This is the second post looking at the story of John Muir’s Dunbar homes after the Muirs left for America. The amount of detail available grows – as does the pace of change in both ownership and occupancy. This post focuses solely on John Muir’s childhood home, next door to his birthplace.
The Muirs Move On
We left John Muir’s childhood home at the beginning of February 1849 after Daniel Muir sold the house to Dr John Lorn and the Muir family set off to a new start across the Atlantic.
Dr John Lorn bought the property for himself and his mother; they had been living with relatives in Dunbar for some time. Janet (Jessie) Simpson Lorn had first left Dunbar in 1813 when she married John Lorn senior, a merchant, mariner and shipowner of Grangemouth, a port much further up the Forth than Dunbar. But Jessie was was widowed in 1821 at the age of just 33. She was left with two young children – but a good estate held in trust by her husband’s will. She and the children (John born 1815, and Ann, born 1819) made their home in Dunbar during 1830 – Ann Gilrye Muir was their near contemporary.Young John trained in medicine at nearby Edinburgh, becoming a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in September 1836. His sister Ann moved away when she married Dr John Moir a couple of years after, but John never married. Instead, he and his mother made the Dunbar house their home. John never seems to have taken his medical practice too seriously – lawn bowls and the management of the Free Kirk were more his thing. After his mother died in 1866 he spent less time in Dunbar – the house was let to a Dr David James in 1871 and was sold the following year to William Brodie, a Dunbar businessman. Dr John retired to Edinburgh’s new town where he purchased 27 Drummond Place and died there in 1888.
A New Venture – the Lorne Hotel
William Brodie’s purchase of the house was with a specific object in mind. Dunbar was a rising holiday destination and a new kind of venture was all the rage – the Temperance Hotel. Aimed specifically at families rather than the commercial market, temperance hotels were exactly that – alcohol free premises! Astute businessman that he was, Brodie also redeveloped the ground floor of the building to create two shops. This would provide a steady income if the hotel proved unpopular. The one to the south was snapped up by an extremely reliable tenant – Dunbar Post Office under Miss Jane Barclay, moving out from John’s birthplace next door. It remained so until 1904. The other went with the hotel, being variously used as offices or tea-rooms.
The busy Dunbar Post Office, 1889, in John Muir’s Childhood Home
Brodie’s venture was open for the summer of 1872 under the management of Thomas Wilson and then from 1875 by Eliza Hannan. When William Brodie died his trustees then let the upper part of the building to a Mrs Margaret Fish and her daughters who started a private school in their part of the building. Then in 1886 the hotel reopened under John Henderson and his wife for a few years followed by Thomas Thomson. Both Henderson and Thomson ran tearooms and a confectionery outlet from the ground floor of the building.
It was during Thomas Thomson’s tenure that John Muir revisited Dunbar. He wrote to Louie, his wife:
There was no carriage from the Lorne Hotel that used to be our home, so I took the one from the St. George, which I remember well as Cossar’s Inn that I passed every day on my way to school. But I’m going to the Lorne, if for nothing else to take a look at that dormer window I climbed in my nightgown, to see what kind of an adventure it really was.
John Muir’s Childhood Home around 1893. Courtesy University of the Pacific. Copyright Muir-Hanna Trust
John found the dormers still there: he was keen to see the site of one of his childhood ‘scootchers’ or dares. After being put to bed one night, he and brother Davie had ventured out the window, onto the roof, each challenging the other to go further!
Shortly after Muir’s only return home, the building was in 1896 purchased from Brodie’s estate by Henry Huntly, formerly of Dunbar’s Jersey Arms Hotel. Huntly ran the hotel himself, although perhaps not successfully: one of his first moves was to apply for a liquor license, which was refused.
John Smith, a Dunbar baker, bought the building in 1902. At first, the Smiths leased out the hotel (interspersed with periods of self-management). Similarly the former post office was taken by Henry Davidson, a shoemaker. In the early days of their tenure only the shop on the northern side was continuously in their own hands, an outlet for their bakery produce and tearooms. As time passed more and more of the Smiths’ business was transferred to their new premises. As before, sometimes they operated the Lorne Hotel ‘in-house’; sometimes it was leased, or under management. By the late 1920s, the next generation built a bakehouse behind the building, in a part of the Muirs’ old garden. When Davidson’s lease expired the southernmost shop became Smith’s bakery, which became a Dunbar institution through into the 21st century!
We’ll bring the story to a close in the present day – and explain a bit more about how we dug up the history of John Muir’s houses in Dunbar.
Our next couple of posts will look at the story of John Muir’s Dunbar homes after the Muirs left for America. The amount of detail available grows – as does the pace of change in both ownership and occupancy. This post focuses solely on John Muir’s Birthplace.
