Eyemouth history in gravestones, boats and semi-legal weddings

IT may seem a fairly quiet fishing town, but Eyemouth’s hidden past, including vanished streets and large scale nineteenth century emigration, is being put on record, thanks to family historian Bill Stewart and his new Local History Centre.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 24th September 2012, 7:01 am

Bill remembers the first seeds of the project, on the Eyemouth Museum’s second floor, being planted.

“We got some funding from the East Berwickshire U3A. They approached the museum a year ago to do something. At that time, I was getting involved with the museum and family history.

“The real purpose of me being here is to try and interest local people in their history, without them having to travel to Edinburgh or Galashiels to do their research.

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“I got into family history when my parents died and I realised I didn’t know anything about them. I think that’s the same for most people. It’s a fascinating business.”

And one Bill knows well, haveing worked on his own family hiostory.

“My own family roots are here, especially in Ayton. I know of a wedding in Coldingham in 1700, where I’m 99% certain the happy couple were my ancestors.”

Bill’s research has taken him all over Berwickshire, where he has been transcribing the inscriptions on gravestones.

These inscriptions form part of the centre’s data. As well as memorial inscriptions for the whole of Berwickshire, family historians can leaf through the registers of Greenlaw jail, and look up ‘irregular’ marriages at Lamberton Toll.

Bill knows he has been lucky so many of the physical traces of the past are readable in Eyemouth.

“The gravestones here,” he says, are some of the best preserved I have ever seen. You might think that moisture and the salty sea air would damage them, but it hasn’t. I think that’s because, being by the sea, they are not exposed to freezing so often, which tends to weaken the stone.”

These well-preserved stones have made the seaside town a draw for history enthusiasts.

“People have been in touch from all over the world,” says Bill, and I think this little centre is ideal for them, because you don’t have to pay entrance to the museum.

“Almost everybody who has been in touch over the last month or so has some kind of link to the town. It’s astonishing how many of them have come here to find out more about the Eyemouth Fishing Disaster of 1881.”

In a bitter irony, it was coverage of the disaster that brought the fishing towns of the Berwickshire coast to the attention of the Victorian world: a subsequent appeal for donations brought in £50,000 (nearly £4million in today’s money).

Not all the visitors realise the geography when they book a trip.

Bill smiles: “Someone from the US drove up from London, where they’d been watching the Olympics. They phoned to tell me they were nearly here – and they’d only just passed York! Needless to say they thought it was much nearer.

“But they, too had ancestors here. I was able to show them where the boats set out from and took them to the cemetery to see the gravestones.

“I have met up with lots of the descendants of people who lived in the town 150 years ago.”

When it comes to emigration, the same placenames keep cropping up in Bill’s research: London, the Empire, Australia. And creating so many case histories has brought an empathy with the nineteenth century travellers.

“It must have been really exciting and quite terrifying,” says Bill, “going on the train, at a time when the boats these people were used to had no engines at all.”

Bill has some idea of the journey many Eyemouth residents made to the other side of the world, having gone that far himself in researching his own family.

He remembers: “When I was in South Australia, in a tiny museum, even smaller than ours, I was lucky enough to see receipts for baggage between Grantshouse and London, and a diary.

“These are not museums as you might imagine them. It’s often just local people, catering for local people. They opened up especially for me, because they knew I was coming, just like I would do for them, roles reversed.”

Bill is also involved in a project to retrace the evolution of the Eyemouth streets.

Back in 1861, Eyemouth was a tangle of lanes, wynds and vennels. Some have remained, while others have been renamed or just disappeared as the town evolved. Bill has been tasked with investigating what happened to the old street layout.

But Bill’s main role is to guide amateur historians through the branches of their own families - something that starts even before they get into his massive databses.

“The first thing to do,” he says, “is to speak to your parents and grandparents. Get names and dates wherever you can .

“We have information for people going back from over 100 years ago. After that, check where they lived, in censuses and so on.

“In Scotland, we can go back to 1855 through the censuses. Before that, the trails are in the parish records. It can get quite interesting.

“For example, back in the day, Lamberton was a bit like Gretna used to be, a place where English lovers could get married quickly, and young, without parental permission.”

From 1798 to 1858 keepers of the Old Toll House in Lamberton carried out marriage services, when they were not joined by some of the less than reputable men of the cloth.

Bill reveals one of the little secrets to reading records back through the years: follow the money. He chuckles: “These weddings were a form of income, for whoever was performing the service. And where people make money, they keep records.”

The service is manned by Bil every Monday between 10am and 2pm, and at other times by appointment.