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History of Whitsome

The following history was written by Lesley A. Robertson who has kindly given permission for it to be included among the GENUKI pages. This history is copyright and may not be reproduced without Lesley's permission. The main sources of information used in compiling the history were old gazetteers, the Old and New Statistical Accounts, and Black's Surnames of Scotland book.


Early history

To the north of the village is a field called Battle Knowes where traces of a Roman camp have been found. Querns, stone coffins and a bronze coffin have been dug up. Other antiquities, including a stone coffin, have been found during ploughing at Leetside farm. The parson of Whitsome, Radulphus de Hauden, was among the Borders clergy to swear allegiance to Edward I of England in Berwick in 1296.

The Knights Templar owned lands in the area, as can be seen from local names including Temple-lands, Temple Hall (a row of cottages on Leetside, now vanished) and Temple Well (also on Leetside). Part of Myreside (now Dykegatehead) belonged to them. Until the middle of the 18th Century, the mote hill, or Birlie Knowe, of the village could be seen to the east of the schoolhouse.

It has been suggested that the name of the village derives from the white habits of Cistercian monks who once had a settlement in the area, but the explanation given by the Rev. Rennison and Mr Scott in the New Statistical Account of the parish in 1837 seems more likely, if less romantic. They give the derivation as White or Huite and Ham or Home - Uniaette Hwite (or Huit) was one of the witnesses to King Eadgar's charter of Coldingham, granting Swinton to the monks of St. Cuthbert some time between 1097 and 1107. When the charter was confirmed in the time of Robert III (1392), Qhuite was one of the witnesses. David I (1124-1153) granted Whitsome to the monks of Coldingham. Half the lands were later granted to Roger Pringle. A branch of the Pringles descend from him. Robert Hop Whitsome is mentioned in a gift to the monastery of Soltray, confirmed by Alexander III (1249-1286). Because of their support of the Bruce family, the lands of the Pringles of Whitsome were confiscated by King John Bailiol. The estates were briefly owned by John de Lyle. This was confirmed in a charter signed by Edward I of England, in 1295, a fact which cannot have done much to support the claim of the d'Lyle family later. After the battle of Bannockburn, the lands were restored to Reginald Pringle of Whitsome, by Robert Bruce in 1315.

The priest of Whitsome at the time of the Reformation, James Seton, conformed, and retained his place as the Minister of the parish. He was in Whitsome from at 1560 until at least 1589.

Like most of the Borders, Whitsome has had a somewhat eventful past. In July 1482, it was burned to the ground by the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III of England. According to the Statistical Account, Deadriggs derives its name from Border skirmishes, and the East and West Vaults were named for underground vaults built for shelter and storage in times of any attack from the south.

The Eighteenth Century

On 19th June, 1735, the parishes of Whitsome and Hilton were combined after the movement of the Minister of Hilton, George Home, to Whittinghame in East Lothian. The church of Hilton was allowed to decay, and is now a ruin. All that can be seen is the outline of the walls, and the east gable, surrounded by the old Kirkyard. For much of the 18th century, the Minister of Whitsome was John Waugh. He was ordained as a dissenting Minister in Alnwick in 1743, and took up his duties in Whitsome in 1755. At the time of the Statistical Account of Scotland (1799), he was still active (although it should be noted that the Whitsome account was written by George Cupples, Minister of Swinton). Mr Waugh succeeded a Mr Calder, whose brother was Cadwalleder Calder, author of "The Five Nations of Canada".

The 18th century Church, as described by Mr Cupples, was "a miserable thatched building, which, though now slated, is still very ill seated, narrow and incommodious". It stood at the highest point of the Kirkyard, and was "most inconveniently detached both from the village and the manse". Little of this building is now to be seen, except the outline of its footings, but the bell in the current church is dated 1645. Some of the Communion Plate dates from 1704.

A famous Secessionist Minister, Henry Erskine, lived at Ravelaw after his ejection from his parish of Cornhill. He frequently preached in the Meeting House in Old Newton (now known as East Newton). The young Thomas Boston (1678 - 1732) was so influenced by one of his sermons that he became a Secessionist preacher himself, and became famous for his sermons as well as his book, "The Fourfold State". On one occasion when he preached in Whitsome Church, the crowds who could not get in climbed onto the roof and tore away the thatch so that they could hear him.

