Historic Closes & Wynds

Most cities and towns in Scotland have their fair share of closes; many are named after prominent men and women or indicate a business once conducted at the address. Many have obscure and even unusual names and Dunbar is no different in this respect. Named closes, wynds and vennels (the last two being small streets) are invaluable to the local historian seeking information about long-deceased people or business and commercial activities conducted in the community. This paper attempts to inform local residents and visitors curious to know how Dunbar’s closes acquired their names.

Not unexpectedly, the majority of Dunbar’s closes are centred in its High Street, the hub of its historical and commercial past. A Royal Burgh for over six centuries – it received its burgh charter from King David II (1329-1371) dated 8 February 1369 (1370 New Style under the Gregorian Calendar adopted in Scotland in 1600) - it is not unreasonable to expect many of its closes to be named for former merchant traders. Many of the surviving closes bear names that are closer to our own time than the distant past; some are named for commercial activities long gone, while a few have no names at all. Several have disappeared, casualties of building developments and structural alterations; others have been re-named, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although at least one is still named for the business conducted there in 1795. A fair proportion bear names that require little stretch of the imagination as to the business operated.  Others bear the names of individuals whose identities have been forgotten over the passage of time. We are fortunate that documents and archives survive to the present day which shed light on the subject; stent (local authority rates) rolls, valuation rolls, street directories held either in Haddington’s John Gray Centre or Edinburgh Central Library in the case of street directories.  Census records are also helpful and of course the Town Council Minute Books which survive from the second half of the seventeenth century. 

Not all of the surviving closes are accessible to the public; these are mainly cul-de-sacs providing access to private properties. Others which are open to investigation bear the tell-tale signs of former occupation – blocked-up doors and windows for example – and a fair number ceased to be dwelling places at some point, being used mainly as cellars or for storage purposes. Some are distinctly eerie with a slightly sinister ambience which makes them unwelcoming places, especially on dark winter nights. At least one has the reputation of being haunted; known to children of my generation and earlier generations as ‘the Ghostie Close’ and in due course we shall discover how this came about.

As mentioned earlier, some closes have been re-named due to a change of use in their adjacent premises; local records such as the Burgh Council Minute Books, Licensing records and other useful documents abound with the names of closes which have been changed. Where, for example, were the Old Post Office Close, Slaughterhouse Close, Thompson’s Close, Johnston’s Close and Ruchlaw Close? The last-named is particularly intriguing as it is mentioned in 1682, during the trial of Catherine McTargett (or MacTaggert), a resident widow who was indicted for the imagined crime of witchcraft in 1688 and was almost certainly executed as she was found guilty of three counts of witchcraft and sorcery among twenty-seven indictments charged against her. (The reference to Ruchlaw Close appears in the Register of the Privy Council (Third Series) 1661-1691, vol. xiii, pp245-262; the Privy Council registers are held in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh Central Library reference room, both in George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.)

We begin our tour of the High Street closes at the east end and progressing along the right-hand, odd-numbered side of the street. The first close we encounter is the three-foot wide Logan’s Close, adjacent to today’s Forde Dental Clinic. Folk-memory and legend has it that Logan was a pirate or smuggler dealing in contraband excisable liquor – brandy, gin and fine wines from the Continent.  A colourful tale and it does contain a germ of truth. In 1852, no.1 High Street was a grocery business operated by Messrs. Manderson and Logan; in those days, grocers stocked excisable liquor, being the off licence trade of their day. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that stocks may have been obtained from smugglers who, by avoiding the tax imposed by the government ‘gaugers’ (Customs and Excise officers), could offer their goods cheaply, with a higher profit margin for both parties. Also we must bear in mind that close by this address was the East Port (or Gate) where goods and animals entering and leaving the Burgh were subject to Burgh taxes, Dunbar having the right as a Royal Burgh to impose such taxes for the upkeep of the town. Scottish history abounds with tales of smugglers ‘joukin’ [avoiding] the gaugers’ especially after Union with England in 1707. One is tempted to suggest that this was achieved by means of subterranean tunnels which went under the Town Ports or Gates; we shall return to this theme when we encounter the third close on this side of the street. As a footnote, by 1882, this address was occupied solely by Alexander Manderson who was a local golf club and golf ball manufacturer, part of a family residing in Dunbar for at least a century and a half, one becoming the Provost of Dunbar in 1947.

