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Visiting Coldstream, Scotland, and its 18th century Bridge: historical associations bordering on the curious

Updated on February 17, 2016
Flag of Scotland
Flag of Scotland | Source
 River Tweed at Coldstream. The bridge is at the Border of Scotland and England.
River Tweed at Coldstream. The bridge is at the Border of Scotland and England. | Source
Coldstream Bridge
Coldstream Bridge | Source
Coldstream Bridge from the north bank of the Tweed
Coldstream Bridge from the north bank of the Tweed | Source
John Smeaton, Royal Society Portrait by Mather Brown
John Smeaton, Royal Society Portrait by Mather Brown | Source
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers. Kitty Hawk, NC, December 17, 1903
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers. Kitty Hawk, NC, December 17, 1903 | Source
Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Lord Home of The Hirsel
Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Lord Home of The Hirsel | Source

Over the Bridge to Scotland

"(Groan!) What a terrible pun!"

I know! I know! but at least I will try to justify the doubtful pun in the title about this Berwickshire town in the Scottish Borders Region, situated on the Tweed River marking the border between Scotland and England.

First of all, Coldstream Bridge. It is not just any bridge, but a 173 metre (567.6 feet) construction built between 1762 and 1767. The Bridge is noted for its 5 segmental arches with roundel oculi detailing. It was executed in sandstone; and improved in 1922, 1928 and 1960/61. Most of the people who over the past centuries have crossed this Bridge over the Tweed River have unremarkably gone into obscurity.

A notable exception was the famous poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), who in 1787 crossed Coldstream Bridge — his first trip to England — and did something he was good at (maybe not surprisingly): he wrote a poem to mark the occasion.

Also, at one stage of the Bridge's history, a lot of its human traffic would rapidly proceed on return journeys in the opposite direction. This was because Coldstream — like Gretna Green, to the south-west of Coldstream, just north of the border with England — was formerly a popular spot for eloping English couples to be able to marry with the minimum of bureaucracy (1) and then hurriedly return southwards over the Tweed.

Still on the subject of the Bridge, its builder is of considerable note. John Smeaton (1724-1792) was a distinguished civil engineer who gave his name to the Smeaton Coefficient (used and modified by the Wright brothers via experiments with wind tunnels). Engineer John Reid of Haddington also contributed substantially to work on the Bridge.

So if no one has yet spoken of "the Coldstream - Kitty Hawk axis", I suppose I can claim to be the first to have done so. Except that Smeaton was hardly associated uniquely with Coldstream because he was actually responsible for many well-known structures (2).

One of the town's most famous residents was a gentleman known through the course of his long life by various names. Born in 1903 and living until 1995, he owned The Hirsel, a local stately home, at the entrance of which a statue of him stands, unveiled in 1998. Among the more well known names by which he was variously known are Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Lord Home of The Hirsel. By a quirk of the British aristocratic system, a peer, or heir to a peerage, may have several, different names during the course of his (yes, usually his) life.

Lord Home wore his peerage somewhat lightly. In fact, he gave it up in 1963 (and thus became Prime Minister of Great Britain 1963-1964. When, shortly after he took Prime Ministerial office in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his and succeeding President London B. Johnson's backgrounds offered). Having become a commoner for some years, Sir Alec Douglas-Hume then consented to becoming a peer again some time later, except that having previous been the 14th Earl of Home, he later become Lord Home of the Hirsel. When the former 14th Earl of Home passed away in 1995, the Earldom, hitherto in abeyance, was deemed to have been reactivated (since in the scheme of aristocratic thought renunciation is not dissolution) and so Lord Home of The Hirsel was succeeded as Earl of Home by his son David Douglas-Home (1943-) (The 15th Earl of Home's daughter The Lady Iona Katherine Douglas-Home was to marry James Hewitt, heir to Lord Lifford, a title named for the Co. Donegal town in the Republic of Ireland which, on the banks of the Foyle River, over the border from Northern Ireland, occupies a remarkably similar situation as does Coldstream, on the banks of the Tweed, over the border from England.)

