Author Archives: georgerobertson

The SOE at Belhaven Hill – on Zoom 8th April 2021

Early in WW2, the school was evacuated from Belhaven Hill, and the building was requisitioned by the War Department. It became a special training school for the Special Operations executive (SOE). The SOE was established by Winston Churchill soon after Dunkirk, with the instruction to “Set Europe Ablaze”. Trained SOE agents would be dropped in occupied Europe to work with local resistance groups whilst gathering information. Belhaven Hill’s function was to train operators and agents in wireless telegraphy skills, and the site was chosen because it was 400 miles from the SOE base in Southern England, giving similar transmission distances to operational sites in Europe.

There were two types of trainee at Belhaven Hill. Women wireless operators were all recruited to the FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and were destined for listening posts in UK. The Jedburghs were the three person teams deployed into Europe. Although the true function of the School was a closely guarded secret during the War, the trainees were not quarantined, and mixed socially with the many uniformed service men and women in the town at the time. The true nature of SOE activities at Belhaven Hill did not become clear until well after the War.

George Robertson’s family befriended two young men from Belhaven Hill during their stay in Dunbar. They were deployed forward, and both survived the war. One of them, Eric Sanders, now aged 101 years, is a talented musician and a prolific author. We are privileged that Eric will join us for our on-line zoom talk to give his own account of his time in the SOE at Dunbar and elsewhere. This is a unique opportunity to hear some living history about wartime Dunbar.
A zoom link for the talk at 7.30pm on 8th April will be circulated nearer the time.

Spanning the Centuries – the Union Bridge 1820-2020

A review of the book, by Stephen Bunyan

This handsome volume tells the story of the Union Chain Bridge built to cross the Tweed by Captain Samuel Brown a few miles from Berwick on Tweed, between Horncliffe and Fishwick. The book does much more than that. It demonstrates how this bridge built in an unlikely location was to point the way to other important bridges, how a bridge which eventually seemed in a rural back water was eventually realised to have immense interest. It was close to the point of closure, but its huge significance was fortunately recognised. A group of friends was formed and much important support was secured and Roland Paxton became a patron. The Bridge
Samuel Brown [1774-1852] had developed the use of iron chain for ships in the Royal navy and by 1811 they were in regular use. He patented the procedure in 1817.By 1819 he was able to use wrought iron. His original iron works was at Millwall but in 1818 he opened a second works at Pontypridd [or Newbridge] and it was from there that the iron came for the Union bridge.
By 1819 Brown had the contract for the bridge and with John Rennie as consultant and responsible for the masonry started to build the bridge. He decided to use chains with eye bar links This cost £5,000 whereas a masonry bridge would have cost £20,000 and would have required piers in the water.
The bridge was recognised in the Guinness book of records in June 2020 as the world’s oldest road suspension bridge and can still carry vehicular traffic. Its formal opening in 1820 was a major event with a large and distinguished audience and Brown demonstrated its capability by driving a loaded carriage as well as twelve heavy carts of stones over it. Its purpose was to convey Northumberland coal and salt to Scottish farms.
The bridge had an important effect. It inspired Telford in his construction of the Menai bridge. Small built other bridges, eg at Kaleworth in 1830. By 1840 he had built twenty others and Brighton pier.
The Union Bridge inspired the construction in 1826 of an elegant pedestrian chain bridge at Melrose. It was built by J.S Brown [Redpath and Brown] and was designed by John Smith. It was restored in 1991.
The Union Bridge was identified as a building at risk and was closed to traffic in 2007. This caused local concern and a group of friends was formed supported by Roland Paxton and Brian Whittle.
Plans were put in hand for its restoration and matters are well advanced. It was decided to celebrate its bicentenary on 26th July 2020 with a symposium at Horncliffe. Plans were made and distinguished speakers were arranged but Covid 19 put paid to that. The talks by world experts were ready and Roland Paxton who had planned the celebration and driven the movement for restoration has created this excellent book which contains the papers which would have been given as well as the programme for restoration which has been put on hold.

The result is a volume which is a detailed account of international Bridge building up to modern times. The book is richly illustrated with material relating to the Union Bridge and other iconic bridges. The first printing was greeted with wide acclaim.

‘Spanning the Centuries ‘is available from the Friends, at £ 7. 50+£2 postage or from Grieve’s bookshop in Berwick. The Friends address is; Friends of the Chain Bridge, Horncliffe, Berwick on Tweed TD15 2XT
Stephen Bunyan

Christmas Message from the Chairman

I should like to wish you a Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year, after what can only be called an annus horribilis 2020. It has been frustrating to feel we have had to abandon a year’s programme.

We are continuing preparation of volume XXXIII of the Transactions and are confident that they will be published in the spring.

You may have accessed successful talks by other organisations on Zoom. We are considering doing this ourselves in the New Year, and will keep you posted.
During lockdown I was persuaded to write about some local history. Three articles appear on our website, and others on Dunbar Community Council’s site. Dunbar Community Council has now published these in a book, which will appear before Christmas. The order form is attached.
Hopefully we will soon be able to start planning events again, including our Annual Dinner.
Best wishes till we meet again, as surely we will, some sunny day.

