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.