10 of the Best Historic Sites in East Lothian | Historical Landmarks | History Hit

10 of the Best Historic Sites in East Lothian

From Iron Age hill forts to dramatic castles, East Lothian’s beautiful coastal landscapes are accompanied by a number of fascinating historic sites.

Amy Irvine

17 Aug 2022

Officially the sunniest area of Scotland, East Lothian has approximately 40 miles of coastline, running from Musselburgh to Dunbar, and is an easy day-trip from Edinburgh.

East Lothian’s unique position between the coast of the Firth of Forth and the Lammermuir Hills meant it was settled from ancient times. Once forming part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Benicia and later the Kingdom of Northumbria, East Lothian is even said to have been home to a battle in 823 where the Saltire flag of Scotland was conceived. 

Along with its coastal areas and historic market towns such as Haddington, East Lothian is also home to Iron Age hill forts, magnificent castles and grand stately homes. Here are 10 of the best historic sites to see in East Lothian.

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1. Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle was the imposing medieval stronghold of the influential Douglas Earls of Angus for around three centuries. Built in the mid-14th century by William Douglas, it was the last truly great castle built in Scotland. The castle survived numerous sieges, including by James IV in 1491, James V in 1528 and Oliver Cromwell in 1651, though after Cromwell’s siege the castle was utterly devastated and left in ruins.

In 1944, shortly before D-Day, captured German radars were moved to the castle and used in the training of RAF bomber crews (including 617 Squadron, the famous “Dambusters”). The techniques used to deceive the Germans about the actual location of the Allied invasion were perfected in the waters off Tantallon Castle. Today, the dramatic cliff-top castle ruins are quite a sight, particularly its remaining curtain wall. Visitors can climb up to the castle’s battlements and enjoy views over the North Sea to the Bass Rock and its large seabird colonies.

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Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Taras Young / CC BY-SA 4.0

2. Chesters Hill Fort

Chesters Hill Fort, 3 miles north of Haddington, is one of Scotland’s best-preserved Iron Age hill forts. It was probably built in the first millennium BC, and was defended by elaborate ramparts and ditches. Unlike others of the time, Chesters Hill Fort is not located on the highest point of its surrounding area. This would have left the houses vulnerable to attack, indicating the fort was designed more to show off status than for protection.

From a distance the fort appears mainly to be a grassy hillock. Measuring approximately 115 metres by 45 metres, the enclosure is surrounded by at least 6 earthwork ramparts encircling the interior. There is an elaborate entrance on the north-west and east sides, and evidence there were once several other settlements, pit alignments and ring ditches. Despite the passage of time, the remains of the roundhouses are still visible. Some of these overlap with the defences, indicating the fort went through two phases of occupation. Some of these houses may have been occupied when the Romans controlled parts of Scotland.

3. Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle is an imposing medieval fortress and previous noble residence in Scotland. Built in the 13th century by royal steward John de Vaux, Dirleton Castle was the home of the de Vaux family until 1298, when it was captured during the Scottish Wars of Independence. It later became home to two further noble families – the Haliburtons in around 1356, and the Ruthvens in around 1510, each of whom made changes and additions. In 1650 the castle saw conflict again when it was devastated by the siege of Oliver Cromwell following his victory at the Battle of Dunbar. It was put beyond military use and abandoned not long after.

Though largely in ruins, today guests can explore the castle’s many interesting features, from the vaulted basement to the ornate chapel. A highlight is also its several imposing towers, including the main 13th century keep or donjon, making it amongst Scotland’s oldest castle remains. Dirleton Castle is also home to picturesque 19th and 20th century gardens, including the world’s longest herbaceous border at 705 feet.

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Image Credit: (Public Domain)

4. National Museum of Flight, Scotland

This museum is housed in the original wartime buildings of RAF East Fortune, the UK’s best-preserved Second World War airfield. An air station was first opened at East Fortune in September 1915 for defence against German attacks. In 1919, Airship R.34 was stationed there – its flights from East Fortune to Long Island, New York and back in July 1919 were the longest journeys flown by an aircraft at the time. In June 1940, the site was requisitioned by the Air Ministry to aid nearby RAF Drem, and throughout World War Two, RAF East Fortune served as an operational training base. By the mid-1950s, sections had been requisitioned for storing civil defence equipment and later taken over for food storage.

The Royal Scottish Museum began acquiring historical aircraft from 1909, but. by 1971, the growing collection prompted the museum to acquire one of the hangars of RAF East Fortune as a storehouse for their aeronautical exhibits. This led to the eventual opening of a Museum of Flight at East Fortune in July 1975. The collections are one of the UK’s most important, covering all aspects of aviation. It is now the only national UK museum still collecting the history of commercial aviation, and the entire site is a scheduled monument with listed buildings.

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5. Newhailes House & Gardens

Situated in 34 hectares, Newhailes House is one of the most impressive 17th century Palladian houses in Scotland. The house was owned from 1709 by the influential Dalrymple family and continuously inhabited by them for nearly 300 years, until acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1997. Substantial additions were made in the early 18th century, with extensive structural and decorative detailing, including rococo interiors, Italian marble fireplaces, a Chinese sitting room and fine art collection. Once one of the most impressive private libraries in Scotland, Newhailes is widely regarded as a prominent historical fixture in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Today visitors can admire the fine collection of paintings, ceramics and furniture acquired by generations of the Dalrymple family, and see the kitchen and scullery. Along with guided tours, visitors can take a woodland walk in the 86 acres of tranquil 18th century designed grounds with views across the River Forth, where there is also an 18th century tea house, shell grotto, and elevated Ladies Walk.

