Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.
Take a stroll along Bickerton’s Walk through the Luffness estate near Aberlady, and you stumble across the remains of a medieval friary with an intriguing puzzle. Who is the mysterious knight?
The ruins visible today are just a fragment of a once bustling site, probably founded in the late 1200s. There are the foundations of a church, and a set of steps that leads you up through the remains of an arched doorway. Look out for the stone slab on the floor inscribed with Gothic script, as a monument to a local magnate. Not far away you can still see the fishponds that once provided the friars with an important source of food.
This was a community from the Carmelite order, known as Whitefriars from the white cloak or ‘mantle’, which was worn over their habits. Their role was quite different to the secluded life of monks in monasteries. Friars travelled from community to community, preaching among the public, spreading learning and healing the sick. As well as the church, the Luffness Friary would have had a refectory or dining hall, perhaps a chapter house for meetings and an infirmary.
Friaries were normally founded on the outskirts of towns, which shows what a thriving place medieval Aberlady would have been. The harbour here was attracting trade and fishing, supplying Haddington with goods and acting as an important staging post for travelling pilgrims.
Friars could not own property and depended on rich benefactors, which probably explains the intriguing effigy of a knight among the ruins of the church. The stone carving has weathered over the centuries, but you can still make out his coat of mail, sword and shield. I’m glad to say there are many legends around the identity of this knight. A local tradition says that this is a man called Bickerton, killed by assassins as revenge for his murder of the earl of Douglas. Another tale says this is Sir John de Lindsay, a crusader brought back from the Holy Land by the friars.
We will probably never know his true identity, which I think only adds to the charm of this ancient site.