Moorland, farmland and brickworksa history of Aberlady in mud and clay

The ‘Ballincrieff Brick and Tile Works’ stood next to the main road between Aberlady and Haddington. For roughly a century, it produced not just bricks and roofing tiles, but more importantly field drains, which helped to shape the farming landscape we know today.

William Forrest’s map of 1799, showing ‘Luffness Muir’ (top right) and ‘Brickfield’ beside the road to Haddington.

ABERLADY HAS NOT always been surrounded by rich, well-drained farmland. The school’s address is Moor Road and some of the children who attend it live on Mair End; the lane along the south side of the village is The Mair. Look on an old map, such as William Forrest’s of 1799, and the farm now known as Luffness Mains was called Luffness Muir. As for the folk who live in Myreton – ‘settlement on the moor’, or ‘settlement in the bog’ – well, it’s a wonder they don’t wear wellies constantly.

Writing in the New Statistical Account of Scotland in 1845, Aberlady’s minister, the Rev John Smith, describes his parish as having three zones of different soils.

‘Near the sea, it is light and sandy; the sand having been evidently blown from the beach, and in some places covering, to the depth of a foot [30 cm] or more, land bearing indubitable traces of former cultivation.’ This is the coastal strip that in the past has been a natural home to rabbit warrens and links golf courses. ‘A little further inland, there is a considerable band of clay soil, not naturally fertile; and it is only when the land begins to rise with a gentle elevation to the south that the soil is generally good.’

To ensure things got properly muddy, the ‘band of clay soil’ lies at the foot of the hills that separate Aberlady and Haddington, and a series of springs and watercourses runs down the slope. Much of the character of the Gosford estate results from the way the various streams are redirected and put to use as they make their way to the sea.

The ‘Brickfield’

One other thing might also be apparent from the map of 1799: the main road heading south towards Ballencrieff Mains passes a set of buildings with the label ‘Brickfield’.

The existence of ‘Ballincrieff Brick and Tile Works’ on a site roughly three fields to the south of Aberlady was probably crucial to the improvement of agriculture locally in the early decades of the 1800s. Rev Smith refers to it in his account, in which he describes the parish as ‘purely agricultural’ and adds: ‘There are no fisheries carried on from the coast; and, with the exception of a brick and tile-work, chiefly employed in making tiles for drains, there is nothing which can be called a manufactory.’

The factory, with its clay pit, drying houses and kiln, can be seen at the height of its development on the Ordnance Survey six-inch-to-the-mile map of 1853, but is gone by the time of the next edition of the map in 1892.

The OS map of 1853, showing the brick and tile works (bottom). You can compare this map with a modern satellite image and trace the same field boundaries.

According to an extraordinarily comprehensive publication on 19th-century advances in brick-making written by Kathleen Ann Watt at the University of York in 1990, drainage tiles ‘were made in a variety of shapes, the most popular being the large semi-circular tunnel tile, the smaller U-shaped tile with a flat sole, and the cylindrical pipe tile,’ and were originally shaped by hand. From about 1810, a variety of machines were developed that used an ‘extrusion’ method, squeezing soft clay through a shaped hole or nozzle to produce a pipe. Then in 1836, a new system for shaping the clay using rollers – covered in leather to keep the clay from sticking to them – was patented by the Eighth Marquess of Tweeddale, based at Yester House, near Gifford. Tweeddale’s machine was tried out at two local brickworks, Dean and Henderson’s at East Fenton (also known as Dirleton Tileworks) and George Reid’s at Ballencrieff.

These early trials were considered highly successful, but the machine did not do so well when put to the test in England and eventually Tweeddale agreed to let a business partner, James Hunt, consult with the engineers Robert Stephenson and IK Brunel. They tested a revised version at Brunel’s works at Chippenham, Wiltshire and this version was patented by Hunt in 1842.

The revised, smaller version of the Marquess of Tweeddale’s brick-making machine, producing U-shaped drainage tiles, illustrated in ‘The Builder’, volume one, 1843.

Throughout the 1840s, the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) held competitions that encouraged improved designs of machine. What was most needed was a small, hand-powered version that provided work for labourers, could be used in remote places where a brickworks would not be profitable and was simple enough that it didn’t break often and if it did, could easily be mended by ‘a country mechanic’. The RASE explained: ‘The first requisite in an agricultural implement is efficiency, the second simplicity, and this last is scarcely less important than the first…’

Landowners were concerned about the problem of ‘want of employment for country labourers’, especially in winter, and came to appreciate that ‘this evil may be remedied by landlords who will employ, in the lasting improvement of their own properties, those who stand unwillingly idle’, putting them to work making drains. This needed a small, portable tile-making machine and Tweeddale’s design proved ideal.

‘An immense increase in consumption’

Mostly, if not always, the benefits of the machinery were understood by the workers. According to another tile-making expert, FW Etheredge of Southampton, writing in 1845: ‘Although machinery has reduced the price of the article, it has not been the means of throwing out of employment a single hand, but it has created not only labour for the poor by an immense increase in the consumption of tiles, but also a greater amount of produce for the farmer.’

One tile-maker reported in 1847 that the savings made by using a machine meant that he could increase the wages of his labourers, ‘to put them in good humour with the instrument’. (See chapter 5.3 of Kathleen Ann Watt’s history, page 115.)

The output of ‘Ballincrieff’ Brick and Tile Works can be seen not only by its results, in the well-drained fields all around us, but also as bricks and drainage tiles still surviving in the village.

At Gosford Cottage, a house at the east end of the High Street built in 1764 but remodelled in the mid-1800s, Ballencrieff bricks were used to form new window openings during the remodelling, and both hand-made and machine-made drainage tiles were used in the garden.

The factory’s decline may have come not long after its peak. In 1846, the North British Railway connected Edinburgh to the English railway network at Berwick-upon-Tweed, opening up the possibility of the bulk transport of goods such as building materials. There are references to the Brick and Tile Works up until 1867, when a Scottish advertising directory lists William Brodie as its owner – alongside a listing for ‘conveyance by railway’.

By the 1890s, the brickworks had disappeared from the map and in 1915, according to the Edinburgh Evening News, the land on which it stood was sold by Lord Elibank of Ballencrieff to George Sinclair, a local farmer.

May 15, 2020 • by Damien Noonan

U-shaped hand-made drainage tiles, flat-bottomed machine-made tiles, and bricks uncovered during the restoration of Gosford Cottage, Aberlady from 2013 to 2019.

Locally made bricks were used to used to re-shape a number of window openings, probably in the mid-1800s, at the rear of Gosford Cottage.

Image credits

Maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Copyright and permissions:

William Forrest’s map of Haddingtonshire, 1799:

Ordnance Survey ‘six-inch’ map of 1853:


Statistical Accounts of Scotland: static/ statacc/dist/home

Scotland’s Brick Manufacturing Industry: aberlady-or-ballencrieff-brickworks-aberlady-haddingtonshire-east-lothian/

‘Nineteenth century brick-making innovations in Britain’ by Kathleen Ann Watt: 4248/1/DX094368.pdf

George Hay, 8th Marquess of Tweeddale: wiki/ George_Hay,_ 8th_Marquess_of_Tweeddale

The Builder, 1843, page 199: details/ gri_33125006201749/ page/ n199/ mode/ 2up

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