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 shell fishing today it is also a tourist attraction that offers visitors superb views across the North Sea from the Dunbar Battery.
Review of Dunbar harbour
The quaint 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 rugged coastlines, formidable castles and picturesque harbours seemingly around every corner, yet it’s almost criminally under-visited by tourists.
That’s kind of understandable due to the closeness of Edinburgh and its myriad tourist attractions, but if you have the time I thoroughly recommend you at least try to see East Lothian by visiting Dunbar – the popular seaside town that’s famous for its association with the conservationist John Muir (you’ll even find a nearby nature reserve dedicated to him).
This picturesque town is steeped in history but perhaps the focal point is the old Victoria Harbour that sits on the eastern edge nestled amongst an assortment of attractive former warehouses and granaries.
There are, in fact, three harbours in Dunbar – which is a bit 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 its protective walls 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, lies the remains of a building that is now in ruin and is obviously very, very old. This large outcrop provides the foundation of 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.
Unfortunately, the castle ruins are fenced off so you can’t explore it but there are plenty of other historic points of interest in the immediate area.
The oldest harbour section dates from the 1600s and it has seen more than its fair share of action over the years due to the fact that it served as protection for the town during countless sieges from the 1200s onwards – most notably in 1650 when it was captured by Oliver Cromwell.
Thankfully, Dunbar is a much quieter place in modern times and visitors prefer to enjoy its leisure facilities rather than pillage it, with the fishing industry (both commercial and pleasure) being one of the main reasons for its popularity.
While the herring industry has died away due to years of overfishing 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 this 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.
Seeing these craft slowly making their way out to sea is a strangely fascinating thing to watch so it’s fortunate there are plenty of benches along the secluded harbour walls, but if you’re a bit more adventurous there are many other activities to enjoy at this atmospheric old fishing port.
Read on to discover what else you can do at Dunbar harbour.
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Things to do at Dunbar harbour
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 and not only are there refuelling and water points but there are power sockets and plentiful berths to dock against.
There’s also 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 discover, and if you’re a novice you can easily investigate the shallow slab of rock that juts out of the south entrance wall.
There are other water-sports activities in addition to diving at Dunbar harbour and you’ll find more than your fair share of kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing and rowing clubs making the most of the adjoining coastline – which is widely regarded as being one of the best spots to catch big waves on the south-east coast.
Those who prefer a bit of history will be equally well-rewarded with 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.
This building looks for all the world like the first floor of a castle that has no roof but it has a rich history that dates back to 1781 so it’s definitely worth reading the information boards dotted about to learn about its role in Dunbar’s story.
Perhaps even better than its historical significance is the fact that the elevated walls are a great place to look out over the sea and enjoy the glorious coastline which this area is famous for (it’s not called ‘sunny-dunny’ for no reason you know…).
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 Valley, so it’s understandable that the town is proud of him.
There’s also John Muir Country Park just down the coast next to Belhaven Bay that’s great for family days out, but 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 North Berwick.
Whatever you decide to do during your time at Dunbar harbour I think you’ll enjoy it, so if you want a closer look scroll down this page to view a map and virtual tour.
If you’d like a picturesque coastal walk in the area check out Cove and Pease Bay.
- Feeling peckish? The harbour is close to Dunbar high street which has lots of cafés.
- This is a working harbour so you’ll be able to watch the boats sail in and out and it even has its own resident seal.
- There are lots of information boards that will tell you the history of the harbour, the castle and the old battery.
- There are benches on the harbour wall which are a lovely sun-trap and you can access the top of the wall for gorgeous views across the sea.
- Take a short walk to the John Muir Birthplace Museum or take a 10-minute drive along the A1087 to the John Muir Country Park.
- Explore the beautiful coastline near the harbour. There are wonderful coastal walks if you head south past Dunbar
Click the map for directions
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Dunbar Harbour
- Dunbar East Beach Front. 3-minute walk. Shingle and sand beach front 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.
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.