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Smoke and Mirrors - The Waggonway, William Adam and Archibald Robertson

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

On 29th August 1727 William Adam signed an agreement with the York Buildings Company granting him the tenancy of the coal and salt works at Tranent and Cockenzie for 12 years with the option of terminating the agreement at the end of each three years. and he decided to do so after nine years. He notified the York Buildings Company in March 1736.

Adam’s decision gave rise to a large bundle of legal documents resulting from various hearings. Initially the York Buildings Company went to court to ask that a roup (auction) of the tenancy should be held in a legal setting, saying that they could not let it privately. The court agreed and set a date for the auction but then, in typical YBC fashion, they did do a private deal and let it to a Francis Grant.

There were further legal arguments culminating in the decision that a roup should take place as legally agreed. It was advertised in the Caledonian Mercury on 26 August 1736 as due to take place on 9th September 1736. However, it actually happened on 28 September when the winning bid was placed by a John Baird!

It then transpired that John Baird was acting on behalf of Archibald Robertson and the five year tenancy was duly transferred to Robertson on 15 October 1736. He agreed to pay £460 sterling annually (in today’s money that’s about £50k !!!) and there is a lengthy document setting out the conditions he had to meet.

These conditions included care of the waggon way:

“That whatever method is taken for carrying down the coals from the coal pitts to the salt works The Tacksman oblige himself to leave the waggon way waggons and Trunks at the pans in as good condition at the end of the tack as they are at his entry thereto with no less quantity of oak timber than is now contained in them. And particularly that he be obliged to keep and leave not only the timber of the waggon way but also the breadth of the earthen road on both sides of the way which supports the timber sleepers and raills and at the narrowest place to keep and leave them two foot of well rammed earth on each side of the raills of the said waggon road.”

Archibald Robertson was described in a document dated 22 May 1735 as ‘Coallmaster in Tranent’ so it appears that he was working for William Adam (also his brother-in-law) at the time he took over the tenancy of the Tranent and Cockenzie coal and salt works from him.

These legal arguments and devious dealings seem to be typical of the York Buildings Company operations and it is interesting that Archibald Robertson’s identity was concealed until after the deal was done.


Jill Turnbull & Ed Bethune


National Records of Scotland



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