THIS ancient burgh-of-regality, viewed apart from contiguous and neighbouring places which are comprehended within its parliamentary and jurisdictional boundaries, stands on the right bank of the river Esk, three furlongs south of the frith of Forth, and five and a half miles east of Edinburgh. Its site is a flat expanse only a few feet above sea-level, fringed on the north by fine sandy downs called Musselburgh links, lying between it and the frith, and flanked on the south by a beautiful ridge of rising grounds, which is picturesquely crowned with the church and village of Inveresk, from which our present view is taken. A long broad field of partly compact and partly interrupted town, – skirted with the links of Musselburgh and Fisherrow, and with the luxuriant and gemmed slopes of Inveresk, – washed with the gay and brilliant waters of the frith of Forth, – bisected with the broad, shallow, limpid, pebbly stream of the Esk, – feathered all over with the trees and bushes of blooming gardens, and embellished all around with mansions, villas, pendicles of lawn, and plots of flowers and shrubbery, – render Musselburgh, as to the first impression it makes upon a stranger, and even to the eye of a person who is familiar with its defects but feels them tenfold compensated by abounding advantages, one of the most calmly delightful towns, small or great, in Scotland.
The High-street is not quite straight, and varies much in breadth; at the centre, and in the east end, it is very spacious; and, in spite of defects, it altogether pleases the eye more than the main street of probably any other Scottish town of equal bulk. The town has a large proportion of self-contained houses, many of them in the style of villas; it presents a fair array of good shops, and of municipal and marketing appliances; it is well and somewhat regularly built; and it has such freedom from the intermixture prevalent in second-rate Scottish towns of low, thatched, or otherwise mean houses, as to possess, in comparison with other places of its size, a city-like character. On the north side of the High-street, and quite in the centre of the town, stands the tolbooth, – a place curious both in appearance and in history. It was built in 1590, of materials taken from the chapel of Loretto, and is said to have been the earliest marked instance in Scotland of a secular erection raised from the dilapidation of an ecclesiastical edifice. During two centuries the brutum fulmen of the Vatican was annually hurled at the good people of Musselburgh for “the sacrilege.” This edifice, originally uncouth and gaunt, was a few years ago partially renovated and handsomely ornamented. A large number of captured rebels were imprisoned in it between February and September 1746, and appear to have been unceremoniously littered upon straw. Attached to the tolbooth is the town-hall, a more modern erection, containing the council-room and an assembly-room. Humbly but venerably surmounting these buildings, is a spiral steeple much more ancient than the tolbooth, and endurable only for its antiquity. Its primitive clock bears the date 1496 upon the dial, and is said to have been a present to Musselburgh from the Dutch States to encourage the continuance of an extensive commerce with their towns. About 250 yards above the timber-bridge stands the main communication across the Esk, and that which carries over the Edinburgh and London mail-road, – an elegant stone-bridge of five elliptic arches, erected in 1807 from a design by Sir John Rennie, very nearly level in its roadway, and a great ornament to the town. About 220 yards higher up, stands a venerable stone-bridge, supposed, from its being on the direct line between the Pretorium at Inveresk and the harbour of Fisherrow, from it connexion at the ends with remains not long ago extant of an ancient causeway, and from various architectural features in its structure, to have been built by the Romans. It is narrow in the roadway, and high in the centre; it was formerly defended in the middle by a gate, some traces of which exist in the side-wall; and it has three arches, each fifty feet wide, with a spring of only ten feet, and the segment of the circle so much depressed in several parts towards a straight line as apparently to indicate that the frame or cover must have sunk during the process of erection. This bridge is now used only by foot-passengers, and, with a continuance of the care which is practised toward it, may still occupy its place and be useful for centuries; but it is remarkable as the grand thoroughfare for ages between the south-east of Scotland and the metropolis, as an important pass during English incursions and invasions undertaken in the international wars, and as the bridge by which armies poured along to neighbouring fields of fatal and memorable conflict, – “which has rattled under the feet of Mary’s frolic steed, and thundered beneath the war-horse of Cromwell.” While the Scottish army were passing along this bridge to the field of Pinkie, the master of Montrose, and several other persons, were killed upon it by shot from the English vessels lying off the mouth of the river. The Chevalier’s Highland army traversed the bridge in 1745, on their way to the field of Prestonpans. “Proceeding directly onward,” says Chambers, “the column traversed not the town of Musselburgh, but the old kirk-road, as it is called, to Inveresk, and entered the street of Newbigging about the centre. It then marched along the precincts of Pinkie-cleuch, and sought the high grounds near Carberry.” The Great North British, or East coast line of railroad, will be carried across the Esk, on the north of the town, at a distance of 5¾ miles from the Edinburgh terminus, by a viaduct 200 yards in length, and 34 feet in height.
On the margin of the links, immediately beyond the ancient eastern gate of the town, stood a celebrated chapel and hermitage dedicated to our Lady of Loretto. The place had similar fame in Scotland to its romancely storied prototype in Italy; and, though not professing to enclose the very cottage of the Nativity, or any other ancient edifice of Palestine, fetched to it by miraculous flight through the air or navigation across the ocean, was believed to share the physical sanctity and the powers of supernatural cure which the fables of superstition ascribed to the Italian Loretto. The Musselburgh chapel was of high but unascertained antiquity, and probably owed much of its importance to the haze which rested on its early history, and which possibly provoked the imagination of heated votaries to assign it an origin quite as extraordinary as that which was claimed by its prototype. Keith says that it was connected with the nunnery of Sciennes in Edinburgh; but he perhaps means no more than that the ladies of that establishment were retained to patronize it, or, for reasons of superstition or interest, used their influence to extol it to their dupes. Pregnant women sent their child-bed linen to it to be consecrated in order to their safe and easy recovery, and accompanied their commission with large presents of money; and pilgrimages of young men and maidens, of invalids and roues of the great laden with care, and the small harassed by disaster, were made to it from all parts of the country, in quest of blessings supposed to be purchasable with money, and enjoyable in companionship with sin. A solitary ascetic who inhabited the attached cell of the hermitage, added greatly to the celebrity of the place. Even James V. himself performed a pilgrimage on foot to it from Stirling, in August, 1530, before setting sail to seek among the daughters of France a partner for his throne. Yet the chapel became, if not a Paphos, at least a place of kindred character, – a noxious meeting-place of young men and women, – a scene of barter between the tricks and gains of priestcraft and the indulgence and chartering of vice. “Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, Lord Lion King at Arms,” whose satires are well known to lacerate priestcraft to the bones, and to salve its bleeding flesh with spices, found no fitter, no less pitied, subject for his cat-o’-nine tails and his rude salving than the chapel of Our Lady of Loretto. “Parts of Musskelborowe towne, wi’ the chapel of Our Lady of Lauret,” were destroyed in 1544 by the English army under the Earl of Hertford; and the chapel, though afterwards thoroughly re-edified or repaired, was soon frowned away from its stenchy site by the Reformation, and, in just penance for its crimes of chicanery and pollution, made acquainted, stone by stone, as we have seen, with convicted and acknowledged malefactors. “Of this building, which must have been of considerable dimensions,” says the New Statistical Account of Inveresk, written in 1839, “no vestige now remains, save a cell measuring 12 feet by 10, covered by a circular wooded mount.”