The Best Historic Attractions in East Lothian

By Craig Neil
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The historic county of East Lothian is situated to the east of Edinburgh and Midlothian, and to the north of the Scottish Borders.

Although it isn’t one of the main tourist destinations in Scotland it has some of the country’s most interesting historic sites including Tantallon Castle, Hailes Castle, and the National Flag Centre.

Discover the best historic attractions in East Lothian with this complete visitor guide which includes suggestions for places to visit including the main towns.

east lothian

The best historic attractions in East Lothian

Dirleton Castle

  • Address: Dirleton, East Lothian, EH39 5ER
  • Contact details: Telephone: 01620 850 330
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: Dirleton Castle
Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle can be found a short distance from Yellowcraig beach in the quiet East Lothian village of Dirleton. Although it’s not one of Historic Environment Scotland’s biggest sites, it’s definitely worth visiting.

The castle is in a great location for tourists thanks to nearby beaches like Yellowcraig and Gullane, and North Berwick is just up the road with its quaint craft shops and cafés.

Visitors looking for more history will find the dramatic Tantallon Castle a little further around the coast, and families can include a trip to the National Museum of Flight which is just 6 miles to the south.

For such a quiet region of Scotland, there’s a surprising amount of things to do around Dirleton castle.

Dirleton Castle

There’s not a huge amount going on in Direlton village but the castle is a great place to visit and it has a couple of features that might surprise you.

First, it officially has the world’s largest herbaceous border. Even if you’re not particularly interested in gardens you’re going to like the one at Dirleton.

Second, the entrance towers are some of the oldest and biggest in Scotland. In fact, they’re so solid they look like they’ll easily last another 500 years.

Look and learn, modern housebuilders.

Other points to note as you visit Dirleton Castle are the dovecote that once housed more than a thousand pigeons (a popular food source in the Middle Ages) and the cavernous underground cellars where grains and beer were stored for the lean winter months.


Dunbar Harbour

  • Address: Dunbar, East Lothian, EH42 1HU
  • Contact details: NA
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: Dunbar Harbour
Dunbar Harbour

Dunbar might not be the first place you think of when it comes to tourist attractions, but this historic town has a surprising amount of things to see and do.

As the birthplace of famed conservationist John Muir, Dunbar is proud to have a museum devoted to him as well as a large nature reserve next to Belhaven Bay, and there are a number of superb golden beaches on either side of this section of East Lothian’s coastline.

Another attraction that’s often missed by visitors is the historic 17th-century fishing harbour on the eastern edge of the town. The harbour is still in use for commercial fishing vessels but it’s now a world away from the 1600s when Dunbar was one of the busiest herring ports in Scotland.

Walking along the 300-year-old harbour walls is like taking a wee trip back in time as much of the original harbour is still intact – as is the Dunbar Battery situated to the north.

The battery had several uses over the years as a weapons store and a military hospital but these days it’s mainly used as an open-air venue for concerts.

During the day, tourists are welcome to climb the battlements to view the panoramic views of Dunbar’s coastline and there are information panels throughout the site that explain the harbour’s use as a fishing port and a military base over the years.

An even older historic building is Dunbar Castle which lies on the opposite end of the old Victoria Harbour.

This is a small fortification that’s sadly off-limits to the public, but it’s worth viewing as the easily-defended location is the main reason why the town exists. In fact, it’s believed multiple forts have stood on the site for more than 2,000 years.

Those looking for a little more action can charter boats that will take them into the North Sea for a sea fishing experience, and there’s also a dive school that takes visitors around several wrecks close to Victoria Harbour.


Hailes Castle

  • Address: Hailes Castle, Haddington, EH41 4PY
  • Contact details: NA
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: Hailes Castle
Hailes Castle

The sleepy, rural area between Haddington and East Linton is one place in Scotland that you’ve possibly got no intention of visiting, but I can at least suggest one good reason why you should try to head out there – Hailes Castle.

This 14th-century ruin is a bit of a hidden gem in my opinion, not just because it’s free to enter but because it’s set in a remarkably peaceful riverside setting next to the River Tyne.

There are loads of great walks in this part of East Lothian and I think it’s the perfect place to forget about the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh (just 40-minutes away by car) but it’s also an interesting historic attraction.

