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    A journey around Scotland: from Aberlady to Dirleton Castle…


    Aberlady Bay East Lothian

    Aberlady Bay East Lothian © 2012 Scotiana


    field notes



    Tuesday 4 September: from Aberlady Bay to  Dirleton Castle our journey around Scotland goes on…

    On our agenda today we’ve planned to follow the scenic coast road (A 198) from Edinburgh to Dunbar. Our first stop will be at Aberlady bay. In 1952, this beautiful bay, much renowned as a bird-watching site, became the UK’s first Local Nature Reserve  (LNR). One can find Waterston House, the headquarters of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC). Its library contains  the largest collection of ornithological books and documents in Scotland.  We’ll also try to find Nigel Tranter memorial. Nigel Tranter is a local celebrity. He loved the place and lived there for many years at Quarry House in Aberlady. He is the author of a  great number of books: historical novels, non-fiction books, children’s books. We discovered this author, a great admirer of Sir Walter Scott, at an exhibition organized in the upstairs rooms of Abbotsford in 2006. After Aberlady, we’ll stop at Gullane to take a few pictures of its famous golf courses. Before arriving to North Berwick we’ll visit Dirleton Castle and later on Tantallon Castle before going to Dunbar, the native village of John Muir. For those who like walking tours there is the John Muir Way, a long distance footpath from Fisherrow (Musselburgh) to Dunglass.


    Map road A198 from Edinburgh to Dunbar

    Our day trip in East Lothian : Mortonhall campsite – Aberlady Bay and village – Gullane golf – Dirleton Castle – North Berwick – Tantallon Castle – Dunbar.

    Aberlady Parish Church

    Aberlady Parish Church © 2012 Scotiana

    Located in the lovely coastal village of Aberlady, this small yet imposing church is cruciform in plan and is comprised of a 15th century tower with an adjoining nave (rebuilt in 1773). The two burial aisles, which project to the north, are 16th and 17th century in date and were later mirrored by transepts added to the south and east.

    The 15th century tower was built in three stages and this can be clearly seen in its three floor construction. Arrow slits can be seen on the first and second floors whilst the second floor was later converted into a dovecot. The porch to the tower is 18th century.

    Evidence suggests that the church has origins back to the early medieval period (8th century AD) and that it had important links with early Christian centres at Iona and Lindisfarne. A tremendous amount of historical and archaeological work has recently been undertaken at Aberlady and some of the material can be found at


     Aberlady Bay Footbridge to Enchantment

    ‘Footbridge to Enchantment’ Aberlady Bay© 2012 Scotiana

    Nigel Tranter called this bridge ‘Footbridge to Enchantment’. What a lovely name! It has become the title of his famous ‘Country Notebook’  which was first published in a series of articles in The Scots magazine. How we’d like to have time to cross this long wooden bridge to discover what enchanting realm is hiding there behind the trees: a marvellous sand beach,  a paradise for ornithologists, a treasure island for wreck hunters (old fishing vessels, submarines and air crafts) and a source of inspiration for writers like Nigel Tranter who haunted the place, writing most of his novels while he was walking there.

    On ‘Nigel Tranter Scotland’s Story teller‘ website, I’ve found a very interesting page entitled ‘A Typical Nigel Day’ in Aberlady.

    “A typical day in his life was to leave Quarry House around ten o’clock in the morning and walk round Aberlady Bay Bird Sanctuary and Gullane beach. He wrote as he walked, using his waterproof pen and paper, so often needed in the exposed countryside of coastal East Lothian where the wind and rain frequently whip inland from the Firth of Forth.”


    Footbridge to Enchantment Nigel Tranter paperback B & W Publishing 1993

    Footbridge to Enchantment Nigel Tranter paperback B & W Publishing 1993

    This illustrated collection brings together articles from Nigel Tranter’s autobiographical country notebook which first appeared in “The Scots Magazine” in 1962. All the author’s over 80 novels have been written on walks which started on the 200 paces length of the lowly, but elongated footbridge which leads to Aberlady Bay and the vast, vacant levels where the tides ebb and flow over the mudflats, the saltings and the dune country frequented by waders, terms, eiders and sand martins. In this book, these walks form a backdrop for Tranter’s recounting of his experiences over the years. Although the original was demolished by a storm in February 1990, the bridge which was the inspiration for the title has been replaced, and in its new form is still crossed daily by the writer who was asked to officially open it. Then, as now, it provided him with access to an area of unspoiled beauty. Nigel Tranter is the author of “The Bruce Trilogy”, “Balefire” and “The Gilded Fleece”.


