Days Out in the Past – Cockenzie

The coastal town of Cockenzie has an obvious living heritage, working fishing boats in its harbour, fish shops, curers and a boatyard lining the narrow lanes leading to away from the sea.

During the East Lothian Archaeology and Local History fortnight there is plenty to explore and get involved in in and around Cockenzie
Cockenzie harbour today …but once the harbour and town was a hive of industry

One of these living traditions is the box meeting, first established in 1813 by the Friendly Society of Fishermen of Cockenzie and Port Seton.  The box containing members savings, a financial safety net for those who fell on hard times, which was paraded through the town by the fishermen and their families.  The event still happens today, an occasion for the community to come together and celebrate their heritage.

Next to the harbour is James Dickson’s fishmongers and curers, a business established in 1921 and now something of a local institution. This family business has a fish shop in the Harbour Road, but their vans are also a familiar sight throughout East Lothian.

But it wasn’t just fish that was important to the town.  The Tranent – Cockenzie Waggonway was the first railway in Scotland, established in 1722 to carry coal from the mines to waiting ships.  Now a group of local enthusiasts have brought some of that heritage back to life, establishing a museum at the harbour.  For East Lothian Archaeology and Local History Fortnight they are inviting people to become an archaeologist for the day, as they try to uncover the hidden remains of a salt pan house dating back to 1630s.

The 1722 Waggonway group recreated a traditional salt pan in the grounds of Cockenzie house
Salt panning the traditional way at Cockenzie House

Another group of local activists are ensuring a future for Cockenzie House, an important survival from the town’s past that dates back to the 1600s.  It was originally built for the harbour master and for centuries was the home of the Caddell family, with an extensive garden and orchard.  This historic house is now run by a local charity, offering studio space to artists and a venue for weddings.  An exhibition space is open to the public, displaying the work of local artists.

The gardens at Cockenzie House are definitely worth exploring, with many nooks and crannies and surprising features.  Look out for the grotto built of lava stone, with the jaw bone of a whale decorating its entrance.  This quirky structure is the result of the Caddell family’s trade in salt with Iceland, with their ships using volcanic stone as ballast for the return voyage.

For East Lothian Archaeology and Local History Fortnight Cockenzie House will host a traditional skills festival on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 September.  There will be demonstrations and a chance to have a go at stone carving, salt making, metal casting and signwriting.  Guided walks will lead visitors along the route of the old waggonway, and a special workshop with the Edinburgh Sketcher will focus on capturing the historic architecture of the town.

The Edinburgh Sketcher becomes the Cockenzie Sketcher for a day on the 8th September.
An example of the Edinburgh Sketchers work from Edinburgh

Just a short walk up the road is the hidden gem of Chalmers Memorial Church, one of Scotland’s most important arts and crafts buildings.  Its elegant and restrained exterior gives no clue about the decoration inside, which remains virtually as it was on its opening day in April 1905.  The open timber roof is decorated with blue and cream painted stencils of fishes and birds, and the chancel has delicate red and cream stencilling, altogether a truly striking design.  On Sunday 14th September this hidden gem will open its doors for a concert as part of the Lammermuir Festival, a unique opportunity to enjoy music in this distinctive setting.

Something to eat? Caddell’s Café at Cockenzie House is open every day and has fine views out over the gardens.

How to get there?  By bus – Lothian Bus 26.  By car – off the A1 on the B6371

Event details:

  • Waggonway Project Big Dig – Salt Pan Excavation, Friday 6 – Monday 9 September, 10am – 4pm each day
  • East Lothian Traditional Skills Festival, Cockenzie House, Saturday 7 – Sunday 8 September 11am – 4pm daily.
  • 1722 Tranent to Cockenzie Waggonway – guided tour, Saturday 7 September 11am – 12.30pm, to book e-mail [email protected] or phone 01620 827118
  • Edinburgh Sketcher in Cockenzie: Cockenzie House and Gardens, Sunday 8 September, 1.30pm – 4.30pm, to book email [email protected] or phone 07866 927 663
  • Quator Mosaiques II, Chalmers Memorial Church, Saturday 14 Sept, for more details see the festival website www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk

Words: David Hicks

Written by Andy Robertson



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