Tantallon Castle is a large red sandstone ruin from the 1300s which overlooks the beautiful coastline near North Berwick in East Lothian. The castle is one of the oldest curtain-wall castles in Scotland and it is one of the top-rated tourist attractions in East Lothian.
Review of Tantallon Castle
Visitors to the coastal town of North Berwick can explore one of the finest medieval fortifications in Scotland by heading south along the coastline for 3 miles, where they’ll find Tantallon Castle.
While the castle is pretty much in ruin it is managed by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) who have installed walkways that allow visitors to explore the castle walls along with information panels that explain the castle’s fascinating history.
There are lots of reasons to visit Tantallon Castle, with the view from the top of the castle walls probably being the highlight but there are a couple of other points of interest that make it worth a visit.
First, it’s home to the very last fortified curtain wall that was constructed in Scotland, so if you’re a history buff that’s something you can cross off your list.
And second, a nearby sandstone outcrop has a section cut into it that forms the smallest harbour in Scotland, so if you like exploring unusual places then Tantallon Castle is definitely worth a visit.
The castle dominates the landscape for miles around this beautiful part of the East Lothian countryside and the sandstone walls of the 14th-century fortress have been fascinating visitors for most of the last century thanks to its cliff-top location which offers views across the Firth of Forth and Bass Rock.
The top of the curtain wall is a superb spot to watch the seabird colonies that call this part of East Lothian their home, and if you want to explore the coastline to see more wildlife it’s just a short walk to Seacliff beach which is known for its giant rock pools.
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Things to do at Tantallon Castle
The castle itself is an amazing structure and both adults and children will enjoy roaming around its ruined walls and rooms.
The views from the top of the walls are amazing with the enormous Bass Rock in the near distance and the East Lothian countryside stretching away to the east and west, and there’s enough wildlife in the area that any nature-lover will be kept entertained for hours.
Looking in the opposite direction you can take in the sight of Berwick Law with its whalebone perched on the top, while to the east you can see Seacliff beach where you’ll discover the small harbour hidden amongst the rocks.
Heading down into the castle courtyard you can explore the ruins from ground level and photographers will no doubt enjoy snapping a few shots of the sandstone curtain wall that glows with the sun gleaming behind it.
If you head into the east tower you’ll find a replica of the gun that was used to defend the castle against James IV and James V (more photo opportunities), while children can happily go on a fact-finding quiz created by HES that’s guaranteed to keep them occupied for a good hour or two.
Heading back to the castle entrance you’ll find the information displays that will tell you all about the castle’s history under the stewardship of the Red Douglas’s while nearby you’ll find paths that will take you on a lovely walk down to Seacliff beach.
This is one of the best beaches in East Lothian due to the number of rock pools you’ll find in the sea-carved sandstone but it’s also worth visiting because the beach is beautifully clean and the sea is great for swimming in thanks to the protection it gets from the cliffs that enclose it on either side.
At one end of Seacliff beach you can look back to see Tantallon Castle looking absolutely magnificent against the skyline (wait for sunset – it’s an amazing view), while the other end hides the small harbour that was cut away using compressed air all the way back in 1890.
Because it’s partially hidden you’ll likely stumble across the harbour without even realising what it is, but while you’re there take a look back out towards the sea where you’ll glimpse an unusual stone beacon that marks the location of a huge partially submerged rock.
All-in-all, I can safely say a day spent at Tantallon Castle will surprise and please you in equal measure.
The history of Tantallon Castle
The castle was built in the mid-14th-century by the 1st Earl of Douglas after he became the leader of the Douglas clan and was principally designed to be a status symbol, although at this point in Scottish history the concept of curtain walls had already been superseded in favour of tower houses.
As such, Tantallon Castle was to be the last curtain-wall castle to be built in Scotland, and while only the landward section remains today, at one time the enormous stone wall enclosed the entire site.
The castle passed into the hands of the illegitimate son of the Earl of Douglas in the late 14th century and it was at this time that the Douglas clan divided into two factions, the Red Douglas’s and the Black Douglas’s, with the Red Douglas’s taking control of Tantallon.
While the two clans feuded for the next hundred years the castle became the main stronghold of the Red Douglas’s until a traitorous act by the 5th Earl handed it to James IV of Scotland.
Although previous earls had allied with the Royal House of Stuart, the 5th Earl struck a deal with Henry VII of England against James IV and in retaliation the Scottish king successfully besieged Tantallon Castle.
While the Red Douglas’s eventually found favour with the Scottish government it seems they had other intentions with England, and in 1525 with support from Henry VIII, the 6th Earl successfully took custody of the 16-year-old Scottish King James V.
However, the king managed to escape and several years later took revenge on the Earl with a massive bombardment of Tantallon Castle that lasted for a full 20 days. Although the king lifted the siege after being unable to bring down the curtain wall the Earl fled to England, leaving James V free to capture the castle.
The castle passed in and out of the hands of various Scottish nobles for another hundred years until its fate was sealed during the English civil war of 1650 when Oliver Cromwell’s forces laid siege and finally breached the castle’s defences.
After this defeat Tantallon was left in ruins, never to be inhabited again. Finally, in 1924 it was handed to the British government and today it’s held in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and is designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Discover more Scottish fortifications in my Guide to the Best Castles in Scotland.
- The castle is very interesting to explore and has lots of history to discover.
- The views from the top of the castle walls are amazing so take your camera. If you’d like to see Bass Rock close-up take a visit to North Berwick to catch a cruise from the Scottish Seabird Centre.
- The nearby beach is well worth exploring. Doubly so if you’ve got kids (or a dog).
- It’s not particularly well sign-posted. Best to use a sat-nav to find it.
- The east of Scotland is chock-a-block full of impressive castles. One of my favourites is Craigmillar Castle which is located just a few miles outside of Edinburgh and is easy to visit from Tantallon.
- If you’re in the area you might like to take a walk up nearby North Berwick Law which offers lovely views across the Firth of Forth.
Near North Berwick,
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Things to do near Tantallon Castle
- Seacliff Beach. North Berwick EH39 5PP. 6-minute drive. A wide, golden sand beach that offers superb views of the North Sea and Tantallon Castle. A large area of raised rock bed create large rock pools when the tide retreats. The beach is part of the Seacliff Estate who provide a paid parking area.
- The Scottish Seabird Centre. The Harbour, North Berwick EH39 4SS. 10-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.
- North Berwick Law. North Berwick EH39 5NX. 10-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.
- North Berwick. East Rd, North Berwick EH39 4LG. 9-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.
- Tyninghame Beach. Dunbar EH42 1XW. 14-minute drive. A very clean and less-visited sand beach that is separated from Seacliff beach by a lengthy section of shingle. There is a rough path that follows the coast south past Whitberry Point and St. Baldred’s Cradle local nature reserve. Tyninghame beach has a paid parking area.
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.