Athelstaneford

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Last Updated: by Craig Neil.

This walk from the East Lothian village of Athelstaneford, the birthplace of Scotland’s Saltire flag, passes ancient hill forts and beautiful countryside in an area that’s easily reached from Edinburgh. Discover this scenic village and the story that led to the founding of Scotland’s national flag in this guide which includes an overview of the area and lots of helpful tourist information.

Athelstaneford National Flag Centre
Address:Athelstaneford Parish Church,
Main Street,
Athelstaneford,
East Lothian,
EH39 5BE
Opening Hours:The Flag Heritage Centre is open from 9 am – 6 pm from April until the end of October
Admission Price:Free
Parking:On-road parking
Contact:info@scottishflagtrust.com
Facilities:None
Photos:Virtual Tour

Overview

This lovely walk across the rolling countryside of East Lothian will take you from a starting point at the birthplace of Scotland’s national flag to the 95-foot Hopetoun Monument on Byres Hill in the Garleton Hills area near Haddington.

This is an easy walk at around 5 miles that should only take 2-3 hours to complete, so it’s perfect for a quick jaunt to get some fresh air on a sunny afternoon, and you’ll even see a bit of history along the way. Starting in the small village of Athelstaneford, you’ll first stop to look at the museum dedicated to the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag, that was founded in 832 AD.

After exploring the museum, you’ll stroll through farmland before stopping halfway to see the ruins of a half-completed fort. From there, it’s just a short distance to a monument that offers sweeping views of the Firth of Forth and North Berwick.

Athelstaneford

The National Flag Heritage Centre

Athelstaneford is quite a small village and to be honest, if the National Flag Centre wasn’t in the grounds of the parish church you probably wouldn’t ever visit it.

It’s a nice place to start this walk, though, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t head around the back of the church to check out the museum before heading onto the route that leads to the Hopetoun Monument. The museum is unusual because it occupies an old doocot – a building originally used to keep pigeons – so it’s quite small.

Even so, The National Flag Trust has managed to fit an exhibition about the origins of the Saltire inside it, complete with a video telling the story of the flag’s origins along with several information panels. It’s worth taking a look outside the doocot because there are great views across the fields towards North Berwick, and you can just about make out the Bass Rock in the distance.

I was surprised to discover how interesting the story of the Saltire is, not just because it’s the oldest flag in Europe but also because its origins are rather unusual. The story goes that in AD 832, a battle occurred just outside of modern-day Athelstaneford between an army of Scots and a much larger army of Anglo-Saxons. When the Scots prayed to God for protection from an impending massacre, a cross-shaped formation of clouds appeared in the sky shortly after.

The Scots King Angus saw this as a sign from St. Andrew (who was crucified on a diagonal cross), so a vow was made to make St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland if the Anglo-Saxons were defeated. The Scots did indeed win, against great odds, and King Angus was true to his word, adopting Andrew as the nation’s patron saint.

The story is told in greater detail inside the museum, and there’s also a depiction of the battle scene carved into a granite plinth on the opposite side of the graveyard.

Athelstaneford Saltire Museum

Barnes Castle

You’ll find the remains of Barnes Castle halfway between the National Flag Centre and the Hopetoun Monument at the side of the track leading through open farmland.

When I first saw it, I thought it was just the ruins of a farm storeroom, but it’s actually an unfinished castle built in the late 16th century. The walls are several feet thick and are built with giant stones, but they’re only ten feet high.

It’s a weird-looking building, but it’s in a great location, perched in the middle of farmland with lovely views looking out towards Fife in the distance. The low-roofed structure was built by Sir John Seton of Barnes as a monastic grange – a landholding run by a monastery to provide food – but it was abandoned after Sir John died in 1594.

There are quite a few rooms inside but there’s a lot of old farm debris lying about so watch out for sharp bits of metal sticking out of the ground. It’s a bit creepy in there too, so you might want to give it a miss if you’re visiting when the light’s fading.

Scotland Flag

The Hopetoun Monument

The Hopetoun Monument was built in 1824 in memory of the 4th Earl of Hopetoun. It’s situated on the top of Byres Hill and is easy to find as it dominates the skyline for miles around. This B-listed monument is best reached from the small car park at the base of the hill, where you’ll find a path running through thick gorse bushes all the way to the hilltop.

At the base of the monument there’s an open doorway leading onto a narrow staircase that will take you up to a viewing platform 30 metres above, and from there you’ll find stupendous 360-degree views looking out across the Firth of Forth, Fife, and Edinburgh.

One thing to note is that there aren’t any lights inside, so it’s pretty dark. I recommend taking a torch when you visit because the steps are quite worn down in places, so you’ll need to take care climbing them.

Hopetoun Monument

The Highlights

1: You’ll see a lot of history in a short space of time on this walk, and it’s a great way to see the countryside of East Lothian.

2: The Saltire Museum is an interesting wee place and it’s worth visiting to see where the Saltire was founded.

3: The Hopetoun Monument offers fantastic views from the top, although it’s occasionally locked if access is deemed dangerous (the steps are rather slippery when they’re damp).

Visiting Tips

1: The National Flag Museum behind Athelstaneford chruch is unmanned, so don’t be surprised if you find the door locked.

2: To get to the Hopetoun Monument, you’ll have to cross a busy-ish road. A better option is to drive along the B1343 and park at the Hopetoun Monument entrance.

3: Visiting with children? You’ll find the National Museum of Flight just a few miles away, or if you prefer a little history, take a look at Seton Collegiate Church near Prestonpans. Alternatively, take them to Pressmennan Wood which is a lovely, secluded woodland that features a very pretty lake (not a loch, it’s one of the few in Scotland that’s classified as such).

