Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.
In the centre of Prestonpans stands a remarkable 400-year-old building, described as a ‘monument to departed greatness’. Once a market place for buying and selling, it is now a rare survival, one of the finest examples of a mercat cross in Scotland and the only one still in its original position.
The monument dates back to 1617, when the thriving community of Preston was awarded a charter by the king allowing them to hold a weekly market and an annual fair on St Jerome’s Day. The mercat cross was the physical symbol proclaiming this new status, a source of tremendous civic pride, with the promise of attracting lucrative trade.
That local pride is obvious in the highly ornate design of the monument. It has architectural flourishes such as spiral water spouts shaped like cannons, columns inspired by ancient Rome, sockets for holding flags and niches carved with a scallop shell pattern. But it is also a practical building, with a platform at the top for a bellman or town crier to make proclamations, and a chamber on the ground floor which would have acted as a prison.
On weekly market days the mercat cross would been a scene of great hustle and bustle, all tightly controlled by the local authorities who gained an income from stallholders. The annual fair though was a different matter, attracting a wide variety of pedlars known as chapmen, who travelled the countryside selling everything from buttons and buckles, to books and cloth.
In 1636 the Guild of Chapmen of the Lothians staged an extraordinary takeover and bought the rights to the fair and the cross. The guild used the monument for their annual ceremony at the beginning of July, where officials were elected for the year. By the 1800s the chapmen had all disappeared, but the ceremony continued for a while. In 1839 the local minister wrote that it was the scene “of a little innocent merry-making… as if at the summons of some ancient wizard”.
The monument is well looked after but no longer a place of hustle and bustle, even with the local primary school just across the road. But surely this grand old piece of history could be at the centre of the community again, and maybe even the setting for the occasional merry-making.