    Nigel Tranter Memorial Aberlady Bay © 2012 Scotiana

    Nigel Tranter Memorial Aberlady Bay © 2012 Scotiana

    The Cairn built to the memory of Nigel Tranter is situated in Aberlady Bay, not far from the ‘Bridge to Enchantment’ and  only some 100 yards from Quarry House where the writer stayed with his family from 1951 to the end of his life.

    Nigel Tranter plaque on the writer memorial in Aberlady Bay © 2012 Scotiana

    Nigel Tranter plaque on the writer memorial in Aberlady Bay © 2012 Scotiana

    The plaque reads:

    Nigel Tranter


    Scottish Writer

    who walked this coastline daily, writing as he went :

    “… he was always glad to return here, to… the unending

    sigh of the waves on the far sand-bar at the mouth of the bay,

    the calling of the sea-birds, the quacking of mallard and the

    honking of the wavering wild geese skeins which criss-crossed the sky”

    (Crusader, 1991)

    Aberlady Bay juvenile and adult gulls

    Juvenile and adult gulls in Aberlady Bay © 2012 Scotiana


    The unending sigh of the waves

    on the far sand-bar at the mouth of the bay,

    the calling of the sea-birds…

    Gullane Golf near Aberlady East Lothian

    Gullane Golf near Aberlady East Lothian © 2012 Scotiana

    Gullane Golf flag

    Gullane Golf flag © 2012 Scotiana

    After taking a few pictures of the famous Gullane golf course, we head towards Dirleton Castle, eager to discover a new Scottish castle.  We’ve already visited (and even revisited) a number of them during our previous trips. Dirleton Castle is situated at about 30 km from Edinburgh and 5 km west of North Berwick, on the A198.

    Each castle is in itself a page of history. We  are no experts in archeology, history or architecture, far from it, but in  Scotland everything seems to be done to make you understand and even love history. Museums and libraries are omnipresent everywhere displaying the treasures of the rich Scottish heritage: artistic works, old books and engravings,  ancient documents, archeological finds and artefacts, models, 3D images, videos and, last but not least, there are illustrated panels on every place of interest, even on the most remote places (some Pictish stones for example).

    Dirleton Castle HS welcome panel

    Dirleton Castle HS welcome panel © 2012 Scotiana

    This introductory panel gives to the visitor a good idea of the place: the extensive grounds with the ruined castle on its rocky outcrop, the lovely gardens, the dovecot and the bowling green. The whole of the property is enclosed within a high wall.

    The castle is more than 800 years old and it has undergone a number of changes over the centuries. Built by the de Vaux family in the 13th century on the site of a timber castle dating back to the 12th century, it was altered by the Haliburtons in the 14th century and the Ruthvens in the 16th century, the three noble families who successively owned it. Today it is in charge of Historic Scotland.

    Dirleton Caslte One Castle Three Families © 2012 Scotiana

    Dirleton Caslte One Castle Three Families © 2012 Scotiana

    Dirleton is notable for Dirleton Castle, a well-preserved medieval fortress, which today belongs to Historic Scotland. It is the caput of the feudal barony of Dirleton, said to be one of the oldest in Scotland (This barony did not, however, cover the entire parish). It was built in the middle of the twelfth century by a branch of the Anglo-Norman family of De Vaux, a family with its origins in Rouen, Normandy, which had settled at Dirleton during the reign of King Malcolm IV (1153–1165). They also held the manor of Golyn (Gullane) and parts of the lands of Fenton. In 1225 it is described as a “castellum”. In 1298 when King Edward I of England invaded Scotland, no place was able to resist him except Dirleton castle. After a resolute resistance it surrendered to forces under Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham. It was still in English possession in 1306. When Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1650 the castle was, after a gallant defence, taken by Lambert and by him partially dismantled and reduced to its present ruinous state.

    The heiress of William de Vaux, Lord of Dirleton, brought the barony and estates to her husband, Sir John de Haliburton, about 1430. Their grandson, Sir Walter de Haliburton, High Treasurer of Scotland, was created a Lord of Parliament in 1447. This family failed in the male line and an heiress took Dirleton to her husband, Lord Ruthven, grandfather of the Earl of Gowrie who was forfeited in 1600.[6] The barony then graduated to a number of proprietors during the corrupt 17th century. Finally, Sir John Nisbet, Lord Dirleton (d. 1688), a Senator of the College of Justice acquired it in 1663 and the barony remained with this family into the 20th century. In 1923 the Nisbet family donated the castle to Historic Scotland.

