Remains of Scotland's first railway discovered in East Lothian

Remains of the Waggonway were discovered in June.

Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 6:06 am
Updated Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 6:10 am
The dig was carried out by the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group.

The remains of Scotland’s first railway have been celebrated as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the year.

The Tranent to Cockenzie Waggonway, discovered in June, has been named in the top five of ‘Scotland’s Most Amazing Archaeological Finds from 2019’, according to Scottish Archaeological Network Dig It!.

The Waggonway, opened in 1722, pre-dated traditional steam railways and had links to the 1715 Jacobite revolution.

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It could be the oldest waggonway ever discovered, as the remains pre-date those from 1785 found elsewhere in the UK.

Remnants of the 300-year-old wooden rails were discovered in June by the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group, which was created in 2017 to preserve and promote the railways.

The remains were found 1m below the surface on the route of the Waggonway, just north of Meadowmill.

The rails were rotten, but there was evidence of them in imprints and holes in the ground, and a cobbled pony track was also found.

While the site of the Waggonway was well known, rails had not been excavated before.

The find has led experts to re-evaluate some details about the Waggonway, which they now believe to have been 4ft 6 inches wide, and not 3ft 3 inches as previously thought.

The 4km long track connected the coal pits in Tranent to salt pans in Cockenzie and harbour at Port Seton.

Coal was needed to provide energy to evaporate salt in salt pans, one of the key industries on the shore of the Firth of Forth at that time.

Wagons were drawn along the wooden rails by horses, until the track was converted to iron rails in 1815.

The track ran along what is now School Lane in Cockenzie, and led along the High Street to Port Seton Harbour.

The 1745 Battle of Prestonpans during the Jacobite Revolution was fought along the line of the Waggonway.

The 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group plans to conduct further excavation in 2020.

Ed Bethune, Chair of the group, said: “To our knowledge, and I’ve searched extensively, no earlier in situ Waggonway has ever been excavated.

“Willington was 1785, a full 63 years later than ours.

“There are earlier incarnations like the little German ‘hund’ trucks, used underground over short distances, but these are much more rudimentary in design, rather than the more established horse drawn waggonways, the first of which was reputedly built around 1603 in Nottinghamshire.

“The waggonways are essentially the first incarnation of railways as we know them today, and we believe ours is the earliest one discovered so far.”

Amy Eastwood, Head of Grants at Historic Environment Scotland, which is the main source of funding for Dig It!, said: “The fantastic archaeological discoveries made this year are key examples of how the historic environment helps our understanding of our past, and we’re pleased to support and promote the invaluable work being carried out across Scotland.”

Other items on the list of top finds in 2019 include the Lost Govan Stones found in Glasgow and a Pictish stone and skeleton found in the Highlands.