Each and every home and business in East Lothian has an address. All pretty obvious – and so what?
Well, looking at Haddington as an example, it’s safe to say that the modern town has expanded from an ancient historic core. So much is obvious from the layout. Streets have spread over former town lands once used as pastures, orchards and market gardens and nearby even nearby farms and estates have been built over. And with this expansion there has arisen a continual need for ‘new’ placenames for streets and houses. Some of these have been adapted from existing names but others have been newly coined (perhaps from then current people or events). Take a made-up address:
Our Hoose, Neilson Park Road, Haddington
Working from right to left, the oldest element is Haddington itself; then comes Neilson Park Road in the middle, which must be younger than the Neilson Park part; and finally, Oor Hoose, which the imaginary family living there coined and may not last beyond their time. So that one address has four layers or periods of ‘naming’ hidden within it.
This simple analysis has already thrown up a few questions: what does ‘Haddington’ mean? When was Neilson Park so called? Who was Neilson? What was it called before? (See the foot of this page for some answers.) And that’s us launched into ‘onomastics’ (the study of placenames) where each address, or series of addresses, reveals a whole history about a locality as layers of accumulated names are carefully examined for what they can tell about the past.
This can be especially true within the historic core of a settlement. Even in a fully built-up area the need for placenames will not have been static: infilling of the Mid-raw of the former medieval marketplace in Haddington created High Street and Back Street; and as the latter’s function changed it became in turn today’s Market Street. As the burgh core filled up the common ways of the burgh all gained names: several closes, lanes, alleys and minor streets appeared on the maps. Some of these names were transient and lasted only a generation or so. But others have been peculiarly long lived. And if they’ve lasted for several centuries they have often been corrupted and the original meaning has disappeared. For example, nobody now has the least real idea of how Haddington’s Burleigh’s Wa’s came to be – although there are plenty of stories and opinions!
These stories of a locality’s placenames become part of the fabric of a community: enough, in Haddington’s case, for a book! If you would like to investigate your locality, you could start with this website’s Map Search where historic maps can be laid over the current version: this is Haddington in the nineteenth century:
Or investigate the local history collections in person at John Gray Centre: we have maps, books and photographs covering the whole of the county of East Lothian. The newly returned archives contain town council documents that are full of references to localities within the burgh – and some of these go back as far as 1318.
About Neilson Park Road
George Neilson was a Haddington shopkeeper. He died in 1897 and left a sum of money for public beneficence. His trustees purchased an area of ground known as Mylne’s Park for a public park and recreation ground: it was in use by 1910. Considering Neilson’s bequest throws up two more names. In 1819 the property belonged to Goege Mill and was then known as Mylne’s Park – but there we’ll leave it.