Daniel Muir Moves On
on the ground floor, John Finlay a retired sea captain, his wife Catherine, their daughter Margaret and granddaughter Marion Runciman. John Finlay was trading as a spirit dealer from the shop. It may be that Finlay was one of the ‘old sailors’ who the boys of Dunbar enlisted to sort the sails and rigging of their toy boats, as recounted by John Muir. He was certainly handily placed for John and Davie. Odd to think that this old sea-dog in his little grog-shop was the grandfather of a Baron and great grandfather of a Viscount!
on the middle floor, James Low, a blacksmith, and his family – 12 people in all!
on the top floor, George Jeffrey and his family – 5 people.
That’s a total of 21 people resident in what is now the John Muir’s Birthplace Museum, in three distinct households but with no real amenities – neither running water, gas lighting or even an indoor toilet!
The next event in the building’s tale came in 1846. Still desperate for money Dr Wightman sold the house to Matthew Watt of Belhaven (Wightman’s financial difficulties would be common knowledge). Watt had been a hand loom weaver but, as that profession was driven out of the market by mechanisation, had opened a successful grocery. He bought the house as an investment and continued to live and trade from Belhaven.
Matthew owned the house until he died in 1874 at the age of 80. In 1877 his estate sold the house to a sitting tenant, the postman Peter Aitchison, marking the start of a period of rapid turnover. Betsey Anderson owned it in 1878, William Fraser in 1879, William Rennie in 1883, and Daniel Smith in 1885. Smith’s purchase marks a return to stability: it remained in his hands, then his heirs, until 1924.
Who Lived in the Birthplace
It’s impossible to list all the inhabitants of the Birthplace, so we’ll highlight just a few. A stanza from an old Dunbar song or rhyme helps us to begin:
‘And a’ our great worthies are sure to be there
‘In summer, or winter, be it foul, be’t fair
‘Matthew Watt, Willie Howell, Willie Liddle would drop,
‘In tae hear a’ the news in John Cockburn’s shop.’
Matthew Watt we know: he owned the building from 1846; Willie Howell, a bookbinder to trade, lived with his family on the top floor from around the time of Matthew’s purchase to his death in 1879; John Cockburn, whose saddlery is celebrated in the song as a great place for chat and gossip, occupied the middle flat between 1861-69. It’s pretty clear that Matthew preferred to let to his friends.
After the Howells, the top flat was rented by Alexander Thompson (a tailor) and family; Staff Sergeant Flowett Marshall (serving with the staff of the local volunteers) and family; John Robertson (a (horse-drawn) vanman) and family; and then into the 20th century with Walter Brydon (a gardener) and family.
Down below them, after John Cockburn moved to Edinburgh, the middle flat was rented by John McCliskie (ropemaker) and family, John Frame (a groom who subsequently worked as a grocer) and family, the carter Alexander Dickson and his family; and then the labourer Martin Jewels and his family.
Below them the shop saw some transformations. There’s a gap in the records after John Finlay until the financial year beginning April 1857. It then became Dunbar Post Office when Miss Barclay took up the lease. The PO had been nearer the West Port under Miss Barclay’s father, the previous Postmaster. This change saw the shop quickly revalued from £7 to £10 annually, so there must have been significant work carried out; perhaps gas lighting was then installed. In 1872 Miss Barclay sub-let the premises to a Mrs Hannan when the Post Office relocated again, then Peter Aitchison occupied the shop for some years (the first owner occupier in the house’s history). His successor was William Fraser, another owner-occupier and Dunbar harbourmaster, who seems to have set the shop up as a grocery but mostly sub-let its operation. Andrew William Anderson, a clock and watchmaker newly arrived from Dundee, lived with his family in the Muirs’ old quarters for three years as he was establishing his business in Dunbar. He was followed in 1889 by William Black (and his sister) who had a drapery through until 1916.
What happened in John Muir’s childhood home after the family emigrated?
In this blog we consider what happened to Dr Wightman, who had left a roomful of chemistry apparatus in his house in Dunbar but who lived far away in Northumberland. And the Muirs make their moves.
The Travails of Dr Wightman
After he graduated from Edinburgh University and set up as a physician in Alnwick, Dr Charles Wightman seems to have prospered. He soon moved to Sunderland and then to Newcastle-upon-Tyne where he bought a fine house in a good location. Along the way he married (1822) Miss Janet Thomson, a daughter of the laird of Earnslaw in Berwickshire, and began a family. His inheritance was invested in property, land and the stock market – it’s fair to say he went potty about the railways that were being floated in the 1830s. He subscribed £5000 to each of at least 5 separate railway flotations (not all these came to fruition, so the same sum might be invested more than once)! In 1840 he published a Treatise of the Sympathetic Relation between the Stomach and the Brain, which indicates his professional interests.