    In the late 20th century this feudal barony was purchased by one Patrick Hannigan, from Savaldor in Brazil, who subsequently bequeathed the barony to the present baron of Dirleton, Camilo Agasim-Pereira of Fulwood and Dirleton. He was later confirmed as such by disposition recorded in the Land Register of Scotland on April 22, 2002. Since the Abolition of Feudal Tenure, etc. (Scotland) Act 2000, which abolished feudal dues and the legal jurisdiction of the Baron, all Baronies have now been separated from the caput (or Land), but this has not affected the dignity of Baron. The site of the Barony of Dirleton today is Lamb Island which was owned by the Barony of Fulwood Trust but has recently been sold to Uri Geller.

    Dirleton Castle model

    Dirleton Castle in 1550 © 2012 Scotiana

    The visit begins in a small museum where this interesting model of the castle is displayed.

    On the above picture we can see the entrance front of the castle with the drawbridge in the middle, the 13th century drum tower or ‘donjon’ on the left and  the curtain wall to the right also dating back to the 13th century.

    Dirleton Castle model general view

    Dirleton Castle model general view © 2012 Scotiana

    The castle was first used as a fortress and on the picture above we can see that it was  surrounded by a large moat. Beyond  the wooden palisade there was a vast area of marshland. The castle was however taken in 1298 by the English army of King Edward I before being retaken in 1311 by Robert Bruce who practiced ‘la politique de la terre brûlée’ (scorched earth policy), destroying part of the castle to prevent the English to come back. In 1650 the Cromwellian troops occupied the castle.

    Dirleton Castle model side view

    Dirleton Castle model side view © 2012 Scotiana

    Before visiting a castle I like to make an idea of its history.

    One of my favourite guides about Scottish castles is In Search of Ancient Scotland. This book, published in 2000,  was written and illustrated by Gerald M. Ruzicki and Dorothy A. Ruzicki, who are great fans of Scotland:

    ‘Our journeys took us to every region of Scotland, giving us intimate knowledge of the land and people, and vastly expanding our understanding of Scotland’s history. Over four years and six trips, we toured famous and acclaimed attractions, as well as obscure and virtually unknown sites. We logged hundreds of miles on one-lane roads in the highlands and islands, and crossed seas and lochs on countless ferries.’


    In Search of Ancient Scotland Gerald M. Ruzicki and Dorothy A. Ruzicki AspenGrove 2000

    In Search of Ancient Scotland Gerald M. Ruzicki and Dorothy A. Ruzicki AspenGrove 2000

    This very well documented book  includes  a very useful glossary about architectural terms, a detailed timeline and a bibliography. It can also be read as a travel book.

    Dirleton Castle entrance gate Scotiana 2012

    Dirleton Castle entrance gate Scotiana 2012


    ‘Imposing Dirleton looks like a castle. With its ancient drum tower, a bridge over a dry moat, and its myriad nooks and crannies, we rank it as one of our favorites. Its grounds delight the senses. The flower border is supposedly the longest in the world (…)

    If the castle walls could talk, they would tell of a violent history. Dirleton was besieged and taken in 1298 by Edward I, retaken by the Scots in 1306, taken again by the English, and finally captured and destroyed by the Scots after Bannockburn in 1314 (…) The last siege occurred in 1650 by Cromwell against loyalist “Moss-troopers” who used the castle as a stronghold. The castle was captured and once again destroyed.

    At Dirleton Castle, we met Andrew, a Historic Scotland custodian, who readily shared his vast knowledge of castles with us. A keen historian, he has studiend East Lothian castles, publishing his work in a regional magazine.’

    (In Search of Ancient Scotland Gerald M. Ruzicki and Dorothy A. Ruzicki AspenGrove 2000)


    Dirleton Castle 13th drum tower

    Dirleton Castle 13th drum tower © 2012 Scotiana

    How we would have liked to visit Dirleton Castle or Tantallon Castle in such good company!  Andrew Spratt is not only an erudite man but he is also an artist, the author of many wonderful reconstruction paintings of Scottish castles which I have discovered a few years ago. Here’s what he says about his fascinating life and work.

    I was born in Edinburgh in 1963 I’m married with two sons. At the moment I work for Historic Scotland as the Custodian of Dirleton castle about 25 miles east of Edinburgh.  Prior to this I was employed as a graphic Artist with the Scottish Examination Board while also doing history slide talks for SAGA and before this I worked as the Seasonal Custodian of Tantallon castle for nine years beside my father who was the head custodian. It was at Tantallon that I first used my reconstruction paintings of Scottish castles and battles to explain Scottish history to the castle visitors. As a boy I was inspired by the work of the late Allen Sorrell who did beautiful reconstruction drawings of mostly English castles. Whereas I planned to cover Scottish castles, battles and events from 1350 to 1650. I have produced over 200 different castle/battle/event reconstructions in the past 17 years for use in such publications as The Scots Magazine, East Lothian Life, Border Life and various History Society journals. In my spare time I also write history articles for Clan Newsletters in the U.S.

