Artists & Photographers along the River Esk

The Esk valleys have a rich artistic heritage. In October 2021 Joanna Soden, a former Collections Curator at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture, gave this fascinating introduction to some elements of that heritage.

As an independent art historian Joanna has a special interest in Scottish art since 1900. Her previous talks hosted by the EVT as part of the 2018 and 2019 Midlothian Outdoor Festivals were ‘sell-outs’. This one is part of the 2021 Festival and draws in writers as well as visual artists from along the North Esk in particular. This is a journey through some of the rich artistic heritage of the Esk valleys.
Just click on the recording below to see this talk.
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Tackling Pollution in the Esk Rivers

This talk was presented to the Esk Valley Trust in June 2021. It lays out the background behind plans to manage the pollution of the river North Esk from the outflow of mine water at Junkies Adit in Dalkeith.

Sadly pollution has been a recurring feature of the Esk Rivers for many years. In recent times discharge of contaminated water from old mine workings is a big problem. In particular discharge from Junkies Adit in Dalkeith, which has links to the now closed Bilston Glen mines, is having significant impact on the health of the river.

The background to, and what is being done and planned to monitor and resolve, the problems was covered in a talk to the Esk Valley Trust on 24 June 2021.

A recording of this talk can be seen:

The talk was given by Dr Anna Griffin of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), and her colleagues Paul Butler, SEPA Principal Hydrogeologist and Mining Sector Lead and Annette Lardeur, Principal Project Deliver Manager from the Coal Authority.

Anna has a background in ecological restoration and catchment working and has been part of a national team which co-ordinates the river basin planning process in Scotland since 2005. She develops river restoration projects and work to improve fish access on the catchment scale in partnership with others.

Paul has worked as a hydrogeologist for 30 years and has been involved in a range of coal and metal mining issues. As SEPA’s Mining Sector Lead, he is committed to working with partners to reduce the impacts of mining. He also hopes that the heat contained in the water in former mines of the Central Belt can play a key role in meeting Scotland’s future energy demands.

Annette has a civil engineering background with experience in renewable energy, river engineering/flood defence, mine water treatment and urban regeneration and has been with the Coal Authority since 2017, leading a team to deliver major new interventions and refurbish assets to prevent and alleviate the pollution from historic mine water treatment, both from legacy of coal mining and abandoned metal mines.

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How the American Civil War triggered an Environmental Crisis on the North Esk

The American Civil War forced a change in materials used for paper-making in the Esk Valleys with dire consequences for the pollution of the river North Esk – and a notorious court case

Paper making on the North Esk grew from a specialised local craft already well established in the 18th century to a globally significant industry supplying Edinburgh’s buoyant printing and publishing businesses. Until the 1860s cotton and linen rags were the main raw material for paper making, the industry had outgrown local supplies and was dependent on cotton rag from the United States. The American Civil War (1861-1865) cut off supplies. Consequently, the papermakers substituted esparto grass imported from Spain and North Africa. The processing of esparto required greater use of harsh alkali chemicals, producing toxic effluents and large quantities of organic matter all discharged into the river. Untreated sewage from the expanding towns along the river contributed to the ecological disaster. Aristocratic landowners downstream of the paper mills were incensed by the huge rafts of foam, generated by the papermaking process, drifting down the river and by the smell from untreated sewage. They did not recognise these as separate issues, instead they pursued the paper mill owners in “The 1866 North Esk Pollution Case”. A cholera pandemic had caused outbreaks in London and in Fraserburgh in the very week of the trial, yet barely merited a mention in the proceedings.

The legal case was prosecuted on the basis of nuisance under the law of property and eminent scientific witnesses testified on water chemistry and the capacity of rivers to purify discharges. Pleas were made on the basis that the economic benefits of industry outweighed environmental damage. The judge directed the jury to the narrowest interpretation of nuisance under the law of property. The judgement went in favour of the landowners, yet the consequences for the mill owners were limited. The Duke of Buccleuch had invested heavily in mining, railways and the new port of Granton as well as his extensive inherited agricultural holdings. His economic and political interests were enmeshed with the papermaking industry of the valley and the risk from the strict enforcement of environmental controls on his own investments may well also have inhibited full enforcement of the terms of the judgement.

