Muir Houses Through Time – Part 2 – Let building begin

Last week we looked at the archaeology under John Muir’s Birthplace. This week, and for the next few, we’ll work forward in time through and beyond the Muir period.

This, then, is the whole story of John Muir’s childhood houses. This tale begins far back in time, in the last decade of the 17th century, before either house existed. All that is known of that period is the archaeology discussed in the last blog. So what went after?

The BBC commissions some great history programmes and I’ve always liked ‘A House Through Time’, which I’m pleased to see is back for another series ( Here at John Muir’s Birthplace in Dunbar, we’re perfectly aware that the Muirs’ tenure of this building, and the family’s later home next door, is only one episode in a long saga. I’ve always thought that the story of these houses would fit just right in with the BBC programme’s selections. After all, our story has all the right elements –

• a family rising through the ranks by hard work and not a little chicanery;
• a young heiress with a pack of wicked uncles;
• the lucky inheritance of a set of stepchildren;
• the children of the next heir being swindled out of their share in turn by a greedy aunt,
• whose husband’s family had some dubious connections with the slave trade;
• their son the doctor whose promising career ended in fairly straightened circumstances –

and that’s all before the Muirs even come on the scene!

The First Family

In 1692, one Robert Fall, retired from service with the earls of Haddington in Fife and the Borders, was recently settled in Dunbar where his cousins had been for nearly a century. He brought his family with him – wife, daughters and, in particular, his four sons. Robert senior was very familiar with the potential of Dunbar as a base. This had come about through his business role as Steward and Bailie for the Haddingtons – the business manager of a large and wealthy estate. In fact, it looks awfully as if he kept a house in Dunbar even earlier: he features in a troubling episode that happened here during the winter of 1684.

An Argument on the Quayside

That was the time of religious dispute in Scotland, which spilled over into persecution and even conflict. Religious assemblies were brutally dispersed, families were torn apart, and men of the cloth ended up in Scotland’s state prison. This was the castle of the Bass Rock, a veritable Alcatraz (but without the amenities!) – and visible from Dunbar. One of these imprisoned ministers was the Reverend John Blackadder. Reverend John had long been a thorn in the side of the authorities who, under Stuart instructions, were attempting to install an episcopal system on the country’s churches. Reverend John was vigorous in his opposition to this betrayal of Presbyterianism. He was arrested at Edinburgh in April 1681 and conveyed to a cell on the Bass.

Meanwhile, his son Adam, who had fled to Sweden some years before, had his own troubles. Adam’s Swedish wife adopted her husband’s Calvinism – risking an automatic death sentence if found out. Time to run again. The young couple made a hazardous journey back to Scotland and landed at Dunbar late in 1684. They were met at the quay by the burgh’s Town Clerk and a Bailie (magistrate) who, on learning of the couple’s identity, decided the Tolbooth prison was the best place for them until instructions could be got from Edinburgh. Robert Fall intervened. He stood bail for the couple (which was surprisingly allowed), and hid them in his house for two weeks (Adam Blackadder recalled ‘the town was full of sodgers going about the country like madmen.’) until matters could be resolved.

Robert Fall, this forceful character, established the family base on the ‘Lowsy Law’. The site was right by the harbour of Dunbar and is today Customhouse Square. Joined by his sons, the family built a business and mercantile empire. As the sons married they each built themselves a townhouse. But, to show their rising prosperity and ambition, their houses were bigger and grander than any others in Dunbar at that date.

William Fall, the eldest, bought two older properties near the north end of the High Street on the west side, demolished the existing buildings, and built one large house. It’s there today – the Dunbar Shapla Tandoori Restaurant!

Charles, the third brother, built a fine mansion on Lowsy Law, with bay windows overlooking the Broadhaven. Many years later the family sold it to the Government – it became Dunbar Custom House and survived into the 1950s.

James, the youngest brother, went one better than his siblings and amalgamated five adjacent burgage plots at the north end of the High Street. His mansion commanded a view over the entire town and could not be missed by anyone. Today it forms the core of the later mansion built for the earl of Lauderdale around 1790; the stonework and some of the detail of James’ house can still be seen.

In the early 1720s Robert junior, the second oldest brother, purchased three adjacent houses, just to the south of his brother William’s new townhouse. He knocked down the old houses and built his own. This was the house where John Muir spent his childhood in Dunbar.

Robert Fall’s House as it was around 1900 (cropped from

Robert’s house resembled William’s but was a little bit larger. At its south end, where one of the old houses had been, an entrance led to a carriage house and stables. The townhouse was of two stories with garret rooms in the roof. Facing the street there were 6 evenly spaced windows on the upper floor and 5 at street level. The pedimented entrance was sited where the 6th ground floor window would have been, third in from the south gable; it opened directly onto the street. On the street side the garret, or attic, rooms were lit by 3 dormer windows but there were only two on the west side, presumably to accommodate a central stairwell. Later adverts suggest the house had 15 rooms.

Next Time

Now, we still have a century to cover before we get to the Muirs. The next blog will take us through the trials and tribulations of Robert Fall junior’s branch of the family. Hang onto your hats, it’s going to be a bit of a rollercoaster ride!