I was brought up in Dunbar from about the age of six until I moved back to the city of my birth, Edinburgh, when I was sixteen. My late parents also retired here, and I still have many relatives and old friends living in the town.
Dunbar is situated on the east coast of Scotland, 28 miles south of Edinburgh, and just of the main A1 road to Berwick and England. It's easily accessible from Edinburgh by train, bus or car, and with the AI dual carriageway and Edinburgh bypass you should be able to drive here from Edinburgh in around 30 to 40 minutes.
Dunbar is primarily a fishing town. It has two harbours, the Old Harbour and the New Harbour, which is overlooked by the now practically derelict Dunbar Castle which looms tall over the New Harbour entrance. There's been a fortification on the site of the Castle since Roman times, but the castle as it now stands was first built in 1070 by the Earl of Dunbar. It has a chequered history, and in its day was considered practically impregnable. Mary Queen of Scot's and her lover the Earl of Bothwell famously took refuge here in 1567 after she arranged the murder of her first husband at Hollyrood Palace in Edinburgh.
When she abdicated, the English authorities of the time ordered the destruction of the Castle, but it remained a stronghold until the construction of the "new" harbour began in 1844. There was scant regard for conservation then, and the entrance to the new harbour was simply blasted through the rock on which the Castle stood, causing untold damage to the structure.
I have strong associations with the harbour at Dunbar.
My late grandfather was a fisherman and coxswain of the Dunbar lifeboat, and my late uncle also ran a herring boat out of Dunbar for many years. When my grandfather retired he bought a few "cobbles" (small rowing boats) and in the summer season spent his twilight years sat contentedly at his beloved harbour, smoking his pipe and renting out the boats to the tourists, and nipping off for a "wee dram" in one of the local pubs. I spent many a happy summer's day at the harbour, sitting with my grandfather or rowing around in one of his wee boats, or else exploring and playing in the ruins of the Castle. As kids we used to swim in the harbour, and jump from the castle ramparts into the deep harbour entrance.
If you're a fisherman, there is some fairly good fishing to be had from the rocks around the harbour entrance.
Sadly the Castle is now closed to the public on safety grounds, but its crumbling walls still house an enormous colony of all types of seagulls' nests. If you're having a look round, mind your head, or you're liable to get a wee deposit on it you weren't expecting!
Another feature of the harbour is the "Battery" at the opposite end of the harbour to the Castle. This is just as it sounds; an old gun emplacement that was first built in Napoleonic times, and subsequently used during the two World Wars. This is still open to the public and is worth a wee look.
Just along from the harbour is the east beach. Up until about the late 1970's Dunbar was very much a favoured holiday town, particularly of the residents of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the east beach would be black with sunbathers and swimmers. They were almost sure to get a great suntan, as Dunbar invariably wins the accolade of "the sunniest town in Scotland" almost every year!
Back then there was an amusement arcade adjacent to the beach, with ice cream parlours and a fish and chip outlet, to help relieve the tourists (and locals!) of their holiday cash. (It's now derelict and a complete eyesore!)
Unfortunately the arrival of greater prosperity and the upsurge of Continental holidays sounded the death knell for Dunbar as a tourist destination, and in recent years the east beach has been allowed to fall into a sad state of repair. I took a walk on it during a recent visit to Edinburgh (November 2007) and the sand is now almost completely gone, and seaweed, debris, and litter are literally strewn everywhere.
There is still a fine beach called the "White Sands" which is accessible from the main A1 just south of Dunbar which has good safe swimming. However, one thing you might want to look out for is that you don't come out of the water glowing! There are two nuclear reactors located at Torness, just a couple of miles up the coast, and their "low level" waste is discharged directly into the sea! (I vehemently opposed the construction of this power station when it was constructed in the late 1970's, but that's another story!) If your interested in that sort of thing, then you can take a guided tour of the nuclear power station. (Not my cup of tea at all. I'd rather dismantle it!)
If you do visit the White Sands, then it's worth your while visiting the nearby Barns Ness lighthouse, which is open to the public in the summer months. You get a fine view from the top of the tower, but it has unhappy memories for me as a favourite uncle of mine had a heart attack and died here a few years ago. (He worked for the Lighthouse Board, and was the relief keeper.)
At the far end of the town is the small village of Belhaven, world famous for its old brewery, which is also open to the public for guided tours. Belhaven also has a fine sandy beach, but it's generally not used too much for swimming as the tide goes out too far and even at full tide the water is extremely shallow. It's great for long walks however, and is part of the John Muir Country Park. A favourite spot of mine at Belhaven is Spike Island, which can be accessed by foot at low tide, and is a nesting spot for thousands of terns. It's about two or three miles offshore, but if you do decide to visit it then check the tides first, as you can very easily get cut off from the mainland if you time things wrong! (Happened to me once when I was a wee lad.)
