Monday, 12 March 2018

Looking Back on 3 Years of the Auld Earlston Blog

This month marks three years since the Auld Earlston blog was launched in 2015 - so in  the first of two posts, a look back at some of the most popular topics featured. To read more, click on the titles below. 

A look  at the past   - and the future - for the Earlston Reading Room which dates from 1852.   It was a  symbol of  Victorian self-help and the  desire for education.  The rules and regulations make entertaining reading. 

 The Reading room on the left to next to the Corn Exchange with its belfry tower. 
The photograph pre-dates 1921 when the pump tower on the right was demolished to make way for the war memorial.  

A profile of Christian and Marion Whale, who in the first half of the 19th century had a national reputation as producers  of Earlston ginghams, at a time  when few women showed such enterprising spirit to head successful businesses.  
 Two surviving examples of the Earlston Gingham. 
A photographic account of the history of the railway through Earlston  from its low key opening to its equally  low key closure  over a 100 years later.

 The last train through Earlston Station - July 1965.

An account of the air crash of 1943 when a German bomber came down near the village, killing all four members of the crew.  In 2015 the daughter and grandson  of the pilot made a moving visit to  Earlston to commemorate this war time tragedy.   

The unveiling of a memorial to the German crew

The records  provide us with a unique  social commentary on life in the village at the time. as the church provided help to the poor and needy, but censure to those involved in what was regarded as moral turpitude. 

 As late as 14th October 1901,  a woman was brought before the Kirk Session  to be questioned on her "sin of fornication and having a child out of wedlock"

To mark Civic Week 2016,  parades of the past and photographs of Earlston people having fun! 



Thank you to everyone who has contributed 
 information, photographs and memories to Auld Earlston 

Friday, 23 February 2018

Earlston Woollen Manufacturer - John Simpson

A local historian in Hawick   recently came across in the town's Wilton Cemetery these gravestones  to the family of  "John Simpson, Woollen Manufacturer, Earlston".  He contacted the Auld Earlston Group with this information.

Intriguing?   Why was an Earlston businessman remembered in Hawick? 

Simpson Gravestones in Wilton Cemetery, Hawick 

In Loving Memory of John Simpson, woollen manufacturer,Earlston who died 
 at Eildon Grove, Melrose on  June 8th 1919.
And his wife Anna Robertson who died 8th Feby 1944 aged 86 years.

Who was John Simpson?
He  was born in Galashiels in 1856, son of John Simpson, a wool hand-loom weaver.  At the age of 15 in 1871, young John  was working as a warper ** in a wool factory in   Innerleithen,  where five  years later he married Anne Robertson .   

By the time of the 1891 census,  the couple were  at 1 Rosevale Cottage in Wilton Parish, Hawick with their two son and two daughters - John, George, Euphemia and Jessie.    John, then aged 35,  was described as a tweed warehouseman. 

Ten years later in 1901, the family  was living at 2 West Stewart Place, Wilton, Hawick in a road of substantial Victorian houses,  with John's occupation listed as commercial traveller. Clearly he was going up in the world, culminating in the purchase of what became Simpson and Fairbairn Mill at Earlston, which was listed under that name in a 1903 Trade Directory.   

The 1911 census saw the family at Eildon Grove,  Melrose, Roxburghshire with John described as woollen manufacturer, with his wife and youngest daughter 28 year old Jessie, plus one servant.    John died there in 1919. 

His death at the age of 63 was reported  in "The Scotsman" newspaper,  intimating that John's funeral would be held at Wilton Cemetery, Hawick.   

The Scottish National Probate Index online  gave the value of his estate as £69,498.19s.5d. - estimated at over two and a half million pounds in today’s money values (

AAn obituary in the Berwickhire News:  10th June 1919  gives us a profile of John Simpson.
".......He was Chairman and Director of Simpson & Fairbairn Ltd, Rhymer's  Mill, in Earlston.  His early years were spent in Innerleithen where he acquired his knowledge of the tweed trade, and afterwards went to Hawick and became associated with the firm of Blenkhorn Richardson Ltd. of which he was a Director.  Fifteen years ago with Mr Thomas Fairbairn, he took over the business of  Robert Dunn & Co. at Earlston.   Mr Simpson was one of the best known and best liked of personalities in the Scottish tweed trade.
An ardent and successful golfer, he was a well known figure on several popular courses."

