Two houses and yairds in the town of Aberlady

A dull-looking legal document recording the sale of a property tells the story of a particular day in the lives of people who lived in this village almost 300 years ago – and how the landscape they lived in was changing around them

‘Instrument of Seisin’ written by George Heriot, notary public, recording the ceremony of December 17, 1723.

ON DECEMBER 17, 1723, ‘betwixt the hours of one and two of the clock afternoon’, a group of people gathered at a property at the east end of the High Street of Aberlady, at its corner with the main road to Haddington. They were there for a solemn and ancient ceremony of ‘sasine’ or ‘seisin’ by which the new owner would take possession of ‘two houses lying contiguous in the town of Aberlady on the south side thereof with the two yairds adjacent thereto’.

The man selling the land was Adam Durham, laird of Luffness, who appeared in person despite his lofty status and performed the symbolic act of handing over ‘earth and stone of the ground of the said two houses and yairds’. With him were George Heriot, notary public, who set down the details in a legal document, and two witnesses: Charles Sherriff, ‘tennant in Aberlady’, and John Kyle, ‘gardiner and servitor to the said Adam Durham of Luffness’.

The buyer, ‘having and holding in his hands’ a document called a disposition in which Adam Durham acknowledged the sale ‘for ane certain sum of money presently advanced paid and delivered to me’, was Robert Walker, ‘weaver of Aberlady’. Alongside Robert were his wife, Elspeth Scott, and their son, Andrew Walker.

Valentine’s day, 1724

The ceremony presumably passed off without a hitch and on February 14, 1724, George Heriot had it recorded in the General Register of Sasines in Edinburgh – specifically, in the volume covering Haddington, Linlithgow and Bathgate – in accordance with a law passed in 1617 that had established in Scotland the world’s first national land register. Heriot wrote a note on the back of the original to say that he had done his duty.

George Heriot’s note recording that he has entered the details into the Register of Sasines.

Various obligations came with the land. For one, a feudal system had existed in Scotland since the early 1100s – and would remain in place until February 2004. Adam Durham was still the feudal owner of the land, the ‘lawful superior’, but Robert Walker was lucky to hold it ‘in free blench’, meaning for a purely nominal rent, ‘one penny Scots money at the term of Whitsunday yearly’.

Walker and any tenants of his were ‘oblidged to grind their corns at Luffness Mill’ and pay whatever fee was asked, thus helping to guarantee the miller’s income; and to appear ‘at all the Courts of the Barony of Luffness when lawfully called thereto’.

One particular ‘liberty and priveledge’ came with the land, too: that of ‘casting and winning divots upon the West Muir of Aberlady for thicking [thatching] of the said houses’. Most houses at the time would have been roofed not with slates or pantiles, but with turf.

The boundaries of the property were described in terms of how it fitted with its neighbours: ‘the yard possest by Patrick Dickison on the west, the highway leading into the town of Aberlady on the east, the north end of the south crofts of Aberlady on the south, parts of the said two yards and the High Street of Aberlady on the north, all lying within the Barony of Luffness parochin of Aberlady and Sherriffdom of Hadingtoune’.

‘Instrument of Seisin’

All this detail can be found in the legal document drawn up by George Heriot on that day, known as an ‘instrument of seisin’. There are two interesting things about this document. First, it is an account of a particular time, on a particular day, in a particular part of Aberlady, nearly 300 years ago, which in itself is quite compelling. Second, it tells us all sorts of things about what Aberlady – and Scotland – was like at the time, and how it has changed since.

It is always refreshing to see the respect accorded to women by Scottish society and the Scottish legal system. Wives, like Elspeth Scott, retained their own surnames in marriage. In an earlier document from 1707, Adam Durham feels obliged to make clear that he has the ‘consent of Mrs Catherine St Clair my spouse’, and she is a signatory to the document (spelling her name with a ‘K’). You see a similar thing in Scottish graveyards, where married women always have their own surnames.

Also of note is the mention of Adam Durham and the barony of Luffness, one of four baronies within the parish of Aberlady, the others being Gosford, Ballencrieff and Aberlady itself. These grand estates often seem timeless and unchanging, but Adam Durham sold his barony to the Hope family just a few years later, in 1739. Gosford had been bought in 1659 by Sir Peter Wedderburn and was sold on to Francis Charteris, 7th Earl of Wemyss, in 1781. The Earl bought Aberlady in 1799 for £24,000 and incorporated it into Gosford.

Aberlady from Roy’s map of about 1750, with lines showing the rigs.

More than anything, though, it’s the mention of the ‘south crofts’ that paints a picture of a landscape and a way of living that has vanished through a process that shaped Scotland as we know it today. The ‘crofts’, also known as the ‘riggs’, were the land farmed by villagers, and are remembered in the road names Rig Street and Rig Place. If you live here, or in any of the streets to the south of Aberlady’s high street, including the Cala estate of the early 2000s, you live in the south crofts.

A later document, from 1765, describes the land in the south crofts attached to one of the two houses included in the 1723 sale: ‘that rigg of land in the South Crofts of Aberlady, bounded betwixt the lands of Adam Lamb on the east, the lands of Robert Forrest on the west, the lands of John Walker on the south and the yeards of Aberlady on the north’.

Rig and furrow

The south crofts were part of a farming tradition that had existed since medieval times, consisting of open fields farmed collectively, sometimes known as ‘run rig’. Each of the ‘tenants’ living in Aberlady, their houses dotted along the high street in a line, would own a long, narrow garden or ‘yard’ running back to the fields, and a patch of land in the fields surrounding the village. They would probably also have rights of various kinds to make use of the moorland, including for grazing animals.

The open field system, with its long ‘rigs’ of ploughing and its lack of walls or hedges, is shown beautifully in an engraving by John Slezer from 1693 of Haddington viewed from the south, and it still dominates the landscape around Aberlady in William Roy’s ‘military survey’ map of 1747 – 55.

But it was a way of life that was gradually disappearing as the 18th century progressed and East Lothian’s ‘improving’ landowners chose not to renew the leases of their many small tenants, replacing them instead with larger single farms. The fields were enclosed with walls and hedges, drained, and dressed with lime, manure and seaweed. The crofts of Aberlady went the same way.

Haddington from the south by John Slezer, 1693, showing open fields and rigs.

The transformation of southern Scotland that took place in these years has become known as the ‘lowland clearances’, and although the process was not as blatantly abusive as the infamous clearances in the Highlands, it none the less displaced large parts of the rural population. Some went to new-built estate villages in the countryside, where they formed a reserve of labour for landowners; some to the cities, which were soaking up workers; and some to a new life overseas.

Southern Scotland was transformed architecturally, as well as agriculturally. Most of the ‘traditional’ stone-built houses and farmsteads we see today, and think of as ancient, were built in this period. Among them was the house that now stands on the land bought by Robert Walker in 1723, built in 1764 and today known as Gosford Cottage – even though, as we have already discovered, it stands on Luffness land.

September 7, 2020 • by Damien Noonan

Image credits

Maps and engravings reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland,

‘The Prospect of the Town of Haddingtown’ by John Slezer, 1693

William Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland


Registers of Scotland, our history

Dictionary of the Scots Language

Luffness House, Canmore

The Scottish Agricultural Revolution, Wikiwand Scottish_ Agricultural_ Revolution