FOR the second week in a row, I am writing about an ancient town which, quite unforgivably, I did not include in my original list. Mea culpa but that error on my part has led to several suggestions of towns which I am considering for columns later in this series.

Do keep the suggestions coming, and if they meet my criteria I will certainly expand my list further down the line. Remember my criteria – towns need to have played a part in the history of Scotland and have been established before the Reformation in 1560.

Today’s subject is Haddington in East Lothian, but first of all, however, let me clear up one issue from last week when I went along with the local proud claim that Tain is the oldest of Scotland’s royal burghs. A couple of readers suggested I look at Rutherglen, which undoubtedly had a burgh charter dating from 1126.

Tain does not have such a charter but was given what would become burgh status in 1066 by King Malcolm III, Malcolm Canmore, and his son the great King David I maintained that status when he started what some historians call the Davidian Revolution during his reign from 1124-53.

The whole issue of the “oldest royal burgh” was researched when Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother came to Tain in 1966 to open the Rose Garden in commemoration of the 900th anniversary of Tain’s royal status.

The fact is that the whole burgh system which transformed Scotland was brought in by David I, copied from the continent and, whisper it, England. He and his successors Malcolm IV and William the Lion created as many as 40 royal burghs.

The guid Scots word derives from the Old English word “burh”, which became “borough” in England and which in turn has antecedents in western Europe such as “borg” in Scandinavia and “burg” in Germany. King David’s first two royal burghs were in fact Roxburgh and Berwick-upon-Tweed, which pre-dated Rutherglen.

In next week’s column I will interrupt this series to look at the burgh system through the centuries as it is so important to Scotland’s history, even though the designation “royal burgh” was disgracefully ended by the Labour government in 1975. I am pleased that so many royal burghs continue to proclaim themselves as such even though the term has no legal status.

Find out next week why I think the Scottish Parliament should address the issue of royal burghs. I will also add Rutherglen to my list of ancient towns – you see, it is worth contacting me with suggestions.

Haddington's history

It was Alan Blackie whose email was responsible for today’s ancient town. He wrote: “I would strongly suggest that you include the royal burgh of Haddington. Its royal charter was signed and granted by King Robert the Bruce in 1318 and the actual charter is still in existence and safely stored in the council archives in the John Gray Centre in Haddington.

“Haddington may even have been a burgh before 1318 and it has been an important town for many centuries. Its position on the main road from Edinburgh to London meant it was strategically important although that led to many conflicts including the Siege of Haddington.

“Because of damage done to the town by Oliver Cromwell’s forces it did become somewhat less important but it has remained the county town of East Lothian and an important example of medieval architecture. It also has, in St Mary’s Church, the longest parish church in Scotland and the building itself is of considerable historical interest.

“I could go on about many well-known people with links to the town including Samuel Smiles, Jane Welsh Carlyle and John Knox (he was born in Haddington and established one of the first parish schools in Scotland).

“There are also very close links with the family of Robert Burns – his mother Agnes and brother Gilbert are both buried in the churchyard in Bolton, a small village just outside the town. I do hope that you will be able to feature Haddington in one of your future articles.”

Congratulations, Alan, on a succinct summary of Haddington which is indeed an ancient town.

The National:

Once again, I am indebted to local historians for their research, most notably James Miller who published The Lamp of Lothian or The History of Haddington in 1844. I have also consulted the Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington published in 1883 by John Martine. The excellent Haddington’s History Society’s website is a very good place to start for anyone wanting to know about this fascinating town.

Study that history and you soon discern that Haddington owes its prominence, and sometimes its destruction, in bygone times to its strategic position at the halfway point between Edinburgh and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

There is evidence of prehistoric and Roman remains in the vicinity but the town itself did not develop until the second half of the first millennium when it appears to have been a centre of Christianity.

The derivation of its name is disputed, with some maintaining it comes from the Anglo-Saxon for Hadda or Haden – presumably a chief leader in the area – with the syllable “ing” meaning farm then completed with “ton” meaning settlement or town. It dates from the sixth or seventh century when what is now East Lothian was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, itself formed from the merger of Bernicia – mostly East Lothian – and Deira, which occupied modern-day Berwickshire and Northumberland.

The National: King David I of Scotland.

