By Tim Porteus

ON THE edge of East Lothian, Dunglass Burn flows to the sea, having carved a dramatic ravine that forms the border between our county and Berwickshire.

This natural wonder is often missed by those speeding along the main A1, crossing over the modern bridge.

I have written previously about the bridges here and the walk to the sea that takes you under them, and past the oldest one. This is a fascinating and picturesque structure from the 17th century, which lies semi-hidden amongst the trees that cling onto the steep sides of the slope.

Dunglass is such a beautiful area, and the ancient Dunglass Collegiate Church, dating from the 15th century, is one of its architectural jewels. It’s open to the elements now, but well preserved and a popular place for weddings.

The castle that once stood nearby is long gone. A more modern house sits on the spot where a mansion once stood, and before that the castle. Being on the main route south, the castle inevitably saw action during the various times of war with England, being burned and damaged on a number of occasions in the 1500s.

But in August 1640, the castle was effectively blown up in a huge explosion, and a version of events emerged which placed the blame on a vengeful servant called Edward Paris.

It was a time of war and religious rage. Thomas the 2nd Earl of Haddington was leading a Covenanting force charged with defending this important route from the south, as the Covenanting army had entered England a few days earlier. He had established his force at Dunglass Castle, an obvious strategic location, to defend the army’s rear.

On that fateful day, August 30, 1640, he was said to be in conversation with some fellow nobles when a huge explosion erupted from the vaults, instantly demolishing the central part of the castle which became little more than a pile of debris.

Thomas and many others were killed, their bodies pulled from the rubble. They had been crushed by the collapse of the walls in the explosion.

History has repeatedly recorded the names of the nobles killed on that day, but there were many others, as the castle was busy and full of people. Fifty-four unnamed ‘common servants’ were killed, and more than 30 other people badly injured, some later dying of their injuries.

Edward Paris was Thomas’s servant and he has been blamed for this tragedy. The 19th-century writer Andrew Stevenson claimed Edward had the keys to the vault in which huge amounts of gunpowder had been stored, and he had been “seduced” by the enemies of the covenant to commit this act. He was an Englishman and another account says he was incensed at derogatory remarks made by Thomas about his countrymen.

I’ve always thought this explanation never really had the ring of truth. It was initially deemed an accident, and the story of Edward’s role emerged later, instigated by a writer called William Lithgow, a man who had certain axes to grind. In one account, Edward is said to have thrust a hot poker into the gunpowder or set fire to it. The detail of this is suspect in itself, for who survived as a witness to this act? I suspect that a dreadful accident, possibly caused by incompetence and carelessness, was turned into a deliberate act of vengeance as it made a more useful explanation.

Of course, it is very possible that Edward was offended or annoyed at things said by his master, and perhaps he mentioned this at some stage, later to be used as evidence of his guilt. But in truth, most servants will have seen or heard things which will have offended them, it was a part of their job.

Imagine if servants had been able to write and publish the things they had overheard and seen, what different historical narratives we would have!

Motives for wanting to interpret the cause of the explosion in this way can be guessed at. It was a time of atrocity and massacre, with religious, political and national hatreds. Who was responsible for the dangerous stockpiling of the gunpowder in such a manner? It seems just too easy to blame a disgruntled servant. Even later, when writing up this period, religious and political loyalties influenced interpretation.

If Edward Paris really did venture down to the vaults of Dunglass Castle on that fateful day, with the intention of committing suicide in order to kill his master, along with dozens of others, then he must have been infected with a deep hatred, as well as a total disregard for the lives of his fellow servants and his own.

The truth is we will never know what really happened. But Edward Paris is a servant whose name we know. Countless numbers of so-called ‘common servants’ whose lives and fates are deemed unimportant by history remain unrecorded; just as the things they witnessed remain absent from our history books.

I’ve often thought it would be fascinating to meet Edward’s ghost and ask him what really happened on that day.

Silly idea, of course, but you never know.