East Lothian – A History Hunter’s Heaven

You never know when the mood to go history hunting will strike. In these tentative days of mid-Spring, when the skies vacillate between grey fury and heavenly blue, the fear of missing out is real and every opportunity to explore is one not to be missed.

I can easily lose myself for hours in maps and timetables while planning the Next Big Adventure – perhaps you do the same – and it’s always tempting to cast my eyes to the wild, far flung corners of the map. However, as I live in Edinburgh, there is one option I turn to time and time again which boasts an extraordinary amount of history and natural beauty all while being close enough to home to not think twice before heading out the door. I’m talking about East Lothian!

Tantallon 5

 

For years East Lothian has been my go-to place for impulsive adventures, and some of my favourite castles in all Scotland – including Tantallon and Yester – can be found nestled amongst its rolling hills, coastal crags and river valleys. So it was with the sort of delight that comes with seeing an old friend that I set out with the Scotlanders to share a selection of East Lothian’s historic wonders with the world on 21-22 April. You can see all the content we produced over those two days by following #eastlothian across social media, especially on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Periscope.

As always, my journey was powered entirely by sustainable transport. I cycled most of the way, with East Lothian being absolutely brilliant in terms of being accessible to all levels of cyclists while offering enough variety to never be boring. When my calves called out for relief I hopped aboard East Coast Buses, who run regular services throughout the region and direct from Edinburgh city centre. One of the reasons I laud East Lothian so much is because of this accessibility, so if you have a tight budget or depend on public transport (or both – hello!), you’ve got no excuse not to get out there. Much of my journey was done by cycling directly along or beside the John Muir Way, fitting since conservation of the natural world was John Muir’s life work. Exploring some of Scotland’s most interesting historic sites while flanked by beaches and with not a bit of harm done to the planet; now that’s the right way to travel.  

 

Chesters Hill Fort

2,000 years ago the area we call the Lothians was dominated by a network of hill forts whose beacon fires could raise an alarm from the Borders to the Tay. These fortified settlements are now visible only as ridges, mounds and faint lines in the landscape, their timber walls and roundhouses long since vanished to the naked eye. Chesters Hill Fort is one such place, and while at first glance there doesn’t seem much to behold a simple walk around is all it takes for ramparts, moats and chiefly halls to take shape in your imagination and under your feet.

 

 

The siting of Chesters is a bit of a mystery, since one of the first things you’ll notice are high hills immediately to the south which make Chesters vulnerable to attack. It’s possible that Chesters was an outpost of another settlement, perhaps the regional capital of Traprain Law, or simply that defence was not the inhabitant’s main priority. No systematic archaeology has taken place at Chesters yet, so perhaps answers still await us under the surface.

 

St Martin’s Kirk

The 12th century was a time of religious revolution in Scotland. The Canmore kings such as Alexander I, David I and Malcolm IV built on the legacy of their mother, St Margaret, by leading the Scottish church further from its Celtic origins and towards Rome. Many of Scotland’s great abbeys, including Dunfermline, Melrose, Paisley and Arbroath, were built during this time. St Martin’s Kirk in Haddington, while not as grand as an abbey, is a remarkable survivor from this formative period in Scotland’s story.

A part of the great complex of St Mary’s Cistercian Nunnery, the kirk provided services for the people of Haddington. One of those people, zooming forward to the 16th century, was a young John Knox, the man who would grow up to form the tip of the spear of the Protestant Reformation.

 

St Martins Kirk

 

St Martin’s Kirk was one of a few stops I made by bus rather than cycle, with my legs on day two being very amendable to letting someone else do the work. It’s just a 10 minute ride from East Linton, which also has several historic treasures such as Markle Castle, Preston Mill & Phantassie Doocot and even a large standing stone to discover. 

 

Hailes Castle

 The 13th through mid-14th centuries are regarded as the ‘golden age’ of castle building in Scotland, with massive curtain-walled castles being built by the great baronial magnates and families across the land. Hailes Castle is one of the oldest of these great keeps, dating from the 1240s and remaining one of the most impressive major castles in the Lothians. The de Gourlay family, who built the castle, were stripped of their lands by Robert Bruce after Bannockburn for supporting the English, s it passed to the Hepburns.

 


If that name sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Mary, Queen of Scots. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was her third husband – which was rather awkward as he was involved in the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley. This proved too much for Scotland’s lairds to tolerate, and Mary was soon captured and forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI. Before it all went awry, however, Mary and Bothwell spent the night of the May 5th at Hailes, ill-fated lovers in a dangerous time.  

 

Dirleton Castle

The seaside town of North Berwick is flanked by two of the greatest castles in the Lowlands, Dirleton and Tantallon. Dirleton Castle is the older of the two, dating to the 13th century. Its design was inspired by that of the Chateau de Coucy in Picardy, France, with castle architecture being a sort of international language in the medieval period.

 


At Dirleton I met up with Andrew Spratt, historical reconstruction illustrator and walking encyclopedia of castles, weapons, armour and medieval battle tactics. Dressed in full armour and wearing the deceptively cute but dreaded bloody heart of the Black Douglases, he told me tales of the castle and showed off its still-functional ‘defensive toilets’. See for yourself in the live video below. Dirleton is a must-see for castle lovers in East Lothian, and is easily accessible by public transport with regular East Coast buses running to and from North Berwick and Edinburgh straight to the castle’s gates.

