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Field Visit

Date 25 May 1920

Event ID 1087220

Category Recording

Type Field Visit


On a very bold and exposed site, adjoining the new harbour [NT67NE 147] to the north of the town, the fragmentary remains of Dunbar Castle are scattered over a rock standing 80 feet above the sea, which surrounds the site on three sides today and originally cut it off almost entirely from the mainland. On the east, a large freestanding mass, naturally cleft, is made continuous by masonry and on this the castle proper stood; an isolated and precipitous rock 25 yards to the south-west is surmounted by a great battery and united to the castle by a massive screen wall of masonry containing a mural passage giving communication between these portions. The rock is a brown basalt, fissured and caverned by the water. The remains of building yearly become less, since no attempt at conservation is made. The main portion of the site has been cleft to provide an entrance to the new harbour, and in this operation portions of the castle buildings have been destroyed.

The remains appear to be those of a castle with gatehouse and a walled enceinte. The masonry is of the local red freestone, ashlar faced and rubble cored. The gatehouse is of a 15th century type and probably is what is left of the 'barbican' then erected. The numerous gunloops are evidence of a relatively late date. Miller (1) gives the dimensions of the main portion as 165 feet from east to west with a length of 207 feet from north to south.

The isolated battery is inaccessible, for the connecting passage, which is 69 feet long, is broken. This must be the early 16th century 'blockhouse' referred to below. The structure is roughly octagonal on plan and measures 54 feet by 60 feet within walls 8 feet thick, which are recessed to form gun emplacements. These have gun ports 4 feet wide externally, diminishing to 16 inches at daylight. Grose (1789) and Miller (1830) in their illustrations show the curtains terminating in salient circled and angular towers, which are said by Miller to have had communication with the sea, and 'to dip low in many places' (fig. 62).

HISTORICAL NOTE - The importance of the Dunbar position is obvious. The castle covered the most convenient landing on the coast beyond Berwick, and after Berwick became finally English in 1483 that importance was intensified for Scotland. But the present ruins do not quite represent either the castle for the possession of which a battle was fought with the army of Edward I in 1297 or that defended against the Earl of Salisbury for five months in 1338 by 'Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar'. On the latter occasion the place was blockaded on the sea side by two great galleys and other smaller ships, but Sir Alexander Ramsay, on a stormy night, slipped through in a vessel from the Bass with food and reinforcements (2). Experience showed that the strongholds had been serviceable mainly to English invaders or to rebellious lords in league with that country. Therefore, after the example on this line given by the Duke of Albany and Earl of March, brother of James III, it was in 1487 annexed to the Crown and in 1488 ordered by Parliament to be 'cassyne doune and alutterly distroyit in sic wise that ony fundment tharof be occasioun of biging nor reparcione of the said castell in tyme to cum' (3). But this policy, of course, worked both ways. It did not present the invader with a fortified postion, but neither did it provide the defender with a fortified position where one was required; it only left open a sea-gate to the Lothians. Therefore, when war occurred in 1496, James IV. found it advisable again to construct a castle at Dunbar. On 10 March 1497 Sir Andrew Wood got £5 to buy lime for the building of Dunbar. Early in April the King himself was at the place and quarriers were at work preparing stones, clearing the site that the masons might get to work and ‘wynning’ the well. The mason work was in the hands of Walter Merlioune, one of a family of masons employed by the King, and in April the ‘forwerk’ was in hand. During April payments were being made to Sir Andrew Wood for the work at Dunbar. Roofing beams for ‘Hannis toure’, and other beams and rafters were being bought and forwarded to the building. Hans was one of the King's gunners, a Dutchman apparently. In May, gate nails and ‘dowbil byspikars’ for the ‘yettis’, door nails, and ‘gret wraklin nalis’ were being provided, with 200 ‘seme and ruffis’ i.e. bolts and rivets for ‘the yet of Dunbar’, while Thom Barker had to go down to take the measure of the iron gate ‘to mak it’. The doors were hung by ‘bands’ on ‘crukis’ of iron. A chamber was built after the measurements of the King's chamber at Edinburgh. There was also a pended or vaulted Hall. In August Hans Tower was being roofed. Not, however, till 1501, when the buildings apparently were completed, do we hear of the ‘iron windows’ being got ready. A chapel dedicated to St. John was also built (4).