The issues from 170 years ago have never gone away. A letter to the Scotsman in 1874 from the Provost of Musselburgh, which is a masterpiece of polemic, excoriated the upstream paper mill owners for their plan to dump their effluents on the seashore of Musselburgh via a sewer to be laid along the valley from Penicuik. Almost 150 years later on the Esk in July this year there was a major pollution incident caused by flooding of an abandoned coal mine, spilling contaminated water into the stream, and at the same time untreated sewage is also discharged into the river in ‘exceptional circumstances’ every other week.

It is clear that all the parties to the pollution of the river were, at worst, guilty of pursuing their “enlightened” self-interest. In the mid-19th century the belief in progress and the power of science to find a solution to every technical problem was pervasive and there was weighty evidence to support this conviction. For example, landowners and farmers in the Lothians had been early and enthusiastic adopters of the science of soil and plant nutrition. Between 1840 and 1855 the research findings of Justus Liebig had been taken up by British scientists and widely propagated to the landowning interests of the country. This led to a boom in the exploitation and rapid depletion of guano from remote Pacific and South Atlantic islands, then the development of a chemical industry producing phosphate from mineral sources. The nexus to Liebig can be traced further into the 20th century. August Hoffman, a star witness in the 1866 case and Liebig’s protégé, was appointed to a prestigious position in the School of Chemistry on his recommendation. Fritz Haber, Hoffman’s doctoral student developed a catalytic process for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. This process underpins the modern global fertilizer industry. The scientific witnesses called in the 1866 trial were almost exclusively adherents of Liebig. The 8th Duke of Argyll gave an address to the British Association on his inauguration as president in 1855. Those in attendance included: Sir Roderick Murchison, Sir David Brewster, Dr Lyon Playfair, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, John Tyndall (a pioneer in the science of climate change), Hugh Miller, Michael Faraday, Adam Sedgwick, Justus Liebig and several key witnesses in the 1866 North Esk case: William Allen Miller, Frederick Penny, and Edward Frankland. The duke’s speech surveyed the progress of the sciences since the previous meeting in Glasgow of the British Association in 1840. This covered a remarkable fifteen years of advances in many fields of science. Yet the insights of science seem impotent to effect changes in human behaviour where the beneficiary is the common good rather than the individual. If that was true in 1866, then it seems even more entrenched as a fact now. Perhaps there is a lesson for us all in the irony that the Duke of Buccleuch as an improving landowner and investor in the industrial development of the Lothians also suffered from the unintended consequences of economic growth. However, his biggest complaint in the trial was, according to the testimony of his head gardener, that His Grace’s peaches were blighted by contaminated water from the river. This may have influenced the jury more than all of the distinguished scientific witnesses.

Rennie Frazer; Autumn 2020

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A Nature-Based Catchment Action Plan for the Lothian Esks for the next half century

Many stories here look back to past events, past people. Here Roger Crofts gives some thought to the future – what might be done in the Esk Valleys to improve them for future generations.

The Esk catchment needs nature-based action plan to provide a forward looking, multi objective approach to delivering government targets and as a scale up from previous catchment action plans.

The proposal would be developed in the context of SEPA’s River Basin Management Plan for Scotland 2021-27and linked to Scottish Government forestry, biodiversity, and climate change action.

Why is this needed?

Flood Risk Management Schemes have a single, albeit laudable, objective but river catchments contain a variety of land, land uses, soil types, water movements, biodiversity and amenity that interlink. At present all of these are the subject of different Scottish Government policies and programmes. However, the recent work on the Eddleston Water and at a smaller scale on the Brunstane Burn in Edinburgh (there are also examples in England) have demonstrated that naturalising river courses within a catchment context can bring significant multiple benefits to, for example, soil retention, biodiversity gain and water management.