Like Dirleton Castle, Hailes is really just a collection of ramshackle ruined walls but you can still get a real sense of how grand it must have been back in the 1300s.

Hailes Castle

Apparently, the Hepburn family (the original owners of Hailes Castle) were renowned for entertaining guests and they must have had a great time at this attractive riverside setting.

While you won’t be able to have your own grand banquet on the castle grounds, the bank of the River Tyne is a perfect spot for a summer picnic.

Just don’t forget to pack your Scotch eggs (which you can learn how to make in my Guide to Traditional Scottish Food You Have to Try).


The National Flag Centre

Athelstaneford 3 min

The National Flag Centre is probably the smallest attraction in East Lothian, as well as being one of the most difficult to find.

The centre is situated in the tiny village of Athelstaneford which is set deep in the heart of the county around 3 miles (4.83 km) northeast of Haddington.

Legend has it that the Saltire – the national flag of Scotland – was founded in AD 832 when a battle was fought just outside the village boundary.

Legend has it that an army of Scots found themselves pitched against a much larger army of Anglo-Saxons, and as the Scots King Angus prayed for victory the clouds above his head formed a white cross set against the brilliant blue of an otherwise cloudless sky.

The Scots won the battle and from that moment they took the image of a white cross against a blue background as their national flag, which is now the oldest flag in Europe.

Athelstaneford

Visitors to Athelstaneford will find a small museum dedicated to the Saltire behind the village church which has several information panels as well as an informative video that explains the battle in detail.

Curiously, this museum is the only one in Scotland that’s located inside a Doocot (an old pigeon coop) so as you can imagine it’s not exactly big, but it’s certainly interesting.

After seeing the museum, visitors can take a pleasant walk through the countryside behind Athelstaneford where they will get a better view of the landscape that inspired the Saltire.

The waymarked trail starts opposite the church and continues across fields to the single-storey 16th-century Barnes Castle before finishing at the Hopetoun Monument which is a memorial dedicated to the 4th Earl of Hopetoun.

The monument is privately run but is open for free entry most days, with a winding staircase up the tower that takes visitors onto a platform that has unrivalled views of East Lothian’s countryside.


North Berwick Law

  • Address: Law Road, North Berwick, East Lothian
  • Contact details: Telephone 01620827459 (Countryside officer)
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: North Berwick Law
Berwick Law

If you’ve already been to North Berwick you might have seen an enormous hill dominating the landscape around East Lothian’s northeast corner.

This giant landmark is Berwick Law, a volcanic plug that rises 190 metres above the landscape bordering the crashing waves of the North Sea.

It’s easy to find Berwick Law as it’s well signposted from North Berwick, so if you’re in the town to enjoy its beaches, shops, or seabird centre, you might like to spend an extra hour climbing to the top of the conical hill that shadows the southern edge of the town.

There’s a winding path that runs all the way to the top of Berwick Law from the car park at the bottom, and although it’s not a long walk it’s quite steep so it’ll likely take you the best part of an hour to get up and down it.

Berwick Law

Once you get up there prepare to whip your camera out because the views are absolutely fantastic. To one side you can see Tantallon Castle, towards the sea lies North Berwick with the Bass Rock a short distance away, and to the other side are East Lothian’s best beaches of Yellowcraig and Gullane.

The Law has been used for hundreds of years as a lookout post and there’s an old WWII bunker still up there gazing out across the Firth of Forth for any signs of a long-since-vanished German invasion.

Another historic point of interest is the enormous whalebone sculpture that sits at the top of Berwick Law.

The bones form an arch as a commemoration of the whales that were hunted throughout the North Sea by Scotland’s whaling industry.

Thankfully the whaling industry has died out in the UK but the two bones (don’t worry – they’re fibreglass replicas) are a reminder of how times have moved on.


Prestongrange Museum

  • Address: Morison’s Haven, Prestonpans, East Lothian, EH32 9RX
  • Contact details: Tel 0131 653 2904
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: Prestongrange Museum
Prestongrange

Prestonpans near Musselburgh is a prime example of East Lothian’s long-gone mining industry.

Like many of the county’s rural villages, Prestonpans lies on a large seam of coal, but what sets it apart is the fact the village is close to the sea which is the reason why it also had a profitable salt-panning industry for hundreds of years.

