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East Lothian
Dunbar Castle.JPG
Dunbar Castle and harbour
Grid reference: NT678789
Location: 56°0’10"N, 2°31’1"W
Population: 6,354  (2001)
Post town: Dunbar
Postcode: EH42
Dialling code: 01368
Local Government
Council: East Lothian
East Lothian

Dunbar is a town in East Lothian on the northern spur of the coastline. It stands some 28 miles east of Edinburgh and 28 miles north of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Dunbar is a Royal Burgh and gave its name to an ecclesiastical and civil parish, which extends around 7½ miles east to west and is 3½ miles deep at greatest extent or 11¼ square miles and contains the villages of West Barns, Belhaven, East Barns (abandoned) and several hamlets and farms.

The town's strategic position gave rise to a history full of incident and strife but Dunbar has become a quiet dormitory town popular with workers in nearby Edinburgh, who find it an affordable alternative to the capital itself. Until the 1960s the population of the town was little more than 3,500.

The Reaper


Early history

The name Dunbar derives from the ancient British (or Old Welsh) tongue and means 'summit-fort', which gives an indication to its origins. To the north of the present High Street an area of open ground called Castle Park preserves almost exactly the hidden perimeter of an Iron Age promontory fort. The early settlement was a principal centre of the people known to the Romans as Votadini and to themselves as the Gododdin, and it may have grown in importance when the great hillfort of Traprain Law was abandoned at the end of the 5th century.

By the 6th century, East Lothian was part of the English kingdom of Northumbria. Dunbar is believe to be the Dynbaer recorded by Bede as the seat of a local thegn around AD 680, which is the first time that the town appears in the written record. The influential Northumbrian monk and scholar St Cuthbert, born around AD 630, was probably from around Dunbar. While still a boy, and employed as a shepherd, one night he had a vision of the soul of Aidan being carried to heaven by angels and thereupon went to the monastery of Old Melrose and became a monk.

Later Dunbar was a king's estate and used to imprison to Bishop Wilfrid. It was the base of a senior royal official, a reeve (later sheriff), and, perhaps, in the 7th century to the dynasty of ealdormen or sub-kings who held northern Northumbria against Pictish encroachment.

Scottish conquest

Danish and Norse attacks on southern Northumbria left the English lands north of the Tees isolated and weakened against covetous neighbours. Dunbar was burnt by Kenneth MacAlpin, (King Kenneth I of Scotland) in the 9th century. Scottish control was consolidated in the next century and when Lothian was ceded to Malcolm II after the battle of Carham in 1018.

Dunbar's position ensured it was not eclipsed and it features as part of a major land grant and settlement by King Malcolm III in favour of the exiled earl Gospatric of Northumbria (to whom he may have been full cousin) during 1072. Malcolm needed to fill a power vacuum on his south-eastern flank; Gospatric required a base from which to plot the resumption of his Northumbrian holding. The grant included Dunbar and, it can be deduced, an extensive swath of East Lothian and Berwickshire. Gospatick founded the family of Dunbar, who were Earls of Dunbar and March until the 15th century.

Victoria Harbour and Castle ruins

Later history

The town became successively a baronial burgh and royal burgh (1370) and grew slowly under the shadow of the great castle of the earls. Scotland and England contended often for possession of the castle and town. The former was 'impregnable' and withstood many sieges; the latter was burnt, frequently.

Dunbar at the time of the Battle of Dunbar, 1690

The castle had been slighted (deliberately ruined) in 1568 but the town flourished as an agricultural centre and fishing port despite tempestuous times in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The second Battle of Dunbar was fought here in 1650 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms between a Scottish Covenanter army and English Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. The Scots were routed, leading to the overthrow of the monarchy and the occupation of Scotland. Dunbar gained a reputation as a seaside holiday and golfing resort in the 19th century, the 'bright and breezy burgh' famous for its 'bracing air'.

Since 1983, the town has played host to the first outdoor Pipe Band competition of the season in Scotland. The competition, now held at Winterfield on the second Saturday in May, attracts in the region of 70–80 entries from bands across Scotland and over 2000 visitors for the day. The local band - Dunbar Royal British Legion Pipe Band - has competed with mixed success over the years.

On Saturday 3 January 1987, a devastating fire destroyed much of the town's historic parish church. The church, as it was before the fire, was opened in 1821 and contained a monument to the Earl of Dunbar which was said to be unequalled throughout Scotland for its Italian craftsmanship in marble. Though the fire practically destroyed the monument and left only the outer walls remaining, the church has since been rebuilt with a modern interior.


During 2003, archaeological excavations at Oxwell Mains (Lafarge Cement Works) near Dunbar revealed the site of a Mesolithic house believed to be circa 9th century BC. The site suggests a domed building. Although considered extremely rare and a site of national importance this site is in the middle of an area planned for quarrying.

An archaeological excavation undertaken by Headland Archaeology[1] on a site previously occupied by the Captain's Cabin (a local landmark) within the area of Castle Park identified a sequence of archaeological features reflecting around 2000 years of human activity.

The earliest feature was a large ditch which may have formed part of the defences around a promontory fort previously identified during earlier excavations near the coast at Castle Park.[2] The scale of the ditches indicated an impressive monument. A radiocarbon date of between 50 BC and AD 70 was obtained from charcoal recovered from its infill.

Much later a rectangular building was built over the top of the infilled ditch. Large quantities of burnt grain were recovered indicating that the building was a grain store that had been destroyed by fire. It was established that this was part of the Anglian settlement that had also been identified during earlier excavations.

Between the 9th and 11th centuries AD the area was used as a cemetery.[3] 76 articulated skeletons and the disarticulated remains of a further 51 individuals were recovered. The articulated skeletons were all buried in the standard Christian fashion. A small number of the skeletons were in long cists but the majority were simple shroud burials.

A dump of midden above the cemetery contained many elephant ivory off-cuts dating to the 18th or 19th centuries.

Towards Belhaven Bay with North Berwick Law and Bass Rock in the distance


  1. Moloney, C. (2001) New evidence for the origins and evolution of Dunbar; excavations at the Captain's Cabin, Castle Park, Dunbar, East Lothian, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland 131, pp. 283-318
  2. [1]
  3. [2]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Dunbar)