Previous Talks

Horrid Haddington

Based on her work on the Haddington Council minutes, East Lothian Council archivist Fran Woodrow provided us with an entertaining look at examples from the late medieval to early modern periods, reflecting Haddington’s sometimes murky past. Fran began with a description of the source of town stink typical of the time. Household waste and excrement were heaped in middens outside each dwelling, pigs and other livestock freely roamed the town, the local tanning industry flourished pongingly on cattle skins steeped in human urine, the by products of slaughter and butchery ran in the gutters or festered on yet more open middens and, in addition to this somewhat lax attention to public health, personal hygiene was attended to, if at all, at the most basic level. A crowded marketplace, especially on a warm day, would have been something of a trial to our modern sensibilities! When the atmosphere became too malodorous, or a visit by the great and the good was in the offing, the council ordered middens to be cleared.

Thus to disease and, in particular, plague. The latter was, not surprisingly, a source of considerable concern to the town council. There were some outbreaks over the the period, although the council and inhabitants spent more time in fear of outbreaks and trying to prevent them than in coping with the actuality. Measures involved such things as expelling all pigs (not the rats and their fleas which might have been a better move in the light of later understanding of plague transmission) and ‘strangers’ from the town, and preventing the entry of travellers and merchants from outside the town during times when the plague was ravaging other parts of the country. With the occurrence of outbreaks in the town, there is little mention in the council minutes of the ‘plague doctors’ typically employed at the time, although there must have been some. Think of men wearing long cloaks, pointed hats and faces covered in leather masks with large attachments like giant beaks. No doubt houses with plague were isolated to some extent, with regular visits to check on the numbers infected, and calls to “pit oot yer deid” (for immediate and communal burial).

And now to religion and persecution. The town is famous as the birthplace of John Knox who was one of the prime movers of the Scottish Reformation, and an adversary of Mary Queen of Scots. The persecution of alleged witches features in the minutes,especially with the hysteria associated with James VI and the North Berwick ‘witches’. The oldest accused, Agnes Sampson, came from Humbie but lived in Haddington. She and several others, including men, were tortured cruelly to extract confessions, and then burned at the stake. Persecutions of this kind continued into the early 18th Century in Scotland and, doubtless, Haddington made its own contribution.

Crime and punishment naturally feature in the council minutes. The stocks, pillory, ‘scolds bridle’, imprisonment or hanging were the usual options, even for what we see today as very minor misdemeanors, all providing free public entertainment. The pillory served as a restraint for flogging, branding the face, nailing the ears to the boards, and so forth. Banishment was often a preferred option (cheaper, and making the miscreant someone else’s problem) but came with the caveat that unauthorised return could mean hanging. In Haddington, public executions were conducted at the Sands for a time, perhaps using the hook still attached to the nearer arch of the Nungate Bridge, and of course was an unfailing source of entertainment for the populace.

While Haddington was torched by invading English armies on several occasions, accidental fires were an ever-recurring problem for many centuries. Most buildings were of wooden construction and very close together. People could be careless with their domestic fires! The council minutes have many entries concerning fires and produced rules to ensure that folk took due precautions. The town cryer would announce these from time to time, and it was expected that the curfew bell at end of day would not only be a signal to remain at home but also be a prompt to ensure domestic fires were made safe before bed. Entries referencing fires declined into the 19th century and thereafter, as an ever increasing proportion of buildings were constructed from brick or stone.

Interestingly, although the siege of Haddington in 1548/49 was the longest in Scottish history, council minutes of the time apparently don’t exist. Perhaps the worthy burgesses were more concerned with keeping in good favour with the English occupiers, or just keeping their heads down, to have minuted council meetings.

Fran’s work on the council minutes still has much to reveal, and we can look forward to hearing more in future. The public are welcome to visit the John Gray Centre Archive and Local History Centre and browse the information there. Be aware, though, interpreting the old documents is a skill you would need to develop.

Peter R