Located deep in the stunning landscape of East Lothian stands Hailes Castle, a fortress that dates back to the 13th century. The castle’s key features include its well-preserved stone keep (one of the oldest in Scotland), its atmospheric pit prison, and the Great Hall which once echoed with the sounds of medieval merriment.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the fascinating history of Hailes Castle and offer insider tips on making the most of your visit. Whether you’re a history buff or someone looking for a new place to visit, read on to embark on a journey to one of East Lothian’s hidden gems.
Hailes Castle is 1.5m south-west of East Linton off the A1
Grid reference: NT 574 757
|Small roadside parking area outside the castle
Hailes Castle lies a mile and a half from the village of East Linton in East Lothian, bordered by the River Tyne to the north and just half a mile from the enormous Traprain Law to the south.
The castle was founded in the 1200s by Hugo de Gourlay as a tower house, but the structure we see today was built in the 14th century by the Hepburn family following the de Gourlay’s forfeiture after the Wars of Scottish Independence (1332-1357). Hailes Castle is now in the ownership of Historic Environment Scotland and is regarded as one of the finest castles of the era in Scotland, though as with many castles of this age, Hailes now is little more than a collection of ruined walls and outbuildings.
The castle is surrounded on all sides by fields and woodland so it’s a good destination for a walk in the East Lothian countryside, although as there’s no car park nearby you’ll be forced to park somewhere along the single-track road that runs alongside the site.
A recommended walk is to take the riverside path from the quaint village of East Linton to the castle, following the River Tyne for just over a mile with the option to continue to Haddington for another four miles if you’d like a longer trek.
The ruins of Hailes Castle are a great place to let the kids run around and it has to be one of the nicest historic attractions in the area if you visit on a bright summer day, especially if you combine it with a visit to nearby Seton Collegiate Church. You’ll also find the National Museum of Flight just up the road and East Links Family Park is just a 10-minute drive if you point your car in the direction of Dunbar.
1: Hailes Castle is a stunning example of medieval architecture, with features like the 14th-century tower house and the 15th-century central range. The castle’s ruins also include a pit prison, a chapel, and a dovecot.
2: The countryside setting of Hailes Castle is a good spot for a quiet summertime picnic. There’s a grass area at the back of the castle next to the River Tyne which is a nice place to sit as it sees few visitors, especially midweek.
3: Although it’s not exactly the biggest historic attraction in Scotland, kids will love exploring the ruins. If they get bored you might consider following the nearby footpath that follows the River Tyne to Haddington.
1: Unlike many Scottish castles, Hailes Castle is completely free to visit and is open 24/7. That means it’s unmanned and there are no facilities, but at least the attractive village of East Linton is only 2 miles to the north which has shops and pubs.
2: Car parking isn’t great as there are just a couple of spaces in a layby outside the castle walls. There’s room for another car further up the road at the turning which has a signpost pointing to the River Tyne. Be aware that this turning is used by farm vehicles.
There are quite a few areas to explore amongst the ruins of this historic attraction and children will be kept happy for a good hour as they poke around every hidden nook and cranny.
The biggest building within the 13th-century curtain wall is the 14th-century keep to which ranges were added in the 15th and 16th centuries. The other main building is the west tower which dwarfs the remains of the 16th century central tower, and there’s also a vaulted bakehouse and brewhouse from this time that can be seen in the basement area.
One of the most interesting sections of Hailes Castle is the large dining room which features the remnants of a massive but long-extinguished fireplace. If you look up you can see holes in the walls where roof joists would have held up the floor above, and it’s obvious that the dining room would have had an impressively high ceiling back in the day.
Because Hailes is one of the more out-of-reach castles in the Historic Environment Scotland catalogue you’ll often find that you’re the only person walking around the site, especially mid-week. That makes it a perfect spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of East Lothian’s towns, so if you visit don’t forget to take a blanket, a flask of tea, and a good book.
As the site is currently unmanned there’s no admission charge to enter and you’re free to spend as much time there as you like. There are a couple of points to note about this historic attraction though. First off, it’s located pretty much in the middle of nowhere so it can be a real pain to find. Do yourself a favour and look for it in your satnav before you head off (postcode EH41 4PY).
Alternatively, download an Ordnance Survey map of the area onto your phone. OS maps are ultra-handy when it comes to finding walks like the one from Haddington that I previously mentioned and I wholeheartedly recommend you check them out.
The second point to note is that the parking outside the castle is pretty poor so if there are more than a couple of visitors you’ll have to find a space on the single-lane road that runs alongside it. Just be aware that as there’s so much farmland surrounding the castle it’s best to avoid field entrances as they’re in frequent use.
Things to Do
Explore the Castle Ruins: Take a leisurely stroll around the site, soaking in the history of this once-grand fortress. Marvel at the size of the ruined walls, the atmospheric great hall, and the impressive dovecot.
Picnicking by the River: Nestled on the banks of the River Tyne, Hailes Castle provides a picturesque setting for a picnic. Pack a basket with your favourite Scottish treats, find a comfortable spot overlooking the river, and enjoy a peaceful lunch with a view.
Photography Experience: With its dramatic ruins, scenic river views, and lush surroundings, Hailes Castle is a great location for photographers. Capture the castle’s rustic beauty in different lights, click snapshots of the local wildlife, or experiment with landscape photography.
Bird Watching: The area around Hailes Castle is a haven for bird watchers. The nearby woodlands and River Tyne attract a variety of bird species, so take your binoculars and see if you can spot buzzards, kingfishers, and herons.
Things to Do Nearby
Preston Mill and Phantassie Doocot. Preston Road, East Linton EH40 3DS. 8-minute drive.
An attractive historic mill and a 16th-century dovecot that was used to house over 500 pigeons. The mill is open for public viewing but the main attraction for many visitors is the nearby River Tyne which is a haven for otters, kingfishers and herons. There are footpaths that follow the river for several miles.
Athelstaneford National Flag Centre. North Berwick EH39 5BE. 13-minute drive.
Athelstaneford is a small parish village in East Lothian around 7 miles from North Berwick that legend says is the place where a Scottish King founded the Saltire national flag after seeing it pictured in a cloud formation. There is a small museum dedicated to the Saltire behind the church.
Traprain Law. Haddington EH41 4PY. 5-minute drive.
A steep hill that’s 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. The summit is a popular picnic spot with locals.
The National Museum of Flight. East Fortune Airfield, B1347, North Berwick EH39 5LF. 14-minute drive. Scotland’s premier museum that 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.
East Links Family Park. East Links Family Park, Dunbar EH42 1XF. 11-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. There is a café and a gift shop on site.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I get to Hailes Castle?
From the A1, take the exit towards East Linton on the A199. Continue on the A199 until you reach East Linton. Once you’re in East Linton, take the Mill Wynd road out of the town to the southeast. After a short drive, you’ll see Hailes Castle on your left. It’s about a 15-minute drive in total from the A1 to Hailes Castle.
Who owns Hailes Castle?
Hailes Castle is owned and managed by Historic Environment Scotland. Historically, the castle was owned by Hugo de Gourlay before passing to the Hepburn family in the mid-1300s.
When was Hailes Castle built?
Hailes Castle was built in the early 1200s, making it one of the oldest surviving castles in Scotland.
What visitor facilities are there at Hailes Castle?
There are no visitor facilities at Hailes Castle and there is very limited on-road parking. The castle is unmanned and entry is free.