The name West Barns derives from the medieval period and provides a clue to the purpose and economy of the settlement in these early times. Most of Dunbar parish lay within the earldom of Dunbar, and the Crown gained control of the earldom in 1435 but accusing the last earl of treason. The substantial territories of West and East Barns became Crown lands. The two parcels of arable land were separated from the earldom administratively but were farmed by local families: rents were paid as food renders to storage facilities (the ‘barns’) intended to provide the royally appointed keepers and constables of Dunbar Castle with a steady source of supply to maintain their garrison. Over time tenants gained heritable control of their farms – strips and rigs scattered throughout the territory – but around the time of the Reformation the ‘barns’ themselves and associated mills became part of Dunbar burgh. The Royalty of Dunbar also included everything to the north of the Edinburgh Road from the ford at the Beil Burn to the Saltairloch (now Seafield), a right that was secured to control salmon fishing along the coastline. The administrative separation persisted on until the reform of local government in the 1970s – part of the village being controlled by Dunbar Burgh and the remainder by East Lothian County Council.
The superiority of the lands of West Barns was alienated eventually from the Crown and the various quarters, eighths and even sixteenths of the lands of West Barns were consolidated into the modern farms of West Barns and West Barns Mains. The village, meanwhile grew up by the fringes of the farmland along the Edinburgh Road and around the mills. Beginning in the last part of the 18th century attempts were made to diversify the output of the mills, a ropewalk was set up along the perimeter of Beilside and a substantial modern distillery was built to the west of the Sea Road; this last found more success after the complex was converted to a brewery, but these developments stimulated more interest in West Barns as an industrial village.
The mills became maltings, and a prosperous Midlothian paper-maker selected a site to the west of the village for a new paper works. A fire brought that initiative to a premature end and the site was acquired by the Hunters of Belhaven Brewery to expand their malting operation. Two other manufactures were of considerable importance. Bricks and tiles were made at Seafield and agricultural machinery at (what became) Implement Road. The population surged and declined with the fortunes of these companies, but the underlying pattern was of steady growth. The village gained shops, inns and other crafts and businesses; a school was built (1790); and a church was erected to cater to the west of Dunbar parish – but it was put up at Belhaven in the 1840s, still a mile and a half from West Barns!
A cooperative society was formed, which later united with the Dunbar Cooperative Society and was eventually (1939) subsumed into the East Lothian Cooperative Society. The co-op buildings still stand but this process of consolidation was a sign of change. The maltings passed from the Hunters to the British Malt Products Company and were eventually closed; the brickworks shut when their raw material ran out: only ponds remain to mark the site. Even the co-op moved away from its home village. Similarly, other small, local shops have closed, leaving a single outlet, and the village has taken on more of the nature of a dormitory settlement, in common with neighbouring Dunbar, while retaining its strong community spirit.
Read more about West Barns here: a community group researched a small exhibition unveiled here at the John Gray Centre in October 2015. The exhibition will be open until October 2016.