East Lothian and Waterloo, an Overview

A page to mark the Bi-centenary of The Battle of Waterloo and to record the Napoleonic Period in East Lothian.

2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the defining engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. We thought we would interrogate our collections to see what we could discover about East Lothian and Waterloo or, more generally, the Napoleonic period. The picture began to shape……

The people of East Lothian’s role in what became the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars began early. Dunbar’s leading citizen, James Maitland, 8th earl of Lauderdale, already had a bit of a reputation: the Citizen Earl. He was in Paris during the tumultuous events of 1792 and was said to be a friend of Marat, one of the leaders of the French revolution.  Although of suspect political leanings (far too democratic for comfort), he was a strong parliamentarian and political thinker. He was entrusted with abortive peace negotiations with Napoleon in 1806, but had to return to Britain when these failed.

Dunbar Harbour and Battery around ther time of Waterloo

Dunbar Harbour and Battery around 1800

The revolution in France brought increased government oversight in the UK. Friendly Societies, of which there were thousands, were regulated. New rules and regulations were printed at this time to show that societies conformed to the new demands. When the war of the First Coalition broke out in 1793 measures were put in foot to protect our shores from invasion and volunteers flocked to local ‘defensive companies’ and the East Lothian Yeomanry was formed in 1797. The battery at Dunbar Harbour was surveyed and suggestions for improvements were put in writing. Military units were posted to places where landings might be made: the 94th Foot and 4th Dragoons camped at West Barns during 1796. Fencible (or militia) units replaced them. Eventually, the forces at Dunbar, Haddington and Musselburgh amounted to several thousand of all arms: infantry, cavalry and artillery with the administrative and support back-up necessary for this deployment. Traces of these men can be found in the Old Parish Registers of this period – although the descriptions of the unit a man belonged to can be difficult to interpret.

Muster Roll of the North Berwick Volunteers

Muster Roll of the North Berwick Volunteers

When in 1798 the War of the Second Coalition began a new wave of patriotism swept the country. The defensive companies and volunteer units were put on a more regular footing, many being officially incorporated into the military structure and answerable to the Lords Lieutenant of Counties. Our records hold several documents relating to the North Berwick corps.

Tensions simmered down at the Peace of Amiens in 1801 but were raised to an even higher point when Napoleon declared himself emperor. War broke out in 1803. Almost immediately, a massive force was deployed in an anti-invasion role to East Lothian.

Attendant on these happenings on the Home Front, East Lothian men and women were involved in the theatres of conflict. The county’s maritime communities were a source of men for the Royal Navy – often by means of the Press Gang, which could arrive off the coast (unannounced) from Leith. Others, including landsmen, volunteered. In consequence, the county was well represented at the Battle of Trafalgar and East Lothian men served in every theatre that the Navy roamed.

As the threat of invasion lifted the garrisons were reduced – some of the men involved becoming regulars as the armies in Spain and France demanded ever more men. The barracks that had housed them were auctioned off and soon vanished (almost) without trace: however, Artillery Park in Haddington dates from this time. After Waterloo the army and navy contracted sharply. Serving soldiers and sailors were dismissed and left to fend for themselves. Supply contracts were cancelled and as the economy contracted a depression set in. Several bad winters prompted a rise in the price (and scarcity) of basic foodstuffs.  As James Miller recounted:

The sadden transition from the feverish state of war to a profound peace, left Britain in a similar state to the valorous man, who having nearly exhausted the last drop of his blood in defence of his property, or expended his last ferthing in a vain speculation, feels after the struggle a heart-depressing weakness while he is surrounded by a clamorous family. This depression was keenly felt throughout the country, and pressed severely upon our agricnltarists and manufacturers.

Hard times for all!

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