The historic harbour at Dunbar in East Lothian dates from the 17th century. At that time, it was primarily used for fishing vessels, and while it is still used for commercial shellfishing today, it’s also a tourist attraction that offers visitors superb views across the North Sea from the Dunbar Battery. The harbour is also a starting point for scenic walks along the coast, where you can enjoy views of the North Sea and the rugged beauty of the East Lothian coastline.
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The coastal town of Dunbar is located just 30 miles east of Edinburgh on a stretch of coastline that’s famed for being one of the most scenic in Scotland. This part of East Lothian is extraordinarily pretty, with golden beaches, formidable castles, and picturesque harbours seemingly around every corner.
Dunbar is steeped in history, but perhaps the focal point is the Victoria Harbour on the town’s eastern edge, nestled amongst an assortment of former warehouses and granaries. There are, in fact, three harbours in Dunbar, which is surprising seeing as it’s not that big, but back in the 17th century, this was one of Scotland’s biggest herring and whaling ports, and it had countless fishing boats sailing in and out of it each day.
You’ll get an immediate sense of the history of the place as soon as you step foot onto the quayside. At the far end of the harbour, sitting on top of a large outcrop, lie the remains of a building that’s now in ruin and isn’t much more than a few crumbling walls. This is Dunbar Castle, a fortification that’s believed to have existed in one form or another for at least 2,000 years and is most likely the reason why the town of Dunbar was founded.
The oldest part of the harbour dates from the 1600s, at a time when herring fishing was the town’s main source of income, while in modern times it’s mainly used for leisure activities. Although herring fishing has shrunk massively and the whaling industry has long since vanished (thank goodness), there are still plenty of wee craft sailing in and out of the harbour each day, mostly landing shellfish caught with environmentally-friendly creel pots.
There are lots of pleasure craft at the harbour too, and you’ll frequently see charter boats setting off into the North Sea with keen anglers onboard, as well as a constant stream of private boats using the harbour as a launching point.
1: Dunbar Harbour is home to the remnants of Dunbar Castle, which is entirely in ruin. Although not all areas are accessible to the public for safety reasons, the site still offers an evocative glimpse into East Lothian’s past.
2: The harbour and nearby coastline offer excellent opportunities for wildlife watching. It’s not uncommon to see seals, and if you’re lucky, you might spot dolphins in the waters nearby.
3: The harbour area hosts various events throughout the year, including the Dunbar Traditional Boat Festival which showcases maritime heritage and offers family-friendly activities.
1: There are benches on the harbour wall that are lovely suntraps, and you can access the top of the wall for great views across the sea.
2: If you’d like to experience more of Dunbar’s history, I recommend taking a short walk to the John Muir Birthplace Museum. Address: 126 High Street, EH42 1JJ.
3: The harbour is a starting point for scenic walks along the coast where you can enjoy views of the North Sea and the rugged beauty of the East Lothian coastline. There are wonderful coastal walks if you head north or south past Dunbar, but the highlight has to be the John Muir Country Park.
If you’re into sailing and live on the east coast of Scotland, then Dunbar Harbour offers a great place to stop and rest. For such a small port, the facilities are impressive, with refuelling and water points as well as power sockets. The harbour’s also home to a busy sailing club in addition to diving clubs that enjoy some of the cleanest waters in Scotland.
The area just beyond the old harbour walls offer superb diving opportunities, with five small islands a short distance from the shoreline and three wrecks to explore. In addition to diving at Dunbar Harbour, visitors can take part in kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing, and rowing. The coastline near Dunbar is widely regarded as being one of the best spots to catch big waves on the southeast coast, and has even been voted one of the best places for surfing in Scotland in previous years.
Those who prefer historic sites will be interested by the Dunbar Battery on the eastern edge of the harbour wall, which is an open-air venue built inside the remains of a former munitions depot and hospital. The site looks like the first floor of a castle with no roof, but it has a history that dates back to 1781, so it’s worth reading the information boards dotted about to learn about its role in Dunbar’s past.
