Lothians: In Dunbar, on minor road north of A1087, on north shore just west of harbour, at Dunbar Castle.
Ruin or site NT 678794 OS: 67
OPEN: Access at all reasonable times – view from exterior as care should be taken as dangerously ruined.
Although once one of the most important castles in Scotland, little remains of Dunbar Castle, except foundations of a very ruined tower and courtyard. The ruins date in part from the 12th century, although there was a stronghold here from at least the 9th century.
The castle stands in a fine location by the harbour of the burgh, and ‘Dunbar’ is prominently marked on Blaeu’s map of The Lothians. The burgh is also shown on Adair’s map of East Lothian, and although the castle is marked it is given little prominence.
The Cospatrick Earls of Dunbar held the castle in the 13th century, but it was captured by the English in 1297. Edward II sheltered here after defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Black Agnes, Countess of Douglas and the daughter of Sir Thomas Randolph, held the castle successfully for six weeks in 1338 against English armies, using a giant catapult against the besiegers’ stone-hurling mangonels. She reputedly said after the battle, as the English fled: ‘behold of the litter of English pigs’.
The 11th Earl of Dunbar was forfeited for treason, and the castle was slighted in 1488, but later rebuilt by James IV. In 1489 the ships of Sir Andrew Wood defeated an English navy just off Dunbar.
The castle passed to the Duke of Albany, who remodelled the castle for artillery about 1515, but it was burned by the English in 1548. Further fortifications were added by the French in 1550, but destroyed under the terms of the Treaty of Leith.
In 1566, two days after David Rizzio's murder, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, arrived here – although he had been involved in the murder. In 1567, ten weeks after Darnley was himself murdered, Mary was brought here after being abducted by James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was the keeper of the castle. She later married him.
The castle surrendered and was destroyed after Mary had fled to England. Much of the ruin was demolished in the 19th century to build the harbour. The remains of the castle are very fragmentary, and continue to deteriorate. There are impressive vaults by the harbour.
There was a harbour here from the days of the castle, but this was improved in the 17th and 18th centuries, including repairs paid for by Cromwell after storm damage. The older harbour is to the east of the Victoria Harbour, which was built in 1842. In 1781 an artillery battery was built to defend the harbour and burgh from American privateers and invasion by the French, and interesting remains of the fort survive on Lamer Island.
A ghost, known as Black Aggie, is said to have been witnessed in the area, although the apparition is reputedly only seen on clear nights. This is reported to be the apparition of Black Agnes mentioned above, although Agnes lived into her 60s and died elsewhere, and it is not clear why she would haunt here…
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