 Rhymer's Mill, Earlston,   early 1900's.  (Auld Earlston Collection) 

Rev. Walter Davidson of Earlston Parish Church, having heard the news that Sunday morning,  paid a tribute to John Simpson, at his  service, as reported in the press article,  saying:
........He was very closely associated with the church ......... As head of the firm which is by far the largest employer of labour in the town..... he was known as  an upright, conscientious and thoroughly efficient business man, a just and honourable master. 
Long before he came to Earlston I had heard him spoken of "as a prince among commercial travellers" and after he entered business on his own account here, his wonderful ability in this respect meant greater employment and consequently increased prosperity for Earlston, and for these things we owe him a debt of gratitude.

God endowed him with certain talents and these he developed as a faithful steward for the greater good of the community.  In his life he was greatly respected and widely esteemed. A keen reader, he possessed a library, rich in  beautiful works, as seldom seen.  .....Most of all he endeared himself to his own  by his kindly,  loving disposition"

Earlston Monumental Inscriptions, published by the Borders Family History Society, notes that in 1920 a carved oak Communion Table  was gifted to the church  "To the glory of God and in loving memory of John Simpson, manufacturer,  Earlston."

“The Kelso Chronicle” and “The Berwickshire News” of January 1920 reported on this memorial being dedicated by his son John M.D. Simpson, whose wife donated the embroidered communion cloths in memory of her father-in-law.


It seems that John's eldest son,  John Melville Drummond Simpson,  remained involved in the family business and in Earlston community affairs, as reported in the Berwickshire News.  In the 1920's he was a candidate  in local  elections, sitting on the School Management Committee.    He was also organist at Earlston Parish Church until  1929. In  1931  a report noted that "Delegates of the Scottish woollen industry on a visit to American and Canadian markets included John  M. Simpson of Simpson and Fairbairn, Earlston." 

A newspaper death announcement reported  "At Broomiebrae, Earlston on the 27th August 1931 John M. D. Simpson died, dearly beloved husband of Catherine Robertson".  
John was buried besides his parents in Wilton Cemetery, Hawick.  His death certificate, (on ScotlandsPeople website)  confirmed his distinctive middle names and his occupation as a woollen manufacturer - the informant his son J. Stanley Simpson.  

In 1946 as part of a major refurbishment of Earlston Parish Church, electricity was installed, and  Stanley Simpson,  as a memorial to his father,  gifted the electrification  of the organ blower, which previously had been pumped by hand. 


  • ** "A warper", the occupation of 15 year old John Simpson in 1871, was a textile worker who arranged the individual yarns which created the "warp" of the fabric. 
  • Simpson and Fairbairn
    In  a  1903 Directory  Simpson & Fairbairn  was described as "a tweed manufacturer and dyers at Mid Mills, Earlston"  It appears that the firm later adopted the address of Rhymer's Mill.  The photographs below, are believed to date from the early 1900's, and are in the Auld Earlston Collection. 

  • At the time of John Simpson's (Senior) death in 1919, Border woollen manufacturers were starting to face  e global depression, with tariff barriers, and difficult export markets.   However Simpson and Fairbairn  weathered the storm,  although short time working was often prevalent. 

    During World War Two, the mill was fully employed on service and  utility clothing  and the post war years saw  a boom time for the Borders as world wide stocks of clothes had to be replaced, with the firm employing more than 300 workers,
    making it  the economic mainstay of Earlston. 

  • But by the late 1950's and early '60's, the old problems of cheaper competitors and vulnerability to changing fashions had returned.  The   firm tried  to innovate by making cellular blankets and moving into  ladies' wear.  But the decline could not be stemmed.  The mill finally closed in 1969 when a workforce of almost 100 was made redundant.
Earlston's role in the  Borders textile industry came to an end.  

  • Blenkhorn Richardson, Hawick.
    At the time of his death,  John Simpson, senior was a Director at Blenkhorn Richardson, Eastfield Mills, Hawick.  The business was   founded by two brothers-in -law  and become one of the largest manufacturers in southern Scotland.  The company closed in 1974, with its archives now held at the Heriot Watt University, Galashiels. 

Both Earlston and Hawick had  a major part  in John's  Simpson's life, with his choice of a final resting place - Hawck.  But  he made a key contribution to  Earlston's textile industry, as reflected in  the eulogies on his death. 

With thanks to  David Lothian of Earlston and Gordon Macdonald of Hawick for their help with information on John Simpson, his  life and family. 



