Finds ‘of national significance’ on Scotland’s earliest railway

The 1722 Waggonway Project has discovered three phases of early wooden railway in East Lothian

Archaeologists and community members from the 1722 Waggonway Project excavating along the route of the Tranent Waggonway in East Lothian, the earliest railway in Scotland, have found evidence of three early timber railways lying one on top of the other. The discovery ‘is without precedent’, said railway historian and archaeologist Anthony Leslie Dawson, who considers the site to be ‘of national significance’.

First constructed in 1722, the waggonway was built by William Dickson for the York Buildings Company to transport coal from Tranent to the salt pans at Cockenzie and Port Seton. Researchers from the Waggonway Project, who were searching for the structure of the railway’s original track bed, have interpreted the three-tiered find as evidence of multiple early upgrades to the timber railway, with various phases of construction dating to 1722-1725, 1728-30, and 1743-44.

The surface of the second waggonway was made from cobbles, for horses to walk upon when pulling the waggons. Photo: 1722WHG

These upgrades included a change of gauge from an original 3ft 3 inches to 4ft in the second and third phases of activity. Although the project team said that the upgrades are formed of ‘crudely cut timbers’, the second phase of building activity, carried out after renowned Scottish architect and entrepreneur William Adam took over the lease of the waggonway, shows signs of having been ‘extremely well-constructed’.

Sally Pentecost Alan Braby, Ed Bethune, and Anthony Dawson inspect the remains of the waggonway sleepers. Photo: Sally Pentecost

Anthony, who was involved in the excavation, said: ‘Whilst we know these railways had a limited life-span due to their method of construction, to see this process of continual replacement and upgrade – including a change of gauge – in the archaeological record is outstanding. The waggonway excavation has shown that these waggonways are far more complex than the single-phase structures previously excavated, and the survival of timber on site, including joints, helps us further understand the construction of these early railways.’

The railway was built over ‘boggy ground’ on a trackway of ‘timber corduroy’ – a construction technique ‘used by the Romans and famously by George Stephenson in building the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1830),’ said Anthony.

The site, which also features a multi-phase iron railway, is ‘a microcosm’ of ‘national trends in railway technology’, according to Anthony, who added that ‘the 1722 Waggonway Project has, over only three days, added immensely to our knowledge about early wooden railways. It has rewritten our understanding of Scottish railway history.’