the Old Pretender, hoping to help restore the Stuart line to the British throne.  Though by that time the Setons had finally become Protestant, they remained loyal to the Stuarts.  George was imprisoned in the Tower of London and impeached for treason in March, 1716.  His estates forfeited, as were a great many lords of Scotland at the time.  However, in August 1716 he made a daring escape from the Tower, and fled to the Continent.  He ended his days in exile in Rome, still a Protestant and by then a Master Mason.

In 1719 the British Government was selling off the estates it had seized.  An eager buyer was the York Buildings Company, a property development enterprise based at the York Buildings in London, which obtained a huge amount of land at bargain prices.  They bought the baronies of Seton and Tranent, and promptly started to try to make improvements to the area which had fallen into neglect.  In 1722 they laid the first railway (or waggon way) in Scotland, from the coal pits in Tranent to the harbour at Port Seton.  Early maps show the line curving round the coast right by the Boat Shore and down the High Street.  The rails were wooden and the trucks were hauled by horses.  The building company also founded a glass works in Port Seton, across Cope Lane from the present old Parish Church manse, right behind the Ink Bottle, a curiously shaped house recently demolished.  There were high hopes for the glass works, supplied with crushed flint from the mill at Seton Castle.  It was intended to sell a wide variety of glass, from window glass to alchemists’ vials.  But by 1732, as with many York Buildings Company enterprises, the glass works was heavily in debt.  It seems likely that the local people resented the loss of their traditional lairds, and were unwilling to cooperate with their new foreign masters.

At about the same time Cockenzie House, the Boat Shore Harbour, some salt pans and possibly some coal pits in Tranent were leased by a Mr. Cadell, who was a merchant from Haddington.  Mr. Cadell must have known how to run a business, because before long he became wealthy and well-respected.  Though he did not lease Port Seton Harbour, his boats must have used it regularly.

Coal, Salt and Trade

The development of Cockenzie was briefly interrupted by the 1745 rebellion, when Bonnie Prince Charlie came down from the North with his Highlanders and defeated the British under General John Cope at the Battle of Prestonpans.  Cope is said to have stayed in the “Ink Bottle” house the night before the battle – however, he kept his military chest, containing about L2,500 for soldiers’ pay and also his papers, hidden under the staircase in Cockenzie House.  There Charles Stuart found it and took it after his victory.  Local people do not seem to have been much involved with the ’45 Rebellion, except for Colonel Gardiner of Bankton House, Prestonpans, an elderly gentleman, who fought most courageously for Cope’s Army, making his stand by the famous hawthorn tree which so many streets, pubs, etc., have been named after, and died of his wounds in Tranent manse.  Records of the battle do not mention the Cadells at all, though General Sir Robert Cadell wrote a long account of it in 1898.  The tree died in 1929 and was cut down.  A portion is kept in the ’45 Monument by Meadowmill, and another section in the Military Museum in Edinburgh Castle.

Meanwhile, the Cadell enterprises flourished.  William Cadell, born in 1708, helped to found in 1759, with John Roebuck and Samuel Garbett, the great Carron Iron Works, near Falkirk, the first large iron works in Scotland and a forerunner of the Industrial Revolution.  This company bought up and modernized the Cramond Iron Mills that same year, later sold (in 1770) to Cadell’s son William.  At the same time the Cadells carried on a great deal of trade from the harbour at Port Seton.  In 1760 records show twelve vessels based there, of 590 tons total capacity.  Exports were characteristically salt and coal.  According to Daniel Defoe, who visited these ports in 1755, the coal mostly went to Edinburgh while the salt was shipped to the Hanseatic Ports of Hamburg, Bremen, Norway, and the Baltic.  He also noticed a large ship loading cured fish to be taken to Bilbao in Spain – just as scampi is now exported to Spain from Port Seton!  Many Dutch ships called at Port Seton, which may account for the Dutch gable on the house at the foot of Manse Lane.  At that time salt carried a huge excise duty like whiskey today.  As a consequence there was a black market.  A famous story related how one couple, Jeannie Pow and David Hastie smuggled salt – in her cart Jeannie used to have haddies above and salt below.  Sadly, she was often caught and fined, and her salt confiscated.

Generally the manufacture of salt from the rock salt deposits of Cheshire became cheaper and more productive, giving a better quality of salt too, and one by one the pans of Cockenzie and Port Seton shut down.  By1840 there were only six left, and in 1880, two.

Oysters and Whales

Another major source of income for Cockenzie folk, and also for people of Prestonpans, was oyster fishing.  Defoe claims that the boats used were open cobles (about 26 ft. long) which would sometimes land their oysters as far South as Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  There was a tremendous abundance of oysters between 1750 and 1780.  (The Firth of Forth yielded 30 million oysters a year in 1760.)  It was not uncommon for a boat to dredge 9,000 a day.  Those from the local beds were large, fine oysters, famous all down the country as “Pandores”, after Prestonpans.  But partly owing to the practice of certain London merchants of buying young oysters to be fattened in the Thames, it was not long before the beds were dredges out.  There was a scarcity of oysters between 1780 and 1830, but there were sign of recovery in the 1830’s, until the English oystermen cleared the beds.  The oyster scalps, as they were called, were owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, who does not seem to have been very conservation-minded.  All that is left on records of the oyster fishing now are a few oyster songs, which were supposedly sung to lure the oysters into the dredge, and the old street cry, “Caller ou” meaning “Fresh Oysters!” often heard in Edinburgh in the 18th century.  Occassionally oysters were dredged up in the later nineteenth century, together with the mussels used as line bait, but the final straw came when the naval steamships were anchored over the beds during the Great War, which smothered them with ash dumped overboard from the boilers.  Now oysters are 15p each, perhaps some enterprising fishermen will consider again seeding the beds with fresh oyster spat?

In any case, by 1810 the harbour at Port Seton was scarcely usable.  Since the ousting of the Setons it’s upkeep seems to have been neglected, and a series of storms gradually swept the heavy masonry away.  The historians describe the people of Cockenzie and Port Seton as facing ruin about 1820; white fish had become very scarce and harvests were poor.  Never men to give in easily, many fishermen took to whaling, sailing out to Greenland waters and the Davis Straits on boats from Leith and Newhaven.  A famous tale relates how a Cockenzie-crewed whaling ship was ice-locked in Baffin Bay for an entire dark winter, but the incredibly hardy men survived months of suffering, with daily prayers, maintaining perfect order.  By an extraordinary stroke of luck, the son of one of the crew was on the first search boat to find them when they got clear of the ice in the Spring.  Another Cockenzie whaler -joined the search for Lord Franklin when he was lost in the Northwest Passage.  Several of the fishing families can number whalers among their forbears.

The Cadels of Cockenzie

The York Buildings Company was in severe financial trouble by 1777.  It’s estates in Scotland were sequestered in that year, and soon John Cadell (Willam’s son) was able to buy Cockenzie House and the lands the family had previously leased.  From that time on, for a hundred and forty years, the Cadells were the lairds of Cockenzie.

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