But fortune turned. The early railway speculations were a bubble and many investors lost out – Dr Wightman amongst them. While his speculations were in play, his family was decimated by death. He lost his wife and several children until, In 1841, at his fine Georgian residence in Eldon Square, Newcastle, only he and his daughter Janet Thomson Wightman were left. A housekeeper and two other female servants completed the household. Dr Wightman made several public (and fawning) attempts to be appointed Physician to Newcastle Infirmary, but was never preferred. He tried for other public medical posts, without success. The Newcastle house, and land he had purchased speculatively, had to be mortgaged. It would seem on top of everything that money troubles were growing. Even the houses in Dunbar were sold. Robert Fall’s old house went to Daniel Muir in January 1842 and the ‘new built house’ (where John Muir was born) to Matthew Watt during 1846.
In 1847 a mortgage on the house in Eldon Square was transferred to a local painter and decorator (in lieu of debt?). By the census of 1851 Dr Wightman was resident in a lodging house in Princes Street, Newcastle; his landlady was his former housekeeper.
Dr Charles’ surviving daughter Janet, however, made a good match. In 1853 she married Alexander Christie-Thomson, controller of the Post Office Savings Bank, then on its way to becoming a national institution. But Dr Charles died in Newcastle during 1857. There was nothing left for Janet to inherit.
Daniel Muir Advances
Daniel Muir arrived in Dunbar with a new wife, a lease on a house, and took over a struggling business. He lost the first, kept the second, and transformed the third.
A simple way to monitor Daniel Muir’s progress is to tap the opinion of the Session Clerk who compiled the Parish Register. Until David Muir was born in 1840, Daniel was described as ‘shopkeeper’ at the baptisms of his three earliest children; with David it became ‘mealmonger’; with Daniel junior ‘mealdealer’; and finally, with the twins in 1846, ‘merchant’. Daniel had made it in the eyes of Dunbar officialdom!
As Daniel progressed though the ranks of Dunbar society, revolution was in the air. Years of burgess privileges had been swept away in the Reform Acts of the 1830s. For Daniel and his like minded friends in the Associate Presbyterian churches it meant enfranchisement for many. Whereas David Gilrye, Daniel’s father-in-law, had been eligible to sit on the burgh council simply because he was a burgess, Daniel was now eligible as a simple elector in a much expanded electorate. And stand he did.
The council had been reduced to 12 elected members, 4 being elected (for a 3 year term) every October. It took some years for the ‘new men’ (it was still only men) to become a majority. When they did, the council went from Tory to Whig (Liberal). In October of 1847, when Daniel joined the council, Simon Sawers of Newhouse (a former civil administrator of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)) became provost (mayor) in the Liberal interest and Christopher Middlemass, who had dominated Dunbar politics in the Tory interest for the best part of 50 years, found himself an ordinary councillor sitting alongside the likes of Daniel Muir, John Mather (Ann Gilrye’s cousin), John Richardson (father of John’s friend Bob), and Robert Cossar the innkeeper, all newly enfranchised ‘new men’.
Daniel was obviously a good man to cultivate. With his rising status amongst the businessmen of the town, his reputation for ‘fair dealing and good measure’, his forthright Christianity and generosity to his chosen church he would be noticed. It would be noticed too that he had purchased ‘that large and commodious house’ that John remembered. Daniel had bought the house from Dr Wightman’s agents when the Doctor’s money needs became imperative in January 1842. But the evidence suggest that the family was already in occupation before that date.
A decennial census was taken on the night of 6th June 1841. The information is scanty – named household members, occupations, ages and an indication of birthplace – and addresses minimal, but it is clear that the Muirs (spelt Moore by the census taker) are in the big house. The gardener’s widow Catherine Nisbet, still in residence above the laundry on the north side of the garden, is named immediately before the Muir family. Dr Wightman, despite his own circumstances, took care to ensure that her liferent right to the cottage was written into the terms of the sale to Daniel. As the census shows that the ground floor of John’s birthplace next along the street was occupied by John Finlay and his family, Daniel had moved his growing business to the big house as well.
Another snippet of evidence perhaps corroborates the Muirs’ occupation of the house prior to purchase and it comes from John Muir himself. John related that sister Sarah tipped little John off his stool such that he bit his tongue. Then he was rushed out the back way, through the garden to Peter Lawson, the apothecary. John estimated he was then around 2 ½ – say between October 1840 and January of the next year, when he started school. This can only have happened from the big house – there was no back route from the wee house.
The next change for John Muir’s childhood home came at the beginning of February 1849. Daniel Muir sold the house to Dr John Lorn. Daniel, Sarah, John and David began their journey to America before the end of the month. Ann and the rest of the children may have been in residence until they left in October, or they may have moved back in with her parents over the road. A new start for all.
The houses after the Muirs – the Victorian years.