For over 800 years the harbour at Prestonpans saw goods sail in and out in quantities that rivalled Leith in Edinburgh, but with the decline in coal mining in the 1960s the port was abandoned and so was the Prestongrange mine behind it.

Today, the buildings that comprise Prestongrange have been partially restored and are accessible to the public as a free-to-visit open-air museum complete with an audio tour.

It’s not as impressive as the National Mining Museum in Gorebridge admittedly, but it’s an interesting place to visit and there’s enough to see to keep visitors occupied for the best part of an hour.

You’ll find the museum on the B1348 just after the entrance to Levenhall Links leisure park. There’s a parking area outside the museum on a tarmacked road which runs past a small visitor centre (only open in summer) with several buildings spread across the site in all directions.

Note that none of these buildings are open to the public except on pre-booked guided tours, but you can walk around the outside of them at any time and (rather unusually) the audio tour is accessed via a phone number so you can listen to it on your mobile device 24 hours a day.

When you’ve finished exploring Prestongrange I recommend heading across the other side of the road to try to find the remains of the abandoned harbour before walking along the seafront to access Levenhall Links.

This is the site where mined rocks and coal slag from the Prestongrange mine were deposited. For many years the site was cordoned off for safety reasons, but it is now open as a wildlife reserve.

A number of freshwater lagoons have been built inside the renovated waste ground which are a haven for wildfowl, and visitors are welcome to view them from three purpose-built bird-watching hides.

If you’re thinking about picking up a pair of birdwatching binoculars take a look at my Guide to Birdwatching Binoculars which has a selection of great value optics.


Preston Mill

  • Address: Preston Road, East Linton, EH40 3DS
  • Contact details: Tel 01620 860426
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: Preston Mill
Preston Mill

As a county that’s often called ‘the nation’s larder’, it’s no surprise that East Lothian is home to some of the most picturesque farming landscapes in Scotland.

There are hundreds of historic farm buildings in the quaint villages that dot this underrated part of the country, but one of the best-known is located next to the babbling waters of the River Tyne in East Linton.

Preston Mill is set in an extraordinarily pretty area with rolling hills spread out in all directions which are only broken by the sleepy village to the west. In fact, it’s so attractive the epic 134-mile John Muir Way briefly diverts through it on its way to its end point at Dunbar.

The grain mill was built in the 18th century and saw commercial use right up until the 1950s, after which it was purchased by the National Trust for Scotland who renovated the buildings back to how they would have looked over two hundred years ago.

Preston Mill Phantassie Doocot

There’s no fee to walk around the outside of the buildings (as long as the gate is unlocked), but there’s a small fee to join a guided tour which takes visitors inside to hear stories of how grain was milled back in the day and what life was like for the people who worked there.

It shouldn’t take much more than an hour to complete a visit (including the tour) but at least the mill is close to a number of other attractions that are within a short drive including Hailes Castle, Traprain Law, and the National Museum of Flight.

There are a couple of unusual features of Preston Mill that have gained it a small amount of fame.

First is the unusual Dutch-style conical roof on the mill house which is unlike any other in Scotland, and second is the Phantassie Doocot – one of the largest pigeon coops in Scotland – which lies a half mile to the south.

An interesting point to note is that the mill was used during the filming of the TV series Outlander so it’s often visited by fans of the show.

If you’d like to know more about sites used as Outlander locations take a look at this article: Outlander Filming Locations Near Edinburgh.


Seton Collegiate

  • Address: Longniddry, EH32 0PG
  • Contact details: Tel 01875 813334
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: Seton Collegiate
Seton Collegiate Church

Seton Collegiate is a historic attraction located near the village of Longniddry that’s managed by Historic Environment Scotland.

The church dates back to the 1200s but it’s remarkably well-preserved thanks to the restoration work undertaken by HES who charge a small entrance fee for the upkeep of the building and maintenance of the car park.

As churches go this is one of the smallest in HES’s roster but it’s no less interesting for it, and it offers an interesting insight into Scotland’s religious history.

The church was originally designed by the wealthy Preston family as a collegiate to train priests and was expanded several times into the building we see today, but it fell out of use after the Jacobite-supporting Preston’s lost their power during the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Seton Collegiate Church

Today, Seton Collegiate is a fine example of medieval architecture and is a popular attraction thanks to its manicured gardens and intricate external stonework that’s reminiscent of the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian.