In the next reign Dunbar Castle was possessed by John, Duke of Albany, ‘Governor of Scotland’ during the minority of James V. He is said to have had built ‘in the samin ane great staine house and insche callit the uttwart blokehouse and garnist it with artaillze pulder and bullattis’ (5). This 'blockhouse' may be identified with the round structure (marked’ Fort’ on the O.S. map) on what would have been an isolated mass (‘insche’ = island) before being linked up with the rest by a bridge. In 1547 the English considered the occupation of Dunbar as an alternative to Haddington (cj. Introd. p. xxix): it was later urged by Lord Grey that ‘a great part of Dunbar town is beyond danger of shot, and if fortified may ‘inrynge the castle and some partmak it’ (6). In 1558 it was reported that’ the castle is old, full of old buildings, and who ever is stronger on land could batter it with 10 or 12 pieces and gain it’ (7). But in the spring of 1560 the castle was refortified by the French and was thereafter declared to be ‘mare ample by the dowbill then it was off before and capable’ of 500 men at least more than it could contain before (8). These French fortifications were probably in the main of earth, as might be expected, and had to be destroyed in accordance with the Treaty of Leith (6 July 1560) where the reference is to ‘rasing the new buildings at Dunbar’ (9). The work was allotted to East Lothian barons and lairds, each group of these with their tenants and vassals accounting for the demolition of so much, the details of which are specified as ‘rampire’, counterscarp, ‘great platfourme’, ‘flanker’, ‘blockhowse’. Included is the ‘ditch from the castle cross (cf. Art. No. 38) to the captain's garden’ (10). No houses are mentioned. It was to the Castle that Queen. Mary fled from the murderers of Riccio; also to the same place, Bothwell, who had just been appointed Keeper, brought the Queen after seizing her and her company near Edinburgh (April 24, 1567). Thereafter it was ordered by Parliament to be demolished; its reconstruction had been costly, it was again becoming ruinous and would require inconvenient expenditure to put in repair, while it was in any case ‘unprofitable to the realm and notable to defend the enemies thereof in case the same were assaulted’ (11).

Until October 21, 1869, when it was thrown down by a high gale, there stood on the site a considerable piece of wall with a large doorway, above which was a group of panels carved with arms, forming ‘what must originally have been a splendid example of mediaeval sculpture’ (12). The high central panel bore a lion rampant within a bordure of roses having an elaborate crest above, which, in 1868, was much decayed but which Miller says (1830) shows a ‘horse's head bridled’. On the dexter a shield contained three legs conjoined for the Isle of Man, while that on the sinister displayed the saltire and chief of Annandale. As George the 10th Earl of Dunbar (d. 1416) was the first to bear the central arms, while Annandale had gone to the Douglases when he was restored to his Scottish possessions in 1409, these bearings can apply only to him and must therefore have escaped the destruction of 1488.

RCAHMS 1924, visited 25 May 1920.

(1) Miller's Dunbar, p. 4; (2) Scotich. Lib., xiii., c.xli.; (3) Acta Parl. Scot. ii., p. 2II;(4) Accts. Lord High Treas. s.a.; (5) Pitscottie's Chronicle of Scotland, S.T.S., vol. 1., p. 303;(6) Scot. Pap. i., No. 174; (7) Ibid, p. 208; (8) Ibid, No. 862; Cal. St. Pap. For. I559-60; pp. 404, 482; (9) Scot. Pap. i., No. 855; (10) Ibid, p. 484; (11) Act. Parl. iii., p. 33; (12) Archaeological Association Journal (with illustration) xxv. (1869) p. 344 ff. See also Grose's Antiquities of Scotland i., p. 88.

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