Critical observation of management of land and water courses in the Esks catchment shows that there are many interventions which mean that the system is no longer operating naturally. Overgrazing is prevalent in the upper reaches, largely from sheep grazing, exacerbated by new track construction and intensive recreational activity. There is relatively little native tree planting compared with larger areas of non-native monoculture plantings. Water supply schemes are still active to serve adjacent populations and those provided for redundant industrial activity mean that channels are canalized, weirs retained, and small reservoirs retained for little or no purpose. And new infrastructure development, especially housing, is resulting in sealing of previously permeable surfaces. These factors increase the rate of run off from the land and through the river system to the Firth of Forth.

What type of Nature Based Solutions are possible?

Taking the internationally accepted definition of Nature-Based Solutions as approved by the 1200 member International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”, there are many possibilities in the Esks catchment:

  • Restoring grasslands and peatlands
  • Planting native trees
  • Blocking agricultural drains
  • Opening up floodplains
  • Building water retention ponds
  • Reintroducing the European beaver
  • Restoring river channels
  • Reducing hard surfaces in new infrastructure development.


What are the expected benefits of adopting a nature-based approach?

An Action plan, implemented over time measured in decades, would have the following expected benefits:

  • Reduction in flood risk
  • Improvement in biodiversity
  • Improvement in landscape amenity
  • Reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions
  • Improvement in human health and wellbeing.


Isn’t that something to aim for?

Roger Crofts; Spring 2022

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Fisherrow – a wee bit of its story

Simon Fairnie is the son of a fishing family whose ancestry can be traced back to the early 1700’s. In this recorded talk he introduces some of the stories of Fisherrow through the eyes of his own and his family’s association with this place.

Simon  was born and brought up in Fisherrow where he has lived all his life. He has an intimate knowledge of Fisherrow and its fishing connections and is always pleased to be asked to speak about his rich heritage. His special interest is ensuring that the history of Fisherrow and its people is preserved and recorded. Simon is currently Treasurer of Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group and Co-ordinator of Musselburgh Museum.

This is a recording of a talk that Simon gave to the Esk Valley Trust in October 2021:


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Arniston House and the origins of Ordnance Survey maps

It could be considered that the origins of Ordnance Survey maps that we love and rely on, can be traced to Arniston House and the Dundas family.

It could be considered that the origins of Ordnance Survey maps that we love and rely on, can be traced to Arniston House and the Dundas family.

The age of the Scottish Enlightenment was the late 1600’s and early 1700’s.  During this time the rich and educated took a keen interest in everything scientific.  They craved accuracy in everything they did and spent a lot of money investing in new scientific instruments.  Maps were destined to be based on real measurements rather than panoramic sketches.

In 1712 Robert Dundas of Arniston, age 27, a lawyer and Solicitor General for Scotland, married Elizabeth Watson.  At the time of their marriage, both Elizabeth’s parents were dead.  Her youngest brother, David Watson, was only 8, and came to stay with them at Arniston.  Robert Dundas took a keen interest in geography and amassed a large collection of maps, globes and surveying instruments. Young David was also fascinated by this collection and learned how to use them to make his own maps.

A few years later in his late teens, David Watson joined the British army, spending most of the next twenty years on the continent much of the time as an engineer for the board of Ordnance.  After leaving the army, Robert Dundas helped David, now in his early thirties, move to the Board of Ordnance in London.  This had a small section devoted to map making.

Shortly before the battle of Culloden, Hanoverian commanders complained that their maps of the northwest highlands were useless – features, roads and names were often wrong or non-existent.  This was one of the reasons they took two months after Culloden trying to catch up with Bonnie Prince Charlie and Lord Lovett.  In 1747, a year after the battle of Culloden, David Watson persuaded the Duke of Cumberland that their maps of the Highlands were not fit for purpose.

This was the trigger for a national military map, initially of Scotland and later of England’s south coast. This is how it came about and another famous name creeps into the story.

William Roy, age 21, and his father worked as factors on an estate near Carluke.  William had no training in maths. The estate they worked on had originally been owned by Robert Dundas’s second wife’s father. The new landowners at Carluke decided they needed a detailed map of their estate.  Possibly at a family lunch when the Dundases visited Hallcraig, David Watson was introduced to the enthusiastic young William Roy then aged just 21.  David, working as he was for the Board of Ordnance, (and, remember, stepson of Robert Dundas of Arniston), employed William Roy.  He was given the job of mapping the Highlands of Scotland and later the Scottish Lowlands.  On completion four years later, he moved to London and moved onto mapping the coastal regions of the south of England.  Within seven years of his death, his successor, Charles Lennox, persuaded King George the 3rd to fund mapping of the nation using the new triangulation system.  This is the beginnings of Ordnance mapping as we now know it.

