Ancient Dunbar

Sitting away to the far east of East Lothian, is the remains of a very ancient fort and port, which has been at the heart of power struggles for almost 1,000 years. Its strategic position at the mouth of the mighty Firth of Forth, from where access by sea to the capital Edinburgh was controlled, was both its making and its undoing. Nowadays it is a quiet almost forgotten backwater, but in its day this castle was host to a great many battles and sieges, and played host to the infamous Mary Queen of Scots on several pivotal occasions. Leaving the old market at the heart of the town, you can turn down towards the harbour, moving from Georgian elegance into the familiar red pan tile roofs which scatter both sides of this wide estuary.

The salt air catches on your lips and the air fills with gull calls, mixed with the wild crash of waves on gnarled rocks. Each step down towards the harbour leads through unpeeling layers of history, which seem to push in vying for attention. To the right a huge and very ugly modern swimming pool dominates the skyline, and with its views out across the cliffs and over the Firth, it must be one of the most scenically placed pools in the country. I know it’s just the latest layer of human occupation, but I do feel sad thinking of the ancient graveyard which lay below. Rescue archaeology of the site uncovered hundreds of medieval cist burials, before the pool was constructed in the late 1980’s. 

 It is thought that occupation of this site reaches right back into the Brythonic past of this land. This might have been the port which served the Goddodin royal fort of Trapain, which is clearly visible from the headland. Part of the ancient British lands known as “The Old North” in the oldest known poetry of these isles, there are tales as old as time told of the heroic fighters, generous gold clad kings and magical Druids who once lived here. Their stories whirl in the wind and waves,  whispering long lost secrets from the crumbling sandstone walls. 

 Tales of heroic maidens, like Black Agnes, who held out against invading armies, and of Lords with nicknames like ‘Blackbeard’, spiral out on the sea breeze. The fortunes of the town have risen and fallen with astonishing pace over the centuries, sitting as it does in one of the most contended pieces of land in the country. Meanwhile its less heroic and dramatic inhabitants have continued to go about their lives,  walking the old cobblestones, tasting the salt spray in the air and hearing the gulls singing their tales into the wild North Sea winds. Castles like Dunbar may rise and fall over and over, but life goes on shifting and changing often in smaller less obvious ways, which never make it into the magical tales we tell. 

 You can find a beautiful drawing of what the castle might have looked like before it crumbled into ruin here.

And you can read more about the fascinating layers of Dunbars history here.

About greenmackenzie

Hi, I'm Seonaid, and I share my home on the shores of Loch Ness deep in the Scottish Highlands with my husband, my son and a couple of dogs. I love art which is here now and gone food and nature...but also have a passion for vintage and the ancient past! Nature is my favourite muse, with her wild ever shifting seasons. I have been using and teaching mindfulness and relaxation for over 12 years, and have yet to become any sort of expert :-) I'm a Psychotherapist and Cancer Support Specialist in Maggies Highlands
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42 Responses to Ancient Dunbar

  1. pommepal says:

    I am always overwhelmed at the depth of history in all of UK.

  2. LB says:

    My visit to your blog today began with the Swan Girl post. In an effort to learn more about the statue, I came here, and then followed the link to learn about the castle.
    Fascinating history, wonderful photos, love the Swan Girl

  3. emmylgant says:

    I want to hear the whispers of the sea and the tales carved into the rocks. .. gorgeous.

  4. PS I thought your photographs of the place were great.

  5. My mum used to go on holiday in Dunbar, she told me how she and her Nanny used to get there before the rest of the family and get the place warmed up – also how she used to put pennies on the railway line so that the trainswould squash them into the rails. Other days, other times. Your post made me look up the house in Dunbar and I found a picture of it, looks very couthy to me….

    • I can imagine holidays here in the past would have been quite wonderful….to be beside the sea for a summer holiday always brings something magical….a proper escape from the ordinary! Perhaps you will visit Dunbar to see it now…it’s not too far from you😊💕

  6. I’ve never seen a place with such photographic potential. Your images did it justice. D

    • Thanks David, it was hard to get the usual sort of angles I would go for, as the ruined castle is unstable, and fenced off. It makes getting close difficult, and I could see some lovely potential shots, but just couldn’t get in!!

  7. Perhaps all of you are descended from Black Agnes, Blackbeard and the rest. Ready to rise up and stave off an invasion. 🙂 You’re heroes in waiting.

  8. Awesome photos. I’d love to see it in person some day. Thanks for sharing.

  9. gwynnrogers says:

    Seonaid I LOVE the heart that the sea carved out of the stone in your last picture. I have a love for the sea too. You are surrounded by a wealth of history. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Robin says:

    Beautiful and informative post, Seonaid. 🙂 Dunbar seems familiar, but I can’t remember if I was there or not on my trips to Scotland. Those trips have become something of a blur now. It seems long ago, and we always tried to see and do so much in the short time we had there.

    • It’s always the way isn’t it Robin…when you’re somewhere for a short time it’s hard to decide what to do…and what to miss…so the trips are usually very packed😊 Dunbar is quite like a few East coast towns….so who knows😆✨

  11. Suzanne says:

    How fascinating. We don’t see those layers of history in the built environment over here. There is something compelling about such places. Walking through time to discover ancient secrets is a powerful experience.

    • Suzanne says:

      I am really sorry to muck you round but I couldn’t get the blog I set up yesterday to work properly. Maybe it was because the name was too negative 🙂 I have set up a new blog that reflects the blogging direction I want to take more – Photography Plus Blog at I have deleted the other blog – you were the only follower so thank you very much. Thank you for your patience while I worked out my new creative direction.

    • I agree Suzanne….it’s like walking back into the tangible past, feeling it through the lived senses…..something I love to do, and can’t help!

  12. smackedpentax says:

    This is a great post – it reminds me quite a bit of Whitby in North Yorkshire – with the houses by the sea, the ruins (in Whitbys case Whitby Abbey) and the cemetery, and of course the legends 🙂

  13. restlessjo says:

    I was in Culross on another post just a little while ago, and discovered that I’ve been pronouncing it wrong all along 😦 I really must get up the east coast some time, Seonaid. 🙂

  14. Su Leslie says:

    Thanks Seonaid for lovely photos and a really interesting post. I’m ashamed to say that before I read it, if you’d asked me where Dunbar is, I’d have had to guess. And I call myself a Scot! I’ve realised that East Lothian is a sort of black hole in my mental geography of Scotland.

  15. ladyfi says:

    I can feel the history!

  16. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Is this real, they’ve built a swimming pool over an ancient burial ground? I can’t believe it!

    • Sadly it’s true Gilly. This area is full of very ancient sites….Scotland’s oldest known house ( around 8,000 years old!!) was uncovered just down the road. Recently they built public toilets in another part of the ancient graveyard!!

  17. I know that pool, and it has a lot to answer. Or rather town planning does. Still, Dunbar is a good place to able around. Thanks for all of the history. I knew none of it, Seonaid!

  18. Amy says:

    Your beautiful photos responded to “Their stories whirl in the wind and waves… “

  19. icelandpenny says:

    How the old brick glows in the sunlight!

  20. Rachael says:

    An excellent and informative piece of writing. The links are very useful too, particularly on Early History, which interests me a lot 🙂

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