Stephen Bunyan

History In Lockdown Order Form

Rennie Weatherhead BSc Hons

Born 5th October 1936 Died 9th March 2020; Principal Teacher of Physics, Antiquarian.

Rennie was the only son of James William Rennie Weatherhead and Isabella Craven Mitchell. James was a banker with the Royal Bank of Scotland and worked in Edinburgh where Rennie grew up. Rennie was proud of his connections with Musselburgh and Prestonpans.
James bought a second home in St Abbs where the family spent happy holidays and St Abbs became Rennie’s spiritual home for the rest of his life. Rennie was educated at Melville College [Since 1972 Stewart’s Melville] and at Edinburgh University where he graduated BSc.Hons on 3rd July 1958

He trained as a teacher at Moray House College. He taught at Peebles High School and St Dennis School. Rennie married Jean Robinson McLean on the 5th. August 1959 and they had two daughters Haydee born on 18 6 1967and Suilven born on 12 1 1969. Suilven has a son Brandon born in 2012.

Rennie’s sister Myrtle hosted a celebration of their diamond wedding on 3rd August 2019. In 1965 Rennie was appointed to the post of Principal Teacher of Physics in Dunbar Grammar School, the post he held for the rest of his career until he retired in 1988. He was a conscientious teacher and was highly respected by the pupils he taught.

Rennie joined and chaired Dunbar Interim Community Council in 1975 but did not stand for the Community Council in 1976. He was a member of East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists’ Society and was a member of the Council of the Society for several years. He contributed a number of articles to the Transactions. He and I encouraged Grammar School pupils to be involved in various projects e. g. the search for the Holy Well at Whitekirk and the Colstoun pottery kiln.

After his retirement Rennie developed his interest in the early church in Northumbria and became an expert on the history of St Ebba and the church at Coldingham. The Society visited Coldingham on 6th September 2018.The visit was organised by David Philip but despite being in a wheel chair. Rennie led the group round and spoke about the history of the church. He had brought some of his artefacts to illustrate the history.
Rennie is survived by his wife Jean, his daughters Haydee and Suilven, his son in law Colin, his grandson Brandon and his sister Myrtle.

Stephen Bunyan 11th March 2020

Prestonpans West Kirkyard

On the south side of the High Street Prestonpans (NT384 743) lies the West Kirkyard. Entered by a central double gateway, a path now leads through to the Penny Pit centre. This rectangular walled enclosure is of ancient origin, formerly belonging to Newbattle Abbey.  In 1595, when John Davidson was appointed Minister of Prestonpans he recorded that: “Thomas Sherila ye first yet died after my coming to Prestoun, the lairde’s boundes having nae buriall place and L. Setoun on ye east hand and L. Newbottle on ye west refusing burial to him in Tranent and the west Kirke yarde; I Mr John Davidsoun, new come to be minister at salt-prestouns wrote at ye desire of ye defunct’s friendis to Musselburgh session for grant of burial amang yame, quilk was granted on conditioun yet we sought not ye like again.”  (CH2/307/28/133).

“The Presbytery of Haddington, realizing the urgency of the matter, sought to assist the minister with the work. A Committee was appointed to confer with Lord Newbottle on the subject and also on the provision of a stipend. It looked at first as if his Lordship was to be most helpful, as he agreed to join in the undertaking with the Laird of Preston. He soon began to demur, however, to the Presbytery’s proceedings, and so far from keeping his promise, is said to have become a hindrance. Finally, he excused himself on the grounds that he thought of repairing the Kirk (the ruined manorial chapel) on his own estate and providing a minister for it. (John Davidson of Prestonpans  R Moffat Gillon, London 1936) This indicates that a chapel existed on the west site long before 1595, probably built to serve the salters and miners employed by the Abbey of Newbattle, and possibly destroyed by Somerset in 1544.  After Mark Kerr, Lord Newbottle, died in 1609, the estate was sold. The first recorded burial found in the West Kirkyard is that of Isobel Riton on 11th  March 1603. (CH2/307/28/131). It should be noted that in the Heritors records of the 1890’s the site was always referred to as the West Kirkyard.

The Heritors of the Parish maintained the graveyard until 1928. In 1872 their minutes record “that the south wall has largely collapsed”. It is likely that this is when some of the now very weathered, fine old carved memorial stones of the 17th and 18th century were incorporated into the south and west walls. In the same year a new entrance, was made on the north, with solid pillars and the iron gates that remain today. (HR255/ 1 p.165)

Entering now only two large 19th century stones remain in the centre of the graveyard. All the other stones, mostly of 19th and early 20th century, were gathered prone in the NW corner of graveyard in the 1950’s

A detailed description of the early finely carved stones by Alan Reid can be found in volume 42 of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1907/08.

Joy Dodd 2020.

Obituary – Ailsa Maxwell

Ailsa Maxwell MA; B 16 December 1922 d 10 February2020 aged 97. Ailsa Maxwell was a Historian, Enigma Code Breaker and long time member of the society with her husband Stuart who died in 2012.

