Many different kinds of large and ancient trees can be found growing in the grounds at Newbattle; sadly, the best known tree, a sycamore with a girth of 18 feet, blew down in 2006. Much of the woodland, including Lord Ancrum’s Wood is being managed by the Forestry Commission Scotland and footpaths are being reopened and upgraded. A new footbridge crosses the river to an ice-house. King David’s Well and two beautiful intricately carved octagonal stone sundials dated 1635 can also be found. A walk along the river path takes you to The Maiden Bridge, named after Margaret who, in 1503, crossed with 500 soldiers before her marriage to James IV of Scotland, the marriage of the Thistle and the Rose which paved the way for the Union of the Crowns a hundred years later in 1603.
Leaving the grounds of Newbattle Abbey, the South Esk then flows on through Dalkeith Country Park where it meets the North Esk at Waters Meet.
The river flows near to Newtongrange where the Marquis of Lothian, owner of several coal mines in the area, built a railway to take the coal to Edinburgh. Known as the Marquis of Lothian’s Waggonway and opened in 1832, it included a bridge of three main arches and eighteen stone pillars designed by the manager of his colliery. This line was purchased by the North British Railway who built the present viaduct of twenty-three arches, part of the Borders Railway, slightly to the west of the original in 1846.
After the Lady Victoria pit was sunk in 1890 by the Lothian Coal Company, Newtongrange grew to become the largest mining village in Scotland. Founded by the partnership of Archibald Hood and the Marquis of Lothian, after whose wife the Lady Victoria was named, it is now the Scottish Mining Museum.
From Lothianbridge, the South Esk flows through Lady Lothian’s Plantation where there are many upgraded footpaths and into Newbattle where there are several interesting old buildings and the old Newbattle Bridge. At one time there were two corn mills and a flour mill using water power and Newbattle Paper Mills were set up in the 1790s but closed after a long dispute between landlord and tenant in 1890 when workers living in company houses were given only 4 days notice to quit their homes.
Newbattle Abbey College stands on the site of a Cistercian Monastery founded in 1140 by King David I. The monks were farmers and probably the earliest coalminers in Scotland. Much of the coal was used for saltpanning at Prestonpans. Later a road was built to the coast and coal and other products could be sent by sea. Traces of early coal workings can still be found in the grounds of the Abbey. Remains of the Abbey can be traced within the existing building.
The abbey suffered greatly in the Scottish wars with England and was severely burned by the English in 1385 and again in 1544. The last Abbot resigned in favour of Mark Kerr whose son became the Earl of Lothian and the building was converted and extended during the 17th century into a private dwelling. During the 18th century, William Burn and David Bryce again modified and added to the building. The house was owned by the Marquis of Lothian until 1937 when he gifted it to be a residential college for adult education. The poet Edwin Muir became Warden in 1950. During the war years it became a training camp for the Royal Army Medical Corps and for the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. An extensive network of huts was built in the grounds, some still in use today as small industrial units.