Dirleton Castle in East Lothian served three Scottish noble familes over 400 years. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction managed by Historic Environment Scotland. The castle gardens are renowned for having the world’s longest herbaceous border.
Review of Dirleton Castle
Dirleton Castle is a medieval fortress in East Lothian that you’ve probably never heard of, and yet it offers a fascinating glimpse into Scotland’s past that’s certainly worthy of a visit if you’ve got any interest in historic sites.
Located in the pretty village of Dirleton, the castle has been the focal point of the surrounding area since its construction in the mid-13th-century and during that time it served as the family home to three successive noble Scots families.
Make no mistake this is a historic site that’s well worth seeing, not only for the entrance towers which are some of the oldest of their type in Scotland, but also for the enormous gardens that house what is officially the longest herbaceous border in the world. I think it’s safe to say this is one attraction that’s full of surprises.
Your journey begins with a very peaceful walk through the trees of the Dirleton estate where meandering paths take you through impeccably maintained flowerbeds and lawns before reaching the imposing curtain walls of the castle, perched on top of a huge rock outcrop that must have made it an almost impenetrable fortress 800 years ago.
Although much of the fortified building is in ruins it’s still an impressive place to walk around and there are enough interesting features throughout the site that you’ll easily be able to spend a couple of hours exploring what’s on offer.
Extra points have to be awarded to this historic attraction for its location, and you’ll find a visit can be easily combined with many other attractions in East Lothian.
The wonderful Yellowcraig beach is just a couple of miles away where you’ll find a wide sweeping arc of sand that’s perfect for a sunny afternoon BBQ and part of the John Muir Way runs behind it so you can head out for a good walk if you want to explore a bit more of the coastline.
North Berwick is nearby as well (no more than 10-minutes by car) so you can explore the artisan shops and cafés that the town has to offer after a visit to Dirleton, or you can head a little further east to explore the dramatic Tantallon Castle and Seacliffe beach.
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Things to do at Dirleton Castle
There’s actually loads to see at Dirleton Castle, which is surprising as it’s one of Historic Environment Scotland’s lesser-known sites.
First there’s the castle itself, an impressive 13th-century fort that contains a great hall (now roofless and open to the elements) with its huge stone buffet, a large dome-roofed vault, two enormous towers, an equally enormous dovecot that at one time housed over 1,000 pigeons, and possibly the nicest landscaped gardens I’ve ever come across at a historic site.
In fact, many people come to Dirleton just to enjoy the gardens, and to be honest who can blame them? It really is a very peaceful place, especially on a summer day when the borders of flowers are in full bloom and as it’s relatively tourist-free it makes a great place to stop off for a picnic after a visit to nearby North Berwick.
As always with HES sites there are plenty of information boards so adults can learn a few new things about the history of the castle and it’s a great place to let the kids off the leash for an impromptu game of hide and seek.
The history of Dirleton Castle
Dirleton Castle was originally built as the family home of the de Vaux family in the early 1200’s, and it was at this time that the imposing towers that dominate the castle entrance were constructed.
Though originally from France, the de Vaux family were greatly favoured by King David I of Scotland who gave them the barony of Dirleton along with a considerable amount of land.
Unfortunately for the de Vaux’s their time in power came to an abrupt end during the Wars of Scottish Independence and after Dirleton Castle succumbed to the siege engines of English forces the de Vaux’s were forced to give up their new home.
Over the years, Dirleton passed in and out of Scottish and English ownership several times before being handed to the Haliburton family who subsequently became extremely powerful thanks to an act of bravery by Sir Walter Haliburton in the 1420s.
At the time King James I had been captured by the English, and Sir Walter offered himself as a hostage in order for the Scots king to be freed. On his release, he was rewarded by the king as Treasurer of Scotland.
The riches this role brought to the Haliburton family enabled them to extend Dirleton Castle extensively, with the original towers being heightened and a new gatehouse, hall, and tower house being added shortly after.
Although the Haliburton’s were wealthy, their riches were slowly spread out amongst other families when Patrick Haliburton died in 1505 due to the fact that there were no sons in the family to pass his inheritance to, only daughters.
The eldest daughter, Janet, married the 2nd Lord Ruthven in 1515, and so Dirleton Castle, along with the lordship of Dirleton, passed over to the Ruthven family.
