Close Encounters

Johnston’s Close – High Street to Castle Street

Take a stroll along Dunbar High Street and it soon becomes apparent that there’s a whole lot more hidden away behind the street frontage.

At first glance the street presents a seamless stretch of buildings, all joined together to either side of a wide carriageway. Shops fill most of the ground floors of the buildings – but for each one there’s a doorway at the side. Each of these admits to a close, or passageway, running under the building. The closes are sometimes hidden by a closed door, but at others there’s a gate that allows a glimpse beyond and sometimes they’re simply an opening. Their purpose is threefold:

  • to provide access to the upper stories of the streetside building, above the shops,
  • to get to the ‘backlands’ of each individual rig, where there were once and are more homes, workshops, stores and gardens,
  • and to provide shortcuts from the High Street to other parts of the town – a ‘common way’ where passage was protected by written rights guaranteeing ‘free ish and entry, haigh and low, back and fore’.

No matter how you count them – and the number has changed over the last 150 years – there are over 50 seperate closes. Before the street was numbered (by statute) for the 1881 census, the denizens of Dunbar had to locate the tenements and closes by other means. So as well as a number, each of the closes had before at least one name – the name depending on who was asked, their age, or their business, or even where they lived themselves. The 1841 census provides a good tally of the names in most general use.

Some Dunbar Closes, 1830s

Some are descriptive of then owners, other well known inhabitants, or simply the shop next to them. The selection in the illustration above runs mainly with the former; by 1841 ‘Blair’s’ had become ‘Meikle’s’ – an illustration of how transient these names might be.

The ‘Dark’ Close – Writer’s Court to Cat’s Raw

Others show how, on the other hand, a name or association could be long lasting. This type provides a insight into deeper history: Old Bank Close, Slaughterhouse Close, Old School Close, or The Puirs’ House Close are examples.

And finally, there’s always an exception to any rule. The Common Close, unlike all the rest, ran diagonally across the rigs of the north-east block of the High Street. It was both densely populated (almost a community in its own right) and densely packed with workshops and stores. There were three or four exits onto the High Street, and a similar number onto Castle Street.

Little has been done to explore the range of names and their origins, but sources exist at the John Gray Centre, not least the newly returned Burgh Records, that could be used to explore the byways of the burgh through the centuries. Visit us or search the indexes to find out more.

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