All rather curious, and one may be sure that wits in the British House of Commons would regularly tell jokes at SIr Alec Douglas-Home's expense on account of his somewhat complicated names and titles. When Harold Wilson (1916-1995), who succeeded Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minister in 1964, once famously referred to Sir Alex — after he had renounced his title — as 'the 14th Earl of Home', Sir Alex, in turn, quipped that he supposed that his interlocutor was the '14th Mr Wilson'. This final comment apparently put an end to Harold Wilson's attempts to ridicule the complicated names of the former — and future — peer.

And, oh, by the way, you say 'Hume', for the spelling 'Home'.

William Douglas-Home (1912-1992), dramatist and younger brother to Lord Home of the Hirsel, was another remarkable, local man. As well as for his over 50 plays (which often take up comical themes among the upper classes) he is remembered as the British Army officer who, in the siege of Le Havre, Normandy, France, in September 1944, refused to participate in the attack on the city because he believed the order was illegal.

The German commander in Le Havre, Colonel Hermann-Eberhard Wildermuth (later a minister in the Federal German government of Chancellor Adenauer), understanding the likely fate of many of the local, civilian population during the coming British military bombardment, repeatedly asked the British commander to allow civilians to leave the city. This repeated request was denied.

Over four nights, a huge tonnage of bombs was dropped on Le Havre, flattening a large proportion of the city, and killing at least 2000 French civilians and 19 German soldiers (3). The British military authorities court-martialed Acting Captain William Douglas-Home without even referring to the Manual of Military Law, which incorporated grounds for refusing to follow an illegal order, and sentenced him to a year's imprisonment with hard labour.

The case of William Douglas-Home's court-martial thus made the British military authorities look supercilious and callous, and made their enemy German commander look good. This, while the British authorities were shortly, at the Nuremburg War Crimes' Tribunal, to criticize German aerial bombardment of civilian populations.

In 1988, William Douglas-Home tried to re-open his court-martial conviction of 1944 at a time when the British and other governments were arguing that Austrian President Dr. Kurt Waldheim should have disobeyed Nazi German military orders to kill civilians in the Balkans (Dr. Waldheim, who served in an SS unit of the Wehrmacht in the Balkans in World War 2, was suspected of having killed civilians.) The British authorities declined to quash William Douglas-Home's court-martial conviction, while continuing to argue that Dr Waldheim should have done what the British authorities convicted William Douglas-Home of doing. (Perceptions in 1944 of superciliousness and callousness were thus not absent in 1988.) Perhaps Coldstream could stretch to a statue of William Douglas-Home as well as the one of his older brother, Lord Home of the Hirsel?

Not far from the Bridge and present in many photos taken of the Bridge, is the Marjoribanks Monument, which stands 21.3 metres high (70 feet) and dates from 1834.

Another personality associated with Coldstream was David, 1st Baron Marjoribanks (1797-1873). So was the tall, Marjoribanks Monument in Coldstream built to commemorate this prominent, local personality, the 1st Baron Marjoribanks?

Well, no, actually. It was instead built in honour of the memory of his younger brother, Charles (1794-1833) who served as Berwickshire's Member of Parliament. So maybe instead the question could be stated differently? Was the Marjoribanks Monument built to commemorate the distinguished Parliamentary career of Charles Marjoribanks?

Well, actually, no. Because it would be hard to claim that Charles Marjoibanks had a distinguished Parliamentary career. In fact, he served in the House of Commons only from 1832 until 1833.

Charles Marjoribanks's main, memorable achievement (although this is not quite the right word; 'claim to fame' would be a better term) was to have died prematurely at the age of 39. It is to be suspected that this, rather than distinction in Parliamentary affairs, drove the building of the Monument.

So the Monument may be said to be evidence that the brief, prematurely ended Parliamentary career of Charles Marjoibanks eclipsed the later elevation to the peerage of his younger brother David. This is so in a manner of speaking, although the elevation to the peerage of Charles Marjoribanks's younger brother David was to last only a few days.

The latter became 1st Baron Marjoribanks in 1873; a few days later he fell victim to a fatal street accident, having been predeceased by his sons. The title 'Baron Marjoribanks' thus lasted only a few days, before it became extinct. Not even the most avid student of Scottish and British history could claim that the title was distinguished.

And, oh, by the way, you say 'Marchbanks', for the spelling 'Marjoribanks'.

