Scotland’s earliest railway - so old a Jacobite battle was fought over it

The railway is so old, a battle during the Jacobite rising was fought over its tracks.
The waggonway ran right to the harbour at CockenzieThe waggonway ran right to the harbour at Cockenzie
The waggonway ran right to the harbour at Cockenzie

Scotland’s earliest line is to be commemorated as it approaches its 300th anniversary, along with plans to excavate a short stretch.

The Tranent to Cockenzie Waggonway in East Lothian was built on wooden rails to haul coal to power coastal salt works – the country’s biggest industry of the time.

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Opened in 1722, it used horses and gravity to bring the coal north from the mines. Now a footpath, excavations last year revealed imprints of the wooden rails and a cobbled horse path between them, a metre beneath the surface.

Excavations revealed the constructionExcavations revealed the construction
Excavations revealed the construction

It was named as one of Scotland’s top five archaeological finds of 2019 by Dig It Scotland, the country’s archaeological hub.

There are now plans to open up a 10m-15m stretch to better understand how it was built.

The waggonway’s history is intertwined with the Jacobites, with the line built on estates seized from supporters of the Old Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father James Edward Stuart, after the failed rising of 1715.

Thirty years later, his son, the Young Pretender, led Jacobite forces to victory over an army loyal to King George II at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, part of which was fought over the waggonway.

A replica waggonA replica waggon
A replica waggon

The industrial landmark is now to be honoured with the unveiling of a “Red Wheel” plaque by the Transport Trust.

This will be displayed outside a museum run by the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group in Cockenzie when the Covid-19 restrictions have been eased.

Group chairman Ed Bethune said: “The waggonway was constructed to improve the transit of coal from the Tranent pits to the Cockenzie salt pans and harbour at Port Seton.

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“It is the earliest form of railway of any kind in Scotland and served the once great, and long forgotten, salt-producing industry at Cockenzie.

“Salt was the nation’s single biggest industry at the time, and the construction of the line signalled the beginning of a huge industrial expansion in many other coal producing and mining areas.

“Thereafter, railways began to spring up in all parts of the country, and from Alloa to Brora the scale of salt production would skyrocket.

“The railway is steeped with a unique history which, over the past three years, the 1722 Waggonway project has been working to ensure is not forgotten.

“The Transport Trust’s Red Wheel plaque initiative is a fantastic way of recognising both the significance of this earliest of Scottish railways and the work that has been done by the local communities to celebrate and rediscover its history.”

Transport Trust spokesman John Yellowlees said: “The Red Wheels programme seeks to commemorate sites of transport heritage to promote awareness of historic achievements and provide the opportunity of a virtual tour [online] for people such as young folk considering a career in transport or engineering.

“Cockenzie will be Scotland’s fourth, and celebrates Scotland’s first railway.

“The presence of the plaque on the outside wall of the museum will help anticipate the waggonway group’s ongoing activities of award-winning archaeological excavation and other efforts supporting the area’s heritage which already include the resumption of salt making.”

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The first Red Wheel in Scotland was presented to the former Glasgow-Paisley-Ardrossan Canal last August.

Others have been unveiled at Glenfinnan and Wemyss Bay, and another plaque will mark the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Churchill Barriers in Orkney this month.

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