Monday, 5 February 2018

A Look at Earlston Churches

In 1866 Earlston had three churches Ercildoune Parish Church, West United Presbyterian Church and East United Presbyterian Church.   Rutherfurd's Southern Counties Directory of 1866  noted that the three churches offered seating for 1400 worshipers - in a village with a population of 1825.  Religion was an integral  part of community life.

In the 12th century, the foundation charter for Melrose Abbey was signed by King David I at Ercildoune (the old name for Earlston),   It is known that a chapel was built in Earlston at the end of the 11th century  and in 1242 a new church was built and consecrated.  After the Reformation in 1560,  it became the Church of Scotland.

The  medieval church was replaced in 1736, enlarged in 1834 which in turn was replaced  on the same site in 1892 by the present building of red sandstone from Cowdenknowes Quarry, with seating for 700 people.   It was known as Ercildoune Church until its union with St. John's Church under the minister Rev. John Duncan in  1946 after 200 years of division.

The Old Parish Church, demolished in 1891

Men from Rodger Builders working on the  church, 1891.
One of the oldest photographs in the Auld Earlston collection 

A charming tinted image of the rebuilt  church,
early 20th century

In 1991 renovation work took place on the church  building, largely thanks to a generous bequest  from the late Miss Ella Newton of Edinburgh, whose father had been works manager at  Simpson & Fairbairn Mill in Earlston.   Again men from Rodgers Builders undertook much of the work. 

Some of the team working on the 1991 refurbishment

Records go back to James Ker in 1549  up to the present day. One of the longest serving was William Mair (1869-1903), who served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1897.  The Rev. John Duncan also served 30 years 1946-76. 

Communion Plate
The pewter communion plate mostly came from the Relief and  Associate Churches in Earlston, 1750 and 1780 respectively, with the  earliest chalice dated 1760. The Associate and Relief bodies came together in the early nineteenth century to form the United Presbyterian Church.   All the communion plate is kept in the bank and only brought out four times a year for  a  formal sacrament.

Church Records
  • The Church of Scotland Registers go back to  the late 17th century, recording baptisms, marriages and burials, but with some gaps. You can search them online at or consult them on microfilm at the Heritage Hub in Hawick.
  • Earlston Kirk Session Records  give us a unique  social commentary on life in the village at the time - with the emphasis on chastisement and charity, as the church provided help to the poor and needy, but censure to those involved in what was regarded as moral turpitude. As late as 1901, a woman was brought before the Kirk Session  to be questioned on her "sin of fornication and having a child out of wedlock". 

"Having confessed  in sorrow for her sins and resolution to walk through grace in newness of life, the Moderator after solemn admonition did in the name of the Kirk Session absolve her from the scandal of her sin  and restore her to the privileges of the church.

Scottish Kirk Session Records are not available online,  but you can view them   in a digitized format at the Heritage Hub at Hawick, which serves  the whole of the Scottish Borders 
Following disputes over the appointment of  the Rev.  Lawrence Johnston to be minister of Ercildoune Parish Church,  a Relief congregation was formed in 1778 and a church built at the West End of the village with seating for 500.  

In 1887 it joined with the East Church (see below) to form one congregation with one minister, as the Earlston United Presbyterian Church. With some irony  the West Church was sold to the Parish Church (Church of Scotland) and used as a church hall until 1956.    The property was later demolished  and replaced eventually by the modern flats we see on the site  today. 

Dissatisfied members of the congregation at Ercildoune Church joined the Secession movement in 1738.  A church was built and later enlarged to seat 500 worshippers  and became the East United Presbyterian Church.  1887 saw it join with the West United Presbyterian Church  and the name of St. John's was adopted in 1929.  

In 1946 the congregation  reunited  with the  Parish Church of Scotland  under the ministry of Rev. John Duncan.   The old St. John's Church Hall became the parish church hall, with the church itself later demolished.
 United Presbyterian Church (East), later St. John's Church 
The building on the left became the Parish Church Hall, 
when the two congregation united  in 1946. 

There was a congregation for a few years in the mid 19th century.  Worship in Earlston resumed in 1949 in a chapel hall, dedicated to St. Cuthbert, on Westfield Road  which closed  c.2012.  