In the last blog we left the Muir houses in the hands of the absentee owner Doctor Charles Wightman, who was resident in Northumberland. We’re still in that awkward phase where records are scanty, but the situation is improving.
Who Lived in the Houses?
Two snippets help to fill in some of the detail about what happened next. With the Nisbets (John and James) in possession of the large garden, the big house was let out to a succession of generally wealthy (it can be assumed) tenants. Mostly this was easily arranged by word of mouth but in 1821 Dr Wightman’s agents had to advertise. The advert shows that the then tenant was William Sandilands of Barneyhill, a former captain in the 7th Dragoons and a ‘gentleman farmer’. It’s worth showing the advert in full for the details it gives of the house:
House, gardens, etc., in Dunbar to be let.
To be let for one or more years as may be agreed on, and entered into immediately. That large and commodious house, in the town of Dunbar, belonging to Dr. Wightman, and presently occupied by Mr. Sandilands, with two good gardens, stables, and coachhouse. The house is well calculated for the accommodation of a genteel and numerous family, consisting of parlour, dining room, drawing room, and five excellent bedrooms, with a light bed closet to each of them, besides four garret rooms, kitchen and servant’s room, cellars and other conveniences. The house, stable and garden, immediately behind it, may either be let separately or along with the coachhouse and the other stable and garden, as may be agreed to. For further particulars apply to Mr. Turnbull, surgeon, Dunbar, or to Mr. Sievwright, 102 South Bridge, Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Evening Courant, 17 December 1821.
Pigot’s Directory of 1825-6 gives us our sole clue for the other house in this period, and that’s only by working back from the account that John Muir left:
Jane, or Janet, Kennedy occupied John Muir’s Birthplace and traded as a ‘mealdealer’; there is no information about the other tenants on the upper floors. We don’t know if there had been other tenants between her and Joseph Hogg the tobacconist.
Now, mealdealer – that’s a fairly specific occupation in a 19th century Scottish context. It meant ‘one who dealt in oatmeal’ – an essential component of the Scots’ diet but also an essential commodity in a town like Dunbar where there were many draught, carriage and riding horses stabled. Note that the demand for meal could accommodate seven separate businesses for a population of around 3000.
Daniel Muir Comes to Town
From now on the sources for the two houses become much greater. In his obituary of his father John Muir wrote:
‘Going to Glasgow and drifting about the great city, friendless and unknown, he was induced to enter the British Army, but remained in it only a few years, when he purchased his discharge before he had been engaged in any active service.
‘On leaving the Army he married and began business as a merchant in Dunbar, Scotland. Here he remained and prospered for twenty years; establishing an excellent reputation for fair dealing and enterprise’.
Discussing the same events in the Life and Letters of John Muir, William Frederic Bade wrote:
Daniel Muir, coming to Dunbar as a recruiting sergeant, met there his first wife by whom he had one child. She was a woman of some means and enabled him to purchase his release from the army in order to engage in the conduct of a business which she had inherited. Their happiness together was of brief duration, for both she and the child were snatched away by a premature death, leaving him alone.
There’s not a lot of detail to work with there, but let’s have a stab at filling it in.
Daniel and Helen
Mrs Janet Kennedy died at Dunbar on the 18th of February 1829: a point to note is that she was given the title ‘Mrs’ and her married surname in the Old Parish Record entry. That marks her as being above the ‘common class’. She had a son Thomas Kennedy, a sergeant in the Royal Artillery, who arranged for a headstone to be erected over the grave in the kirkyard.
Janet also had a had a daughter ‘Helen’ whose name came down to John Muir as ‘Helen’; and so she is recorded when she died and was buried at Dunbar in 1832. The entry in Dunbar’s old parish register shows Helen was Daniel’s first wife; but there is no corresponding marriage record at Dunbar. So, how did Daniel meet Helen and come to Dunbar?
Well, Sergeant Thomas Kennedy was stationed at Berwick-upon-Tweed, around 30 miles to the south of Dunbar. A notice in the Berwick Advertiser, an entry in Northumberland Records and also the Records of Cross Border Marriages show the marriage of Eleanor Weatherlie Kennedy, spinster of Dunbar, and Daniel Muir, bachelor of Berwick, a Scot and serving soldier in the Royal Artillery. The date was 07 October 1829. It would appear that Sgt. Thomas Kennedy and Daniel were in the same unit, making Thomas the likely means of their introduction. For eight months Helen, or Eleanor, had been in charge of her late mother’s business in Dunbar. It was a relatively simple matter for Daniel to take over after they married. He then set about building the business to the state John Muir recalled. Now settled, he began to leave a documentary record:
… Daniel Muir, shopkeeper and tenant, house and shop on the west side of the High Street of Dunbar…
Dunbar Voters Roll, 1832-3, John Gray Centre.
