Musselburgh (surveyed in 1853)


Musselburgh lies on either side of the mouth of the River Esk, where it enters the Firth of Forth, directly to the east of Edinburgh. It is now in East Lothian but at the time of the survey it was in Edinburgh-shire.

The name Musselburgh means 'Mussel town'. It is derived from the Old English words musle meaning 'mussel' and burh meaning 'town'. The Old English name reflects the Anglian settlement of large areas of Lothian in the seventh and eighth centuries AD.

The burgh includes Musselburgh itself, as well as Fisherrow on the west side of the Esk and Newbigging to the south. Inveresk, further south, gave its name to the parish and contained the parish church. The town was a burgh of barony from 1315-28 and it became a burgh of regality in 1562. Musselburgh attempted to become a royal burgh in 1632, but this was stopped by Edinburgh burgesses because they wanted to control trade in the area. There is a traditional rhyme, "Musselburgh was a burgh when Edinburgh was nane / And Musselburgh will be a burgh when Edinburgh has gane".

The town had a population of 7,092 in 1851, an increase from the 1841 total of 6,328.

Town Planning

In its layout, Musselburgh consisted of two parts. Fisherrow to the west of the Esk was built around three streets, which radiated out from the Edinburgh road and lay roughly parallel to the shore. To the east of the river, Musselburgh proper had two main streets extending from the river crossings to the shore, with properties on either side. Newbigging, to the south, has a main street parallel to the Musselburgh High Street. In general, at the time of the survey the Musselburgh side of the burgh appears to have larger, less built-up properties. A branch railway to the south of the town had been opened in 1847.


The main building of interest in the burgh was Pinkie House. This was a sixteenth century towerhouse with later additions added in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is now a boarding house for Loretto School.

Trade and Industry

The survey shows the continuing importance of fishing at this time. The harbour and Custom House were at Fisherrow (sheet 7). The mussel beds (sheet 2 and 3) and the Musselburgh fishery (sheet 3) can be seen off the coast.

The chief export from the port was coal, with coastal trade in a variety of items.

A number of different industries, such as pottery and the weaving of wool and cotton had flourished in Musselburgh but had declined prior to the mid-nineteenth century.

Market gardening to supply the inhabitants of Edinburgh with fruit and vegetables was an important part of the economy. An old variety of winter-hardy leek is called Musselburgh after the town.


There were several collieries on the outskirts of the town (sheets10 and 12) and salt pans and chemical works to the west (sheet 4).

Religious Life

Before the Reformation there had been a chapel called Our Lady of Loretto, which had been a place of pilgrimage. In 1530, James V of Scotland had walked there barefoot from Stirling. The structure had been demolished during the Reformation and the stonework was used to build the Tolbooth, or town jail.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the parish of Inveresk had six Established churches, an Episcopal Church and three dissenting places of worship.


At the time of the survey there was a grammar school, a subscription school for girls and six other schools.

Culture and Society

One of the attractions of the town at this period was the race course, which was built on the shore in 1816 (sheet 6). The shore also offered the opportunity for promenading, archery and golf. There was a curling pond beside the Esk (sheet 11).