By Tim Porteus

MOTORISTS speeding home from work from Edinburgh on the A1 may sometimes notice an old beehive-shaped doo’cot on their left soon after they pass the junction for Wallyford and just before the first junction for Tranent.

The doo’cot is surrounded by a crumbling ancient wall. The doo’cot is a clue that once a residence of some significance stood here. It was called Dolphingstone Castle. Nothing now visibly remains of the castle, but around 100 years ago ruins were still to be seen.

It was at one time an elegant mansion, but before that, on the same site, an older castle once stood – now all gone, and the structures of modernity are hemming in what is left of this ancient site. A wave of new housing laps at its walls to the west, the A1 traffic roars past on its south, and roads surround it on other quarters.

One wonders if this small slice of East Lothian history will survive the developers. I hope it does. It is a small, historic fingerprint and gives a mysterious glimpse into our county’s past, in an area now being carpeted with thousands of new houses.

Earlier maps suggest that Dolphingstone Castle was surrounded by woodland. So perhaps the planting of a small wood or orchard within the old walls could create an island of both nature and history amidst the tide of urbanising development in this area.

Up above on the ridge of Falside Hill to the south, the restored Fa’side Castle looks down on the developments below (the spelling of this impressive tower is varied). It sits like an eagle perched on a high ridge, observing the land below.

How different the landscape it surveys would have been in 1540 when, according to an old story, a small force of hand-picked warriors descended from the castle under the cover of darkness.

It was just past midnight when they left, guided by a slither of moon. It was a raiding party, bent on revenge and heading for Preston Tower in what is now Prestonpans.

Tradition tells us a feud had existed between the houses of Fa’side and Preston for some years. The cause of the feud was the breaking down of walls between the two estates and the animals of each side grazing on the land of the other. Regular, and sometimes violent, clashes had taken place.

But then Hamilton of Preston’s livestock had been poisoned, or so it seemed. They had drunk from a burn which flowed from Fa’side and it was assumed the water had been deliberately poisoned. Hamilton of Preston Tower, making no investigation, sent his men on a raid of violent retribution.

Fa’side Castle was attacked and blood was shed. This was the act which the select band of warriors who had set forth from Fa’side were to avenge.

In darkness, they filed down from the ridge on a path now known as Whinney Loan. This took them down to where the new houses are now being built on the southern edge of Wallyford.

From here, great care was needed lest they be seen or heard. Dolphingstone Castle lay ahead and although their grievance was not with the occupants of Dolphingstone, early discovery could ruin the element of surprise.

So the raiders veered north of Dolphingstone, by way of Prestoungrange, and at dawn, with the smell of the salt pans in their noses, they set about their vengeful work.

Screams and running bairns alerted the occupants of Preston Tower. Armed men were ready, for this raid was expected, although not from this direction.

The walls of Preston Tower held the attackers at bay but the people of the village suffered the worst of the slaughter. What senseless violence: neighbours separated only by the brae of a hill had been whipped up into a hateful frenzy against each other. Gradually the raiders melted away, back up the hill, with blooded swords.

But hate builds on hate and the reckoning was not slow in coming. The very next day, Hamilton of Preston led a force westwards. It arrived by the walls of Dolphingstone Castle and then rounded past them to head up the hill towards Fa’side, crossing where now the A1 speeds by.

No attempt at surprise was required, this was to be an open fight. The Lord of Fa’side had arranged his men along the top of the ridge, looking down on the approaching force of Hamilton’s men. The order to charge was given and the men of Fa’side poured down the slope.

The leaders of both sides were in the thick of the fighting. It was the Lord of Fa’side who fell, pulled from his horse and hacked to death by Hamilton’s men.

Seeing the death of their leader, the men of Fa’side fled back to the castle. But the Lady of Fa’side, in shock and rage at the death of her husband, rallied the men. She led them out of the castle in a furious charge as the sun began to set, forcing Hamilton’s men to flee back to Preston.

The battle, or skirmish as some would call it, was over, and the feud had reached its bloody climax. Soon after it was discovered an infectious disease had stricken the cattle, not poisoned water. Cattle on both sides had been equally affected. No one was to blame.

How easy it had been to make enemies out of neighbours based on false assumptions. We are told Hamilton attempted to make amends. But the dead could not rise and the Lady of Fa’side was said to be devastated at the loss of her husband. We can be sure others of lesser status suffered no less.

This feud was over; little remains to record it except tradition passed down, captured and retold by 19th-century writers such as P M’Neill and Robert Seton, from whose works this account is garnished.

Preston Tower still stands in Prestonpans, in a ruined but still defiant state. Fa’side, much restored, is a visual delight still keeping watch atop the ridge. But only those feint hinds of Dolphingstone Castle remain, most of it lost to time and mystery; just like the details of this story.

But all the more reason to preserve and value them, I think.