NOT long ago, I acquired a postcard depicting ‘Johnstone’s Close’ in Dunbar.

It was easy to establish that no such close existed today, or indeed in recent years; nor was there any reliable information, on the internet or elsewhere, to establish where it had once been.

Here was a mystery!

A vital clue is provided by Wood’s 1830 map of Dunbar, showing the 11th house from the north in the eastern terrace of High Street as belonging to ‘Mrs Dr Johnston’; next to it is a close leading from High Street to Castle Street.

The Johnstons were an old Dunbar family, known since the early 18th century.

The baker Robert Johnston [1730?-1798] is recorded to have lived on High Street, with his shop on the ground floor and his bakehouse and brewhouse accessed through the close adjacent to the house.

He was a man of some wealth and distinction, serving as Provost of Dunbar from 1789 until 1791.

His brother John Johnstone [1731-1798], a Belhaven brewer, also served in the town council, as burgh treasurer.

After the death of Robert Johnston in 1798, his premises on High Street were inherited by his nephew Dr Alexander Johnston [1756-1822], who had become a surgeon in the Royal Navy as a young man and seen action afloat.

He was back in Dunbar before 1790, married Isabel Howdon and had a son who died young and at least four daughters.

Two of the daughters also died young, but his second daughter, Isabella Jane, married the Glasgow man Archibald Geddes in 1822 and lived until 1869, and his youngest daughter Eliza married the Coldstream surgeon Matthew Turnbull in 1842.

For many years, Dr Alexander Johnston practised in Dunbar from his house on High Street.

By all accounts, he was a good and popular doctor, publishing a case report about a lethal case of rabies but otherwise doing little that was interesting or newsworthy.

Like his father and uncle, he served on the town council, first as treasurer while his uncle was Provost, and later as Provost himself.

Dr Alexander Johnston died in 1822.

His will, kept in the National Archives at Kew [PROB 11/1666/90] shows that he had been a wealthy man, leaving his house and effects to his widow, with smaller legacies to old navy friends and political colleagues.

His inventory at Edinburgh Sheriff Court [SC70/1/28] shows that many people (patients?) owed him money, to a total of more than £561.

Mrs Isobel Johnston lived in the house from 1822 until her own death in December 1839, aged 80; she was thus with certainty the ‘Mrs Dr Johnston’ listed on Wood’s map.

As we know, Dr Johnston had no male heir and his two married daughters had moved away from Dunbar. In the valuation rolls of 1855, the heirs of Mrs Johnston are listed as the owners of the old shop and house, with 12 families living in Johnston’s Close, all as tenants of the heirs.

Johnston’s Close was irregularly mentioned in the newspapers in Victorian times, mostly due to the occasional low-level criminality of its inhabitants: they drunk and caroused, kept unlicensed dogs and refused to send their children to school.

Already by the 1890s, the adulterated spelling ‘Johnstone’s Close’ was in use.

The 1900 valuation rolls has the shoemaker Robert Heugh as the proprietor of Johnston’s Close at 123 High Street, with not less than 19 families living in what was now fast becoming one of the slums of Dunbar.

The 1911 Census shows that Robert Heugh himself lived in one of the hovels at Johnston’s Close, with his wife Isabella and two grown-up children.

The photograph reproduced here shows that he had his bootmaker’s shop on the ground floor of Dr Johnston’s old house, sharing it with the hairdresser J.A. Law.

Next door is a fish restaurant run by Mr E.T. Aldridge. Since Robert Heugh died in 1918, the valuation rolls of 1920 have Johnston’s Close at 123 High Street belonging to his trustees, with Mrs Isabella Heugh, widow, still living there.

By this time, several of the old hovels stood empty, since nobody would live in such unpromising accommodation.

The 1925 valuation rolls show that Johnston’s Close had been purchased by the Burgh of Dunbar, but there were still some people living there, one of them the shoemaker Archibald Heugh, the son of Robert.

But the Burgh had not purchased Johnston’s Close for the purpose of restoring or improving it, but to carry out an ‘Improvement Scheme’ to erase Dr Johnston’s house and Johnston’s Close from the map of Dunbar.

And indeed, demolition work began in 1925 and the old close soon was no more. Dr Johnston’s house and the fish restaurant were also flattened, and a new house stood at the site in 1928 according to a plaque on its front façade.

My postcard, published in the early 1920s by A.R. Edwards of Selkirk, from an older photograph, probably aimed to record an image of one of Dunbar’s quaint closes before it was destroyed.

To paraphrase the great Betjeman:

Farewell, Johnston’s Close!

Those who knew you are sorry

They carted you off on developer’s lorry!