Athelstaneford

Walking Route

This is an easy walk across farmland that’s relatively level although it can get very muddy in winter. Starting at Athelstanford, head to the church and have a good look around the National Flag Centre at the rear of the graveyard before returning to the road and following the footpath directly opposite.

This path will take you down a country lane and onto a small wooden bridge at which point you’ll turn left and continue over a turnstile and up a gently sloping field. At the end of this field turn right and follow the track until you see Barnes Castle.

After a quick look at the castle continue in the same direction and skirt left around the farmhouse before turning right on the B-road. A little way up is a signpost that’ll point you onto another path leading through fields and towards the top you’ll see a communications mast and the Hopetoun Monument in the distance.

You can continue in this direction towards the monument if you like but it’ll mean crossing a road, so if you don’t fancy braving the traffic I suggest you return to Athelstaneford and drive to the car park at the bottom of Byres Hill where you’ll find a path leading directly to the monument.

Athelstaneford

Things to Do

Visit the Scottish Flag Heritage Centre: This centre is located in Athelstaneford Church where, according to legend, the cross of St Andrew – the inspiration for Scotland’s flag – was seen in the sky in 832 AD. Learn about the nation’s history through a short audio-visual presentation and gaze over the same scenery that inspired King Angus nearly 1200 years ago.

Explore the Village of Athelstaneford: Take a leisurely stroll around this picturesque village. Its charming houses and quaint streets offer a chance to experience traditional Scottish village life and there are some lovely walks in the area, including a path that leads to the Hopetoun Monument where you’ll have superb views across East Lothian’s countryside.

Take a Scenic Drive to Traprain Law: Just a short drive from Athelstaneford is Traprain Law, a hill that with panoramic views that is also an important archaeological site with remains dating back to the Iron Age.

Visit the National Museum of Flight: Located in East Fortune, a short drive from Athelstaneford, this museum houses an impressive collection of aircraft from the earliest flying machines to modern jets. Experience the Concorde Experience, walk through a Boeing 707, and learn about Scotland’s aviation history.

Amisfield Walled Garden: Enjoy a leisurely walk around Amisfield Walled Garden, a beautiful hidden gem on the edge of Haddington Golf Club. The garden dates from the 18th century and is maintained by an army of enthusiastic volunteers.

Scotland Flag

Book Tours

Things to Do Nearby

The National Museum of Flight. East Fortune Airfield, B1347, North Berwick EH39 5LF. 13-minute drive.
Scotland’s premier museum celebrates aviation in all its forms, from planes to balloons. The museum is located in the grounds of a disused airfield and the exhibits are presented in two aircraft hangars and the surrounding grounds. There is a café and a gift shop on site.

Gosford House. Gosford House, Longniddry EH32 0PY. 15-minute drive.
A very grand country house designed by acclaimed architect Robert Adam. This 19th-century building is used for private events but is open to the public on certain days – see the Gosford House website for details. The extensive grounds contain woodlands that are open at all times. Entry to the grounds is free.

Hailes Castle. Haddington EH41 4PY. 13-minute drive.
A 13th-century castle situated on the banks of the River Tyne. The majority of the castle is roofless but most of the walls are still intact and there are notable features like the brewery, kitchen and great hall to explore. Parking is limited to roadside spaces but entry is free.

Traprain Law. Haddington EH41 4PY. 12-minute drive.
A steep hill that is a well-known landmark in the centre of East Lothian. A 1-mile path from a small car park to the summit offers panoramic views of the area and the summit is a popular picnic spot.

East Links Family Park. East Links Family Park, Dunbar EH42 1XF. 13-minute drive.
A family-friendly visitor attraction that is aimed at children with a collection of animal enclosures, a petting zoo, go-karts, bouncy castle and trampolines, a large multi-activity fort and much more.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between the Saltire and the lion rampant?

The Saltire and the Lion Rampant are two distinct symbols of Scotland, each with its unique significance and history.

The Saltire: Also known as Saint Andrew’s Cross or the Scottish flag, the Saltire is a white X-shaped cross on a blue background. The design is said to represent the crucifixion of Saint Andrew, who is the patron saint of Scotland. It is officially the national flag of Scotland.

The Lion Rampant: Officially known as the Royal Standard of Scotland, the Lion Rampant is a red lion on a yellow background, standing on one hind foot with three of the paws raised. This flag traditionally symbolizes the King of Scots and is currently used as a personal banner of the monarchs of the United Kingdom when they are in Scotland.

Why is the Saltire so-called?

The Scottish national flag is a white cross on a blue background. The name ‘Saltire’ originates from the Old French word ‘saultoir’ which describes a stile constructed from two crossed pieces of wood.

Does Scotland have the oldest flag?

The Saltire – Scotland’s national flag – allegedly dates from 832 AD which would make it the world’s oldest flag by several hundred years, although there is no surviving evidence that proves the flag was used at that time.
The earliest record of the Saltire being used dates to 1286.

Where is the birthplace of the Scottish flag?

Legend says that the Scottish national flag originates from a battle fought close to the village of Athelstaneford in East Lothian.
During the battle, two long white clouds are said to have formed in the shape of a cross against the brilliant blue of the sky.

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Craig Neil

Craig Neil is the author, photographer, admin, and pretty much everything else behind Out About Scotland. He lives near Edinburgh and spends his free time exploring Scotland and writing about his experiences. Follow him on Pinterest, Facebook, and YouTube.