Unfortunately for the Ruthven’s they were later embroiled in a conspiracy that led to the castle being forcibly given to yet another Scottish family in the early 1600s, when Patrick Ruthven joined the group that murdered the private secretary of Mary Queen of Scots.
Although he was pardoned for his involvement with that murder, Patrick is believed to have been part of a later assassination attempt on King James VI by his sons, John and Alexander.
The assassination failed and Dirleton Castle was yet again forcibly taken from its owners and for the next three hundred years it passed in and out of the ownership of various wealthy Scots.
During this time the grounds were extensively landscaped and the castle became more of a centrepiece for the gardens than a family home, and with the last private owner moving into the nearby Archerfield estate in the late 1600s, Dirleton Castle was allowed to fall into ruin until it finally passed into state care in 1923.
Discover more fortifications in Scotland with my Guide to the Best Scottish Castles.
- It’s got a long and interesting history to discover and as usual Historic Environment Scotland brings the castle to life with lots of information panels.
- The gardens are beautiful, especially the famous flower border.
- It’s pretty much tourist-free, yet it’s also close to the coastal town of North Berwick so if you want an escape from the summer crowds you might like to bear Dirleton castle in mind.
- After a visit to the castle I recommend you head down to nearby Yellowcraig beach for a walk along the sand dunes or head into North Berwick for amazing views from the top of Berwick Law.
- …or you can visit the National Musuem of Flight which is about a 15-minute drive away.
- If you’d like to visit more historic attractions and save on entrance costs buy a HES Explorer Pass. You can purchase them on Viator: Roam the world.
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Dirleton Castle
- Yellowcraig Beach. Ware Rd, North Berwick EH39. 5-minute drive. One of the top beaches in East Lothian. This beach features clean golden sand and shallow water so is well suited to families with young children. The John Muir Way runs past the rear of the dunes. There is a large car park, children’s play area, toilets and a snack van on-site.
- North Berwick Law. North Berwick EH39 5NX. 9-minute drive. A large volcanic plug that rises 187 metres above the coastal town of North Berwick. Berwick Law has well-trodden paths that allow relatively easy access to the whalebone sculpture at the top. The summit is famed for the stunning views across East Lothian and the Firth of Forth.
- The Scottish Seabird Centre. The Harbour, North Berwick EH39 4SS. 9-minute drive. An environmental visitor centre that aims to educate and entertain visitors with displays and exhibitions about Scotland’s coastal marine wildlife. The centre features a viewing platform that overlooks the Bass Rock and it is the departure point for pleasure cruises around the rock.
- Gullane Beach. Marine Terrace, Gullane EH31 2AZ. 7-minute drive. A large beach to the northeast of Aberlady nature reserve. The beach has paths through the sand dunes that link it to nearby Yellowcraig beach. There is a car park on-site. Gullane village includes a selection of pubs and restaurants.
- North Berwick. East Rd, North Berwick EH39 4LG. 8-minute drive. A very popular historic former fishing village that is now a tourist destination thanks to its golden beaches and proximity to the Scottish Seabird Centre and Bass Rock. The village high street includes a collection of gifts shops, restaurants and cafés.
More places to visit in The Lothians
- The Bass Rock – East Lothian: Complete Visitor GuideThe Bass Rock is absolutely enormous and reaches 107 metres above sea level at its highest point, with most of the sides of this 320 million-year-old volcanic plug standing almost vertical above the pounding waves of the Firth of Forth.
- Seton Collegiate Church – East Lothian: Complete Visitor GuideSeton Collegiate Church, known locally as Seton Chapel, is a collegiate church south of Port Seton in East Lothian. The church is situated next to the magnificent Seton House – which can be glimpsed through the trees at one end of the site – and the grounds are a total oasis of peace and quiet.
- Hailes Castle – East Lothian: Complete Visitor GuideLocated a mile and a half from East Linton in East Lothian, Hailes Castle sits in a beautiful riverside setting that’s perfect for an afternoon of exploring followed by a picnic next to the gentle River Tyne that flows behind it.
- North Berwick Law – East Lothian: Complete Visitor GuideStanding 187m above sea level, North Berwick Law dominates the landscape around the popular town of North Berwick.