North Berwick is one of East Lothian’s oldest communities and one of the county’s three historic Royal Burghs. Its early ‘claim to fame’ was as the terminus of a ferry crossing between the Lothian coast and Fife, part of the network of routes linking sites of Pilgrimage. The earliest settlement is speculated to have grown up around the terminus, near the present harbour and site of the original St Andrews Church.
When the Reformation supplanted (and forbade) the practices of the Catholic Church, the burgh lost importance and endured a few centuries of comparative eclipse. Sheltered from much of the warlike comings and goings that criss-crossed much of the rest of the county, the inhabitants concentrated on agriculture and agricultural support industries. After the Anglo-Dutch wars in the later 17th century fishing took a greater part in the economy. In 1652 the original St Andrews Kirk was damaged by a great storm. A new St Andrews Kirk was built at Kirkports, behind the current high street between 1658 and 1664. It was the coming of the railway in the 19th century that transformed North Berwick’s fortunes. It had already begun to attract a number of wealthier families looking for a retreat by the seaside. With their aid, a branch line was established that brought a flood of development. Populations statistics illustrate this well:
In 1841 there were c1700 souls in the parish, of which c1000 resided in the burgh
In 1861 there were c2060 souls in the parish of which c1820 resided in the burgh
By 1873 the congregation had out grown St Andrews Kirkports and St Andrews Blackadder Kirk was constructed in its current location and St Andrews Kirkports left as a picturesque ruin.
The local population found new work in the burgh, as servants, in shops and in the trades necessary for the growing community – a counter to the decline in agricultural employment. This transition was sustained and even boosted as the railway brought a new phenomenon – holidaymakers! North Berwick entered a ‘Golden Age’ – it advertised as the ‘Biarritz of the North’ and a slew of hotels and guest houses joined the villas built for the first wave of ‘settlers’. Today, the locality is still a holiday destination although caravan parks and self-catering apartments have replaced a lot of the former hotel rooms. The facilities offered have kept pace with the times. The links golf courses that helped inspire Georgian settlers are still there but the Scottish Seabird Centre and the coastal Country Parks are as much of a draw.
Also in the 19th century, the inhabitants of the parish looked to their community for support and entertainment. The period saw a flourishing of specialist societies – many people served as committee members or were otherwise involved. This list has been compiled from almanacs, guides and the pages of the Haddingtonshire Courier – more detail might be found by consulting our records.
|St Baldred’s No 313||Freemasons|
|Friendly Society 1787||Friendly or mutual|
|Trades Society (possibly the above)||Friendly or mutual|
|Benefit Society||Friendly or mutual|
|Benevolent Society(Funeral and Cow Funds)||Burial and mutual|
|Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners (Benevolent) Society||Friendly or mutual|
|Itinerating Library (Brown’s) Dall’s shop||Library|
|Town Library (Tolbooth, Debtors Court)||Library|
|Town Library and Reading Room||Library|
|Reading Room (Tolbooth, Council Room)||Education|
|Infant School (Victoria House)||Education|
|School of Arts||Education|
|Association for Churchyard Protection||Burial|
|Tantallon Lodge of Oddfellows MU||Unity mutual friendly|
|Court Pride of the Forth, AO Foresters||Unity mutual friendly|
|Bass Rock Lodge No 489, IOG Templars||Unity Temperance|
|Coast Mission (Union)||Religious Education|
|Scottish Coast Mission, Branch||Religious Education|
|Christian Fellowship Association||Religious Education|
|Established Church Young Man’s Guild||Religious Education|