With two harbours to explore, sandy beaches, cliff walks plus a historic High Street to potter along, Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland is a great destination for a weekend break


Known locally as ‘Sunny Dunny’ due to its high annual sunshine hours, this thriving seaside town in East Lothian lies 30 miles equidistant from Edinburgh and the English border. Blessed with the bountiful North Sea on one side and rich agricultural land on the other, Dunbar is still a working town. Some fishing and farming families go back generations and there’s a strong sense of community here. Whether you’re attracted by the brightly painted fishing boats in the harbour, or the rolling green hills inland, there’s something to please the eye in every direction.

A Royal Burgh for over six centuries, Dunbar received its royal charter from King David II in 1370. The exclusive trading rights granted by the charter all those centuries ago find an echo in today’s proud trades’ association, and the town’s buzzing High Street is home to independent cafés, shops and galleries – no franchises here. Dunbar’s location near the border with England brought it regularly into conflict and two major battles took place here, in 1296 and 1650. The town’s ruined castle, once amongst the most formidable in Scotland, is gradually crumbling into the sea. Dunbar was also the birthplace of John Muir, one of Scotland’s most famous sons – a pioneer naturalist and conservationist who played an influential role in the establishment of America’s national parks. The town marks the end of the John Muir Way, the 134-mile walking route across the central belt of Scotland.

Approaching Dunbar from the south, we know we’ve arrived when we see a big brown bear at the side of the road. The DunBear, a new sculpture created by artist Andy Scott, is a symbolic tribute to John Muir, commemorating the 19th-century naturalist’s travels through America’s wild places. We check into the Dunmuir Hotel. The 1902 Grill dinner menu looks great, but tradition demands that we go for an evening stroll and some sea air. For a simple supper we plump for haddock and chips at Adriano’s on the High Street (01368 862791), run by local stalwarts Adriano and Marisa Andreucci, then round off the evening with a pint of locally produced Belhaven Best beer at The Volunteer Arms, overlooking the harbour (01368 862278, volunteerarmsdunbar.co.uk).

After a hearty Dunmuir breakfast we set out to walk the three-mile cliff-top loop, starting above the shingly beach near the castle ruins. This was once the site of an outdoor swimming pool, one of many that used to line the coast of Britain. In its heyday it saw thousands of tourists visiting every summer, but the increasing popularity of overseas holidays led to its eventual dismantling in 1984. The beach is now home to the annual European Stone Stacking Championships, which attracts competitors from all over the Continent (stonestacking.co.uk).

From the clifftop, the panorama is spectacular. To the north we can see across to Fife and the Isle of May, and the horizon is dotted with several volcanic plugs – including Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, home to the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets. The tide is out, allowing us to puzzle over the extraordinary local geology. The trail (which is the final stretch of the John Muir Way) skirts around the golf course and takes us down to the white sands of Belhaven Bay, where we watch the surfers before heading back into town.

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The sea breeze has made us hungry, so we score a takeaway lunch at the harbour from seasonal snack shack The Big Blu Sea (07790 003572). Munching on devilled Dunbar mackerel with mint and tomato salad, we watch fishing boats heading home with their catch; these days it’s mostly prawns, lobster and crab, but for centuries Dunbar was at the heart of the herring industry. Near the old harbour on Victoria Street there is a sculpture, The Creel Loaders, which celebrates the women who carried heavy creels of salted herring from Dunbar to local markets; it’s part of the Dunbar art trail (dunbararttrail.com).

We explore both harbours. The older one is named after Oliver Cromwell, who crushed the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 but later donated money to improve the harbour; the other (whose construction was witnessed by a young John Muir) is named after Queen Victoria. Between the two harbours sits the Battery, built in 1781 on columnar basalt similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. Newly restored, it’s now home to an outdoor performance space and a small garden. The Harbour Trust has installed interpretation panels around the harbours to share fascinating snippets of local history.

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With some afternoon left, we have time to explore the gaily painted, listed High Street. Like old-town Edinburgh, it retains many closes, wynds and vennels; one is reputed to be haunted, but others lead to unexpected delights such as the Backlands community garden. This is a High Street with real character, and it’s refreshing to find a range of independent and community-owned outlets insteadof the usual suspects, epitomised by the Crunchy Carrot, Dunbar’s enterprising community greengrocer and food store, and the Dunbar Community Bakery. The Found Gallery offers a range of work by local artists (01368 863030; thefoundgallery.co.uk).

Bijou micro pub The Station Yard entices us in on the way home with its array of Winton Brewery beers, including velvety Stooty Fruity Stout (01368 864322, station-yard.com).

Photo: The Rooks

We head inland to climb the hill Traprain Law, one of the volcanic bumps – called a ‘laccolith’ – that we saw on the horizon on yesterday’s cliff walk, which was once the capital of the Celtic Votadini tribe. On its western slope in 1919, a group of archaeologists discovered treasure: some 250 fragments of coins and exquisite silver tableware, forming the largest hacked-silver hoard found outside the Roman Empire. There are stupendous views from the top of the bump, too.

It’s back to town for lunch at family-run Graze Coffee and Chocolate House, where we order bowls of homemade soup with sourdough bread, followed by the best scones we’ve ever tasted (01368 864619, grazedunbar.co.uk).

Next, we visit John Muir’s Birthplace, a small museum in the house where he was born. It’s inspirational to learn how an ordinary boy from Dunbar came to be a world-renowned figure, whose camping trip in Yosemite with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 led to the federal protection of America’s wild places (01368 865899, jmbt.org.uk).

Next we hop across the road to Dunbar’s oldest building, the Town House, the hub of civic life here since the 16th century. You can take a tour of the old jail cell and Council Chambers where witch trials were once held. The building also has a gallery belonging to the Dunbar & District History Society (eastlothian.gov.uk/museums).

We haven’t had time to try surfing or paddleboarding (c2csurfschool.com), hire a bike (belhavenbikes.co.uk), or visit nearby Hailes Castle. But it’s good to know there’s so much more to come back for

For more weekend away guides and travel inspiration, head to our Places section or pick up a copy of the magazine.


• The award-winning Dunmuir Hotel is a family-run, dog-friendly hotel; Philip and Lesley (and Max the Dalmatian) will make you very welcome. Rooms are clean and simple, the bar is stylish and convivial and the breakfast sets you up for the day. Doubles from £97 B&B (01368 862033; dunmuirhotel.co.uk).
• The old Dolphin Inn has been transformed by its new owners into a chic hostel with 11 rooms, some dog-friendly: six doubles (two en suite), three twin, one triple and a bunk-room for six. It has a laundry/drying room, kitchen and bike storage. Standard £30ppn, en suite £35ppn (01368 868427; dolphindunbar.com).
• The Rocks is an 11-bedroom hotel in a fabulous cliff-top location, with doubles, twins and single rooms. If you’re not staying it’s a great place for dinner or drinks with wonderful sea views and an outdoor area. Standard double from £90 (01368 868385; facebook.com/therocksdunbar).
Dunbar lies just off the A1 trunk road. Trains run to and from Edinburgh (journey time from 25 mins) approximately every hour during the day. There are direct, regular rail services between London and Dunbar, calling at major towns.
For more information on Dunbar and surrounds, browse online at 60thingsdunbar.scot, dunbar.org.uk or visiteastlothian.org/