The Out About Scotland complete guide to Dunbar harbour in East Lothian
Category: Historic site
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Tour groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 7 out of 10
About 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.
This picturesque town is steeped in history, but perhaps the focal point is the old 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 an enormous rock, lies the remains of an impressive building that’s now in ruin but 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 2000 years and is most likely the reason why the town of Dunbar was formed in the first place.
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’s 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 using 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.
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 formed from 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’s got a rich history that dates back to 1781 and it’s well worth reading the information boards dotted about to learn about its role in Scotland’s past.
But 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 cafes 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 to get in and while it’s not exactly big (plan 30-40 minutes tops) 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 a smaller (ok, much, much smaller) John Muir Country Park just down the coast adjoining Belhaven Bay that’s also well worth a look, 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 pretty North Berwick.
Whatever you decide to do during your time in Dunbar I think you’ll enjoy it, so if you want to discover it check out the map further down this page and take a look for yourself.
What I liked about this attraction
- Feeling peckish? The harbour is close to Dunbar high street which has lots of cafes
- This is a working harbour so you’ll be able to watch the boats sail in and out
- There are lots of information boards that’ll tell you the history of the harbour
My top tips
- There are benches on the harbour wall which is a lovely sun-trap
- Take a short walk to the John Muir Birthplace Museum
- Explore the beautiful coastline near the harbour at the John Muir Country Park
Photos and video
Address and map
Click the map for directions
Prices and opening times
There is no fee to visit Dunbar harbour.
The harbour is open 24/7, 365 days a year.
Telephone: Harbour Master 01368 865 404
Website: Dunbar Harbour Trust
Getting there: Bus stop nearby, Car park nearby
Getting around: Disabled access, Easy-access paths, Pushchair access
On-site conveniences: Gift shop, Hot drinks, Restaurant/cafe, Snacks, Toilets (all in Dunbar centre, 10-minute walk)
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