2: The Waggonways Arrive

“imployit the maist pairt of his youth in uncuth nations in searching and learning the knawledge for making and practizeing of ingynis and workis for the commodious and aisle transporting of coillis betix the colpotis, sey and salt panes of this realm”

So reads the records of the Privy Council of Scotland of 1606, relating to the granting of a patent to one Thomas Tulloch to build around Inveresk a conveyance for taking coals from the collieries down to the salt pans on the Firth of Forth, provided that it was “ane work and ingyne nocht known in this kingdom at na time of before”.  The description by the Privy Council clearly describes an early form of railway – the waggonway, of which there were none in Scotland, and the first in England had appeared at Woolaton, Nottinghamshire, two years previously.  Such waggonways had began to appear on the continent, of which there is a surviving woodcut of one such working in Lorraine.  Tulloch may have visited these works, hence the reference to “uncuth nations”.  This equally however have been a sideswipe at the English.

Whether Thomas Tulloch built his early waggonway is unknown.  If it were built however, the location and route would certainly make a great deal of sense.  The monks of Newbattle, near Dalkeith, had mined coal from around the year 900 and transported it by road to Prestonpans on the Firth of Forth, where they would barter it for salt, which would then be transported back to Newbattle Abbey.  Prestonpans takes it’s very name from the salt pans which were a huge industry in the area, and which supplied a great deal of Scotland, while the road which the monks of Newbattle followed is to this day called Salters Road, which narrowly bypasses Inveresk.  Prestonpans equally was the location of the salt pans referred to by the Privy Council.  If Tulloch’s conveyance was built, then that means that Edinburgh had a means for conveying coal and salt nearby, which many European capitals did not yet have.  If it were built, sadly there are no vestiges of it remaining today.

Equally there are no remains of what may have been another early waggonway, which was recorded to have been built around Stacks, near Bo’ness, in 1646.  Of the third example however there is absolutely no doubt, for the trackbed of it ramains to this day.

The Yorks Building Company had been given lands seized by the crown in East Lothian after the Earl of Winton supported the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.  In 1722 they opened what is today widely recognised as the first railway in Scotland, the Tranent Waggonway.  Approximately 12 miles to the east of the centre of Edinburgh, this was a waggonway from the collieries around the East Lothian town of Tranent, down to the harbour of Port Seton, and which later incoporated a westwards branch to Prestonpans (the importance of salt in Scots history cannot be underestimated).

On a side note, for a waggonway which owed it’s existence to a Jacobite defeat, the Tranent Waggonway became the first railway in the world to be used in battle tactics and a Jacobite victory.  Following his victories in the highlands, Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) had marched steadily south and taken Edinburgh by September 1745.  The government sent troops under Sir John Cope to head the Jacobites off and deny them a route to England.  They lined their guns up along the Tranent Waggonway on 20 September 1745, then retired for the evening.  Lord Elcho, seeing this took a phalanx of Jacobite troops up to tree cover near Tranent.  The following morning the Jacobites attacked without warning (Cope was apparently still asleep) from the front.  As the government troops desparately tried to repel this assualt, Elcho and his highlanders came charging down the waggonway, attacking them on their left flank.  The result was a complete rout, over in less than an hour, which saw Sir John Cope and many of his men flee the field.  This is remembered to this day in the Scots song Hey, Johnnie Cope which has become a sort of unofficial anthem of East Lothian;

Hey, Johnnie Cope are ye wauking yet?
And are your drums a-beating yet?
If ye were wauking, I wad wait,
Tae ging tae the coals in the morning.

The Tranent Waggonway should have been viable but eventually proved to be a financial disaster, eventually being sold off as scrap in 1778.  The principle however galvanised others to start similar schemes.

Sir Archibald Hope of Craighall, owned lands around Pinkie, near Inveresk, and in 1815 opened a waggonway from his colliery at Pinkie down to Fisherrow Harbour, and eventually as far as salt pans at the Magdalene Bridge, right on the border between East Lothian and Midlothian.  This waggonway appears to have been enormously successful and survived until 1841.

The waggonways were getting closer and closer to Edinburgh.  While Robert Stevenson had been commissioned to survey a route for the ‘Edinburgh Railway’ in 1817 (see Chapter 1: Early Attempts), the following year saw him working on another project.  Alexander Laing of Shawfair was the owner of Newton Colliery, near Millerhill, Midlothian.  Laing and another colliery baron and landowner, Sir John Don Wauchope of Edmonstone, commissioned Robert Stevenson to survey a four mile route from Newton Colliery to LIttle France, on Sir John’s Edmonstone estate, and right by the Old Dalkeith Road.

