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East Lothian’s Maritime History

Our lovely permanent exhibition at the John Gray Centre Museum, The Land, The Sea and The People, is explored below. Enjoy exerts from information panels, watch footage from our galleries, explore objects, listen to oral histories and our Talking Museum audio guide.

This page explores East Lothian’s maritime history. When you are finished why not enjoy our other pages focusing on the sections of the galleries concerned with East Lothian’s agricultural past and community, industrial and trading history.

East Lothian has a wealth of natural resources. The harvests of land and sea have sustained its communities for thousands of years. Here, you can explore the relationship between the land, the sea and the people.

East Lothian’s Maritime Past.

East Lothian’s first settlers found an abundance of food to sustain themselves in the seas, rivers, shores and lochs. Many years later small coastal communities began to trade surplus fish, and by the 1400s salmon and herring were being exported to Europe. By the 1700s a wide range of products, from chemicals to coal, were exported from harbours like Morrison’s Haven near Prestonpans. The fisher communities were small and dispersed along the coast. During the 1800s the fishing industry expanded due to larger boats and improved harbours. ‘Fishertouns’ such as Dunbar, Fisherrow, and North Berwick all became centres for fishermen and their families. There were major changes in the fishing industry towards the end of the 1800s. Machine-woven nets and steam or diesel boats increased catches, and the development of the rail and road network improved distribution. Today, catches of crabs, lobsters and prawns are still a familiar sight in East Lothian, although the industry is not as prosperous or extensive as it once was. By the 1900s trading by sea had declined at many East Lothian harbours, because they were too small for large commercial shipping. Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images and watch our footage.

Maritime panel

Maritime Panel

Morrison's Haven

Morrison’s Haven

Fishwife

Fisherrow Fishwife

The Catch

The Catch, Dunbar

Sea Slide Show

Watch our slide
show of Maritime photographs

Enjoy highlights of our maritime displays

Merchants, potters comma land and ship-owners flourishing potteries at Prestonpans from the late 1700s to the mid-1930s nearby Morison’s Haven Harbour was vital to the industry success giving ready access to markets at the time when road transport was slow, inefficient and expensive. Owners utilised existing ships and trade links to export wares to Scandinavia, Russia, North America, Spain and Italy establishing an international market in Prestonpans pottery. Closure of the potteries began after Morrison’s Haven Harbour silted up. Shipping became more difficult and the import of supplies ever more expensive. This was compounded by growing scarcity of local clay under a decline in international demand for Prestonpans pottery. Click on the thumbnails below to view larger sized images.

Tea Caddy
Tea Caddy

This bottle was designed and used as a decorative tea container during the 1800s. By 1870 tea had become an everyday drink affordable to most families and was imported by sea both illegally and legally. The moulds for this piece were found when Belfield’s Pottery in Prestonpans was excavated and several examples are known. This rectangular bottle was made at Prestonpans pottery in the nineteenth century. It has a white glaze with blue edging and is decorated with relief figures on the front and back showing robed Grecian women in yellow coloured dresses and carrying flower laden aprons and wreaths. Prestonpans in East Lothian has an ancient connection with the manufacture of pottery. It had readily available local supplies of clay and of coal, and therefore had access to two of the essential raw ingredients for the industry. Local entrepreneurs attracted master potters from Staffordshire and the industry thrived from the middle of the eighteenth century.

Cabbage Plate
Cabbage Plate

This plate was moulded and coloured as a cabbage leaf. The detail includes the uneven texture of the leaf with raised veining, a textured rim and a short ‘stalk’. The base has a scroll containing the maker’s mark BELFIELD & CO. Charles Belfield established a pottery in Prestonpans in the 1830s; it survived for over a century. This plate is from the earlier part of the Victorian period, although the mould may have been in use for many years and was perhaps purchased from an earlier pottery.

Teapot
Teapot

This tea pot was purchased from the pottery of Charles Belfield & Son of Prestonpans around 1930. It was part of a set of tableware used in a Port Seton tea-room catering to coastal visitors. The tea pot is coloured in two blues, the change marked by a beaded ring and stipple-textured lower body.

The stories of East Lothian’s coastal communities are shaped by their dependence on the sea, and are interwoven with their surrounding towns
and villages.Fishing and sea trading provided work for many people. Burgh officers, such as the Harbourmaster, operated the harbours and ports. Skilled workers and craftsmen made boats, ropes, nets, barrels and sails, or cured (preserved) fish. Fisher lassies and fishwives prepared and sold fish. Click on the thumbnails below to view larger sized images.


Maritime history
panel

Port Seton
fishwives

Cockenzie Box Walk

Dunbar Fish
Merchant

George Kelly,
fisherman
John Bellany ‘Nova Spero’

This lovely oil painting is on display in the gallery. It has been audio described for our Talking Museum. Listen here to its description and click on the image to see a larger view. it shows Fisherrow fishing boat, the LH142 ‘Nova Spero’ in Eyemouth Harbour, by John Bellany. Born in Port Seton in 1942 John Bellany attended Edinburgh College of Art in 1960, followed by the Royal Academy of Art. His colourful, intense paintings were greatly influenced by his upbringing in a close fishing community. For many years, Fisherrow fishermen fished for shellfish, white fish and herring in the Firth of Forth. From the 1800s they followed the herring around the Scottish Coast, beginning in the west in the spring. Today, the few boats that are left now fish from more convenient harbours in the south.

Click here to listen to Gordon’s story

Gordon Easingwood has been a fisherman all his working life and reflects on the changes brought to the industry over his career including much increased mechanisation and the need to diversify. Before he bought his first boat in 1973, Gordon fished with his father and brothers for prawns, crabs, lobsters and sprats. Today he fishes off the coast of Dunbar, with his boat, ‘Fisher Lassie’.