So in summary, Robert Dundas of Arniston’s interest in maps and surveying instruments rubbed off on his young stepbrother who later employed William Roy.  He created the most accurate and detailed maps ever seen of much of Britain.  It was the vision of David Watson to produce a map of the country that eventually came to be at the hands of William Lennox starting in 1791.

A footnote on Board of Ordnance mapping

When William Roy created his maps of the Scottish Highlands they used a chain to measure straight lines.  At a corner in a track he recorded the angle to the next straight line.  This meant that measurement errors gradually increased.  By the time he reached the lowlands the error had reached something in the order of 20 miles.  The triangulation method that was introduced 30 years later, meant the for the most part, that errors tended to cancel.

In 1784 William Roy laid down the trigonometrical baseline (5.2 miles) on Hownslow Heath   (now the edge of Heathrow Airport) initially using wooden rods and later glass rods which were less affected by temperature and moisture.  This was used to create a triangulated map between Greenwich and the Paris Observatory.  This would allow the map makers to provide sailors with significantly more accurate charts.  The baseline was re-surveyed by Charles Lennox in preparation for creating the first Board of Ordnance maps.


When the full triangulation of Britain was started, the original baseline was used as the starting point.  In 1794, a second baseline of 7 miles was accurately measured on Salisbury Plain by Mudge & Dalby to check the accuracy of the first stage of triangulation.  Measurement of the new baseline confirmed their triangulation to have been “very accurate”.  In general, any triangulation errors tend to cancel themselves out whereas with the original end to end measurements plus measurements of angles (Roy’s original technique) the errors tend to be cumulative.  While Roy and later Mudge & Dalby measured very large triangles, a separate team of surveyors, created smaller triangles and noted the small detail topography producing useful maps as we now know them.  On the triangulation survey, the surveyors marked their theodolite points with a small pile of stones (cairns) which they asked the locals not to disturb.  This original triangulation survey remained the basis for all OS mapping until the 1935 when the small cairns began to be replaced by the modern concrete obelisks.

Ian Brown

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Dutchman’s Creek – the story of a cottage on the South Esk

With thanks to Inez Visser of Musselburgh, we are pleased to share the wonderful story of her grandfather, who lived in the 1950s in a former coachman’s cottage on the Dalhousie Estate in the Cockpen area.

With thanks to Inez Visser of Musselburgh, we are pleased to share the wonderful story of her grandfather, who lived in the 1950s in a former coachman’s cottage on the Dalhousie Estate in the Cockpen area.

You can read 3 newspaper clippings that help to tell the story here:

“That’s where the captain drops anchor” 1955

“It’s rather quiet around Cockpen”

“A dream is shattered” 1957


Biography of Capt. Jan Eltjes Visser and Jane Anne Pennet of “Dutchman’s Creek”, located  on the South Esk next to old Cockpen Church  

Captain Jan Etjes Visser was born on the small Dutch Friesian island of Schiermonikoog in 1892.  Although a tiny island the size of Eigg it had a small nautical college and by the start of the First World War Jan Eltjes already had his Third Officer’s ticket.  In 1915 he was Third Officer on board the SS Katwijk, which was torpedoed; fortunately the crew survived as they were able to seek safety on board the light ship Noord Hinder.

Jan Eltjes married Ida Klazina Teensma also of Schiermonikoog in 1918 and together they had four sons.  He continued with his nautical studies, returning to the island college to study and be assessed for each grade and by the time of the Second World War he was Captain of the SS Reggestroom of the Holland West Africa Line.  In May 1940 the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and his ship, like many others, was cordoned off on the North Coast of France.  Capt. Visser then navigated Reggestroom  bit by bit back to Bordeaux.  By June in the ensuing crisis at the invasion of France he was commanded to take 400 refugees to England and on route while docked at Le Verdon another 100 refugees were boarded.  They survived an aerial attack in Le Verdon and a couple of days later arrived safely in Falmouth where their ‘cargo’ of refugees of many European nationalities were discharged.