Outside of the harbour lies the town centre with its quiet high street and cafés, so you won’t be too far from a decent (and reasonably priced) meal during your visit, but in my opinion, the highlight of the town has to be the John Muir Birthplace Museum. The museum is totally free, and while it’s not exactly the biggest museum in the world (plan 30–40 minutes for your visit), it’s very well presented and is full of fascinating displays, documents, and exhibits.
John Muir, if you haven’t heard of him, was an environmental campaigner who was born in Dunbar in 1838 and was instrumental in developing the biggest national parks in the United States, including Yosemite, so it’s understandable that the town is proud of him.
There’s also the John Muir Country Park just down the coast next to Belhaven Beach, which is great spot for family days out. In addition, if you really want to explore this part of East Lothian, you won’t go wrong by following the John Muir Way which starts in Dunbar and continues along its first stage to the equally picturesque town of North Berwick.
Things to Do
Harbour Boat Tours: Begin your visit right on the water with a boat tour from Dunbar Harbour. These guided tours offer fantastic views of the surrounding coastline, local wildlife, and historic landmarks, providing an immersive look at this often-missed part of Scotland.
See Dunbar Castle: No trip to Dunbar is complete without seeing the historic ruins of Dunbar Castle. Standing as a testament to Scotland’s rich history, the castle offers a fascinating glimpse into the past.
Sea Angling: The coastline around Dunbar Harbour is a popular spot for sea angling. Whether you’re an experienced angler or a novice, casting a line into these waters is a rewarding experience. If you’d rather stick to the confines of the harbour, consider casting a crab fishing line instead – just watch you don’t lose your catch to the resident harbour seal!
Bird Watching: Thanks to the nearby John Muir Country Park, the area around Dunbar Harbour is home to a diverse range of bird species. Grab your binoculars (link to binocular reviews) and spend a relaxing afternoon bird-watching. Look out for kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins, among other types of birds.
Photography: With its picturesque setting, Dunbar Harbour is a great location for photography enthusiasts. Capture stunning shots of the harbour at sunset and the bustling life of the fishing boats that sail in and out throughout the day.
Things to Do Nearby
Dunbar East Beach Front. 3-minute walk.
Shingle and sand beachfront with narrow paths that offer superb coastal views. A popular walk is from Dunbar heading south to Whitesands Bay.
John Muir’s Birthplace Museum. 126 High St, Dunbar EH42 1JJ. 6-minute walk.
A privately run museum that explores the story of John Muir who grew up in Dunbar and moved to America to create the United States’ greatest national parks.
The John Muir Way. Dunbar EH42 1YW. 4-minute walk.
The John Muir Way runs from Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland all the way to Helensburgh on the west coast. This first/last section follows the East Lothian coastline past North Berwick and on to Prestonpans.
Dunbar Townhouse Museum and Gallery. High St, Dunbar EH42 1ER. 7-minute walk.
A small council-run museum that displays historical artefacts and art exhibitions centred around Dunbar’s local history. The museum is located in a traditional 16th-century townhouse.
Dunbar Leisure Pool. Castle Park, Dunbar EH42 1EU. 5-minute walk.
Public swimming pool with a wave machine, fitness centre, water jets and a flume.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you fish at Dunbar Harbour?
Dunbar Harbour is not suitable for fishing, however, it’s a popular launch point for fishing boats and there is good inshore fishing close to the harbour. The fishing charter boat Andara 11 is licenced for up to 6 anglers and operates out of the harbour.
What happened to Dunbar Castle?
There was a fortification on the site of Dunbar Castle from the 7th century and it was continually renovated given improvements until the mid-1500s. After Mary Queen of Scots abdicated and departed Scotland in 1567, the castle was destroyed under orders of the Parliament of Scotland.
What coast is Dunbar on?
The historic fishing town of Dunbar is located on the southeast coast of Scotland in the county of East Lothian. The town faces the North Sea and is situated 30 miles east of Edinburgh.
What visitor facilities are there at Dunbar Harbour?
Facilities are limited at Dunbar Harbour. Visit the facilities page for updated information on available facilities. Food, drink, public toilets and car parking can be found in the centre of Dunbar.