And in Pigot’s Directory of 1836-7 Daniel replaces Janet Kennedy in the list of mealdealers:
The young couple did not have long together. As noted above, Helen died on 01 August 1832. There is as yet no evidence of a child of the marriage, then living or dead, despite Bade’s assertion. After a decent interval, Daniel remarried. His spouse was the young Ann Gilrye who lived a few doors away on the other side of the street. Daniel and Ann were married at Dunbar on the 17th November 1833. Daniel was 29 and Ann was 20 years old.
What on earth happened to Dr Wightman? Daniel Muir wins a reputation and buys a house.
In the last blog we explored lives of the Delisle family during their tenure of John Muir’s childhood home. In this blog we need to introduce a new building – John Muir’s Birthplace (finally).
An End and a New Owner
At the start of the last blog, we had reached a point where the big house was a very busy place. It was occupied by Mary Melvil Fall Delisle, and the four children of her stepson Philip Delisle II. Mary had two (unnamed, unfortunately) servants living in the house to help. But we skipped past some details to explore the fate of these children. We need to jump back a few years.
The earlier event of note was the death of Janet Fall Barton in Ireland in 1768. As she was childless, her will stipulated that her property in Dunbar went to her mother Mary Melvil Fall Delisle, and the will was proved by 1775. So, the house that she had lived in all these years was now Mary’s own. Perhaps it was the death of her own stepson Philip Delisle II and her own advancing years, that prompted Mary to prepare her own will. It was witnessed and registered during 1789. Three years later, on 10 October 1792, she died, bringing to an end the Fall phase of the house’s story. She had, however, taken steps some years before her death to ensure a reliable income in her last years.
In Janet’s will (1768; and also at the time of its proving in 1775) there is no mention of the building later possessed by Daniel Muir, the house where John Muir was born. But in Mary’s will a ‘new-built house in the south end’ (of the big house) appears. By the 1780s Mary no longer needed to keep a carriage. The redundant entranceway was just big enough for a small tenement building. Its purpose was to provide Mary with a steady income from the rent so it would appear that this was done between 1775 and 1789, probably much nearer the latter date. Ann Delisle Wightman inherited both properties on Mary’s death in 1792. At this early date, it is extremely difficult to tell who actually lived where. Not until 1855 is there an annual register that provides that fine detail. But sometimes there’s a glimmer. When Ann proved Mary’s will in 1792 the ‘new-built house’ was possessed (tenanted) by ‘Joseph Hogg and others’. Therefore Joseph is the first known occupant of John Muir’s Birthplace.
Joseph Hogg was a councillor and bailie of Dunbar and he played the same role in the house as Daniel Muir did in later years – he was the named tenant who sublet the apartments on the upper floor and rendered the rent due from the whole to the owners. His own residence was elsewhere but he may have run his business from the ground floor. He was a tobacconist, another person with a strong interest in the ‘free trade’ endemic at the time!
Meanwhile, it’s time to consider Ann Delisle and the Wightmans. Charles Stewart Wightman and William Wightman were the oldest sons of Charles Wightman of Anstruther. The older Charles was one of history’s characters – bon vivant, clubbable, an ardent Jacobite, and wealthy. From the Castle of Dreel in Anstruther he combined business as a merchant with duties as factor to the estate of the earls of Kellie. But everyone, not least the Excise, about the Firth of Forth knew him to be a great supporter of ‘free trade’ (another one!). In short, he was a significant clandestine receiver of the untaxed goods brought to the Forth in the ships of the major smugglers – most certainly including our old friends, the Fall brothers and their heirs in Dunbar. His first son seems to have been a chip off the old block and was also a reputed smuggler, and that was probably why he relocated to Eyemouth. But the younger Charles’ main interest lay in the Caribbean where the family had invested much of their profits. That story takes us too far from Dunbar, so lets get back to Ann and William Wightman.
Dr William seems to have ‘minded the shop’ for his brother as well as practising medicine in Eyemouth. From Eyemouth also, Ann & William could keep a close eye on doings in Dunbar. And also keep a close eye on their perceived rights, as Ann did when she challenged her nephews’ and nieces’ inheritance. Ann and William had three children at Eyemouth during the 1780s:
Philip Delisle Wightman in 1785, named after Ann’s father (and brother)
Isabel Wightman in 1786, named after William’s mother
Charles Wightman in 1788, named after William’s father (and brother)
Surviving correspondence shows William at work in Eyemouth through to 1788, but then there is a gap until 1806 when his address is Dunbar. We must assume that when Ann inherited the house in Dunbar in 1792 that they relocated; whether the four children left by Philip in Mary’s care were still there is a moot point but is likely that they were. Very likely they were now Ann and William’s responsibility. We lose track of Philip and Isobel Wightman, but young Charles continues the story.
