1722 Waggonway Heritage Group chair Ed Bethune led a small group of us on a walking tour which took in Cockenzie Harbour, still a pleasant spot but after being rebuilt by Robert Stevenson in 1833 a hive of activity with shipbuilding, fishwives and a thriving trade in coal dropped in a chute to a paddle-steamer the Tulliallan Castle which conveyed it to Fife. 

Coal whether for local use or export was a valuable commodity whose security was assured by a night watchman and a perimeter wall. Waggons downloaded in a coalfauld were delivered from the Tranent coalfield by gravity along a waggonway, with horses to pull the empty waggons back uphill, and a series of turntables allowed them to be shunted around the harbour. We saw the holes in stone sleepers where primitive points allowed switching of routes.

Assets that had been sequestered from the Earl of Winton after the 1715 Jacobite Rising were developed by the York Buildings Company, originally created in the 1680s to pump water from the Thames. They recognised the efficiency that would be provided by Scotland's first waggonway from Tranent across marshland via the Cockenzie Saltpans to Port Seton Harbour. The wooden rails had to be frequently replaced and the gauge altered, and in 1745 traffic was interrupted when the Battle of Prestonpans was fought across the track.

The York Buildings Company faded away, and ownership of this part of the Winton estates passed in 1779 into the hands of the Cadells of Cockenzie. It was they who, following the destruction of nearby Port Seton Harbour in a storm, commissioned the Stevensons working in partnership with William Adam to renew the line to Cockenzie Harbour using fish-belly rails held in place by iron chairs bolted to the stone sleeper blocks. 

The monks of Newbattle had pioneered saltpanning as long ago as the 1200s, with the Earl of Winton arriving on the scene in 1630. Natural evaporation was not possible in our climate, but Ed showed us the excavated base of a pan where brine was boiled with the addition of eggwhite as a coagulant. Products included Oil of Salt, which was claimed to be a tonic for tired feet. 

Scotland’s salt production was largely wiped out after a repeal of salt duty in the 1820s, when rock salt from the Continent rapidly flooded the market. With the arrival of the mainline railway, the Waggonway became absorbed into it, and on the decline of coal mining heavy industry ended in the 1960s.

The Waggonway Heritage Group was formed as recently as 2015, and promotes an annual community dig which has featured on Prof Alice Roberts' BBC2 series Digging for Britain. Its Heritage Museum and Workshop (in a building owned by our member Willie Archibald who was present) is open every weekend in the warmer months and hosts a series of events such as talks and member socials. Latest achievement is publication of "The Work Journals of William Dickson, Wright at Cockenzie 1717-45".