Sadly, while Rosslyn Chapel is full of attractive carvings on the inside, Seton Collegiate is quite plain, but at least there are lots of information panels that help to explain the story of the Preston family and the reasons why they built such a large college.

Next to the collegiate is a very grand castle that looks like it’s part of the attraction but is, in fact, privately owned and off limits.

However, if you’d like to experience a wee bit more history you’ll find the Battle of Prestonpans viewing platform a mile west on the A198 where you can view the site of one of the most important battles of the Jacobite uprising.


Tantallon Castle

  • Address: Tantallon Castle, North Berwick, East Lothian, EH39 5PN
  • Contact details: Tel 01620 892 727
  • Out About Scotland complete guide: Tantallon Castle
Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle is one of my favourite historic sites in East Lothian, not only because it’s a fascinating place but also because it’s set in one of the nicest stretches of coastline in the county.

The castle is located close to North Berwick and North Berwick Law so it can be easily combined with a visit to either of those recommended East Lothian highlights, and it also overlooks Seacliff beach which is the best beach I’ve found so far in Scotland for guddling about in rockpools.

The castle is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland so there are plenty of information boards dotted about if you want to learn about its history.

Tantallon Castle

HES has also restored part of the castle walls and towers so that you can climb to the top to see the amazing views across the lovely East Lothian countryside.

This sandstone fortress features the last fortified curtain wall that was built in Scotland and with the cliffs of Oxroad Bay bordering the Firth of Forth it must have been almost impregnable back in the day.

Unfortunately, it was left to fall into ruin during the 1650 civil war and wasn’t taken into state care till 1924, but at least it’s now a cared-for attraction that’s open for public admission.

Special offer! Click this affiliate link to purchase a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass from Viator. Your 5-day or 14-day pass allows free entry to more than 77 castles, cathedrals, distilleries and more throughout Scotland.


Historic towns in East Lothian

There are lots of pretty rural towns and villages in this county, although many of them are quite sleepy (i.e. there’s not much going on) so they might not be quite what you’re looking for if you’ve come to Scotland for an exciting holiday.

That being said, if you’ve got a hire car you’ll be able to get to the nicest parts of the county easily enough and many of the larger towns are worth visiting in their own right.

I’ll list a few of the most tourist-worthy historic East Lothian towns below.

North Berwick

north berwick coast

North Berwick is a lovely seaside town on the eastern side of the county roughly 20 miles northeast of Edinburgh that has two glorious sandy bays, golf courses to the east and west, and a boatload of popular attractions.

It’s a quaint town with lots of artisan craft shops and nice restaurants, but most people visit it to enjoy the seaside atmosphere.

If you stand anywhere on the coastline of North Berwick and look out to sea you’ll notice the gleaming white pinnacle of the Bass Rock jutting out of the waves with clouds of swirling seabirds filling the sky overhead.

It’s quite a sight and I totally recommend you visit the Scottish Seabird Centre to take a boat out to the island of Fidra and the rock to see these natural wonders up close.

Another highlight of the town is something that looks a bit like a volcano rising out of the ground not far from the town centre, and in fact, that’s exactly what it is.

North Berwick Law is a 187-metre volcanic hill that offers stunning views at the top, with the dramatic Tantallon Castle clearly visible to the east and Yellowcraig beach a short distance away to the west.

These attractions alone make North Berwick worthy of a visit and I have to say this picturesque coastal town is my favourite place to visit in East Lothian on a sunny Sunday afternoon.


Dunbar

Dunbar Harbour

Dunbar is located around 30 miles east of Edinburgh and 30 miles north of the English border, with good transport links from the capital city so it can be reached by train in under half an hour.

There’s a lot of history in the town and one of the most influential people in the history of conservation was born there – John Muir – who later went on to establish the great American National Parks of Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia National Park.

The work of John Muir has been immortalized in Scotland with the 134-mile John Muir Way walk and cycle trail that stretches across the country from Helensburgh in the west to Dunbar in the east, and it’s fitting that Dunbar is the location for a museum devoted to him.

Dunbar is renowned for its record levels of sunshine and ‘sunny dunny’, as it’s known, enjoys one of the driest climates in Scotland with a mere 600mm of rainfall annually.