After completing his education (probably) at Dunbar Grammar School, Charles went up to Edinburgh University in 1810 to study medicine (following in his father’s footsteps: William Wightman was there in 1769-70). Not long after he graduated, first his father William (September 1816) and then his mother Ann (April 1817) died. Both houses now belonged to young Doctor Charles Wightman: his father’s will confirms Charles as the only child ‘now in life’. He also got £1000 as soon as his father died and a subsequent £3000 was earmarked for him when his trustees had sorted the estate. A not insignificant sum in 1816!
What of the houses? All four of Charles’ cousins had left Dunbar (or died; see last blog). He himself began his medical practice in Alnwick, Northumberland. Independently wealthy, Charles hardly needed the rents from the properties but from this time both were leased: the new house to a succession of local tenants; the big house to more wealthy ‘residenters’ – people of independent means. The garden was leased separately to James and John Nisbet who worked it as a commercial market garden.
With Dr Charles Wightman an absentee landlord in Northumberland, what happened to the Dunbar houses? Find out in our next instalment.
In the earlier parts of this blog we looked at the first family that built and lived in John Muir’s childhood home. We begin this blog with a new family and their story.
The Second Family
After marrying her soldier John Barton, Janet Fall seems to have split her time between Dunbar and Ireland. She was still in Dunbar in 1752 when she became a founding investor in the Lothian and Merse Whale Fishing Company, the latest scheme of her cousins in the family business. She was back again in 1758. Sadly, John’s death was recorded at Dunbar on the 17th of July, which seems to have prompted Janet to write her own will, registered in November 1758. This may have been in part to sort out her mother’s security. Janet still owned the house but her mother and her new step family were now the principal residents. Janet never met the next group to arrive: she died in Ireland during 1768.
Captain Philip Delisle continued as a serving officer, so his second wife Mary Melvil Fall must have been left with her hands full looking after her step-children Elizabeth, Philip junior and Ann Delisle. There were nursemaids and servants to help but still, feeding, clothing and schooling the children must have kept Mary busy. She did well and all three reached adulthood. They began to make their way in the world:
Elizabeth Delisle married Thomas Meek in September 1779. Thomas was a local merchant, much involved in the management of the Whale Fishing Company. The couple remained in Dunbar where Elizabeth died in 1791.
Philip Delisle junior joined the East India Company’s army in Bengal. He was dead by 1788, but therein lies a tale!
Ann Delisle eloped with Dr William Wightman of Eyemouth. Their irregular marriage was registered at Haddington in August 1782. They settled in Eyemouth where William practised and his brother Charles Stewart Wightman was a prominent merchant and more!
Philip junior’s Tale
We’ll take some time to look at Philip’s tale, as it bears on the later house history. In 18th century Scotland the British East India Company, the semi-government institution that monopolised Britain’s trade with the sub-continent, was seen as a wonderful career opportunity for adventurous young men. The plum administrative positions with the company were the very devil to get. It needed connections and political influence to secure even a minor clerkship. But there was another, much easier way. There were always openings in the Company’s armies, such was the attrition of the officer corps through disease, debilitation and death – comparatively few died in battle. But if chance allowed survival, there were opportunities aplenty. That’s the route young Philip took. As yet we know nothing of his military career except that, like his father, he reached the rank of captain. Between 1775 and 1782 he was deputy Paymaster to the 1st Brigade of the Company’s Army stationed at Fort William, Calcutta. His activities become much clearer later in his time in India. He became a merchant, financier and campaigner for social reform from his houses in Calcutta and Simla.
As to the first, in the mid 1780s he was competing for contracts to supply his former service; he must already have had considerable resources behind him as one contract was to supply clothing for an entire brigade – about 3000 men.
For the second, he appears many times as an executor of the estates of dead colleagues, settling their Indian affairs and transmitting the cash realized back to heirs in the UK. He was in addition a director of the General Bank of India. It was perhaps ability in this sphere that led him to becoming a partner in a firm that was on the way to being the foremost of the first ever investment houses or banks – Paxton, Cockerell, Trail & Company, which before Philip’s death traded as Paxton, Cockerell & Delisle. The company arranged shipment of goods (tons of indigo, cloth, shellac), handled bonds drawn by merchants, contacted with the Government (or East India Company), hired vessels and much more. It’s worth noting that Sir William Paxton, a Berwickshire lad, who returned from India to run the British arm of the firm, died as one of the richest men of his age. What if Philip had lived?
Philip’s third interest was the condition of the many orphaned children left by his deceased colleagues. Early in 1782 he offered his house as a venue for a meeting of concerned military and company men. They initiated the Bengal Military Orphan Society and Philip was elected one of the six managers. The nascent society convinced Warren Hastings (the Governor General) and Sir Eyre Coote (CiC of the Company Army) to make universal subscriptions to the society an official deduction from the salary of all Company officers; the Society closed to new subscribers in 1861 but the institutions it started continued under the Raj. It may well be that Philip’s interest was personal. Because he was one of the many young men who had taken an Indian partner.