Earlston Parish Church and Churchyard, 2016

  • The Church in Earlston 600AD-1982, by Rev. John H. Duncan, 1992 - with a copy in the Auld Earlston Archives.
  • The Churches and Graveyards of Berwickshire, by Dr. G. A. C. Binnie, 1985. Available from Scottish Borders Library Service.
  • Earlston Monumental Inscriptions, published by Borders Family History Society, 2005 - available through  BFHS and Scottish Borders Library Service.
  • Website of Earlston Parish Church -


    Future posts will look at other aspects of church life. 
    In Case You Missed: 
    For a fuller picture of the information in the Kirk Sessions Records,   see an earlier blog post  HERE. 

    The Auld Earlston Group  is grateful for the photographs and postcards featured here. It will be pleased  to receive  donations or loans of further material which can be scanned and returned to you.    E-mail:




Thursday, 25 January 2018

Childhood Escapades in Earlston

 John Moffat  (1919-2016) spent his early childhood in Earlston in the 1920's  where his father Peter, opened the village’s first garage.    John was an adventurous little boy, always getting into scrapes, which he recalled in his biography “How I Sank the Bismarck”.  In the Second World War, he  became a lieutenant commander pilot in the  Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and was involved in the attack on the German battleship. 

Business  in Earlston
"My father's garage  was located next to the [West End}  church  and  on the other side of the road was the local bakers and next to that the public house {Black Bull}.  The bakers was an attractive place for a young boy,  with its iced buns and doughnuts in the window.  I was allowed to go down to the cellar where the dough was mixed  in large tubs, then cut up into portions  to be baked into rolls and bread.
 Looking west from the Square

There was almost no motor traffic
in Earlston, and the roads were covered in layers of stone chip spread over hot tar. The Council road workers came every year to renew the surface.  Piles of grit and barrels of tar were left by the side of the road, ready to be used.  Somehow I managed to get into one of these barrels and cried for help.  My father rescued me and  and dragged  me into the garage where he cleaned me up with paraffin.

My father's business prospered .  The garage was usually busy, as cars and  buses were starting to replace horse drawn vehicles. I enjoyed loitering in the area and became fascinated by engines and anything mechanical.   My father bought a chassis from Albion, lorry manufacturer in Glasgow,  and had the local  joiner  build a charabanc body on it. It was the first  bus to operate in Earlston  and was often hired out to  local clubs and church groups for excursions or picnics.  The wheels still had wooden spokes and rims, like the horse drawn carts,   On very hot days, the wood would dry out and shrink, so the driver had to carry a bucket of water  to keep the wood wet and prevent the wheels collapsing."

Fairs in the Square
 "Earlston like many Scottish towns was built around a large open square. Here each year they had the Hirings in which farm workers from the surrounding area  would come,  hoping to find employment for the next 12 months.  It was a giant annual labour exchange  and it could be a desperate time for people.  Rural areas saw a great deal of poverty. 
A Hiring Fair in the 1930's

"The Square was also the site of a yearly  summer fair  and then it would be filled with all kinds of sideshows and entertainers - fire eaters, jugglers and boxing booths. The arrival of the fair always brought great excitement. Steam driven tractors would haul wagons into the Square and would be set up to drive roundabouts and steam organs."

A Wedding Custom
"Entertainment was by and large a communal affair.  I loved to watch weddings.  The groom would have purchased a rugby ball from the local  saddler.  After the marriage ceremony, the groom would kick the ball  as hard and as high as he could.  This was a sign for the men to rush  after it, and try to grab it.  The struggle could go on to  dusk, it was taken very seriously. There was no prize for this -  gaining the ball was the end in itself."

A Walk to Cowdenknowes
"I wandered far and wide with Wiggy, my pet terrier My favourite walk was to the large house of Cowdenknowes.  I was always welcome at the gardener's cottage on the estate  where there was always something fresh to eat  - a piece of cake from the oven or an apple from the orchard." 

The Appeal of the Railway
"I also used to wander off to the railway station.  The porter there was also called Moffat, though I was not aware of any family connection.  The train drivers and firemen on the local route soon got to know me.   I found the steam trains enthralling - belching steam and smoke, shrieking and clanking as they pulled to a halt, then heaving away, gathering speed.  The crews were willing to  let me ride on the footplate and it was a regular occurrence for me to ride the four miles south to Newtown St. Boswells and back. It was enormously exciting , with the heat from the firebox, the  gleaming brass levers and dials , the smell of hot oil and smoke  - and me in the  company of the overalled men in charge of this monster." 