The next close on our itinerary is Old Kirk Close. Today, it is the entrance to a modern housing complex of attractive flats to the rear of what was no. 19 High Street, formerly Colin Stark’s Garage.  Part of the site was acquired in the early nineteenth century by the Ebeneezer Erskine Memorial Church (1st Secession Meeting House) which had relocated from East Barns. The Haddingtonshire Courier for 8 August 1913 states that the foundation stone for the church was laid on 5 August 1813. One of the small ‘free’ churches, it survived for many years; the 2nd Secession Meeting House was established to the rear of the Hillside Hotel, in East Links Road (both Meeting Houses are shown on John Wood’s town plan of Dunbar, 1830.) Daniel Muir, father of the conservationist John Muir was a member of the Erskine Church, participating in fund-raising events for its continued survival until he emigrated with his family to the USA in 1849.  Further along is Bamburgh Close, adjacent to Lloyd’s Pharmacy at no. 25 High Street; it is sometimes known as Bambury’s (or Banbury’s) Close. About four-foot wide, the close gave entry to what was known as Bamburgh Castle, possibly owned by someone called Bamburgh. It is a well-known fact that in some Scottish towns, tall tenements are often known as Castles (for example, that which features in A J Cronin’s novel Hatter’s Castle, a tenement owned by a snobbish hat-seller). Closer to home, Lauderdale House at the west end of Dunbar High Street was originally called Dunbar House; built in c.1734 by the Fall family, the local merchant princes who ran Dunbar for most of the eighteenth century, it was often referred to as Dunbar Castle because of its size. (Somewhat disconcertingly, the name appears to have stuck until the twentieth century as this writer once encountered a visitor to the Town House Museum who assured me his grandfather had worked in Dunbar Castle; I was incredulous, knowing that Dunbar Castle was dismantled in 1567-68 and has remained a ruin since then!). Bamburgh Close was known to generations of schoolchildren including my own as the Ghostie Close as it was reputedly haunted by the spirit of a piper who attempted to discover a supposed underground passage between the close and Dunbar Castle and was eaten alive by rats. (Why would anyone wish to escape from Dunbar Castle other than by sea? To go underground and emerge in the High Street would have brought would-be escapees into the arms of any besieging English army.) However, as mentioned earlier in the case of Logan’s Close, the subterranean passage may well have existed within the Town Wall, a section of which was discovered in the garden to the rear of the close. Here, we are back to smuggling again. It is interesting to note that in 1912, the Haddingtonshire Courier reported the find of a massive key of peculiar design with a linked chain in a subterranean passage under the close.  Experts judged the key to be that of the East Port or Gate. In 1951, the Courier again reported the find by workmen of a ‘secret passage within [the bounds of] the ancient Town Wall’, a section of which survived in the garden of no. 25. The Courier suggested the passage was from Dunbar Castle but this writer is sceptical; it is more likely to have been used for moving contraband booze to avoid paying revenue.

