Excavating Scotland’s earliest railway

The original waggonway was built by local timberwright William Dickson in 1722 for the York Buildings Company

A community project excavating Scotland’s first railway has uncovered three 18th-century phases of timber construction layered on top of each other. The unprecedented discovery was made in East Lothian by the 1722 Waggonway Project, and has been described by railway historian and project archaeologist Anthony Leslie Dawson as ‘of national significance’. It is, he said, ‘a microcosm’ of ‘national trends in railway technology’.

PHOTO: Sally Pentecost.

The original waggonway was built by local timberwright William Dickson in 1722 for the York Buildings Company, to transport coal from the Tranent mines to a coastal salt-making facility between Cockenzie and Port Seton. This saltworks, comprising 12 iron salt pans in which seawater was boiled and evaporated, was a ‘major industrial centre’ requiring around four tons of coal for every ton of salt produced, said Ed Bethune, historian and chairman of the Waggonway Project. The site was the largest saltworks in Scotland, producing around 10% of all salt in the country in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, he added.

Industrial waggonways had been in operation in Durham, Shropshire, and Nottinghamshire for around 100 years prior to the construction of the Tranent Waggonway, but the latter was the earliest railway north of the border and featured some technology that was unusual for its day. Although the empty waggons were dragged back inland by horses, on its way towards the coast the railway carried its cargo downhill for two miles using only gravity. The railway was also floated on a raft of timber corduroy (which the recent excavation found mineralised in situ one metre below ground), a building method that allowed the track to traverse boggy terrain. Although the technique was known to the Romans, it is ‘popularly attributed to George Stephenson’, who used it to cross Chat Moss during construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, said Anthony. ‘To see it here, over a century before Stephenson, is a reminder that railways pre-date George.’

As for the layers of railway, the project team has interpreted their three-tiered find as evidence of multiple early upgrades to the line, including an increase in gauge width from an original 3ft 3in to 4ft during the second and third phases of construction. The York Buildings Company was ‘trying to make as much profit as possible’, Ed explained, and the change in gauge would have allowed more coal to be transported in larger waggons.

Waggonway Project researchers have been able to assign precise date ranges to each phase by comparing the archaeology with written evidence from William Dickson’s work journals, now held in the National Records of Scotland. The newly uncovered layers of railroad have been assigned to 1722-1725, 1728-1730, and 1743-1744 respectively, coinciding with three periods of intense labour on the waggonway logged in Dickson’s own hand. The ‘best-constructed’ of these was the second phase of activity, which was managed by renowned Scottish architect and entrepreneur William Adam, said Ed.

Ed has been transcribing Dickson’s ledgers over the past few years with Dr Aaron Allen from the University of Edinburgh, and the documents are due for publication with the Scottish Records Society next year, in time for the 300th anniversary of the building of the waggonway.

For more about the site and the project, see www.1722waggonway.co.uk.