The 1722 Waggonway Project

23 December 2019
The 18th century waggon
Ed Bethune FSA Scot, chairman of the 1722 Waggonway Project, introduces a project that aims to interpret, preserve and enhance the route of Scotland's first railway.
The 1722 Waggonway Project Images

I had been researching Scotland’s first railway as a personal project since 2014. My family’s inbuilt obsession with railways had finally come out in me when I realised that a heritage asset of potentially huge proportions was on my doorstep.

By 2015 I had compiled a fair bit of information through my research and contacted the Battle of Prestonpans Heritage Trust, who had some years earlier formed a plan to make more of the historic routeway of the 1722 Tranent – Cockenzie Waggonway, which crosses the land where the famous Jacobite battle was fought on 21 September 1745.

Through some sharing of information, they were happy to assist me in what was a personal project at that stage, and I in return was happy to provide them with content and material for some of the aspects of their plans, which included a guided-walking mobile app (‘Prestonpans 1745) available free to download), way markers along the route and interpretation boards.

Over the following couple of years, I had exhibited some of my research material in local public venues and gained the support of Cockenzie & Port Seton Community Council and East Lothian Council for attempting to do something more to celebrate the waggonway. But the right opportunity had not yet presented itself…

Progressing the project

In November 2016, following a coastal archaeology walk arranged by Great Scottish Tapestry artist Andrew Crummy, renowned archaeologist & illustrator Alan Braby and conservation architect Gareth Jones, I arranged a meeting with them to discuss what could be done to progress the Waggonway Project.

Alan Braby, being an archaeologist, loves to get his trowel dirty and suggested that some surviving remnants of the 1815 iron railway might lie just under the surface debris at Cockenzie Harbour. Some very light scraping on 1 December 2016 revealed that some remains did indeed survive in situ, and in remarkably good condition.

This was the catalyst for the small group to become a little larger. We wanted to conduct a full-scale archaeological dig at the quayside. It would be a community dig with members of the public able to come along and take part. We took the idea to East Lothian Council Archaeology Service (ELCAS) and, thanks to the archaeologist within our ranks, they were happy with our proposals. It also fitted really well into their ‘Archaeology Fortnight’ events, held every September.

So we needed a formal organisation to raise funds and allow the dig to happen, and we formed the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group.

The group has achieved so much in such a short time, it has been a whirlwind.

Work gets underway

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In September 2017 we conducted the first of our community digs, focusing on the Robert Stevenson designed Cockenzie Harbour, where we uncovered the remains of two waggonway sidings dating from between 1815 – 1835. And as part of the same event, the group conducted some experimental archaeology and successfully made sea salt using a method written down by William Brownrigg in the 18th century. This was the industry which the waggonway served with coal, for the furnaces. The salt making has continued and we still run regular salt-making displays.

By the end of 2017, the group needed premises, and in January 2018 we took the rent of a workshop space at Cockenzie Harbour, which allowed us to construct a replica wooden coal waggon which has become the centre-piece of our small Waggonway Museum, where visitors can learn the history of the railway and the industries it served.

In September 2018, we excavated further remains at Cockenzie Harbour, with a new area being tackled at a ruined salt pan house just along the coast. The dig at the harbour revealed another salt pan house and the highly significant remains of a turntable, a waggon tipper and a loading bay which was used to load coal onto ships for export (all designed by Robert Stevenson). Amazingly, we have Stevenson’s plans for these items and were able to match up surviving remains and artefacts to the plans.

In June 2019, we submitted proposals for a test trench across the route of the waggonway a little further inland, at a spot which we suspected was undisturbed and some of the original wooden waggonway might survive beneath. We were correct, and discovered the remains of the 1722 waggonway at a depth of 1m below the surface of the modern bridleway. This consisted of heavily-decayed wooden rails either side of a cobbled horse path. The gauge was 4 ft 6 inches, rather than the previously accepted 3 ft 3 inch gauge which had been based on the gauge of the later iron railway.

2020 activity

We are working with ELCAS to finalise plans for a further dig in spring 2020, which will see a longer stretch of the waggonway excavated, allowing us to fully assess the level of preservation and further the understanding of 18th century waggonways. It will be the oldest railway ever excavated.

And bringing us to September 2019, we completed the excavation of the new salt house, which turned out to be one of the original salt pans built by the Earl of Winton in 1630. Much of the internal workings were still in situ. The building will be conserved and turned into a publicly-accessible break stop on the John Muir Way, where walkers can stop, learn the history through interpretation of the building and gain some shelter from the coastal elements.

So, 2020 will be a big year, with conservation work and further excavations planned. The museum will be further developed with the new information gained and we hope that the local community will benefit from the increased focus on the industrial heritage of the area.

1722 Waggonway Heritage Group is a membership organisation – join online here.