After Bamburgh Close is Gibson’s Close, a four-foot wide entrance next to today’s Blau Cel gift shop at no. 55 High Street.  The close was possibly named for a draper, William Gibson, who was trading here in 1852.  Perhaps William Gibson was a burgess of some standing, or a prominent member of Lodge Dunbar Castle Freemasons. We next encounter Cossar’s Wynd adjacent to Bowe Sports & Leisure at no. 67 High Street. The wynd or small street was once known as Crow’s Wynd, named for the proprietor of the St George Hotel; the wynd was mentioned in a case of rape in 1744, in the Parish Kirk Session Minutes.  By 1837, the hotel was owned by a Robert Cossar who by 1867 was operating a postal service, the hotel having long been a stop for mail and passenger coaches plying between London and Edinburgh. Next is Kilgour’s Close, adjacent to the salon Beauty from Above at No 71 High Street.  The close was named for James Kilgour, a founding member of Dunbar Castle Freemasons’ Lodge in 1758.

Kilgours close dunbar

A close which is obscured by modern buildings and not accessible is St James’s Walk to the rear of Ladbroke’s which was formerly Lipton’s at no. 77 High Street. This writer worked as a message boy in Lipton’s between 1956 and 1958; one day, the manager asked me to clear away undergrowth and weeds from the slabbed path to the rear of the shop, where there were cellars storing wooden and cardboard boxes etc. As the clearance progressed, to my amazement I found a perfectly sound stone plaque with St James’s Walk carved on the wall. There has been speculation that this close or vennel had formed part of the access from the Red, or Trinitarian, Friars Monastery at Friarscroft, West Port, allowing the monks to cross the High Street via Mason’s Close (more of which later) to visit the seashore and possibly the harbour to catch or buy fish. The cellars were converted to private flats in the latter half of the twentieth century; a lady I know who resides in Silver Street assured me recently that the plaque survives today.

Corn Exchange Close.JPG

Crossing Silver Street, adjacent to the recently extended Town House Museum, we encounter Corn Exchange Close, named for obvious reasons. A little wider than many at five feet, the close existed in the eighteenth century and was in all probability called Slaughterhouse Close as the Burgh abbatoir was located to the rear of the Town House Museum. In about 1736, the abbatoir moved to the East Links Road on the orders of the local medical officer as the slaughterhouse was considered a danger to public health.  It is interesting to note the existence of an iron ring set in the wall of the Town House at Silver Street; speculation is that it was either a tethering ring for the horses of Burgh officials or for animals awaiting slaughter – perhaps both. When the Corn Exchange opened at no. 89 High Street in 1855 as a grain market, the close acquired a new name which survives to the present day. During its long history, the Corn Exchange has served as a public meeting hall, one of Dunbar’s earliest cinemas (in 1919) and for entertainments – dances, amateur dramatics, Town Council functions, summer concerts and shows right up to the first decade of the present century. It would be a great pity if the building, presently under threat of demolition, should be allowed to disappear, given its great potential as a community hall today.   

Craigs Close.JPG

We next encounter Craig’s Close which is about four-feet wide and is still known as the Fish Shop Close as adjacent to it was a wet fish shop retailing well into the twentieth century, operated by Thomas Craig, who owned Craig’s Buildings, now part of the Bank of Scotland. A few yards on is Gilrye Place, adjacent to the Royal Bank of Scotland. Today, there is a street door leading to the flats above the Bank, a modern building. In 1793, David Gilrye, maternal grandfather of the town’s most famous son John Muir came to Dunbar from Northumberland to ply his trade as a flesher [butcher] at nos. 109-113 High Street until his death in 1855. The former close at no. 109 is now incorporated in Lothian Printers. Another close which has disappeared fairly recently is Johnston’s Close between nos. 119 and 121 High Street, separating the former James Law’s barber shop and James Anderson’s greengrocer’s shop, both premises and close now being incorporated into Ristorante Umberto. Who was Johnston? Possibly George Johnston, stationer and newsagent trading in 1867 and probably a prominent freemason.

