THE River Tyne is one of the glories of East Lothian.

It begins as a trickling stream at Tynehead in Midlothian but for most of its course it travels through East Lothian, arriving at the sea by Belhaven Bay. In between it meanders through our county, often disappearing from sight, then appearing again. It flows past castles, towns and villages, feeds ancient sacred wells, and is crossed by bridges both modern and ancient.

It has been a silent witness to so much of our history. It has seen all the extremes of human behaviour, the violence of war and the passion of love. We walk by it with our dogs, play by it with our children, sit by it to watch swans, stand by it for hours trout fishing.

It has been a source of communication and defence, it has provided power for countless mills, it has been a source of both life and death, enterprise and destruction.

Yet I suspect most of us know the river only partially. We are familiar with the sections we spend time by, but the bits before and after remain a mystery. Indeed, even the sections we know most likely have unnoticed remains of past activity.

So just like a person with many friends, the River Tyne reveals different moods and personalities to different people, and few know it completely. But what a challenge for a storyteller to tell the tale of this remarkable river, or rather the tales the river can tell us.

And so it is my intention before the summer is out to do just that: to chart the course of the river not just through the geography of East Lothian, but also through the identity of our county. If you have a tale to tell about the river then please get in touch, or come join me on the journey.

I speak of the River Tyne because today’s tale is centred around a moment when the Tyne revealed its dangerous side.

It was October 4, 1775 and it had been raining for hours. It was the type of rain that came down in bucketloads, a sustained downpour.

From his window, Donald Cameron could see the Tyne. He had seen rain like this many times before, as he was from the north-west Highlands. However, in the 30 years he had been living at Clerkington, just a mile or so from Haddington town, he had never seen such a downpour.

He was in a deep melancholy mood, not because of the weather. One of his beloved daughters, Matilda, lay sleeping the eternal sleep in her coffin in the mansion. The arrangements for the funeral were all laid, last farewells had been said, but now the weather had interrupted plans.

The river had already burst its banks and Donald watched helplessly as floodwater approached the house.

Downriver, in Haddington itself, chaos was turning into panic. The waters rushed the town like a tsunami.

The Nungate was utterly flooded, people were up to their armpits with filthy muddy water. Some began scrambling onto the rooftops for safety.

One mother picked up her six-year-old daughter, but fearing the waters would sweep both her and her daughter away, she placed her child in a wooden kist, which floated like an unsteady life raft. Many years later, when that young girl was an old woman, she still remembered every detail of that day and her journey in the kist. Her name was Tibbie Instant, and people never tired of hearing the tale.

Soon those who had sought refuge on rooftops began to witness the floating results of the flood. Chunks of the Chinese bridge from downriver began floating past. The damhead at Lang Cram was swept away, and water invaded surrounding fields.

The first casualties began to float by. A young lad on a rooftop called out: “Look, wha’s that? It’s deid!” Everyone on the roof screwed their eyes to see what it was, then watched in silence as a dead cow floated by.

In the streets of the town, people’s belongings from houses were floating about.

Chicken kept by people had their own escape plans as they had perched on carts. Now these carts were swirling about in the floodwater, with the chickens clucking and gripping on for life. The carts were now chicken lifeboats and provided a comical spectacle in a scene otherwise full of real panic.

Deep below St Mary’s, even the dead were disturbed by the floodwaters. The Lauderdale Aisle was filled with water and the coffin containing John, the notorious Duke of Lauderdale, was lifted out of its place and span round in the confines of the aisle, as if in a slow moving washing machine, later to be rested in a haphazard position. People later would say that he deserved such treatment because of his sins, while others said that the Devil had moved the coffin. Maybe they were not too wrong, as on this day the River Tyne was acting like one.

As the debris continued to pass it became clear that Haddington had been wrecked further downstream as well. One of the mills had been completely engulfed and swept away, and Clerkington, where Donald Cameron had been watching the waters reach his house, was now engulfed.

Some people here also had to clamber onto rooftops as household goods floated away. But in all this chaos one event seems to have gone unreported.

Donald Cameron could do nothing to save his house. The floodwaters invaded and soon he found himself up to his waist.

Then he suddenly realised that his daughter’s coffin was in danger. He waded to the room where she was at rest, but was just too late. He saw it leave the room by way of the window, taken by the swirling hands of the River Tyne.

It joined the other floating victims of the flood and Donald watched helplessly as the floodwaters took his beloved daughter downstream.

Donald was an old man by this time. He had been a Jacobite fugitive. What a historian’s dream if he had told his life story, for he had been a close and trusted member of the Cameron Clan, a relative of the chief, Locheil. His two sons lay on Culloden but he had managed to survive the retributions of Cumberland and had lived quietly by the banks of the Tyne for 30 years.

By the end of the day, one of the great floods of the Tyne was over. People returned to their homes to count the cost. To commemorate the event, a plate was put up at the Custom Stone declaring: “On the fourth day of October 1775, the River Tyne at 3 o’clock afternoon, rose to this plate.” And folk gave thanks that nobody lost their life. Although this was not entirely true, because on this day of the great flood, October 4, 1775, Donald Cameron finally left this world. The sight of his daughter’s coffin floating on the floodwater was just too much for this old Jacobite warrior.