 

Tantallon Castle

Lumbering into the 14th century is Tantallon Castle, the last great curtain wall castle in Scotland and without a doubt one of the most formidable fortresses in all the land. Until the refinement of gunpowder artillery in the 17th century Tantallon stood impregnable, its unbelievably tall and thick wall shielding repelling tens of thousands of men on several occasions. It’s so tough that an old rhyme mocked the futility of attacking it:

Ding doon Tantalloun, ding doon Tantalloun,
Build a brig to the Bass

If you don’t know already, Bass Rock is the huge volcanic plug over a mile out to sea beyond Tantallon. The rhyme is saying you’re more likely to build a bridge out to Bass Rock than get into Tantallon uninvited.

 

 

With breathtaking views atop the 90ft-tall wall and enough bloody tales to fill several volumes of Horrible Histories, Tantallon is quite simply one of the most impressive castles in Scotland. I’ve been over ten times, and each time the excitement doesn’t fade in the slightest.

 

Redhouse Castle, Auldhame Castle and Saltcoats Castle

 

I stopped off at four ‘bonus’ castles during our two days in East Lothian, an three of them are products of 16th century. Redhouse Castle lives up to its name, built in distinctively red sandstone just east of Longniddry. Saltcoats Castle is a quirky castle in Gullane, with a great archway more reminiscent of a cathedral than a castle. It reminded me of a less menacing Hermitage Castle, though Saltcoats is guarded by a rather formidable wall of nettles so beware! Auldhame is something of a secret castle, nestled in the woods a mile from Tantallon.

 

Preston Market Cross & Preston Tower

Preston Market Cross

 

Hidden Gems are the name of the game in East Lothian, and the first such site I visited can be found barely five minutes’ walk from Prestonpans rail station. Preston Market Cross was the centre of civic life in the now-vanished town of Preston, and is the finest example of its kind having remained in its original place since 1617. Market (or Mercat) Crosses were public spaces, a sort of medieval take on the ancient Greek agora where people came together to talk, trade and hear the latest news from across the realm.

 

 

The Hamilton family had been powerful in the area for generations when they built the Market Cross, and their stronghold is a literal stone’s throw away. Preston Tower is what I call a ‘backyard castle’, the 15th century tower now surrounded by modern housing. It was burnt in 1543 during the infamous ‘Rough Wooing’, in which English forces under Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford devastated settlements from the Borders to the Forth. It was rebuilt, only to fall again – like so many other castles – to Cromwell in the wake of the Second Battle of Dunbar in 1650. Note the wee teddy sporting the John Muir Tartan, specially created by Gordon Nicolson Kiltmakers in Edinburgh to celebrate John Muir Day (April 21st). 

 

Fenton Tower

By the end of day one I had cycled over 40 miles in what, for Scotland, was scorching heat, and was very ready to fall down and not get back up for a solid eight or nine hours. But when there’s a castle just around the corner, the castle hunter can never rest! Knowing Fenton Tower was a mere mile and a half away, I saddled up again. It’s a beautifully situated pink harled, 16th century tower with its own loch and commanding views over the rolling East Lothian countryside.

 

 

Glenkinchie Distillery

After two days of constant adventuring the team had worked up quite a thirst. Luckily Glenkinchie Distillery has been operating in East Lothian since 1837, and while I had some snobbish suspicions about the tenacity of a Lowland whisky my doubts were quickly cast aside by a top-notch tour and some scrumptious single malts. For the life of me, after six or seven distillery tours I still can’t tell you how the stuff is made but I’m damn glad they make it.

 

Glenkinchie 2

 

The whiskies we tried were fuller and had more depth than I’d anticipated, and in terms of palette I’d place Glenkinchie closer to a Highand style malt as it generally lacks the sharp finishing note that many Speyside malts carry. I’m no connoisseur by any stretch, but I’ll definitely order it in a pub some time soon and that’s my infallibly scientific litmus test when tasting a new whisky. This was our final stop, and there are certainly worse ways to conclude a campaign!

 

 

Skipping forward into the 21st century, every good castle hunter needs fuel and a place to put their head down at the end of a long day. We ate at several local establishments over the two days, all of which were top notch. I grew up in Nova Scotia, arguably the seafood capital of the world, so when I say I love lobster I really, really love lobster. I also love sustainably sourced food, and I got my fill of both at The Lobster Shack. The half lobster I scarfed down while enjoying the sun setting over the idyllic harbour was easily the best I’ve had so far in Scotland. They also take sustainable practices seriously, with almost everything being recyclable and a breeding programme that sees thousands of lobsters released into the sea every year. If you’re hungry in North Berwick and want the sea air in your lungs, this is the place to be.

 

 

All the Scotlanders assembled at the Waterside Bistro in the heart of historic Haddington, a lovely spot for adventurers and families alike right alongside the River Tweed. St Martin’s Kirk and St Mary’s are both within easy walking distance, though I wouldn’t fault you for just lingering by the river with a good glass of wine and hearty fare to hand. 

 

Waterside Bistro

 

We spent the night in North Berwick at Gilsland Park, and when I heard I would be staying in a ‘glamping pod’ I admit I shuddered a bit (not that I’m high maintenance, far from it – just at the word ‘glamping’). But don’t knock it ’til you tried it! I adored the pods, as they were perfect for adventure-seeking travelers like me who want comfort but no fuss. I’m actually so keen on the idea now after having stayed at Gilsland that I plan on booking similar pods wherever possible on future castle hunting trips. 

 

 

Disclaimer: This adventure was a sponsored campaign with the Scotlanders travel blogging group, which I’ve been a part of for several years. We received funding for our coverage of attractions in East Lothian, and were able to stay and eat in the area free of charge thanks to the participation of local businesses in the #eastlothian campaign. With only a few exceptions I had already visited the sites we covered in my own leisurely time and have returned to several of them over and over again because I genuinely love East Lothian. I’m proud to promote all the sites listed in this post, and would only recommend them to you if I genuinely enjoyed them myself – which, going by the selfies I took, is hopefully clearly the case!

 

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