Janet Lorimer Leyden with some of her Grandchildren   around 1927 (photo credit: Sandra Bonar)

Janet Lorimer Leyden with some of her Grandchildren around 1927 (photo credit: Sandra Bonar)

We next encounter Legion Close adjacent to the Tippecanoe Gallery at no. 143b High Street. As one might expect, the close leads to the British Legion which purchased its present premises in 1937. The original hall was home for many years to the disbanded Dunbar Volunteers, founded in 1803 during the Napoleonic Wars; perhaps in its day, the close was known as Volunteers Close. The hall today has been refurbished and extended; it was once the access to the long-demolished Common Close where this author’s grandparents and family lived along with several other families until they were rehoused in the 1930s as a consequence of the harbour slum clearance programme. Associated with the Common Close is Castle Wynd adjacent to no. 159 High Street and the last close on this side of the street. In 1901, the Valuation Roll named it as Castle Inn Close for the Castle Inn which had been operating under that name since at least 1867 and is now the Castle Hotel.  There is an interesting feature in Castle Wynd; inserted in the left hand side boundary wall about halfway down is a piece of masonry robbed from Dunbar Castle’s Blockhouse, or artillery emplacement, known locally as the Gunholes or Magazine. The piece is clearly one of the gunports, several of which are visible at the Gunholes today.

Crossing the High Street to the west side, beside Knox Newsagents Garden Centre at  no. 146 High Street, we encounter the four-foot wide Greco’s Close, named for a locally popular ice cream manufacturer, Angelo Greco who was trading here in 1923. Perhaps this was a re-named close as before 1923, the shop was owned by a William Mayne, confectioner and fruiterer. Proceeding east, the next close adjacent to Love Sweets, confectioner and ice cream shop at no. 134 High Street is unnamed and measures three and a half feet wide. At one time, this may have been known as Old Post Office Close as the first local post and telegraph office was located here in the 1870s, then is shown in the 1901 Valuation Roll as being at no. 136 High Street, its postmistress being Miss Jane Barclay who moved to the new GPO at no. 32A High Street in 1905. Another unnamed close, about five feet wide, is located at no. 128 High Street, between Stella’s Bakery and the John Muir Birthplace. Perhaps at one time it was known as Smith’s Close, after the family of bakers who were trading (as John Smith, then William Smith) at no. 120 High Street in 1882 before moving to no. 130 High Street in about 1911 and continuing to trade there until the first decade of the present century. Another unnamed narrow close, just over three feet wide, is found at no. 122 High Street, between The Food Hamper and the Co-operative Food Store. Perhaps it might have been known as Sinton’s Close as a Thomas, then Alexander Sinton, the latter a provost of Dunbar, operated a grocer’s shop at no. 124 High Street in the early twentieth century.  We next encounter Melville’s Close about three-feet nine inches wide between nos. 114 and 112 High Street, respectively Brooke and Brown Solicitors and the Turkish Kebab Takeaway. Andrew Melville & Sons were plumbers, ironmongers and gas fitters, trading at Nos 114 and 116 High Street in 1882, then as Melville Motors in the 1920s. Almost immediately adjacent is Lawson’s Court, a narrow three-feet four-inch wide close at no. 110 High Street which leads to Lawson Place, running off the West Port at the corner of Delisle Street. It is named for Peter Lawson an apothecary who operated his business in the West Port around 1837 and who, according to John Muir in his unfinished autobiography Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1987), possessed a garden full of beautiful flowers. The next close measuring about three feet wide is Innes Close, between The Hair Shop and the L.E.C Boutique; the close was named for a family of hairdressers whose business operated first in the West Port in 1837; John Innes was succeeded by Andrew Innes who moved to no. 108 High Street, presently The Hair Shop. Andrew Innes’ descendents, sisters Ally and Millie Innes were still cutting and styling hair in the 1950s when this writer and his brother were customers.