Documents of the ensuing war years are not in the family records but it seems that SS Reggestroom assigned to a British flag rather than be surrendered to the Nazis.  Capt. Visser’s eldest son died tragically in 1939 in a ship’s fire on board the MS Jagersfontein and in 1943 his wife Ida Klazina died; his surviving three sons were looked after by family members in the Netherlands during the final years of the war.   In April 1944 and now residing in Edinburgh, Capt. Visser married Jane Anne Pennet,  she is recorded as  having the catering licence for Nicholson’s restaurant and in June 1945 she and her new Dutch husband bought Nicholson’s restaurant for £1000.

Not much is known of Jane Anne Pennet, she was from Mull and a native Gaelic speaker and had two brothers and sister.  Her brother Louis Pennet was station manager of Queen Street Station, Glasgow up to the early 1960’s.   There is no documentary evidence tying up the time that she sold the restaurant but by the time her step son, Jeppe Ino,  married in 1951 she owned a guest house in East Hermitage Place, Leith.

After the war Capt. Visser continued to skipper ships of the HWAL, meanwhile his youngest son, Jeppe Ino, was brought to Edinburgh to study at the Leith Nautical College.  By the early 1950’s Capt. Visser was given the prestigious contract of sourcing a small vessel to be recommissioned as a presidential yacht for the then President of Liberia, William Tubman.  Capt. Visser was, for a short while, skipper of the vessel renamed “ MY President James Roye”  but the onset of a heart condition in 1952 forced early retirement.

At this point the couple bought the small piece of land and the derelict cottage on the Dalhousie Estate on the South Shore of the river as it passes the castle and they set about restoring the cottage and reinvigorating the garden.  They called their new home “Dutchman’s Creek” and on June 11, 1955 a centre piece article was written about them in the People’s Journal.  Just two years later their idyllic life started to fall apart quite literally as the cottage was undermined by blasting which shook huge cracks into the walls.

Capt. Visser died in May 1958.  The land was bought by the National Coal Board, the cottage was demolished and the NCB used the land as a mine bing.  Jane Anne Pennet returned to East Hermitage Place, Leith and died in 1963.

For many years the remains of Dutchman’s Creek sat low next to the huge smouldering pile of coal slag but now the land has recovered with natural reseeded woodland and is a woodland gem which can be walked through.

Biography compiled by Inez Visser, granddaughter of Capt. Jan Eltjes Visser and step granddaughter of Jane Anne Pennet  (20/11/2020)

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Pollution on the Esks: a story over 200 years

Countless letters to newspapers, initiatives, court cases, commissions and proposals for sewers have been put forward in that time.

The history of Esk pollution goes back nearly 200 years. Countless letters to newspapers, initiatives, court cases, commissions and proposals for sewers have been put forward in that time, yet incidents like that recent report are their legacy.

The 1866 North Esk Pollution case – brought by the Duke of Buccleuch, Viscount Melville, and Drummond of Hawthornden against six paper mill owners – accused the mill owners of being the primary source of pollution. But the evidence led in the case made it clear that coal mining (largely owned and financed by the heritable landowners) and domestic sewage were at least equal as sources of nuisance.

It may seem incredible that pollution of the Esk received almost as much notice at the 1866 meeting of The British Association for the Advancement of Science as Darwin’s recently published Origin of Species.

In the below document are two articles from 1931, which resonate with these still unresolved issues.

North Esk pollution in 1931

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The Lasswade Churchyards

Lasswade has three churchyards clustered close together. The oldest dates back to the 13th century.

On the side of the hill above the village of Lasswade lie the three Lasswade churchyards. Two gateways give access to the two old churchyards, the centre gate access to the former manse. Immediately opposite, the new graveyard has striking early 20th century decorative wrought-iron entrance gates with flowers, square pavilions on both sides with flanking quadrant walls.