Dr Webster reported that the population of the parish in 1755 was 399. By 1799, this had risen to 590, of which 206 were men, 246 were women, and 139 were children below 10. Although not affluent, the parish seems to have been a healthy place to live - Rev Cupples reported that the oldest man and woman in the parish were 93 and 94, respectively. The parishioners were "staunch Presbyterians, either of the Establishment or of the Secession"' the Seceders not being more than 1 in 12 of the population.

The master of the school in the 18th century was not rich. He had a salary of 8-9 pounds sterling, a house and school, a very small garden, kirk dues and some perks arising from his collecting the road money. Dr Cupples points out that the parish has been able to attract some able teachers, resulting in "great numbers of scholars in penmanship, languages, mathematics and the practical arts" who went on to apprenticeships or the Universities. The local farmers were described as improving rapidly in their education, manners, opulence and mode of living (with a taste for books), despite the fact that they lived without the benefit of the influence of any of the heritors of the parish. The common people were, in the words of Mr Cupples, "moderate, sensible and sober, nor have any of them for these 40 years been charged with a capital crime. Nor do I recollect either riot, violence or disorder among them. Such as have had an opportunity of a better opportunity of a better education, have imbibed it with docility and success".

The main crops grown in the area were oats, barley, wheat, peas, beans, vetches and a small amount of rye, as well as potatoes and turnips. Horses were kept for work on the farms. Black cattle, and sheep were also kept, together with "an ass for medicinal purposes".

The Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century was a time of agricultural improvements, and falling numbers of agricultural labourers for the whole of Scotland. When he wrote "The Book of the Farm" (1844), Henry Stephens described how he had gained his agricultural experience 20 years earlier while boarding with George Brown of Whitsome Hill - "one of the best farmed of that well-farmed county". The report of the 18th century Rev. Cupples gives the impression of a somewhat isolated cluster of farms, with only the brief mention that the schoolmaster collected the road money. By the time that the New Statistical Report was written by the Rev. Rennison (assistant Minister) and Mr Scott of the Parochial School in 1837, the village was on the regular weekly route of a carrier to Duns (Wednesday), Edinburgh (Friday) and Berwick (Saturday). There was also a postal service via Swinton. By 1868, when the Imperial Gazetteer was published, not only was the village touched by the good roads between Berwick and Kelso, and Berwick and Dunse, but it was within convenient reach of both the North British Railway and the English North Eastern Railway. By 1896, there were railway stations at Edrom, Duns and Chirnside, all within 6 miles. Farming methods had changed so substantially that the Ordnance Gazetteer of 1896 says "The parish everywhere has the finely enclosed and richly cultivated aspect which so generally distinguishes the Merse".

The current church was built in 1803, with places for 250 people. It has since been substantially modified (1913). It was originally a rectangular building with a pulpit in the middle of the south wall and a gallery running around the other three walls. The body snatching that so plagued the area in the early 19th century is reflected by the fact that the church has a mort house (built in 1820) on the edge of the old Kirkyard. Doctors from Coldingham and Swinton were prosecuted for body-snatching, and others were probably also involved, so it was felt necessary to post guards in graveyards after funerals, until decay had rendered the body unsuitable.

In 1816, a branch of the Berwickshire Bible Society was formed, and the Temperance Society opened in the village in 1831. Despite this, two inns opened in Whitsome in the early 1830s, much to the displeasure of the Rev. Rennison and Mr Scott. As well as the parochial school, an unendowed school had opened. Both taught english, writing, arithmetic and practical mathematics, but the parochial school could also offer latin, greek and french. Poor children were taught free. The parish schoolmaster was being paid 55 a year, with 26 in fees and 6 from other sources. By 1896, the village school had places for 150 children, with an average attendance of 90.

There were two patches of common ground in the village in 1837 - at the east and north ends. Both were used for bleaching, with water available from on-site springs known as the Blind Well and Reed's Well.

Test boring for coal in 1824-1825 was not successful, but the grey and white limestone which formed a layer about 40 feet thick below the parish was extensively quarried.

The population of Whitsome fell from 664 in 1831 to 636 in 1833 because of emigration to Canada. By 1861, it was still only 640, and thereafter the fall continued - 608 in 1871, 560 in 1881 and 573 in 1891.

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