From time to time I do venture beyond the limits of Edinburgh's bypass to other towns and villages across Scotland, and this weekend had the pleasure of visiting Cockenzie, a short drive or bus ride to the east of the city.
An historic fishing village, the area has a natural harbour which was formalised as Port Seton in the seventeenth-century. Just outside the small town is the battlefield where the Battle of Prestonpans was fought in the Jacobite uprising of 1745.
Cockenzie House and gardens have recently been transformed by the local community with a range of holiday accommodations, cafe, artists' studios, health and beauty practitioners, and space for weddings and events, all within the historic surroundings of this seventeenth-century house and gardens.
At the end of the manicured lawns is a small structure which has an unusual history. Seemingly constructed from a rough stone, it is shaped like a small castle, with the letters HECLA built into the frontage, above a small arched doorway.
The arch of the door is formed by the jawbones of a whale, and the whole grotto is constructed from volcanic rock. The Lothians area is known for its volcanic activity - with Edinburgh alone having three extinct volcanoes - but the rock here has come from rather more distant shores.
The Caddell family who owned the house initially built their fortune exporting salt from Scotland to the fishing communities of Iceland. The ships which sailed in and out of the port at Cockenzie needed rocks to provide weight which were returning from Iceland sans cargo, and so they were filled with volcanic rocks from the Icelandic shores.
Much of this hardened lava had been spewed from one of Iceland's largest volcanoes, called Hekla, or Hecla. After the ships arrived back to Cockenzie for refilling with salt, the rock was unloaded and much of it discarded into the waters or on the beaches around the area.
And so the small grotto in the grounds of Cockenzie House were built from this ballast rock, and lined on the inside with seashells gathered from the East Lothian shoreline. It's a unique feature in an historic setting, with a magical quality all of its own when lit with candles, and one of the more unusual constructions in the whole of the Lothian area.
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