Philip thought he was well prepared when he died. His will makes ample provision for his siblings, his Indian partner (and her sister) and attempted to make full provision for his children by her: Philip, Mary, Thomas and a baby born after he died, Ann. While his executors worked to wind up his estate, the four youngsters were placed in the care of David Anderson of St Germains (by Longniddry) and brought from India to East Lothian with his entourage. They were deposited with their senior living Scottish relative, their aged step-grandmother, Mary Melvil Fall Delisle. It seems, despite Philip’s concern for fatherless children, that mother’s rights were not part of the plan; she remained in India. But once again, John Muir’s childhood home heard the chatter of young voices. Although accepted into the family, there was a sting in the tail. Whilst the men of British India were in the main accepting of their ‘natural’ children it was not universally so with their residual families in the UK.
Aunt Ann Plots a Doublecross
The children’s surviving aunt Ann Delisle and her husband Dr William Wightman (still down in Eyemouth) employed lawyers who found wriggle room in Philip’s will. The eventual case established legal precedent. It stripped the children of everything that Philip left that had accrued to him between the time of the will (1785) and his death (1788). So his two Indian houses and much of his cash went to his surviving sister, Ann Delisle, and not his children as he had intended. Of course, Ann didn’t quibble over the £1,500 Sterling she had been left in the will; she took that as well!
How much of this the children knew, then or later in life, we don’t know. They, like the earlier generation, grew up to make their way in the world and leave the house in Dunbar:
In 1809 Ann Delisle married James Hay, captain of an East Indiaman and later of a mail packet ship (sailing worldwide); they settled on the Isle of Man.
Her sister Mary Delisle married, in April 1800, Captain (afterwards Lieutenant General) John Ramsay, son of the 8th earl of Dalhousie; they settled in Edinburgh where she had large family. One of her sons inherited the earldom (George Ramsay, 12th earl of Dalhousie) and others rose high in Indian Administration and Imperial Service.
Thomas Delisle died unmarried in Dunbar in 1811.
Philip Delisle III followed his father and grandfather into the military and rose to the rank of major. He had worldwide postings during his career perhaps most significantly to Norfolk Island, the penal colony of the then penal colonies of Australia. But that’s another story.
The next week we’ll carry on with the story of the Delisles and Wightmans, the building of John Muir’s Birthplace, and introduce another soldier into our story – one Daniel Muir.
In the second part of this blog we looked at the origins of John Muir’s childhood home, a project initiated by Robert Fall junior, merchant and bailie (magistrate) of Dunbar. We left the story in the 1720s when Robert and his family were settling into their home. What happened next?
The First Family
The first owner of John Muir’s childhood home, Robert Fall junior, married Mary Melvil of Ceres in Fife during October 1723. She was not yet 20; Robert was 44!
Mary’s dad was William Melvil, factor to the earls of Crawford. Mr Melvil may well have known Robert’s own father (who once held a similar office for the earls of Haddington) in his professional capacity. The couple had two children: Janet Fall (born June 1725) and Mary Fall (born March 1727). We know nothing of Mary; she may not have survived infancy. But then Robert died in 1732 leaving his young widow and 7 year old daughter Janet in possession of the big new house he had intended as the family home.
Now, the situation at that time in Scots law was clear – the house and Robert’s other property and land were Janet’s by right as the sole ‘heir of blood’. If Robert had left a will, he might have:
But there was no will. This limbo was a problem for Mary and Janet, because Robert’s financial affairs were inextricably linked to those of his three brothers. And Janet’s uncles were not entirely at one with the law!
The Copartnery: William Fall and Brothers
The brothers William, Robert, Charles and James Fall did most of their business through a formal ‘copartnery’, an early form of joint stock company (it’s complicated). Through this they managed their shipping interests, their international trade (the Baltic and Russia; the Low Countries; France and the Mediterranean; the American colonies), and their contacts with their London and Edinburgh bankers. But other local deals were conducted individually, by some of the brothers jointly, or in association with non-family merchants. In reality, if that wasn’t enough, matters were complicated even more because a large proportion of their overseas trade was conducted without bothering with the niceties of customs and excise. By law, all transactions ought to have been documented in ledgers. In practice much of the actual business of the brothers was done ‘off the books’, although a ‘sanitised’ set may have been kept for official inspection.
Not for nothing did they win a reputation as great smugglers: as early as the summer of 1703 William had been caught illegally lading his ship with forbidden goods and was hauled up before the Burgh Court. It was an offence stated to have been committed ‘sundry tymes’ before. To sort this the brothers gradually secured control of the Burgh Council, by which means they ensured that severe penalties for their continual appearances in court could be avoided.