This balmy (for Scotland) weather means it’s perfect for enjoying the great outdoors and I can’t think of many nicer places to go for a walk than the nearby John Muir Country Park with its picturesque combination of beaches, grassland, mudflats and forest.

If you’d like to explore the town’s history then I suggest heading down to Dunbar Harbour and taking a look at the 11th-century Dunbar Castle which used to be one of the most formidable fortresses in Scotland.

These days it’s just a ruined shamble of walls but it offers an interesting insight into the history of this quiet East Lothian town.


Musselburgh

Musselburgh

Although Haddington is the administrative centre of East Lothian, the town with the biggest population is Musselburgh.

That’s probably because nowadays it’s basically part of Edinburgh and you can easily drive or take the bus from the city centre in around 20 minutes.

In fact, as it’s paved the entire way you can even walk to it if you want (not that many people would choose to walk 6 miles through the city when there are speedy Lothian Buses available).

Musselburgh is pretty much the next settlement along the Firth of Forth from Leith and it’s most notable for the stretch of beach that’s always busy at the weekends in summer with Edinburgh locals looking to make the most of the little seaside town they’ve got on their doorstep.

Another big draw for visitors is the racecourse which is the oldest in Scotland having opened all the way back in 1816. If you like the odd flutter on the horses then the Musselburgh races are well worth attending and the racecourse has even attained a coveted five-star visitor rating.

Horse Racing

Take a look at the Musselburgh Racecourse website to view the list of upcoming races.

There’s a long association with sport in Musselburgh because the oldest surviving golf club in the world is located in the town, with the 9-hole Musselburgh Links course being recorded in government records as far back as 1672. Not a bad sporting pedigree for a quiet coastal town in East Lothian.

At this point, I have to give mention to the village of Prestonpans which is the next village to the east of Musselburgh.

Not only was it the site of one of the most important events in Scottish history – the Battle of Prestonpans where the Jacobites won a major battle – but it’s also home to a nice free attraction at Prestongrange Museum.


Haddington

Haddington min

Haddington is the geographical centre of East Lothian and it’s also the administrative centre. While it’s not a particularly big town there’s a lot of history within its boundaries and at one point it was the fourth biggest town in Scotland.

You’ll find Haddington around 17 miles east of Edinburgh so it’s easy to drive to using the nearby A1 dual-carriageway, and the town centre has all the usual country shops as well as a few big retailers making it a useful destination for shopping if you’re staying in the area.

There’s not a huge amount to do in Haddington, to be honest, as it’s just a sleepy farming community, but there’s a good farmers market held there on the last Saturday of every month and the 700-year-old St. Mary’s Collegiate Church is the biggest parish church in Scotland.

Nearby attractions include the Historic Environment Scotland-managed Hailes Castle which is free to visit and Lennoxlove House which is a large 15th-century tower house that’s open to the public for guided tours.


Discover family attractions in East Lothian with this article: Family Attractions in East Lothian.

East Lothian

Frequently asked questions

What is the weather like in East Lothian?

East Lothian is one of the sunniest and warmest areas of Northern Britain with average minimum temperatures dropping to just 2°c in winter compared to -2°c in the Highlands.

Summer temperatures soar to an average of 20°c compared to less than 17°c in most other parts of the country.

How can I travel to East Lothian?

Using the A1 and A697 you can drive to East Lothian’s main town of Haddington from the English city of Newcastle in just under two hours.
Head west on the M8 and you’ll be able to reach Haddington from Glasgow in around 90 minutes while the journey from Stirling takes around an hour.

Where are the main towns in East Lothian?

North Berwick is a seaside town on the eastern side of the county roughly 20 miles northeast of Edinburgh.
Dunbar is located around 30 miles east of Edinburgh and 30 miles north of the English border.
Musselburgh is the next settlement along the Firth of Forth from the Edinburgh suburb of Leith.
Haddington is situated approximately 17 miles east of Edinburgh.

What are the top attractions in East Lothian?

Yellowcraig beach, North Berwick Law, Hailes Castle, Dirleton Castle, The National Museum of Flight, Tantallon Castle, John Muir Country Park, The Scottish Seabird Centre, Bass Rock, East Links Family Park.

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