West Lothian’s varied travel history includes a 90 year period when stagecoaches ruled the roads.
Between 1760 and 1850, stagecoaches thundered to and fro along the three main roads cutting through the county and connecting Edinburgh and Glasgow. Coaching inns, a few of which remain today, like the Fork & Field in Midcalder and Livingston Village’s Livingston Inn, were purpose-built staging posts strung out along these routes like vital links in a chain, providing food and shelter for passengers and stabling for the hard-working horses. A team of 4 horses could pull a coach at 10 miles an hour for an hour at a stretch, and inns were built at roughly that distance apart.
A team of 4 horses could pull a coach at 10 miles an hour for an hour at a stretch, and inns were built at roughly that distance apart.
Stagecoaches had names like The Edinburgh to Glasgow Flyer, Rocket, Quicksilver, The Telegraph and The Express,and competition to provide the fastest service for the 52 miles between Edinburgh and Glasgow was fierce.
Passengers were squeezed in, 10 to 14 per coach, like sardines in a tin. A single fare cost 4 shillings for an inside seat and 2 shillings for outside, at the full mercy of the weather. The journey time was constantly being reduced, taking 9 - 10 hours at the beginning of the 19th century to a record-breaking 3 hours 44 minutes in 1831 in a race between rival companies.
But the key to the success of the stagecoach era were road improvements. Up until the mid 1700’s, roads were little better than beaten tracks, earth trampled flat by countless feet as people went about their day-to-day business – turning into impassable rivers of oozing mud in winter and wet weather. At this period, Cochrane Street was one of the most important streets in Bathgate, as the Glasgow to Edinburgh road came into the town along here. The route came over the Craig and Bathgate Hills, a difficult terrain and very muddy in winter, along Cochrane Street, Main Street and Gideon Street onto Drumcross Hill, and out along the old road to Bangour. An early attempt to run a stagecoach service in 1678, advertised it would “Leave Edinbro ilk Monday morning, and return again, God willing, ilk Saturday night”.
Roads had to improve and the turnpike system was adopted. From 1752 laws were passed giving powers to Turnpike Trusts made up of local landowners to “make, amend, widen and keep in repair the roads” and tolls were charged for their upkeep. Each Trust took on the responsibility for a stretch of road (anything up to 20 miles). The laws gave the trusts powers to borrow money to build the new road - the security for the loan was the tolls that would be levied on the road-users. The trustees built a toll-house for the toll collector (tacksman) and tollgates as barriers across the road. These improved roads were known as turnpike roads - when a road-user paid the toll, a pike on the tollgate was turned, the gate pushed open and the traveller, pocket a little lighter, carried on his way.
The three Edinburgh to Glasgow turnpike roads of the 18th century were the route through Midcalder/Livingston/Shotts, a route via Linlithgow/Falkirk/Kirkintilloch and a road via Newbridge/Uphall/Bathgate.
Midcalder’s Fork & Field dates from 1763 when the turnpike road arrived in the village (today’s A71 mainly follows the route of this old turnpike road). Known as The Lemon Tree Inn when newly built, it was the first stopping point after leaving Edinburgh on journeys between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayr, and Edinburgh and Hamilton.
Standing at the edge of the village and sheltered by Calder Wood, the two-storey inn must have been a welcome sight for passengers, coachmen and horses alike, after a bone-shaking 12 mile journey from Edinburgh as the mud-spattered coach clattered across the stone-built bridge over the Linhouse Water and pulled up at the inn’s door. Stable lads watered the horses or changed them for a fresh team. The inn’s stables once stood where the car park is, with more stables through the pend (arch) across the street.
Built in 1760, Livingston Inn is a white-harled, single-storey solid building with its very doorstep on the old turnpike road. It is said a distinguished visitor by the name of Robert Burns - born the year before the inn was built - once slept under its roof. An arched stableblock adjoins the inn and is the lounge bar today. The inn’s surroundings of traditional cottages and centuries-old church make the scene look much the same as it must have done in the 18th century and it’s easy to imagine the clamour and commotion as a passenger-laden stagecoach arrived.
Fascinating glimpses of West Lothian’s stagecoach past are all around. The story goes that Blawhorn Moss (a National Nature Reserve) near Blackridge gets its name because it was a look-out point for the Glasgow to Edinburgh stagecoaches on the road below. When the watcher saw or heard the coach and horses galloping into sight from the west, he gave a loud blast on a horn, a signal for the local coaching inn - the Craig Inn - to prepare for thirsty travellers and flagging horses.
And tragic accidents happened – a gravestone in Kirkton Kirkyard, Bathgate reads “Here lieth the Mortal Part Of Benjamin Shaw the affectionate, dutiful and only son of Benjamin and Sarah Shaw of St Paul’s Church Yard, London, Who was suddenly kill’d by the breaking down of the Telegraph coach near West Craig on Monday 16th February 1807 in the 18th year of his age”.
Another clue, a short walk from Livingston Inn, is the B listed Scottish Historic Building called The Old Toll-house (a private residence), West Lothian’s last remaining toll-house still standing by the side of the original turnpike road now called Old Cousland Road.
The arrival of the railways in the mid-1800’s and rail travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow saw a steep decline in the stagecoaches’ fortunes as all eyes turned to the train.
First published in Konect July 2012
Author: Yvonne Macmillan