Crossing the West Port, we encounter Purves Close measuring about four feet wide at no. 88 High Street. Ronald Purves was a well-known and respected grocer trading in the 1960s but his family were probably trading long before that, from around 1912.  Then we arrive at the attractively-named Garden Lane which is about three feet six inches wide and adjacent to the found gallery at no. 84 High Street. Was it named Garden Lane for obvious reasons? It would appear so. Almost adjacent is Mason’s Close, a fairly wide close at nearly five feet at no. 80 High Street. It is attractively decorated with a long poem. Named for a family of boot and shoe makers, Joseph Mason first occupied no. 76 High Street (now the 1650 Coffee Shop);he moved to no. 80 in 1907, where his family James, Peter and Jane Mason, then William Mason ran the business; today, it is run by Hamish, Sarah and Seona Mason. The Mason family are probably the last of the nineteenth century traders still retailing in the High Street.

We now proceed to no. 72 High Street to the four-foot nine-inch wide Black Bull Close, the Black Bull pub having moved from its original site next to Gilrye Place, now occupied by the Royal Bank of Scotland. The pub’s first proprietor was David Liddle operating by 1852, then his wife Elizabeth in 1867, next trading as The Black Bull Private Hotel whose proprietor was James W Donaldson in 1882; by 1901 it was trading as the Black Bull Inn at no. 72 High Street, under proprietors John, Jean, then the charismatic Oliver (‘Olly’) Pott well into the latter half of the twentieth century; today the Black Bull is managed by the Gilchrist family.  Then we come to the three foot four inch-wide Fleshers Close at no. 70 High Street. As we saw earlier, flesher is old Scots for butcher and we know that a William Cockburn, butcher, was trading here in 1867. By 1901, the shop was owned by George Tait and commonly known as Wee Tait’s to distinguish it from the butcher shop operated by Alexander Tait (Big Tait’s) at no. 96 High Street, now Peter Whitecross Quality Butcher.

The next close we encounter is arguably one of the most famous in the entire High Street, at no. 62, known for obvious reasons as Printing Close, adjacent to the site of the first printing press in East Lothian. The property at no. 56 High Street was that of George Miller, grocer, bookseller, lending library, printer, journalist and publisher. Miller began trading as a grocer and bookseller in 1791; in 1795, he launched his publishing career, buying a second hand printing press from a Berwick printer for £23. Not content with the bread-and-butter jobbing work of printing advertisements, leaflets and pamphlets, in 1795, Miller launched the East Lothian Press, the first publishing house in East Lothian; by 1801, he had bought a second printing press, producing children’s books, classics such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and other works, mainly inexpensive tracts on educational and social topics. His Cheap Tracts were aimed at the general reader and covered such topics as the Slave Trade and other current topics such as fallen women, the evils of drunkenness and gambling. By 1803, Miller was intent on producing cheap – in terms of cost –literature which working people could afford. His ambition was an early form of Workers’ Education and would culminate in his most successful project – the publication of the monthly The Cheap Magazine or The Poor Man’s Fireside Companion in 1813. The Cheapy was an instant success and ran until the end of 1814, netting George Miller thousands of pounds. It was lauded by Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan and by David and Robert Dale, proprietors of the model mills at New Lanark. The magazine sold in every parish in Scotland as well as northern England. The Cheapy’s popularity ensured a sequel The Monthly Monitor and Philanthropic Museum which ran for a year in 1815. However, that year saw Waterloo, the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain was plunged into economic recession. Almost a millionaire in modern terms, George made bad investments; by 1832, he was bankrupt and died in poverty in 1835. However, his son William took over the printing business at no. 56 High Street and George lived long enough to see the publication of his eldest son James’s The History of Dunbar which was printed and bound by George’s third son William in 1830. Entrepreneur, humanist, journalist and publisher, George Miller lived a full life and, with his son James, left a lasting legacy to Dunbar, putting it on the Scottish map. The business was bought by the Downie family who were trading in 1852; the Downie tenure lasted well into the twentieth century and was still operating as a newsagents, bookseller and stationer in the first decade of the present century.

