Some reminiscences of Musselburgh, 1947-51
by D.I.M. (Ian) Wallace

Observations and general habitat

[DIMW sketch no.1]

My experience of the Musselburgh area was entirely the result of my final schooldays at Loretto from September 1947 to December 1951. In that time, the school had a flourishing bird watching society, 'managed' particularly by the Senior French Master E.L. ("Eek") Turner and 'led' when I arrived by P.J. (Pat) Sellar. It was the latter who first took me to the foreshore and showed me my first Ringed Plover. Little did we know then that we would both end up as Editors of BWP, but there can be no doubt that we owed the LSOS our ornithological baptism, since membership gave us access not only to Coward and the Witherby Handbook but also to British Birds and from 1950 the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Bulletins and Reports. Among the authorities who came to lecture and inspire us, Ken Williamson was pre-eminent, but Dougal G. Andrew, Editor of the Edinburgh Bird Bulletin, took over in 1951 as our chief mentor, returning all our news with courteous and informative correspondence - as he still does!

The chief study of the LSOS was to monitor the birds of the Musselburgh foreshore, but we also tried to make something of the passerines in the school grounds, while taking weekend opportunities to bicycle further east to Aberlady (and its fuller list) and south into the rivers and hills e.g. Pathead, Fala Flow (breeding Dunlin!). In the 1950s, the foreshore was only 5 minutes' walk from some of the (then) school houses and it was visited almost daily during terms, but only rarely in holiday periods. The most common route was the road at the west end of the racecourse which then led down to a gasworks and on to a dilapidated observation hut, which had been erected near the eastern breakwater/retaining wall of the River Esk.

From the hut (inside if raining; from the roof, if not) we would scan the sea (tide in) or the foreshore. The latter was entirely natural to the west of the river, with a hard shingle/mussel bed exposed at low tide and stretching at least half a mile north at lowest tide, where it ended in a massive mussel scarp of considerable age. The river itself was made filthy by an open sewer that disgorged on its west bank and gave the smells of a sewage farm to the river mouth. The foreshore to the east had been subject to a war-frustrated attempt at reclamation, with the result that the eastern breakwater/retaining wall ran first out north and then after some 'steps' down, curled away east. To the north of even the lowest wall sector, the shore was similar to the western sector, but to the south (inside) the inner flats, was covered with soft mud banks, which varied in size/depth from year to year.

Both west and east of the river, the high water line was a quite abrupt littoral zone of grass, then sandy weeds, then shingle and coal, then shingle. Behind (south of) this interface, the western shore was backed by Loretto's games pitch which provided a secluded, walled area of grass sward (we had to flush feeding/roosting waders before beginning the match!), but the eastern shore was backed by open grass and then the race/golf courses/links.

From 1947 to 1951, the foreshore west to Fisherrow was ignored, but the sections east were occasionally walked as far as Levenhall, where there was a large area of sand and a tip, and Morrison's haven, where often quiet water held waterfowl and rocks attracted roosting waders (although we strongly suspected that most of the Musselburgh waders may have gone as far east as Aberlady to roost).

In the same years, we had little understanding of seawatch tactics and spent a lot of time trying to fit e.g. White Wagtails to Fair Isle occurrences! Rarities were virtually non-existent, although we should have had a White-rumped Sandpiper at the river pools in the late autumn of 1948 (9 October). Sadly, "Eek" looked at my drawing and pronounced the ""square"" shaped rump to be the >> of a Little Stint. it was only when Dougal turned one up at Gladhouse that the penny dropped.

So what it was above all was a wonderful learning experience, with for me my first identifications of Whooper Swan (7 October 1951), Long-tailed Duck (November 1947), Velvet Scoter (same year), Grey Plover (1948), Ringed Plover (14 May 1947), Whimbrel (19 May 1947), Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank (same month/year), dead Icelandic Redshank (wing measured at 72 mm, 26 October 1951), Wood Sandpiper (6 October 1949), Turnstone (May 1947 again), Knot (400, 16 January 1948), Sanderling (1948), Little Stint (September 1947), Curlew Sandpiper (24 September 1948), Pomarine Skua (claim 10 October 1951 - can't remember whether Dougal accepted it - 20 and 21 August 1963), Glaucous Gull (14 June 1950 - published in BB), Black Tern (26 September 1951), Roseate Tern (24 and 25 June 1950), Waxwing (29, 13 to 21 November 1949, written up by Pat Sellar in Scot. Nat.) and Mealy Redpoll (15 November 1951): the highlights of four years when the birdwatching world was still localised - and there was no envy nor zeal!

Visits from trained observers (adults) were rare, but Gerard Sandeman and Archie Bryson appeared on 27 January 1951, full of 4-5000 Scaup and 100 Great Crested Grebes at Seafield". Otherwise, it was very much a school team effort, with "Eek" and Mr. Wood as the two teachers and W.N.C. (Bill) Conn, J. (John) McNaughton, C. (Charles) Aitchison, D. ("Pip") Hillas, ? Williams, ? Crystal, ? Gledson. T. (Tom) Gibson, ? Honeyman and ? Brownlie the leading boy observers (whose names appear in my logs).

Towards the end of my time, I produced an all time summary of Musselburgh birds but pro tem it is refusing to leap up from its tea box!

P.S. We did have one mystery - explored, I think, by Dougal in the EBB - and that was at least two records of black-capped tits in the school grounds - the only reference I can find is '3 Willow Tit' in Pinkie on 9 May 1951 - and far flung bicycle trips found others at Pathead. These must have been dumped by others as they are not among my 'first record' notes in my copy of the 1971 BOU Status book.

Habitats and place names

(All these areas are mentioned in my 1951 log.)

[DIMW sketch no.2]

The Shore
The area easily visible from the 'observation hut' that stood at the beginning of the partial breakwater on the east side of the Esk, c.50 yards from the then end of land - usual scans through binoculars took in the western flats, the river mouth and the muddier flats inside the breakwater, which ran north and then curved east, but then at low height (as building stopped by WW2); occasional attempts to see beyond 'lone post' west of river mouth and abutting sea, but these rare before advent of telescope in summer 1951; some walking of all areas if time allowed but uncommon (no wellies!).

Esk walk
One of Loretto's statutory Sunday p.m. walks, taking us inland to ?4th bridge where dense hawthorns once attracted a waxwing flock in November 1949.

The original games pitch area of Loretto, lying to west of Esk and abutting west hire which rn further west to Fisherrow; wader roost (particularly Redshank).

The Park and Orchard
School grounds between former School House and Chapel.

Morrison's Haven
Not enclosed in the 1950s, forming a small bay east of the straggle of houses that ran east from the end of the racecourse and containing rock outcrops of which the Great Ox held roosting waders; often sheltered and favoured by divers and grebes.

Had sands ('large area') and a 'tip' in 1951; wader roost.

No note of habitat; male Merlin on 31 Jan 1951.

Now Loretto's headquarters; in 1951, only just acquired and effectively a passerine sanctuary.

Inner flats
The muddier flats referred to under 'shore'; always covered at high tide.

River pools
Areas of water within the stony bottom of the Esk at low tide; searched from river walls and first two bridges; covered at high tide.

Football pitches
Uncertain, probably east of houses that now stand on east side of river mouth and were overshadowed by gas holder.

Mussel scarp
Big 'ridge' of mussels, with saltwater pools, on west side of river mouth; an area much shot over; favourite sea area for ducks, especially Red-breasted Merganser (summer flock).

[DIMW sketch no.3]

DIMW 31-10-98

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