From castle to coast: A day in Dirleton, East Lothian

The more I see of East Lothian, the more I love it. Sitting adjacent to historic Edinburgh, this sprawling region of countryside, castles and coastline really is a gem — and makes ideal day-trip fodder for us when we need to escape the city! This weekend (after a bit of research and map reading via the WalkHighlands website) we ended up weaving through B-roads to the quaint hamlet of Dirleton.

Regardless of its size, there’s a huge handful of history here. Surrounding the traditional village green, Dirleton boasts an old-school inn, Victorian church tower and most impressively a medieval castle (now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland). Before we headed inside its walls, though, we put on our walking boots and headed north to stretch our legs.

Surrounded by fertile fields to all sides, Dirleton’s northern countryside soon falls away to coast. Just a mile’s walk from the hamlet, across a farm track and through a thin line of trees (part of the John Muir Way) we began to stumble upon the recognisable stubby, dry grass that partners the sea. Gravel soon became sand and — on the horizon — a rock, just off the headland, appeared. On it (which, as a self-proclaimed lighthouse geek I was a bit excited about) was Fidra Lighthouse.

They say that this stretch of coast — and rocky Fidra, with its stacks and scree — was a central inspiration for the author Robert Louis Stevenson, who allegedly based Treasure Island on this small isle of similar shape. Incidentally, Robert’s grandfather was the root of the Stevenson lighthouse dynasty (Robert was expected to go into the profession but shunned it for writing instead; not a bad choice). Stories like this always highlight to me how small a country Scotland is!

It’s not just Fidra that’s the crowning gem of Yellowcraig beach — as you walk further along, the volcanic lump of Bass Rock becomes visible, a tiny mirror of the larger mainland mound that’s North Berwick Law. The town too can be spotted ahead, but there’s something quite romantic about forgetting that civilisation and cars exist in favour of lighter listening: the waves hitting the shore.

We returned the same way we’d come (although you can extend the walk by following the strand) and arrived back at Dirleton with the sky greying. With the winter opening hours, we still had time to stop by Dirleton Castle. A hotchpotch of construction from different eras — the initial thirteenth-century fortress, targeted during the Wars of Independence, to the Ruthven lodging — the castle is a labyrinth of dark alcoves and roofless rooms.

The revered Victorian gardens are also well worth a wander, especially in late autumn as the fading sunlight gives the castle backdrop an orange glow. We traced the paths, finding the former doocot and spotting flowers which were still blooming even in the November chill.

The sleepy mood of the hamlet contrasted with its hidden history — the besieged castle and doocot; even the village green, allegedly the spot of witch trials — made Dirleton, for me, a must-return spot on my day trip list. Honestly, it almost hails from a fairytale in its twee perfection… As much as I love Edinburgh, it’s good to know an escape isn’t far away.

Have you got a favourite place in East Lothian?

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