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Issue 94 - A land steeped in history

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017


This article is 16 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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A land steeped in history

John Hannavy explores East Lothian's rich and varied past

You must know the feeling. You give a place a really big build-up and then nature conspires to undermine it all. Having been born in Edinburgh, East Lothian’s rich history was well known to me, but my wife, brought up in Glasgow, had never really explored the county. Cue a few days away in a nice hotel visiting castles, stately homes, a few churches, a corn mill and some other heritage sites. All the places on our 'mini tour' were within a short distance of each other, the furthest from our hotel being a mere eight miles.

Our base was the lovely Open Arms Hotel in Dirleton, chosen because it brought back early teenage memories for me, from the late 1950s, of clambering over the ruins of the village’s fabulous castle with my historian father, followed by afternoon tea and cakes. But what was it Burns said about the best laid plans gang-ing aft agley? Well, in a nutshell, he wisnae wrang! “So where’s this amazing castle?” my wife asked, as we inched our way into the village in thick fog. “Trust me, it’s just over there,” I said – although the fog was so thick I wasn’t really sure if I was pointing in the right direction. There was, certainly, not a sign of a castle anywhere to be seen. For that matter, there wasn’t much else to be seen either.

Scotland’s east coast can do that and, if you are unlucky, it can take days to clear. I recalled one east-coast holiday where the fog didn’t lift for a week, but I kept reminding myself that, if you are lucky, it can lift just as quickly as it rolled in. What's more, when the sun shines there are few more pleasant places to be. Let’s concentrate on being lucky rather than unlucky, I told myself, as the SatNav unerringly delivered us to the door of the hotel. The next morning – well fed and well rested – we awakened to a wet, grey day. The fog had almost gone, but the chill, which so often goes hand-in-hand with it, still prevailed. As a photographer, I was less than happy! By the time we had taken a wander around the nearby town of North Berwick, however, the cloud and the temperature were both lifting. Soon, after we had made the short drive to the spectacular ruins of Tantallon Castle, the first rays of sunlight were breaking through the thinning cloud.

Tantallon Castle is one of those places that appeals to people from the ages of eight to 80. It has a fascinating and turbulent history, breathtaking ruins, and spectacular views out to the Bass Rock and the Isle of May beyond. The mid-14th-Century fortress was built by William, 1st Earl of Douglas, and sits on the edge of a sheer cliff. Tantallon has been the focus of several sieges, from James IV to Cromwell, and still exhibits many of the scars.

The castle's location meant it only needed to be defended from the landward side – few in their right minds would ever have tried to scale the cliffs and attack it from the sea – and, as you cross the drawbridge and approach the massive red sandstone walls, you get the distinct impression that attacking it from the land side would not have been much easier. In fact, that huge wall is the best-preserved medieval curtain wall to be found at any castle in Scotland.

Just six miles south of Tantallon, Hailes Castle was built by the de Gourlay family – kinsmen of the de Balliols – around the year 1220 and it was initially only lightly fortified. Built on an escarpment overlooking Scotland’s River Tyne, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘North Tyne’, it was one of Scotland’s oldest stone-built castles and initially consisted of a tower house and a curtain wall surrounding a courtyard. A second tower was built in the 14th Century and, at the same time, the curtain wall was rebuilt. The north tower was later remodelled as a doocot. Hailes Castle’s conversion into a fortified manor was at the hands of the Hepburns in the early 14th Century, and the last Hepburn to live there – he was probably also born there – was James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. The Queen and Bothwell stayed briefly at Hailes in 1567, although what stands today is just a fragment of the castle they would have known.

Not far away, in the grounds of Tyninghame House, are the ruins of St Baldred’s Church. St Baldred was a local saint who is believed to have lived in the Tyninghame area in the 8th Century. The ruins of the church – a magnificent Romanesque building that served the parish until the village was demolished in the middle of the 18th Century – date largely from the 12th Century. Two beautiful 12th Century, chevron-decorated arches survive which, like the rest of the ruins, were rebuilt in the 19th Century, as a memorial to the Earl of Haddington, and further restored in 1947.

While you’re around there, Tyninghame Smithy, found on the village’s Main Street, is a lovely teashop where, on a sunny day, you can sit outside and enjoy some really lovely home-made fare. We did just that en route between Tantallon and Hailes. It's strongly recommended! What's more, the National Trust for Scotland’s Preston Mill is also just down the road. It's not open all year but, if you are in the area Thursday to Monday between Easter and the end of September, the 45-minute guided tour is fascinating.

Just five miles west of Hailes, along the A199, is the magnificent St Mary’s Church in Haddington. Upon walking in, visitors marvel at the craftsmanship of the medieval masons and builders and can hardly imagine how they created such wonderful buildings without the sophisticated aids available to us today. That the buildings have endured for so many centuries in such good condition is, of course, only in part down to the skill of their creators – the majority of them have survived thanks to considerable restoration and preservation. Just how dependent they are on the intervention of more recent hands is one of the many features that can be revealed through photography. In looking at the achievement of the restorers of St Mary’s, however, I find myself having to look no further back than my own humble efforts from 1964 when, armed with a camera and driven by a youthful enthusiasm for the history of Scotland’s medieval churches, I set out to write and illustrate a history of the abbeys, priories, friaries, cathedrals, collegiate churches and nunneries that are dotted across the country. I have still not completed it!

In Haddington, back then, I found the remains of what had once been one of the largest of Scotland’s collegiate churches – the nave in use as the parish church, the choir, tower, and transepts in ruins. A wall, erected in 1560, separated the nave from the ruins. My 1964 images simply recorded a moment in that long process of decay. But what I found when I returned decades later was a revelation. The church was once more complete, the wall between the nave and the crossing had been removed, and the medieval choir revealed once again in all its glory. That my own photos should now have historical value makes me feel old indeed.

So, dear reader, after all that meandering around the immediate countryside, what about that castle we originally came to see? Well, in the glorious, warm, crisp light of a late summer afternoon, exploring Dirleton Castle was everything we could have wished it to be.

Of course, what survives today is a mere shadow of what the fortress must have looked like in its heyday. Its design is believed to have been heavily influenced by French style – with 13th-Century round corner towers topped by steep conical roofs, just like those still to be seen on many surviving French chateaux such as Montreuil-Bellay, in the Loire valley, and the recently restored 14th-Century Chateau de Suscinio, near Sarzeau in Brittany. Despite being attacked on numerous occasions by both the English and the Scots – and repeatedly repaired and modified, most notably in the middle of the 16th Century – Dirleton remained in use until around 1600.

Much of the extensive damage suffered by the castle, however, occurred not in the turbulent medieval period but at the hands of Cromwell’s invading forces in the middle of the 17th Century. The ruined castle was not lived in after that, the owners choosing instead to build themselves a more comfortable residence, a short distance away in the castle grounds, and incorporate the ruins as a key part of the view from their new mansion. Walking in the grounds today, the ruins are still the focal point. As the castle itself sits on a rocky outcrop, the views from different points in the grounds are dramatically different and some of them are truly spectacular. This, as you have probably gathered by now, is a favourite castle of mine and, under the best of the east coast’s warm summer light, it could not have looked better.

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