Welcome to Musselburgh
Just seven miles east of Edinburgh, at the mouth of the River Esk on the Firth of Forth, lies the seaside town of Musselburgh. The town is just the right distance from the nation’s capital: close enough to benefit from Edinburgh’s economic strength but not so far so that its identity is subsumed by that of the city. Musselburgh is quite possibly the oldest town in Scotland.
Roman Bridge Musselburgh
Musselburgh’s claim to longevity comes partly from its connections with the Romans. That the Romans fortified Inveresk Hill to the south of the town, where the town church now stands, is well established. There is also compelling evidence that they had a more substantial settlement here and maybe even used Musselburgh as an administrative centre for their northern territories.
Evidence from elsewhere in the empire may suggest the settlement is older still. The Romans were inclined to build fortifications where there were existing settlements as a means of controlling the population. If this is the case then Musselburgh could well have been settled well over 2000 years ago.
One of the few remnants from the time of the Romans is Musselburgh’s Roman Bridge. Rebuilt in the 13th and 16th century, we could say that it survives, albeit in altered form, to this day. There have also been a number of Roman bricks found in some of the older buildings in Musselburgh, such as St Michael’s church, said to owe its foundation to the 6th century St Baldred.
Musselburgh’s claim does not just rely on its Roman connections. It is argued it was the first town to appear on medieval records too. The town was named Eskmouth by the chronicler Simeon of Durham in the 7th century, before the area had been fully established as part of the Scottish kingdom. In 1018 Malcolm II secured the area once and for all for Scotland at the battle of Carham and in the treaty Muskilburgh is mentioned. The emphasis here is on ‘burgh,’ a charter which gave town certain rights. This is said to be the earliest evidence, albeit indirect, of burgh status being granted to a Scottish town, even if it was granted by the kings of Northumberland. It was the Saxon tongue of the Northumbrian kings which was used to name the town: so named because the Forth was, and is, rich in mussel fishing.
Regardless of the controversy over the age of the settlement it became an important and famed part of Scotland. In 1201 the nation’s nobility gathered there to pledge allegiance to the future Alexander II, aged just 4, in the presence of his father William the Lion. In the fourteenth century the Regent of Scotland died in Musselburgh after a long illness during which he was cared for by the local people. When his successor offered to reward the people they refused saying that they were only doing their duty. As a result the townspeople became famed for their honesty: since then Musselburgh has been known as the ‘Honest Toun.’
During the 16th century ‘Rough Wooing’ (a name given to a period when England attempted to further its territorial ambitions on Scotland by forcing a marriage between Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots) Musselburgh was the site of the important battle of Pinkie Cleugh. The battle is regarded as being the first ‘modern battle’ (involving coordination of the different branches of the armies including naval bombardment to assist land forces) fought in the British Isles and the last major battle between the Scottish and English states. Fought on the banks of the Esk in 1547, the Scots were routed: half of their 30,000 number were slain and half were captured.
Several of Musselburgh’s oldest buildings come from the late 17th century, probably as a result of rebuilding after the destruction of the war. Buildings such as Pinkie House and the Tollbooth remain amongst Musselburgh’s most emblematic.
The following centuries saw some of the earliest signs of a changing economy which would have long lasting effects on the town. The first change, brought about by the proximity of the nation’s capital, saw Musselburgh begin to develop as an upmarket dormitory and seaside resort. From the 17th century the town began to be seen as a place of leisure. While Mary Queen of Scots had come here to play golf on the earliest of the town’s courses in 1567, Musselburgh Golf Course was officially opened in 1672. The town also became famous for horse racing, following the opening of Scotland’s oldest racecourse, in 1816.
Another change was industrialisation. A large proportion of the town’s 19th century inhabitants worked in the nearby woollen mills and coal mines, as well as in the traditional fishing industry. While much of the heavy industry is now gone, Musselburgh remains famous for its mussels, as an attractive historic town and place of leisurely pursuits, as well as for its honest folk.