Haddington enters written history in the reign of King David I (above), the creator of so many royal burghs. He had undoubtedly made Haddington a burgh by 1130 – Martine suggests 1128 – because it is mentioned in a royal charter for Dunfermline Abbey as “my burgh of Hadintun”.

More significantly, David gave Haddington burgh and its lands as dowry to Ada de Warenne, Countess of Northumberland, on her marriage to his eldest son Prince Henry in 1139. Some historians date the foundation of the town to that date.

Ada founded a nunnery of the Cistercian Order at Haddington dedicated to St Mary. The road from the centre of the town became known as Nungate and the area retains that name. When Ada died in 1178, her lands reverted to the Scottish Crown in the person of her younger son, King William the Lion. We know he and his wife Ermengarde de Beaumont liked the burgh because his son, the future King Alexander II was born in Haddington in a royal house or small palace, possibly the previous residence of Countess Ada, all trace of which has disappeared.

Also gone is any trace of the abbey Ada is said to have founded. There were, however, numerous religious institutions in the medieval period and early Middle Ages, including a chapel built for the Knights Templar and a hospital, known as a leper house, dedicated to St Lawrence.

The greatest of those religious buildings was St Mary’s, forerunner of St Mary’s Collegiate Church, known as the Lamp of Lothian.

The year after the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 humiliated King John of England, he marched north to confront Scotland’s King Alexander II, who had helped the northern English nobles in their struggles with the English King.

Thus for the first time Haddington (below) was burned by the English. It would not be the last. As a result of the destruction, the King’s family moved away from Haddington.

The National: Haddington High Street

According to Miller, in 1242, Haddington was the scene of “an atrocious murder, which created a great sensation in Scotland and involved the kingdom in a party war”. At a tournament in the English borders, Patrick, the sixth Earl of Atholl, overthrew Walter or William Bissett, chief of a powerful family from Aboyne. The animosity between the two families sparked an outrage when Atholl spent the night in Haddington.

Miller reports: “The house in which he lodged was set on fire and, with several of his followers were either burned to death or slain in their retreat, it was supposed that the house was fired that the murder might be conceived. Supposition naturally fell on the defeated Bisset.”

A civil war nearly erupted between the families and their supporting clans but Bassett was exiled without a trial. Haddington was not so lucky – two years later the English army burned the town again.

Despite its strategic significance, Haddington did not suffer too much during the Wars of Independence apart from being burned by the Scottish army in 1297 to deny the invading English any shelter or food – the scorched earth policy seems to have worked as the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge were said to be mad with hunger.

In 1318, as Alan Blackie mentioned, Robert the Bruce confirmed Haddington’s royal burgh status with a charter that can still be seen in the town’s John Gray Centre.

Later, in the final stages of the Wars of Independence, Haddington was the main town in the Lothians to suffer from what became known as the “Burnt Candlemas” when King Edward III’s army occupied most of southern Scotland and ravaged many settlements.

Haddington was continually rebuilt and prospered as a market town and administrative centre for East Lothian – it still is, and the area was once known as Haddingtonshire. It also gained a grammar school in 1379, forerunner of today’s Knox Academy.

Probably the most famous event in the ancient history of Haddington was the Siege it endured during the Rough Wooing, the war on Scotland started by Henry VIII after the Scots reneged on the plan to marry his son, the future Edward VI, to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Even with Henry dead, in 1548 the English aristocracy still wanted the marriage and invaded Scotland, the Scottish army under the Regent Arran being soundly defeated at the Battle of Pinkie by Edward Seymour’s superior troops.

An English force of approximately 2000 men occupied Haddington and the Siege – actually a series of them – began with the town transformed into an impregnable fort. The Scots sent for help to their auld allies France and with their artillery, Haddington’s English garrison was bombarded day and night.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament met and decided that Mary should marry the Dauphin (crown prince) of France as approved by the Treaty of Haddington in 1548. The child queen and her party fled west to the safety of Dumbarton Castle and thence to France.

The English bravely fought on despite hunger and plague, but with Mary gone the whole project collapsed and they surrendered Haddington after an 18-month siege, the longest in Scottish history.

As Alan Blackie says, Haddington was also the birthplace of John Knox, the single greatest figure of the Scottish Reformation, around 1514.