The complex web of mutual financial obligations and shady dealing had a direct effect on Janet Fall’s inheritance. It appeared at first there was nothing to be had! Her uncles assumed her tutory (guardianship) but offered her only an annual pittance – after all, Janet was a child and there was more than a slight chance she would not survive until maturity. A poor investment risk for the uncles. But although she herself was young, Janet’s mother was determined and she pressed her daughter’s case. It took years, increasingly demanding lawyer’s letters, and through the courts all the way to the Court of Session (Scotland’s highest) for the uncles to even attempt to disentangle their late brother’s share from their own. As time passed mother and daughter continued as best they could; perhaps the big house was rented out – we don’t know.
Finally, in 1744 (12 years of persuasion!), the now grown Janet was able to close her father’s estate. She may not (certainly did not) have got all she was owed, but at least her uncles had finally produced accounts, some money and land titles, and the house was securely in her name. Mary and Janet were now settled and ready for the next stage in their lives.
The ‘45 and More – a Marriage
Janet and Mary’s peace did not last long. About the middle of September 1745, the sails of a fleet appeared off Dunbar. On the 18th General John Cope’s army began to disembark and was joined by the army’s dragoons, retreating overland in front of the advancing Jacobite rebels raised by Charles Stuart in the Highlands and marching south. Now the rebels were in Edinburgh, just 28 miles away!
With the dragoons was a Lieutenant Philip Delisle. He and the army were in Dunbar only a few short days. But it was enough to set in train the next chapter in the story of John Muir’s childhood home.
The army, and Lt. Delisle, marched of to ignominious defeat at Prestonpans but ultimate victory at Culloden the following year. Lt. Delisle survived unscathed and, returning to Dunbar, renewed acquaintance with his friends. On 19th December 1747 he and Mary Melvil Fall were married. He came with a pack of children from a former marriage: Janet Fall now shared her house not just with a new-step father but three little step-siblings – 9 year Elizabeth (born 1728) and the infants Philip junior (March 1744) and Ann (June 1745).
Another Military Marriage
The north of Scotland was under occupation for some years after Culloden and the failure of the Jacobite cause. Soldiers were everywhere, even in the Lowlands. The towns they passed through owed a duty to billet the troops where they could (this was still an ongoing burden on the town a century later, as John Muir himself recalled). Barns, halls and stables were impressed for the men while the officers were hosted in the better houses. Sometime during this period other connections might be made. Thus, the Dunbar house saw a second wedding party when in 1751, at the age of 26, Janet Fall married Cornet John Barton of Springton (near Londonderry in Ulster). Janet stayed close to her soldier husband and lived much the rest of her life In Ireland. The Delisles now made Janet’s house their home.
The next instalment of our blog will follow the Delisles through their time in Dunbar – and their interactions with far flung parts of the growing British Empire.
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 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09l64y9). 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 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Muir_birthplace.jpg)
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.
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!
We know a lot about John Muir’s life in Dunbar, but what about the house he lived in? Today we start a series of blogs about the buildings he lived in. We start with John Muir’s Birthplace itself.
The John Muir Birthplace Trust acquired the building in 1999, and in 2002 work began on what is now John Muir’s Birthplace as it is today.
However, the Muir family was not the first occupants of the plot. One of the first pieces of work undertaken on site was an archaeological investigation by Headland Archaeology Ltd in an area now covered by our exhibition gallery. The historically sensitive nature of Dunbar High Street means that archaeological investigation is required for any building work undertaken in the vicinity. Evidence from other sites along the High Street suggest that the ridge upon which the High Street is aligned has actually been occupied since the Iron Age (c 500BC).
Archaeological investigations essentially work backwards so the latest activity is the first investigated and as this is peeled away earlier remains are uncovered. The earliest remains found on the site was a foundation pit.
Pottery found in the pit dated to 1300s or 1400s confirming medieval use of the site. The most likely use for the pit would be supporting foundations for some kind of partition wall. It is likely that this building was standing and in use at approximately the same time as the Battle of Dunbar I (1296) as the pottery would have gone into the pit during the building’s demolition.
Above the pit was a thin covering of clay indicative of a building made of earth, clay or turf. Given the location this would most likely be a small industrial structure behind a frontage building.
The latest remains were of a cobbled floor, which has been remodelled at least once before the end of the 1500s. A drain cut through the cobbling was visible along the southern part of the site. Again these remains suggest that the backlands area was a working area with small, possibly temporary structures, working surfaces and rudimentary services.
Also uncovered was a substantial wall dating to post 1600s which itself was later replaced by structures which lie under the current building, which we know dates from the latter part of the 18th century.
Although the most famous inhabitants of 126 – 128 High Street were the Muir family the site of this building has been occupied since at least the 1300’s. We are all familiar with John Muir’s story, but the building in which he was born has just as interesting a story