The next close is narrow at three feet and unnamed at no. 58 High Street; it is sandwiched between Beadazzle (no. 56 High Street) and the community bakery called simply the bakery Dunbar (no. 60 High Street.) Perhaps this unnamed close might be named Miller’s or Downie’s Close for the reasons stated above. Then we encounter Empire Close, more a gap site than a close at what was no. 42 High Street. It began life as a private house, Hestival House, then converted in 1923 as Dunbar’s first cinema proper. Run by Scott’s Cinematographic Company, it survived until about 1956, when it became the Empire Showroom, then the Empire Café, trading well into the 1970s and popular with the young people of the town. Then we arrive at the four-foot wide Trinity Close at no. 40 High Street, adjacent to Dunbar Flooring and Blinds; it may have got its name from the access it provided for the monks at Friarscroft to the High Street – see earlier reference to St James’s Walk. Then we come to a three foot wide unnamed close at no. 36 High Street, adjacent to Lindsay Opticians (no. 38 High Street.) Perhaps it should be named Gray’s Close in memory of Alexander and Janet Gray, jewellers in the first half of the twentieth century. We complete our tour at the final close – more of a wide cul-de-sac – New Inn Close, named for the New Inn Hotel which was operating in that capacity in 1837. Before that however, in 1797, it was known as the New Inn Barracks providing quarters to the officers of the militia regiments. The regiments were accommodated in wooden hutted camps at Belhaven Sands and West Barns Links during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Scottish coastline was thought vulnerable to invasion right up till the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The premises traded as an hotel until 1855 when it was purchased by the War Department, along with Lauderdale House, as Castlepark Barracks. Both buildings were used by the military for the next century.

Thus we have completed the tour of the local closes and wynds. Many today are in a parlous state and would benefit from quite minor repairs and a lick of paint to make them attractive. For a minor outlay of ratepayers’ contributions, these closes might offer a useful adjunct to the town’s rich history in foot-tours of the High Street during the summer season. Other towns in East Lothian have capitalized on their closes, notably North Berwick, where there is a close in the High Street dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Prestonpans abounds with murals depicting the former working life of the people – miners and so on.  Why not Dunbar, with its 10,000 population, half of which are not native to the town? There are opportunities to decorate some of the closes to illustrate their connection with prestigious people born here. The obvious example is no. 128 High Street which could be devoted to John Muir’s achievement. Printing Close is crying out for some recognition as the town’s first publishing house and the humanitarian acts of its first publisher George Miller and its first historian, James Miller. Corn Exchange Close is yet another site which could be decorated with scenes of its past as a community hall and listing the several men who have over the last century or so been awarded the Freedom of the Burgh – Field Marshal Lord Roberts, the Rt. Hon. Frederick Sleigh Roberts, Baron Roberts of Kandahar and Wexford, Captain James G Baird Hay (1893), General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, Governor of the Sudan, High Commissioner of Egypt and Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief) of the Egyptian Army (1900), Richard Burdon Haldane, Secretary of State for War and Lord Chancellor of Britain, Major Reginald Seager Hunt, Commander of Castlepark Barracks Scottish Cavalry Barracks Depot No 6 (1914), Major George Herbert Scott, commander of the R.34 which made the first transatlantic airship flight from East Fortune Aerodrome between 2 and 13 July 1919 (1922) and the last man to receive the award, ex-Bailie William Chapman who gave thirty-two years service to the Burgh Council (1962).  The possibilities are endless. Perhaps some organizations could even ‘adopt’ a close eg Dunbar Golf Club might see some attraction in decorating Logan’s Close with golfing images, given that the grocery business of Manderson and Logan went on to become Alexander Manderson’s sole business as Dunbar’s first recorded golf club and golf ball maker. Foot tours are already offered by the John Muir Birthplace; perhaps these could be expanded to begin at the Town House Museum, where for a small fee, tours could be conducted by guides during the summer months. This would go some way to justifying the expense incurred in the extensive refurbishment of the Town House in recent years.


RJM Pugh

December 2013