The John Muir Country Park itself is world famous, and is named after John Muir, perhaps Dunbar's most famous son, who was born here in 1838. At the age of 11 his family emigrated to Wisconsin in the USA, and his pioneering conservation work in America, (north and south) Africa, Europe and Australia brought him world wide fame.
The car park for the Country Park is located just off the A1087 near Belhaven, and it stretches along the coastline from here up as far as Dunbar Castle in the centre of the town. It's a conservation area (naturally) and is teeming with all sorts of wild life, plants and fauna.
Part of the park takes in the Victorian promenade and Cliff Top Trail that stretches from Belhaven all the way back to the town centre. This is an outstanding walk on a fine day, with views from the tall craggy cliffs stretching right over the Firth of Forth to Fife.
As the old promenade approaches the town you pass the old Victorian swimming pool. This has been derelict for many years. It was built around a large jutting rock and natural sea pool that retained the water when the tide receded. If the fancy takes you it's still possible to swim here.
Another half mile or so brings you to the old site of the Dunbar Open Air Swimming Pool. This has also now been demolished, but in its day was the largest and finest open air swimming pool facility in the whole of Scotland. As a young fella in the 1950's and 1960's I had a season ticket for this pool, and I spent many a happy day here with my schoolmates swimming and generally larking around.
Nowadays Dunbar has a state of the art indoor swimming complex, which is located just of the old Barracks Square at the end of the High Street, with toddlers' pool, large swimming area, slides and flumes, and a café. My own teenage daughter loves using this pool whenever we visit the town. (You'd think she's a dolphin she's so fond of the water!)
There are a couple of good parks in the town. Lauderdale Park has a bowling and putting green, and nicely laid out and maintained flowerbeds. Winterfield is just off the old promenade, and has public tennis courts, a putting green, and rugby field where the local team play.
Right in the middle of the High Street is the ancient clock tower and town house. This houses a local museum, where you can view a multitude of old pictures of the town and many old historical documents. Dunbar became a Burgh in 1370, and was granted the status of Royal Burgh on the 16th August, 1445, so it has a rich and interesting history.
Dunbar High Street nowadays is an uncomfortable mishmash of old and new. Frankly the shopping isn't that great, and most of the old family businesses have now disappeared, to be replaced by Chinese restaurants, takeaways, wee gift shops and pound shops. A few still exist, like Main's the Saddlers in the West Port just off the High Street, and Grahame's the Bakers, who make the tastiest Scotch Pies in the whole of Scotland. The town now has a couple of supermarkets. (Tescos and a newly opened Asda)
If you fancy a bite to eat or a wee tipple, there are some fairly decent hotels, pubs and restaurants. The best hotel these days is probably the Rossborough, located right beside the local railway station, which also has a good restaurant. Other decent hotels include the Hillside, the Bayswell, and the Goldenstones.
A good seafood restaurant called "The Creel" is located near the Old Harbour.
For atmosphere you probably can't beat the old pubs around the harbour, like the Volunteer Arms and the Castle. Most of the pubs also do decent enough bar lunches.
If you're a golfer, then Dunbar is an ideal spot to base yourself for a golfing holiday. The town itself boasts two golf courses. Both are links, (seaside) the most famous being the East Links (Dunbar Golf Club) which was built by golfing legend Old Tom Morris and which has been in play since 1856. I was reared in the old clubhouse, as my late mother and father were steward and stewardess at the golf club for over 12 years, and are buried only a stones throw away from the second tee in the Deer Park Cemetery. I learned my golf here (my late uncle was the club pro) and obviously have a tremendous affiliation and affection for the club to this day. (I've written a full review of the course here at dooyoo if you're interested)
The other golf club is Winterfield, which is a public links located at the far end of the town. While not up to the same standard as the east links, it is still a fine wee course, and a good test.
Within East Lothian itself you have a plethora of fine old links golf courses, all within easy striking distance of Dunbar. (Half an hour or so) You have North Berwick, Gullane 1,2, and 3, Muirfield, Luffness, Kilspindie, and Longniddry. (Just to name a few) In my opinion there's no finer golf to be found in any other county in the whole of the UK.
If you're ever thinking of a holiday or a short break in Scotland, then you could do a lot worse than visit my old home town of Dunbar.
© KenJ January 2008