Font Size

100% 150% 200%

Background Colour

Default Contrast
Close Reset

Dunbar Castle

Castle (Medieval)

Site Name Dunbar Castle

Classification Castle (Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Dunbar, Victoria Harbour, Castle; Castle Rock

Canmore ID 57687

Site Number NT67NE 8

NGR NT 67849 79332

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2019.

Toggle Aerial | View on large map

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council East Lothian
  • Parish Dunbar
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District East Lothian
  • Former County East Lothian

Archaeology Notes

NT67NE 8 6782 7930

See also NT67NE 24, NT67NE 26, NT67NE 147.

Not to be confused with Lamer Island, Battery (NT 68112 79348), for which see NT67NE 53.

(Area NT 6782 7930) Dunbar Castle (NR) (Ruins of)

(NT 6781 7933) Queen Mary's Room (NR)

(NT 7977 7929) Fort (NR)

Entrance to subterranean Passage

OS 6" map (1854)

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 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 (1859) 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 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'.

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'. In 1487 it was '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' (Acts Parl Scot). When war occurred in 1496, James IV found it advisable again to construct a castle at Dunbar.' This was apparently completed in 1501. A chapel dedicated to St John was also built (Accts Lord High Treas).

In the next reign Dunbar Castle was possessed by John, Duke of Albany, 'Governer 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 uttivant blokehouse and garnist it with artaillze pulder and bullattis'. This 'blockhouse' may be identified with the round structure (marked 'Fort' on the OS map) on what would have been an isolated mass ('inshoe = island) before being linked up with the rest by a bridge. In 1558 it was reported that 'the castle is old, full of old buildings (Scottish Papers) but in the spring of 1560 the castle was refortified by the French (Scottish Papers; State Papers, Foreign).

These French fortifications were probably in the main of earth and had to be destroyed in accordance with the Treaty of Leith (6th July 1560) where the reference is to 'rasing the new buildings at Dunbar (Scottish Papers). After April 24th, 1567, when Queen Mary was held prisoner in the Castle by Bothwell, Parliament ordered its demolition since it was no longer an effective means of defence (Acts Parl Scot).

A panel bearing the arms of George, 10th, Earl of Dubar (d. 1416) was in position above a large doorway until October 21, 1869, when it was blown down in a gale (F Grose 1789).


The date of erection of Dunbar Castle is not known, but in 858 it was burnt by Kenneth, King of Scotland. 'In 1073 it appears to have belonged to the Earls of March'.

F Grose 1789

In an account of the siege in 1337, it is stated that the postern at Dunbar Castle had a portcullis.

W M Mackenzie 1927

'A fortalice was there (at Dunbar) at an early period, certainly as early as the 9th century'.

T W Fish 1930

The remains of Dunbar Castle are as described above.

Visited by OS (DT) 28 August 1962

NT 678 791. An extended watching brief on a service trench revealed the following:- a stone-built culvert which may have been contemporary with the 19th century barracks; disturbed human bone and three truncated human burials probably in a medieval graveyard; part of a substantial rubble-built wall believed to be part of the 16th century French fort defences; a deposit of rubble and lime, perhaps part of a post medieval industrial process or mortar marking; part of an iron spur recovered from a deposit of silty loam contained animal bone possibly dating to the post medieval period.

Sponsors: SUAT, HS

R Cachart 1991.

NT 678 793. A fourth phase of excavation on the headland took place during November and December 1991. Four main phases of activity were identified.

Phase 1. The earliest activity on site consisted of a N/S ditch which formed part of the defences of the Native British promontory fort identified in the earlier excavation. This was followed by Dark Age activity.

Phase 2. Dark Age activity consisted of a possible large sunken floored building surrounded by two concentric post-trenches. Unfired clay loomweights were recovered from the floor of this feature.

Phase 3. Medieval occupation on the site was associated with Dunbar Castle. The foundations for the curtain wall were excavated as was an associated cobbled surface.

Phase 4. In the early post-medieval period part of the curtain wall was robbed out, presumably to be used in the construction of the 16th century French fort.

Sponsors: Historic Scotland, East Lothian Community Development Trust.

C J Moloney 1992.

On the whole as RCAHMS description. Dunbar Castle is closed to the public because of the danger of collapse, large blocks of masonry, some up to 5m in length, are visible in the small bay to the west of the castle and the entire structure is in a poor state of preservation.

Site recorded by GUARD during the Coastal Assessment Survey for Historic Scotland, 'The Firth of Forth from Dunbar to the Coast of Fife' 1996.

NT 678 793 A watching brief was undertaken at Dunbar Castle in May 2002 during the excavation of holes to receive posts for a new fence. There were no finds or archaeological features of interest.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: Dunbar Harbour Trust.

G Ewart and D Stewart (Kirkdale Archaeology) 2002.

Architecture Notes

Non Guardship Sites Plan Collection, DC/23408 to DC/23415, 1837, 1857, 1860, 1879, 1924, 1977 and 1978.



General Hutton Manuscripts volume 1 nos 28 and 29, sketch.


Publication Account (1981)

A castle at Dunbar dates from at least 1296 when a battle was fought for its possession between the Scots and the English. Late in the reign of James III the castle was forfeited and in the following year, 1488, was ordered to be 'cassyne doune' and utterly destroyed (RCAM, 1924, 26). The castle was ordered to be rebuilt in the following reign, at which time additions included a vaulted hall and a chapel dedicated to St John. A castle blockhouse was added in the reign of James V. French troops in 1560 fortified the castle with earth, but under the terms of the treaty of Leith the fortifications had to be dismantled. In 1567 the castle was finally ordered to be demelished (RCAM, 1921, 27). The fragmentary castle ruins oecupy a very bold situation. The remains are scattered over a rock standing 80 feet above the sea, which surrounds the site on three sides. In 1830 the body of the building measured about 165 feet from east to west and in some pl aces 20.7ft from north to south (Miller, 1830, 2). About the middle of the fortress was part of a wall through which there was a gateway surmounted by an armorial bearing. Much of the ruins as described by Miller in 1830 was affected by the channel for the new harbour in 1842 which cut through the site of the Great Hall, while further damage occurred in a gale in October, 1869.

Information from ‘Historic Dunbar: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1981).

Field Visit (March 2014)

ShoreUPDATE March 2014

As described. The east side of the rocky promontory on which the castle stands forms the western side of the harbour, with a modern quay built against it. Although the building is in poor condition, the main threat is posed by structural decay and collapse of the stonework rather than coastal erosion. The castle and its immediate surroundings remain closed to the public.

Visited by Scotland's Coastal Heritage at Risk (SCHARP) 2014


MyCanmore Image Contributions

Contribute an Image

MyCanmore Text Contributions