ALAN slowly brushed away the top soil of what at first looked like a normal cobble stone. Then, as he worked his trowel carefully, two holes were revealed.

Nothing spectacular about that you might think; but the revelation suddenly transformed the image of an area I had known since early childhood.

We were at Cockenzie Harbour and Alan Braby is an archaeologist who will be leading a dig at the harbour next month. He and local rail historian Ed Bethune are looking forward to welcoming families to the dig and related activities at nearby Cockenzie House. I spent many hours of my childhood and even some more recent times fishing at Cockenzie Harbour. But in this moment of revelation, I suddenly saw the place with new eyes, for just under our feet lay a fascinating story to discover.

Concrete has been overlaid, covering the old cobble stones which still lie beneath, but in the places where the concrete has broken away and where soil and earth cover the old cobbled surface, archaeology is revealing a fascinating and vibrant past.

The stone with two holes which Alan uncovered is an early kind of sleeper for a rail track; not just any rail track but one of the earliest railways ever to be built in Britain.

It was built in 1722 and connected the coal pits of Tranent with the harbour at Port Seton, and re-routed to Cockenzie by the Cadells in1815. Wagons laden with coal used to trundle down the hill from Tranent, on a railway initially made of wood. There was no need to pull the wagons; gravity did that!

I have images of a wild rollercoaster ride down the hill, with a young man holding onto the brake handle. Did they ever have time to notice the views as they careered downwards? Probably not, as their eyes would have been on the screeching and smoking brakes.

They must have been skilled in not going too fast, yet also avoiding over-braking as the wagon approached the harbour. I think it would have been a sought-after job; much more fun than being down the darkness of the pit. The sight and sound of all this today would seem incredibly dangerous and exciting, an industrial-themed, hair-raising park ride, without the health and safety precautions!

Yet for generations, the sound and sight of the coal wagons coming down the hill from Tranent to rest at Port Seton and later at Cockenzie would have been more commonplace than the arrival of the 26 bus is today.

And the evidence of all this is there to be discovered, which is what will happen during the Waggonway archaeological dig taking place September 1 to 10. The dig is open to the public and families are invited to take part in uncovering the story of this ancient railway, which the Jacobites actually ran across as they charged the Redcoats in 1745!

Sadly, little is really known of the people who lived and worked on or by the Waggonway, but there is one glimpse into the short life of a lad called James Paterson. He was the son of a blacksmith in Cockenzie.

The village’s rocky shore will have been his early playground and the sound of the wagons rumbling by, mixed with the clanging of anvil and hammer, was the background music of his short life. All around him was belching smoke and smells as the salt panners and fishermen plied their trade.

No one can now say what exactly happened on that day, August 27, 1762. Sometime during that day a wagon, fully laden with coal, began its journey down the hill. Did it go faster than usual, or was it slower and so perhaps quieter? Its journey towards the coast was a fateful one for, as it approached Port Seton, the young James Paterson was about to lose his life.

Did he not see it coming or hear its approach? Whatever the reason, James was hit by the wagon and “bruised”. The description of his injuries suggests that the poor lad didn’t die instantly. He may have lingered on the edge of life for some time before finally passing away. The day after he died he was laid to rest at Tranent.

Such are the bare recorded facts. His parents’ tears go unrecorded, yet they must have been shed at this tragic loss of a young son. It would have been no consolation had they known that their son’s death was an historic event.

It was Ed Bethune who uncovered this story and he told me: “I think it’s very possible that James was struck by a wagon coming down the slope at the harbour, perhaps in the process of retrieving something he had dropped on the line, but whatever happened, one thing is pretty certain: James’ death is the first recorded death on any railway in the world.”

Tim will be telling stories about the Waggonway and the salt-making which used the coal during the weekends of the dig.