The first old churchyard access by the left gate contains the site of the 18th century church of which no trace remains. The church, in cruciform plan, was designed by the architect Robert Adam.

John Clerk of Eldin (1728-1812), the seventh son of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, lived nearby at Eldin. Clerk married Susannah, the younger sister of the architect Robert Adam. Clerk’s aim in living at Eldin was to allow himself the opportunity to pursue artistic and scientific pursuits. An accomplished draughtsman, he was illustrator to Sir John Hutton, the founder of modern geology. Clerk, however, is best known for his Essay on Naval Tactics (1782) which he worked out with model boats on the high pond at Penicuik House. Some of the models survive at Penicuik. Lord Nelson is said to have studied Nelson’s tactics and employed them in the battle of Trafalgar through directing the attack from a position to windward which follows Clerk’s proposals. Lord Cockburn said of him “an interesting and delightful old man; full of the peculiarities that distinguished the whole family –  talent, caprice, obstinacy, worth, kindness and oddity, equally fond of a joke and an argument.”

The second of the two older churchyards, entered via the right-hand gateway, dates from the 13th century. The medieval church’s site is now marked only by a few stones. The churchyard itself possesses many notable gravestones and three remaining burial aisles from the old, church. The first aisle is that of the poet William Drummond of Hawthornden, a bronze relief portrait of him over the door. The inscription is:

Here Damon lies,

whose songs did sometimes grace

The murmuring Esk.

May roses shade the place!

Drummond is one of the sixteen poets whose heads appear on the Scott Monument in Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

The next aisle is that of the Clerks of Eldin. Round the corner the Melville enclosure holds the graves of seven Viscounts Melville.

Against the north wall a late 18th century gravestone depicting two mining surveyors.

Charles Kennington is buried in the Old Lasswade Churchyard. Young Kennington and his colleague Charles Jenner took an afternoon off to go to the Musselburgh races. Unfortunately they omitted to agree this arrangement with the management of the drapers shop in Waterloo Place where they worked. They found themselves, on their return, without employment. In 1838 they rented a property at the corner of Princes Street and South St David’s Street and opened their own business –  Kennington and Jenner. Kennington however retired well before Jenner who continued to build up the much loved department store.

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The Maiden Castle, Midlothian

This account is an extended version of the text on the display board at the site.

Location and Site                                       Grid reference NT 286644

Maiden Castle is located in the valley of the North Esk, in Midlothian, upstream from the small village of Polton, which is between the small towns of Bonnyrigg and Loanhead; the village of Roslin lies to the south-west. The site can be approached by a walk of no more than 1km from Polton, with more slopes, or a walk of nearly 2km from Roslin, with fewer slopes.

Maiden Castle occupies part of the meander core of the North Esk where the river has cut down, or become incised, to create steep slopes in several places.

Maiden Castle was probably a late Bronze Age or Iron Age site and, if so, would have been occupied for a time between about 1000BC and 200AD. It would have been one of many sites throughout Midlothian and East Lothian. The only visible remains today are two low mounds with an intervening ditch, which can be seen as you approach the site from a north-westerly direction. The outer bank is very short, but the inner one can be seen curving round for several metres. It is easy to walk over these low mounds without realising that they are the ramparts, as they are inconspicuous compared with the slopes which have been negotiated in order to reach the site.


The only records of Maiden Castle are four reports by inspectors from the Royal Commision on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (rcahms) who visited the site in 1927, 1954, 1956 and 1983. These reports are very short, only one extends to two paragraphs. Each of these reports stresses the defensive role of the site. The following vocabulary is used, with the year of the report indicated.:

motte and bailey 1927

defensive works 1927, 1954

castle and keep 1954

fortress 1954 (quoted from NSA of Scotland 1845)

ramparts and ditch 1956

earthwork 1956

ditch and outer bank 1983.