The route Stevenson chose was agreed on and the waggonway appears to have been built very quickly – somewhat amazing given the steep inclines involved.  The line ran uphill to the north from Newton, curving around where the later Monktonhall Colliery would later be built, apparently close to where Woolmet Colliery later stood, then taking a sharp left downhill to the foot of the Wisp, serving Edmonstone Colliery, and across the Edmonstone Estate to Little France.  The line was built of malleable iron edge-rails (the rails being L shaped, as opposed to wheels being flanged), tied to freestone blocks and opened in August 1818, as reported in the Edinburgh Evening Courant:

New Rail Road


MR ALEXANDER LAING begs leave to inform inhabitants of Edinburgh and neighbourhood that he has completed a Rail Road, fourmiles in length, from his Coal Works at Newton to Little France, at which he will, on Monday next COMMENCE SALES of the BEST JEWEL COAL and EDMONSTONE GREAT COAL., at reasonable prices.  Little France is on the Dalkeith Road, only two miles from the southern vicinity, and three miles from the high street of Edinburgh, those who purchase their coals at the Little France depot will save over half the present carriage, and tear and wear of harness, &c. in proprotion; he now solicits his friends and the public to make trial, when he flatters himself they will find the quality and price to be such as will merit a liberal share of their patronage.

NEWTON-HOUSE, August 20, 1818

The Edmonstone Waggonway rarely gets a mention in railway histories of Edinburgh, and yet it’s enormous success cannot be underestimated.  Stevenson, Laing and Wauchope had brought coal traffic for the first time to within two miles of the southern boundary of the city (at this time around Pollock Halls to Salisbury Road) and three miles from the city centre, and it continued to be used for many years to come.

The lease on Edmonstone Colliery transferred to the Stenhouses of Whitehill in either 1824 or 1826.  On the first attempt of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway Company (EDR) to gain an Act of Parliament in 1825, John Don Wauchope was one of the objectors (but strangely enough to did not attend the hearing or send a representative to argue his case).  After that Bill failed on it’s Third Reading, when the EDR submitted their second (and successful) Bill in 1826, it is rumoured that Stenhouse tried to have a clause inserted compensating him for the abandonment of the waggonway.  Wauchope attempted to get the EDR to buy the line but was not successful, while James Jardine’s 1825 survey for the EDR showed a proposed junction with the Edmonstone Waggonway at Redrow.

Whatever the speculation, it is widely regarded that the Edmonstone Waggonway was abandoned after the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway opened in 1831.

Or was it?

In his excellent work, Early Railways of the Lothians, M J Worling makes the point that an 1899 map shows a coal yard at Pentecox, Little France, with a tramway to it marked “disused”.  Could it then have survived another sixty years, maybe connected to other industrial lines?

This is not just perfectly possible, I would suggest that is exactly what happened, and I can give my own anecdotal evidence to support that claim.  I grew up in the Moredun area, and just up the road from Little France.  I recall during my childhood an ancient wall bordering the Burdiehouse Burn collapsed, revealing that it had been strengthened at one point with two long stretches of iron, one of which was L shaped – and the other of which I now know to have been a length of more modern ‘bullhead’ rail.  Little France lies over a mile from the nearest railway, the Edinburgh suburban line, so it is highly unlikely a length of rail would have been transported that far for this purpose.  It is far more likely that the wall was strengthened with one of the original rails from the waggonway, and a later one.

My second account dates from 2010, when I walked the last remnants of the Waggonway before it disappeared for good beneath modern road building works.  As the trackbed reached the Niddrie Policies it had become eradicated, and there at my feet were the rotting remnants of a wooden sleeper.  The waggonway was tied to freestone blocks, not laid on modern sleepers, so this remnant is a definite pointer to the upgrading of the line.

There was once a network of industrial colliery lines which emnated out from Niddrie Colliery and brickworks, taking in Woolmet Colliery, near Newton, and a coal depot right at the top of Edmonstone village, near Danderhall.  These lines crossed the route of the Edmonstone Waggonway, and I therefore surmise that it was upgraded with bullhead rails laid to standard gauge on wooden sleepers, and thus incorporated into the local colliery railway network.

Sadly, we shall never now know, as the last remnants of the Edmonstone Waggonway disappeared forever with the building of the Edinburgh Bioquarter development and it’s feeder roads.