Old Inns of Dunbar

The First Statistical Account of the Parish of Dunbar provides good information about the town and parish at the end of the 18th century. It was compiled by the Rev. George Bruce, the parish minister, during 1791. While in general Bruce gives a positive picture of a thriving, industrious and developing place, he devotes several paragraphs to the injurious effects of ‘dram-drinking’, which was endemic in the parish’s 46 ‘licensed alehouses’.

This is a fairly staggering number of pubs! It works out as one per 80 inhabitants (given in the account as 3700 souls) and surely bears more investigation: can our resources locate all the old inns of Dunbar?

Unfortunately, the first detailed list of licensees dates only from April 1838. There are 58 applicants listed of whom 34 are described as ‘vintners’ and the rest as merchants or grocers.  A ‘vintner’ is usually defined as a wine merchant, but its use in Scotland in the 19th century includes ‘publican’ and evidence shows that that is the meaning here and ‘merchant’ is used for ‘wine merchant’. But that’s 34 pubs within the burgh: still one alehouse for every 130 people! Unfortunately none of the premises are listed by name and even addresses are pretty general: in that village for West Barns and Belhaven; the Shore or east side of High Street, etc., within Dunbar itself.  So although there’s now a rough idea of where the dram-drinking dens were, there’s no real progress on their names! It’s also worth noticing that the vintners, grocers and merchants are applying to:

(The) Register of Applications made to the Magistrates of the Burgh of Dunbar for the purpose of authorising persons to keep common inns etc for the sale of exisable liquors within the Burgh at a Court held at Dunbar on Tuesday 28 October 1838 years by Provost Hume and Bailie Hogg two of the magistrates thereof.

This means that the parochial inns and their keepers don’t appear in the document. However, as the 19th century wears on more detailed sources become available – directories, Valuation Rolls and census returns amongst them – and a list of pub names can be attempted.  At the head of the list are the George Inn (1623?) and New Inn of 1790-91, the main coaching establishments, to which can be added the Lauderdale Arms (which vanishes after 1833).

The Wheat Sheaf and the Grey Horse (which became the White Horse in 1838 under a new landlord) were the main departure points for carriers. Then comes the Black Bull (the Blind Bull under one landlord), once on the east side of the High Street where the Royal Bank of Scotland stands today, but which migrated to its present premises when the bank went up. In the middle 1800s no less than 4 Masons Arms were open simultaneously: at the Shore, or Old Harbour; near Victoria Harbour; at Belhaven and at West Barns. Lying outside Dunbar proper but still within the parish were, from west to east, the Gateside Inn, Beltonford Inn (sometimes the Hay Arms), West Barns Inn and the Broxburn Inn. So that’s 14 so far (but 17 names).

Up to the last decade of the 19th century other names appear:

  • Anderson’s Inn (at the foot of the High Street)
  • The Commercial Inn (Victoria Street)
  • The Old Ship (The Shore)
  • The Prince of Wales (High Street)
  • The Castle Inn (or hotel) (High Street)
  • The Jersey Arms (Lamer Street)
  • The Volunteer Arms (Paterson Terrace, Victoria Street)
  • The Eagle Inn (or Arms) (High Street)
  • The Royal Oak (Victoria Harbour)
  • The (White) Swan (The Shore)
  • The Foresters Inn (or Arms) (Silver Street)
  • The (Good) Shepherd(s Arms) (Writers Court)
  • The Railway Inn (latterly the Dolphin and formerly Black’s (Railway) Hotel) (East End)

That brings the list to 27 sites (but sharing 35 or so names). Some of these remain today, and some called last orders within living memory, but the list cannot be considered complete – there are at least seven, and more likely many more, names waiting to be discovered. For example, in the 1800s there were variously 3 or 4 pubs (possibly just single rooms) in and about the Common Close but, as yet, none of their names have been unearthed.

6 thoughts on “Old Inns of Dunbar”

  1. Beverley Harris says:

    My Great Great grandparent were Henry & Alison Huntly of 1 Shore Street Dunbar & they were publicans. I wonder which pub, The Old Ship maybe?

    1. HanitaR says:

      Hi Beverley,
      Thank you for your comment. Determining which inn your grandparents ran would require consulting valuation rolls for the specific period that they were there. Alternatively, the trade registers for East Lothian would be a source(if they are mentioned) – but again date/year would be helpful.

  2. Colin Green says:

    Hi Russell
    I have discovered that my great grandfather William Robb (a Gordon Highlander) died in or around the Eagle Inn in 1882. On his death certificate the witness to his death was his brother in-law, Adam Robertson, landlord of the Eagle Inn.
    Another clue to add to your puzzles.
    Colin Green

  3. David says:

    Hello Russell
    I wonder if you mean ‘Swords, Loaves and Fishes, A History of Dunbar’ published by Roy Pugh in 2003? The Volunteer Arms is cited just once in passing, with no mention of the Robertsons. (See: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Swords-Loaves-Fishes-History-Dunbar/dp/095404651X)
    However, all is not lost. Our archives hold the burgh licensing court books and the local history collection has microfiche of the burgh valuation rolls. Both were compiled on an annual basis and will provide chapter and verse on your relatives, their homes and their businesses. If you define the time period my colleagues will be able to provide further information, but be aware that an extended inquiry may incur a cost. Contact the team directly: http://www.johngraycentre.org/about/archives/ and [email protected].

  4. Russell Addison says:

    I am looking for a book on the History of the Volunteer Arms which Roy who worked at the Dunbar Library was writing when I was there in 2004. Do you know if he finished it and was it published? My interest is in the Owner James Robertson and his Brother Robert who owned the Foresters Arms at the same time. They both came from Cupar and were my Great Grandmothers Brothers. Regards, Russ Addison, Melbourne Australia.

    1. Neil Robertson says:

      Hi Russell,

      I am a Robertson, now living in Hong Kong. I believe I am part of the family that I know once owned or managed 4 pubs in Dunbar. My dad, Murray ( now deceased) was born in the Forresters in 1922. My grandfather was Thomas Robertson. Not sure of the other three but one was The Eagle and I think the Volunteers.
      Have you any more info to share? Thanks Neil

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