Some of this vocabulary is open to question. Despite its name, Maiden Castle is not a castle, or even a keep, in the way we usually understand these words for medieval structure like Craigmillar Castle (284709) or the keep at Crichton Castle (380611). It is possible that the inspector in 1954 mistook the old quarry, which lies to the east of the ramparts, for Maiden Castle. The use of the word fortress also conjures up visions of a much grander structure than existed here. The 1954 report appears to have been influenced by the NSA of 1845 which it quotes  as follows, “Nothing now remains of this fortress but parts of the foundations which are still visible in some parts”, and then goes on to conclude that this supports “the theory that such a building existed here”. No mention is made of the quarry in this, or the preceding report. The small cliff face can give the impression of being an earth retaining wall of a an old building, but it is natural, or in situ, stone. The sandstone blocks which are lying around were the last to be quarried but were never moved. For identification of the quarry we must await the 1956 report. There are no remains of a building at this site.

It is difficult to understand why the claim was made that there was a motte and bailey here. The motte and Bailey is a simple defensive structure which was probably introduced into Britain after the Norman conquest. King David I (reigned 1124-53) had strong associations with the Norman court as his sister married the Conqueror’s son, who became Henry I. David endeavoured to extend royal control by inviting local and Norman lords to take up estates. They were expected to build a motte and bailey for defence and residential purposes. A motte is a large mound of earth, which would be round or oval in shape and flat on top. It would have required a great deal of labour to build, but servile labour was usually available. It would have had a palisade at the top or bottom, or both. The bailey, or area of ground around the motte, would also have been surrounded by a palisade. The motte and bailey were a statement of Norman authority and superiority.

It is impossible to find any structure at Maiden Castle which could be interpreted as the remains of a motte and bailey. Whilst motte and bailey strucrures can be found in various parts of Scotland, none are recorded in RCAHMS’ catalogue for the Lothians.The reason suggested for this is that is that the Lothians were the most developed part of the realm and that servile labour had already been commuted to wage labour. This made the construction of a motte and bailey too expensive. The local Lord may as well employ  stonemasons and build a proper castle. A good example of a motte can be found on the golf course at Carnwath; this apparently had no bailey. Other baileys are likely to have been destroyed by now and the land built on or cultivated.

Another feature at the site, near to the quarry, is a man made trench. Its purpose is open to conjecture.

Hillforts and Homesteads

The preceding comments on the reports by inspectors from RCAHMS, as well as the actual site, raise the question to what extent Maiden Castle was built for defence, if at all.

The term “hillfort” has entered the popular imagination from the early days of antiquarian studies with reference to all Iron Age sites. This is partly a consequence of its valid use for large forts like Maiden Castle in Dorset and on Eildon Hill North, near Melrose (NT 554328). This attitude is partly a response to the interpretation of history,which saw the Romans as part of the classical, literate and civilised world. Consequently the indigenous people who lived here prior to the arrival of the Romans were regarded as uncivilised. They were barbarians who were always fighting each other and who therefore had to live behind defences. This attitude led to practically every Iron Age site being called a hillfort. Work in recent decades has seriously questioned this view.

In his book “Iron Age Britain”, Prof. Barry Cunliffe points out that between the North York Moors and the Scottish Highlands only about 14 of approximately 1,500 sites are large enough to be called hillforts. The vast majority of sites cover less than one hectare. Maiden Castle obviously falls into this group, which is designated “homesteads”. The classification of Iron Age sites used by RCAHMS defines a homestead as having a maximum of three houses. As so little is known about Maiden Castle RCAHMS’ lower classification of “enclosure” may even be more appropriate, with its definition indicating that occupation is absent or unknown. It is conceivable that the site was not inhabited at all, but was used as a gathering centre or meeting place for people who lived around and was used for social, political, ceremonial or religious purposes.


The extent to which the site could be defended is problematic. It obviously has some defensive advantages. The incised meander and rock formations mean that it is almost surrounded by steep slopes, yet no attempt appears to have been made to enhance these advantages by defending the shortest line across the neck of the meander. Only part of the meander core was occupied.

The earth ramparts, now heavily degraded, can still be seen on the west side of the site. They would originally have been much higher, probably rising to as much as two metres above the intervening ditch, with a wooden palisade on top. Their construction would have required a great deal of labour. Both the purpose of these defences and the method of construction of the palisade are open to discussion.