Coldstream is also famous for giving its name to the Coldstream Guards, the oldest, continuing Regiment in the British Army. A monument, the Coldstream Guards' Stone, within sight of the Bridge in Henderson Park, thus commemorates this ancient Regiment. The Coldsteam Museum in Market Square is strong on material about the Regiment (4). Interestingly, until 2009, the Coldstream Guards exercised a standing right to march through the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, near Coldstream (even though Berwick-upon-Tweed is actually in England).

Back to the bridge again. It is listed separately as a national monument in both Scotland and England: oddly but logically so, because the banks of the Tweed which it spans are of course in different jurisdictions.

Interestingly, the Tweed meanders hugely at Coldstream, leaving a tongue of Scottish territory almost completely surrounded by England. In addition, if one travels due south of Coldstream, one will eventually find oneself back in Scotland, with the famous Border winding considerably the North Sea in a generally south-westerly direction and the Solway Firth in the Irish Sea.

'Curious.' I hope I have justified the title, anyway. Another word I could have used about at least some of the Coldstream associations is 'eccentric', but, to some North Americans, Great Britain as a whole in many ways be described as endearingly — if bafflingly — eccentric.

February 17, 2016


(1) Scotland's different legal system from that of England and Wales has traditionally not required the same advance notice of forthcoming weddings.

(2) John Smeaton notably designed Perth Bridge, Aberdeen Bridge, the third Eddystone Lighthouse and many other distinguished structures.

(3) To add insult to injury, the British military authorities, using an argument from 17th century warfare, claimed that, because before the bombardment the more than 2000 French civilians might have been able to eat some of the food available to the German troops if forced by the British to remain in Le Havre, then this would potentially have hastened the surrender of the Germans in Le Havre. Therefore this mitigated any legal or moral dubiety associated with killing the civilians by bombardment after refusing repeatedly to let them leave beforehand, said the British military authorities. This argument of course ignores the fact that, instead of eating, the more than 2000 French civilians denied escape from Le Havre were about to be killed by British aerial bombardment. Meanwhile, the German garrison in Dunkirk, along the coast from Le Havre, held out until May 1945; so much for the British military authorities' use of their supposed insights into besieged cities' food supplies as the 'reason' for pulverizing 2000 French civilians. Needless to say, such supercilious dishonesty complicated post-war relations between Great Britain and France.

(4) Here, however, there may be somewhat of a Transatlantic, cultural issue. In North America, historical commemorations of people are often carried out on the grounds of what people have achieved, what they have done. This is most emphatically the case in Great Britain also, but it is probably just as true that many people have not unusually been commemorated for who they are. This arguably reveals a mindset which has had a — to some foreigners — curious consequence for British institutional and political culture. Some prominent British people, who have been inherently regarded as distinguished for who they are, as much as for what they have done, can thus concentrate on matters in hand with their interlocutors, without worrying about 'empire building' or the state of their egos. Take the words of Lord Hurd, for example, about Lord Home of The Hirsel, who has stated that Lord Home, with King Hussein of Jordan and President Nelson Mandela, was among the three most courteous people he knew, because they all possessed "ease of birth, in the sense that they never needed to worry about who they themselves were and so had more time to concern themselves with the feelings of others".

(4) See also:

Some sourcing: Wikipedia.

Map location of Scottish Borders Region
Map location of Scottish Borders Region | Source

Also worth seeing

In Coldstream itself, the Kirk in the High Street dates partly from 1718, noted for its square tower and 8 Tuscan columns; associated with the Rev. Adam Thomson, founder of Coldstream Free Bible Press in 1845; the interior contains Regimental colours; see also text, above, re. the Coldstream Museum, Henderson Park and the Coldstream Guards' Stone, the Marjoribanks Monument, and The Hirsel.

Norham, Northumberland, England (distance: approx. 12 kilometres), on the southern bank of the Tweed, has an imposing Medieval Caslte, the scene of historic sieges between opposing armies.

Edinburgh (distance: 77.7 kilometres) Scotland's impressive capital, with its Castle, Royal Mile, Scott Monument, John Knox's House, St. Giles Cathedral and many other sights, offers outstanding opportunities for visitors.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Edinburgh Airport, where car rental is available. Please note that some facilities mentioned may be withdrawn without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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