She is remembered with affection. Stephen Bunyan

The following is taken from her  obituary in the Scotsman on Friday 6th March

Ailsa Maxwell was an unsuspecting Edinburgh ­University student when she was invited to an interview at the Foreign Office for a ­mysterious job. She had just completed the first year of an economics degree with distinction and had intended to join the Wrens when she was summoned in the summer of 1943. They could not divulge what or where the job was but told the 20-year-old it was ­important work for which she was considered suitable. She accepted and less than two years later found ­herself witness to the one of the most momentous events of the ­Second World War – the ­German surrender.

Her appointment had been to the top secret ­British codebreaking establishment, Bletchley Park, known as Station X, in Buckinghamshire, where she worked in the machine room of Hut 6 ­helping to crack the German Enigma code. The encryption changed on a daily basis, resulting in an enormously complicated operation to decipher it and the vital messages being transmitted by the enemy. Maths genius Alan Turing developed Bombe machines, improved by fellow codebreaker Gordon Welchman, to decrypt Engima’s secret ­settings. They were the forerunners of today’s computers and ­Maxwell’s role was to compile bombe menus from “cribs” – clues to guess what the settings of the machine could be – and to check ­their output.

Maxwell worked alongside Asa, later Lord, Briggs, who became a renowned social ­historian, and both were on overnight duty when the unconditional surrender ­message from Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Dönitz, was received early on May 7, 1945, in clear, uncoded text.

Like everyone at Bletchley, she had been required to sign the Official Secrets Act and kept that vow of silence on her work for more than 30 years. The codebreakers’ operation was declassified in the mid 1970s but she admitted: “It took a bit longer for me to talk about it.” More than 70 years later she saw the 2014 film The Imitation Game and observed it was a reasonably accurate portrayal of the Bletchley story.

She left Bletchley almost immediately after VE Day, in May 1945, returning to Scotland to help with the general election and to finish her degree. She was working as a research assistant at the Department of Health for Scotland when she married her husband Stuart Maxwell, deputy keeper at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, in 1953.

The couple had two sons and when her children were older she worked, as a researcher in Edinburgh University’s economic history department, on a 10-year project leading to the publication of Michael Flinn’s Scottish Population History from the 17th Century to the 1930s. The pioneering study of demographic history won the Saltire Society’s Agnes Mure Mackenzie prize. Later, she continued working in the capital’s Register House and, with her husband, undertook research into the history of Scottish silversmiths and goldsmiths, helping him ­prepare for the Society of ­Antiquaries of Scotland’s renowned Rhind lectures in 1975, when he ­presented a groundbreaking series of papers on Scottish silver. They also collaborated on transcribing the diary of George Home from Berwickshire, published as An Album of Scottish Families 1694-96, by Helen and Keith Kelsall in 1990.

The couple lived in ­Edinburgh’s prestigious Dick Place for 65 years, ­during which time she helped to establish the Samaritans ­service in the capital, volunteering for many years and taking on overnight telephone shifts.

Mrs Maxwell, whose ­wartime achievements are commemorated on Bletchley’s Codebreakers’ Wall, was ­resolutely modest about her time at the Government’s Code and Cypher School, which had once been the world’s best kept secret.

Predeceased by her husband, she spent her last 18 months in a care home in ­Portobello, and is survived by her sons Ian and Sandy and granddaughters Anna and Rowan.

East Lothian Place Names

Members of the East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists Society gathered at the Maitlandfield House Hotel on 8th February for another in their series of Winter lectures.
Honorary President, Stephen Bunyan, welcomed Liz Curtis of Dunbar who is a member of the Scottish Place Names Society. She gave a fascinating talk on the history behind some of the place names of East Lothian. These have been a subject of interest to historians for centuries with myths muddying the facts. For example, it was long suggested that Humbie got its name from the humming of the many bees to be found there! In reality, many of the names can be traced back to the languages of the many peoples who settled in the area from the earliest times – Brythonic, Old English, Norse, Scots, Baronial French. Strangely, although in East Lothian for some time with a fort at Inveresk, the Romans brought no Latin links.

Many names stem from the words for landscape features or land use in the different languages. Many relate to different types of farm e.g. those with ton, hame or by in them. Dunbar comes from the Anglo Saxon – Dyun Baer – Fort on the Point. A Saxon fort was found when the Leisure Pool was being built. Other names come from religious links e.g. Nungate in Haddington.

After a time for questions, including the correct way to pronounce Gullane, Mr Bunyan gave a vote of thanks. He noted that the day was also the 650th Anniversary of the granting of a Charter to Dunbar by King David the Second.
The next Winter Lecture will be a talk on the History of St Martin’s Kirk at the Maitlandfield House Hotel – 2pm on 14th March.

Message from the President Stephen Bunyan MBE

As we enter or complete a decade depending on your point of view it seems a good time to give an update. The Traprain treasure was found in 1919 and it aroused tremendous interest. Traprain Law was part of Whittinghame estate. Soon afterwards A. J Balfour [created earl in 1922] and his sister suggested the formation of an Antiquarian Society which was done in 1924.

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