Some people are of the opinion that these palisades were constructed of vertical timbers made from tree trunks. Others are of the opinion that well spaced vertical timbers would have had the intervening gaps filled with smaller timbers, like branches, laid horizontally and interwoven.

Two basic objections have been raised against the first idea of only using vertical posts. By this time much of the original forest had been cleared, consequently there may not have been sufficient timber available.  Even if trees were available questions can be asked about whether the enormous amount of labour required for felling, lopping, transporting and erecting theses timbers was available. The second type of construction therefore seems more likely, that is, with branches laid horizontally between vertical posts.

The terminology of “hillfort” and its association with “barbarians” has already been discussed. Questioning the validity of “hillfort” also includes questioning the purpose of these defences and asking if they really were built for strictly military purposes, or whether the people had  other aims. Cattle could have been brought inside at night to stop them from roaming away and also as a precaution against cattle thieving. Thieves themselves could have been deterred from entering. Defence against wild animals, like boar, may also have been necessary.

The site may have belongd to a local chief who wanted to impress his authority upon others. If this was the case he could probably have commanded more labour from people who lived nearby in “open”, or undefended houses, some of whom may have been held in a kind of client or subservient status. The Iron Age site of Chesters (380611), north of Haddington, is regarded as a good example of a site where social status was more important tham military defence. Its multiple ramparts are impressive, but it is overlooked by a hillside from which missiles could have been thrown into the site. It is neither on a hill nor is it a fort.

A further purpose of these defences would be privacy. In parts of rural tropical Africa today, compounds are still surrounded by a tall fence of woven  grass matting fixed between vertical posts. Inside, the whole area is referred to as the “house” and the individual huts as “rooms”. The fence does not offer a defence against anything more than roaming dogs or cattle, but does provide privacy. Visitors are not expected to just walk in through the narrow entrance, which can be closed at night, but to announce their arrival.


There are several Maiden Castles in Britain, as well as physical features which use the word Maiden, but the  origin of the word remains obscure. There is no guarentee that the origin of the word is the same in every locality, or that it originated at about the same time in history in every locality. Furthermore, the spelling of the word may have changed through history. Needless to say, the subject is ripe with conjecture.

A strong contender for Maiden is that it comes from the Celtic”maithdun”, meaning a large fort, and the Maiden Castle on the coast near Arbroath (NO670420) is often used to support this idea. Unfortunately our Maiden Castle cannot be described as large compared with some others in eastern Scotland. Local people, however, may not have known of these other sites and, even if they did, thought themselves justified in a degree of exaggeration!

Another claimant for Maiden is that it is derived from the gaelic “mai dun”, which means a great hill. This may seem reasonable in some places, but it can hardly be claimed for the Maiden Castle on the North Esk without some stretch of the imagination.

A claim which contradicts the the previous two is that it is derived from “moe din”, meaning a grassy plain, which would not appear to be a good place to build a castle in the first place. The fact that these words are also supposed to mean a “virgin fort” does not inspire confidence.

There are many claimants for this idea that the fort was never taken in battle and also for the idea that maidens gathered here. Unfortunately both of these ideas require a later definition of the word maiden. Although the word appears to have already been in use by early medieval times, this is still a long time after the Iron Age and therefore does not prove that the name dates back to the origin of any such sites.

A further idea can be found in “Scottish Place Names”, by W.C.Mackenzie (1931), p.4-5.

“The tradition about Edinburgh Castle is that the maidens of high birth were shut up there; presumably when their menfolk went to war. And it is a well authenticated fact that in ancient Scandinavia that was a customary thing to do.”

No dates are are mentioned, but presumably early medieval times are implied, unless “ancient Scandinavia” dates further back.


Apart from the degraded ramparts which can be seen today, nothing is known for certain about Maiden Castle. The approximate dating of the site depends upon comparing the ramparts with other sites with those features. Within that extensive period of twelve centuries we do not know exactly when the site was occupied or for how long, or whether it was occupied intermittently. In fact we cannot be certain that anyone lived there at all, as it may only have been used for ceremonial purposes. Even the origin of the name “Maiden Castle” remains elusive.

Howard Turner  April 2010

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