The Old Port
The Old Port
Impression of harbour activity c.1560 (click to enlarge)
Illustration by David Simon
Aberlady Bay was a focal point of international economic activity from at least the 14th century onwards as goods and raw materials flowed to and from the royal burgh of Haddington and its extensive hinterland stretching into the Lammermuirs. The anchorage at Aberlady was crucial to the continued viability and success of Haddington and the surrounding area.
Huge tonnages of wool, hides and grain were exported. Historical research identified details of some of the ships that used this busy medieval port, and their cargoes (see Historical Research webpage).
Notices of Anchorage and Shore Dues at the Port of Aberlady 1769 & 1831
The notices of port dues seen above (click to enlarge) would have been posted at the harbour and made available to the masters of all vessels using the port. It is noteworthy that rates for vessels of 300 tonnes or over are posted; dispelling the notion that the anchorage was limited to vessels of 60-70 tonnes.
In 1535, the ‘biggin of ye haiffen of Aberlady’ was commissioned followed, a year later, by instructions to build a port house or customs house. This was known as ‘The Town of Haddington’s House’, later known as ‘Fisher’s House’ and ‘New House’.
The current building At Kilspindie, built on the footprint or incorporating the former Customs House
To assist navigation in and out of the anchorage, oak beacons on quarried stone platforms were commissioned in 1576, 1606, 1661 and 1672; the latter to be placed upon the Aberlady shoreline – almost certainly at the hill we know today as ‘Bellfire Knowe’ (balefire: a beacon) – overlooking the Bay.
Copyright National Library of Scotland
Close examination of the map above (John Adair, 1682) led to the identification of the medieval harbour quay in 2006. Until then its existence had been lost in the mists of time. Coastal erosion patterns in the intervening years mean that the harbour remains now lie well within the saltmarsh of the local nature reserve. Access is therefore subject to the tides, and specific approval from the Warden of the Aberlady Bay Local Nature Reserve.
Excavations carried out in 2008 revealed a quay constructed of large oak beams and finished with faced sandstone blocks. It has not been possible to match the timbers against known databases to firmly date them, suggesting that the oak was grown locally in south east Scotland. The remains of a stone built road linking the harbour quay to the customs house were also detected.
Images of the archaeological survey of the harbour quay, 2008
Detail of tenon and mortar joints employed in the construction of the large oak timber frames of the harbour quay.
Although the oak tree used here in the construction of the harbour quay showed over 130 tree rings, it was not possible to match them to any known databases and thus firmly date it.