I usually write about places I like. That’s because I find it easier to write positively, it just comes easier to me than conjuring up negativity. Some of my favourite places are places maligned by others, not well thought of if they are at all. Dundee, which I visited a couple of weeks ago, was described in a travel book as being one of those places it is better to travel to than arrive. (To be fair, it has improved since they started working on the waterfront.) Glasgow is a place many Scots loathe, particularly those from Edinburgh. (They don’t know what they’re missing. As someone born in Edinburgh, I love Glasgow immensely. Nowhere’s perfect, certainly not Edinburgh.)
Prestonpans is a town in East Lothian. It sits on the southern bank of the Firth of Forth and has a considerable history of fishing and coal mining. It’s also notable for the battle of Prestonpans in 1745, with Johnnie Cope, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rest. It isn’t the finest place in the world. It is one of the poorest parts of my home county with one of the main employers, Cockenzie Power Station, having closed a few years ago. The people are rougher and readier than other East Lothian natives, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least Panners can pronounce the name of their town right, unlike the good folk of Gullane.
Just outside the Pans is Prestongrange Museum, an open air site which once housed a vast industrial complex including a mine, brickworks, chemical works and countless other operations in an unbroken period from 1174 to 1975, when the brickworks closed. Some of the buildings are still there, opened seasonally by East Lothian Council. It is a place I know well. I worked there for a few years and every so often I go back for a walk around the site, now a quiet place where nature is once more taking hold. I relive old memories and reimagine the great past of the place, usually from the Beam Engine looking down across the Beehive Kilns.
My walk usually starts near Sammie Burns’s yard, at Morrison’s Haven, a large expanse of reclaimed land that was once one of great ports of Scotland. I walk towards Prestongrange facing Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh beyond, hearing the waves lapping beside me and feeling the wind that is ever present in those parts. There are folk who go down to the beach and make jewellery from what they find. I once found a Prestongrange brick but didn’t take it home, reasoning that it’s a long way back home to Glasgow.
Since I moved to Glasgow, nearly three years ago, I have been to Prestongrange more than I have Dunbar. PG is closer but it has a lot of happy memories too. It is uncomplicated by ties that bind. A little bit of my soul lives there, just as it does in Belhaven Bay. Like when on the approach to Durham, I can’t help a broad smile coming across my face when in the vicinity.
Morrison’s Haven leads me back across the road back onto the Prestongrange site, across the railway track, by the carriage and up to the wildflower meadow, imaging the wagons roll on those tracks laid in 1722 leading to Tranent. I turn back to the Powerhouse and down to the Beam Engine, marvelling once more at the wonders of Victorian engineering where an engine could be so reliable as to only break down twice in 80 years. I walk across, looking down the slope to the outline of the beehive kilns, towards the Hoffman Kiln and its chambers where a house’s worth of bricks could be fired in one go.
I work in libraries and I love what I do, well, most of the time. Before I did that, I worked in various museums. Prestongrange gave me confidence and some friends I still have. It is the kind of place where you root for the underdog, as PG undoubtedly is. It could be unbearably quiet but we had some big events too. I miss it still, just a little.
Today I go back as a visitor. I haven’t been for a few months but I will be there shortly, either tomorrow or when I’m in Edinburgh on 2nd January. Every one of these thoughts will be swirling around as I wander there. I might just bring home a brick from the beach this time, to go with the memories and the dreams of what is still to come.