Standing on the edge of East Lothian — with golden fields to your back, the Bass Rock ahead of you, and slim Fife on the horizon — you can almost imagine that this landscape has barely changed in centuries. Aside from the new roads and oil rigs floating out at sea, there’s one part of this rocky coastline which has seen its fair share of gunfire, rivalry and rebuilding: right here, at Tantallon Castle.
Constructed in the mid-fourteenth century, Tantallon was the home — and later defensive fortress — of the Douglas lineage. It’s obvious why the castle’s creator William (the first Earl of Douglas) chose this wild and windy spot, as three sides of Tantallon are naturally guarded by plunging sandstone cliffs. On the fourth side is a fifteen-metre, twelve-foot thick curtain wall, which was the last of its kind to be built in medieval Scotland. Add to this the gatehouse with its repeating chunky walls and former four stories of accommodation, and — regardless of the crumbling — you can easily picture how incredible this castle must have been.
Now, as if Tantallon itself wasn’t impressive enough, how about those views out to the world’s largest Northern gannet colony? Bass Rock — like the neighbouring North Berwick Law — is a volcanic plug, although its cliffs are far steeper. Diving down, around and into its hidden caves are the gannets which (with a zoom lens) you can watch swooping like confetti around the rock. If Tantallon is a measure of what medieval man can create, then Bass Rock testifies to the unmatched force of nature.
Inside the castle itself, we’re still as astounded. The accommodation and defensive quarters extend not just into the curtain wall and towers, but are again built upwards in the North Range. There is a bakehouse and kitchen on the ground floor, a great hall on the first floor and — in a damp and deep dug-out — is the prison, which was underneath the Douglas Tower (a gigantic seven floors of plush rooms for aristocrats). You can still climb the narrow spiral staircases and walk along the curtain wall, a feat that brought out the acrophobic in B.
Tantallon is remarkably well preserved for a castle of its age, especially having undergone several attacks. Although some of the decay is due to old age, the scars from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sieges have been patched up (these are the slightly ‘green’-looking lumps of stonework). Finally though, it was the attack from Cromwell’s army in 1651 that left Tantallon Castle in a state of relative collapse and therefore inhabitation. Yet, centuries later, Tantallon remains one of Scotland’s medieval jewels, a ruby contrast to the glinting white Bass Rock further out in the wild Firth of Forth.
How to get there: From Edinburgh, drive north-east on the A1 and — just after East Linton — turn left and follow the A198 to Tantallon (45-55 minutes). If you don’t have a car (or a willing taxi driver, like me!) you can take the train to North Berwick and then jump on the 120 Dunbar bus. This will take you about 80 minutes. View map.
When to go: Now! Not only is the weather better in summer (and certainly has been warmer the past few weeks) but you’ll be able watch the swallows dive in and out of the castle ruins and pigeon house. With Tantallon and Bass Rock as a backdrop, it makes for a pretty breathtaking sight.
What it costs: If you’re a member of Historic Environment Scotland (why aren’t you?!) then entry is free. Otherwise, admission is £5.50 (adult) or £3.30 (child).
Where to eat: We had a pit stop at the local supermarket for supplies before we went to Tantallon, meaning we could enjoy the summer sunshine with a picnic on the grassy outer court. If a rough-and-ready lunch isn’t your thing, or if the weather isn’t on your side, give The Lobster Shack or Osteria in nearby North Berwick a whirl. Oh, and when you’re heading home, you can’t not stop at the legendary S. Luca’s gelateria in Musselburgh. I think Vanilla Joe’s in the west coast town of Irvine may just have the edge, but Luca’s vanilla is pretty moreish too…