Image Credit: Copyright: Atlas Obscura / JR Corney (https://www.atlasobscura.com/users/jrcorney)

6. Carberry Hill Monument

The Carberry Hill Monument is a small stone pillar at the summit of Carberry Hill. It marks the spot where Mary, Queen of Scots, spent her final hours as a free woman before her capture following the Battle of Carberry Hill. An inscription on the stone reads: ‘M.R. 1567 At this spot Mary Queen of Scots after the escape of Bothwell mounted her horse and surrendered herself to the Confederate Lords 15 June 1567’.

In 1565, Mary, Queen of Scots married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and had a son. Two years later, Lord Darnley was found murdered, and soon after, Mary married James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell – who many believed was responsible for the murder of Lord Darnley. After the marriage, a number of Scottish lords objected to Mary’s rule, and wanted to break Bothwell’s power over her. They assembled troops and on 15 June 1567, the conflicting sides fought at the Battle of Carberry Hill. As the battle turned against Mary, she surrendered herself to the Confederate Lords, buying time for her husband to escape the battle. Mary spent most of the following years in captivity and was eventually executed. 

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7. The Flag Heritage Centre

Athelstaneford is the birthplace of Scotland’s national flag – the St Andrew’s Cross or ‘Saltire’ – the oldest flag in Europe and the Commonwealth. Legend has it that the flag originated in a battle in 832 AD fought near the village. An army of Picts/Scots under Angus mac Fergus, High King of Alba, had been on a punitive raid into Lothian (then Northumbrian) territory, but were pursued and caught by a larger force of Angles and Saxons under King Athelstan, in the area just north of the modern village of Athelstaneford. Here, the Peffer Burn (river) flows into the Firth of Forth at Aberlady, forming a wide vale, which presented a major obstacle to crossing, and the two armies came together at the ford.

Fearing the outcome, Angus prayed for deliverance, and was rewarded by the appearance overhead of a white saltire cloud formation against a blue sky. The king vowed that if he gained the victory, then Andrew would thereafter be the patron saint of Scotland. The Scots won, and the Saltire became Scotland’s flag. Today visitors to the Flag Heritage Centre can view a video dramatisation about the traditional origins of the flag, and see the Saltire Memorial and the historic Parish Church and graveyard.

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8. Preston Mill

The picturesque Preston Mill is situated on the River Tyne at the eastern edge of East Linton. It dates back to the 18th century when it was owned by the Seaton Estate and maintained by engineer and millwright Andrew Meikle, though there has been a mill of some type on this site since the 16th century. A flood submerged the buildings in 1948, and in 1950 a local landowner gave the mill to the National Trust for Scotland. Milling firm Rank Hovis McDougall helped with renovations and the mill was able to carry on being used commercially, producing oatmeal until 1959 as East Lothian’s last working watermill. 

Today the River Tyne still drives the mill’s water wheel and machinery. Visitors can take guided tours the site and see an exhibition about the mill, and the Dutch-style conical roof of the drying kiln and pretty setting make Preston Mill a popular spot for artists and photographers. The mill also featured in the Scottish historical drama ‘Outlander’. Just across the River Tyne lies a 16th century Phantassie Doocot, with a horseshoe shaped parapet and 4-foot-thick walls that once housed 544 pigeons.

Image Credit: © Historic Houses 2022

9. Lennoxlove House

Set in woodlands on the outskirts of Haddington, Lennoxlove House dates back to the 1300’s and is described by Historic Scotland as ‘one of Scotland’s most ancient and notable houses’. It is a category A listed building and its wooded estate is also listed as a significant garden of Scotland. Once a Roman stronghold, the house went on to become a baronial caput (head) by 1250. In 1345, Robert Maitland acquired the land and built the house, known then as ‘Lethington Tower’. Due to its proximity to the border, the house was often under attack (it was burnt by English troops in 1549). 

Lennoxlove was then owned by the Blantyre family for just under 200 years until 1900, when Major William Baird inherited Lennoxlove from his grandfather, Charles Walter, the 12th and last Lord Blantyre. Lennoxlove is now the seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, having been purchased by the 14th Duke in 1946. The house comprises a 15th-century tower and has been extended several times, mostly in the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries. It contains a celebrated art collection including paintings from Van Dyke and important artefacts from Charles II, Napoleon and Mary Queen of Scots, including her letter casket and death mask, complete with eyelashes.

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10. Hailes Castle

Hailes Castle was a medieval stronghold, the pretty ruins of which date back mostly to the 14th century. However, some of the stonework at Hailes Castle is thought to have been constructed as far back as the 13th century, making it one of the oldest of its kind in Scotland. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the castle suffered 2 sieges. 

In December 1451, Sir Patrick Hepburn, 1st Lord of Hailes, dramatically extended the castle. He built a massive tower of 4 storeys on the west side, as well as a lower town on the east side of the thick curtain wall. In 1567, the grand castle hosted Mary Queen of Scots as the guest of her third husband, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. Free to enter at all reasonable times, exploring Hailes Castle is a fun stop along any journey. In particular, look out for its 2 vaulted pit-prisons.

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