 Two trains in Earlston Station
Copyright © A R Edwards and Son,  Selkirk.    (Cathy Chick Collection).   All Rights Reserved

A Spell  in the Cells
"One day |  got into my head to visit a good friend of my grandfather , a man called Mr Deans, pub  landlord of the Black Bull in Lauder.   I hopped on a local bus and hid beneath a seat.  But someone must have seen me  and told my parents.  My father clearly thought this was the  last straw and telephoned the local constable in Lauder, and this fine fellow was waiting for me.  I can still see him with  his  blue cape, his helmet and a fierce  waxed moustache. Towering over me, he grabbed me by the ear and none too gently marched  me off to the police station, up the iron steps  to the front door.  There I was led to the cells.   I am sure my distress took the edge off my father's anger when he came to take me home."
Crashing the  Doctor's  Car  
"About 1925, my father sold Dr. Young a new car a Model T. Ford,   It  had been fitted with what was then a very modern invention  - an electric  starter button as an alternative to cranking the engine  over by hand with a starting handle.   Motor cars were still a novelty in those days, and I was fascinated by the concept of the electric  starter button.

One day the doctor's pristine black Ford was parked outside the big grocer's shop in the Square.  I took the opportunity to clamber up into it and pressed firmly on the starter button. To my utter surprise,  the car  leapt forward and smashed into the plate glass windows of the grocer's shop.  There was utter chaos.   The shop assistants were screaming, people all around rushed to see what had happened - all this accompanied by my shock and tears  at the realisation of the trouble I was in. Then the doctor and my father added to the tumult. My father treated me very sternly.  I was forbidden treats and was told I must stay indoors. "


Soon after.  John Moffat's family left Earlston and moved  near Gateshead,  returning after a few years to Kelso.

Auld Earlston is very grateful to Mr Scott Aiton  and especially to Pat Stirling, John Moffat's  daughter who gave permission to quote from her father's book, for which she holds the copyright. 

Photographs are from the Auld Earlston Collection 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Travel around Earlston in Times Past.


c, 1737  - Craigsford Bridge was built over the Leader Water, carrying what was then  the main route north  and south.

1765 - The Turnpike Act authorised the planning and building of a new road from Lauder to Kelso  via Purveshaugh, near Earlston. 

1768 - A Turnpike Act provided a new road between Lauder and the Tweed at Leaderfoot, the route going by Blainslie and Craisgford to the west of Earlston. with considerable improvement to the existing route between Newtown and Jedburgh and onto Carter Bar. 

1778 - A bridge was built over the River Tweed at Leaderfoot, replacing the ferry crossing. Its narrow structure, more suited  to horses and carts, remained in use for 200 years, until  a new road bridge spanned the river in 1974.  

1795 - The first regular coach service introduced between Kelso and Edinburgh, via Smailholm and Lauder,  with a later stop  at Earlston for changing horses.  The journey initially  took 10 hours!

1830's - The "Tweedside" coach between Kelso and Edinburgh offered a daily service, leaving Edinburgh 8am. Lauder 12.30pm, Earlston 1.30pm and arriving at Kelso 2pm - a six hour journey. 

1834 - Road built between Earlston and Greenlaw.  

1849 - The Waverley Rail Line opened between Edinburgh and Hawick, extended to Carlisle in  1862. 

1850 - A new road was built following the line of the Leader Water, between Lauder and Newtown, via Earlston  (the current Thorn Street).  

1852 -  As the railways took over as a mode of travel,   the last  coach service  was withdrawn from the Borders. On country roads, the only vehicles were private carriages and farm carts. 

1863 - The Berwickshire Railway reached Earlston.  


1865 - The opening of Leaderfoot Viaduct and the completion of the Berwickshire Railway line from Reston to Newtown. 

1890's - The introduction of the "safety bicycle" brought in the first hey days of  leisure cycling. 

1890's - The Arrol-Johnston, built by George Johnston in Glasgow, was one  of the first cars ever built in the world. 

1903 - Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first powered flight. 

1931 - Earlston Aerodrome opened at Purveshaugh, with a William Rodger's plane offering  air displays and passenger flights. 
1948 - Major floods in Berwickshire restricted train traffic  through Earlston to goods only.

1965 - The Berwickshire Railway closed, as part of the Beeching cuts.  

1974  - A new concrete bridge was built over the River Tweed at Leaderfoot to take modern day A68 traffic.   


  • Borders Highway by  John J. Mackay
  • Local Newspapers