    Dirleton Castle reconstruction painting © Andrew Spratt

    Dirleton Castle reconstruction painting © Andrew Spratt

    Before starting a reconstruction of a castle I dig out as much archaeological and architectural evidence as possible and as many prints of the chosen castle from the 1700’s and 1800’s,though in ruins even then they still give clues as to their original shape and form. There is even more research involved when doing reconstruction battles since heraldry, weapons, armour and even things like the style of horses bridles have to be check down to the last detail. In many castle reconstructions I simply superimpose the outline of the original castle onto the present ruin, almost rebuilding as it were level by level.  This drawing is then used as a template for the final watercolour painting.

    I use these finished reconstructions in my history slide shows that I do for Schools, History Societies and Clan Societies to help people understand the ‘true’ history of Scotland. I try to make sense of it’s wars with England. Not the simplistic version presented by the likes of Hollywood with tartan and bagpipes. Scotland as a nation was formed through centuries of blood shed that should be remembered but not glorified. These great castles were built as symbols of power but also as places of refuge to protect the Scots who lived in fear through years of invasion, raids, wars, counter invasions and political treachery. Scotland as a nation should learn from it’s past not to make the same mistakes twice. These great ruins throughout Scotland stand as reminders of our uncivilised past.

    Andrew Spratt

    Detail of a children painting in the Museum of Dirleton Castle © 2012 Scotiana

    (Detail of a children painting in the Museum of Dirleton Castle © 2012 Scotiana)

    Today, some twenty miles east of Edinburgh, the ruined yellow clustered towers of Dirleton castle high on its rocky knoll overlooking the Victorian Bowling Green and Herbaceous gardens strikes an imposing sight. However, the present gardens (arts and crafts north garden and formal west garden) give a false peaceful impression as to the castle’s original war-like strength. In ancient times this whole area was marsh land and the castle’s rocky knoll itself was surrounded by a deep fresh water ditch, shielded by a wooden palisade which extended east to protect the castle-town village, as well as two drawbridges, one postern foot bridge facing east to the village and one large bridge for horse, cattle and wagon access facing south.



    Dirleton Castle mixed borders

    Lovely mixed borders in the gardens of Dirleton Castle © 2012 Scotiana

    The weather was fine and we lingered a long time in the wonderful gardens…

    Dirleton Castle Herbaceous garden

    Dirleton Castle Herbaceous garden © 2012 Scotiana

    The magnificent Arts & Crafts herbaceous garden, laid out in the 1920s. In 1998, the herbaceous border was declared the longest in the world by the Guinness Book of Records. Its length is 215 metres (705 feet)

    There is a profusion of colours in this lovely garden with a great variety of flowers still in bloom in September. We don’t know all of them but we recognize thistles, daisies, allium cepa balls, dahlias,  hydrangeas, pampas grass…

    Dirleton Castle herbaceous garden wall 1

    Dirleton Castle herbaceous garden wall 1 © 2012 Scotiana

    Old stones and flowers…

    Dirleton Castle the dovecot

    Dirleton Castle the dovecot © 2012 Scotiana

    Last but not least a magnificent dovecot… the outside looks like a bee-hive and the inside is quite impressive. A panel at the entrance gives some information.

    Dirleton Castle the inside of the dovecot

    Dirleton Castle the inside of the dovecot © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Holding up to 2,000 pigeons, this doocot or pigeon house provided an important source of fresh meat for castle residents. The birds flew in and out through the opening in the roof. Each box could hold a pair of breeding birds.

    When the castle was busy, hundreds of squabs (young pigeons) could be eaten at one banquet. Pigeon droppings made an excellent fertiliser and were also used in leather tanning and cloth dyeing.’ (!!)

    Dirleton Castle flower beds

    Dirleton Castle flower beds © 2012 Scotiana

    Hoping you’ve enjoyed the first part of our little trip in East Lothian. I invite you to follow us next time up to Tantallon Castle and Dunbar.

    Bonne lecture!

    A bientôt.


    Other related posts from this serie:

    1. A Journey around Scotland: From Gretna to Edinburgh

    2. A Journey around Scotland: Roaming the New Town in Edinburgh

    3. A Journey around Scotland: A day in the Old Town of Edinburg

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