Friday, 12 August 2016

Dawdling around Dirleton

There cannot be many lovelier cities to live in than the City of Edinburgh. The architecture within the World Heritage Site, both Old and New Towns, is stunning; it is a manageable size to travel around; and it has as many concerts, art galleries and theatres as most people would wish for. Oh, and at this time of year it has the International Festival, one of several, though that can be a mixed blessing for its citizens.

Nevertheless despite these attractions, in Edinburgh as in most urban areas, there are people who while earning their living in the centre of the city, would prefer smaller more rural places. With the demise of the mining industry, commuter housing has transformed many former industrial villages. The coastal villages with their excellent links golf courses have always attracted the well heeled. However, there are still some traditional country villages which are little changed from the Middle Ages. One of these is Dirleton, only 30 minutes from the city. It is a particular favourite of ours.

At the heart of the village lies the main village green, for there is more than one. The castle stands on one side, with the turreted summerhouse right next to the road. Around the perimeter are the inn and some of Dirleton's distinctive houses, many of which still have the red clay pantile roofs introduced to East Lothian from the Netherlands in the 17th century.

At the foot of the castle rock and within its grounds are glorious gardens, beautifully kept by Historic Environment Scotland.

As you approach the castle, you pass the nineteenth century bowling green and the sixteenth century dovecot, with nesting boxes still intact.. Pigeons made an important contribution to the castle dwellers' diet.

The castle rises above your head, sheer rock reinforced on one side by a deep ditch. A wooden structure now replaces the original drawbridge.

Dirleton Castle is really a country house. As the fortunes of its noble families rose and fell, so did the state of the castle. Despite its beautiful surroundings, its occupiers could never really relax for Dirleton is in sensitive Border territory. The de Vaux family originally built it in the thirteenth century. In 1298 the Bishop of Durham attacked and sacked it on behalf of the English King Edward I. When Robert the Bruce recaptured the castle, he proceeded to demolish rather than fortify it. However, you can still visit the de Vaux family kitchens and the dilapidated towers of their principal rooms.

In 1350, the ruins eventually passed to a rising family called the Haliburtons, who had aligned themselves with the great earls of the Border lands, the Black Douglas, and with the royal Stewarts, One of its members, Walter, even became Lord High Treasurer. The Haliburtons started to rebuild the castle in the late fifteenth century. Here is their magnificent gatehouse and the remains of their great hall.

In this hall, the Haliburtons would entertain visitors, impressing them, no doubt, with the quality and quantity of their food, most grown locally: beef and mutton, kale, oats and barley. When we were there, traditional breeds of sheep were grazing in the field below the castle. Wine would have been imported, the ships anchoring at Leith or North Berwick. Below is the passageway linking kitchens and servery, and the remains of the 'sideboard' from which their retainers served their guests.

From their apartments, the family could look down over the village and ascertain who was approaching. They could even see the coastline from their vantage point. Unwelcome visitors, local criminals and captured enemies would be kept in the prison or, worse, the pit below it.

In 1649, a group of witches, accused of being visited by the devil on the village green were imprisoned in the pit and then burnt at the stake on the same village green. East Lothian has a history of witch trials. Sixty years earlier, during the North Berwick witch trials, witches had been accused of causing a storm which forced a ship carrying King James VI to divert from Denmark, where he was due to marry the King's daughter, to Norway where it was stranded for several weeks. Not only were Danish witches accused and burnt, but so were their Scottish counterparts. As many as a hundred of them were tortured, confessed and then executed.

By the time of the witch trials, the castle had passed by marriage to the Ruthvens, for the Haliburtons' male line had died out around 1515. The Ruthvens built their own wing, a lovely Renaissance building.

By 1584, however, the Ruthvens had been forced to hand the castle over to King James VI, though it was later handed back. Scandal had dogged them for years. The 3rd Lord Ruthven had led the group of men who murdered Riccio, Mary Queen of Scots' secretary, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. In 1582, the 1st Earl had kidnapped young James VI and held him imprisoned for ten months. He was executed two years later. The family doesn't seem to have learnt from experience, however, for in 1600 the 3rd Earl attempted the same thing.

In 1650, Dirleton Castle was again at the frontline, this time by Oliver Cromwell's army, which had occupied East Lothian after winning the Battle of Dunbar. Now I would have expected the strict Presbyterian government of Scotland with its Covenanter antecedents to be on the same side as Cromwell's Puritan army. However, when the exiled King Charles II landed in Scotland, one of his first actions had been to sign the both the original Covenant and the later Solemn League and Covenant, despite his Catholic and Episcopalian beliefs. This was an astute move as it led to the Scottish government proclaiming him King of Scots, much to the fury of the English Parliament. At Dunbar, east of Dirleton, Cromwell's hardened army routed the less experienced Scots. Five thousand Scottish prisoners were taken south and imprisoned in Durham Cathedral. Three thousand five hundred of them died on the way or at Durham, where their mass grave was uncovered by archaeologists last September. The remaining one thousand five hundred were transported to New England and the Caribbean.

And Dirleton?  After destroying the drawbridge with their cannon, the English demolished the castle and imprisoned its Governor. The castle was never lived in again. However, the village itself carried on as it had for hundreds of years. At its heart was the church. The ruins of the original twelfth century building are in Gullane, two miles away. The current building dates back to the seventeenth century and was founded by Sir Thomas Erskine, who was made Baron of Dirleton by King James VI, a friend of his. The story goes that he saved the king from drowning. An alternative version says that he paid the debt that the king owed the Ruthven family. Whichever it was, Parliament gave permission for a church to be built.

The lovely building on the right above, the Archerfield Aisle, was built over the grave of James Maxwell, Earl of Dirleton, who died just before the castle was captured. It is said to be the first example of Neo-classical architecture in Scotland. The inside of the church is, however, a bit disappointing, a plain barn of a building, though with a nice roof. That is typical of most Church of Scotland parish churches. They usually have very few decorative features, far too frivolous for Presbyterians. However, that is not true of the gravestones. Clearly decoration is acceptable once you're dead.

But Dirleton isn't just old ruins and dead people. A couple of miles down the road is Yellowcraigs, a long stretch of golden sand with the Fife coastline in the distance and the small uninhabited island of Fidra a short distance away.

In the twelfth century, King David I gave Fidra to the de Vaux family. They built a stronghold called Tarbet Castle on the island but moved from there to the mainland when they built Dirleton Castle. They gave the island to Dryburgh Abbey. The island is an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve which has set up cameras so that visitors to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick can observe the birds. The only buildings these days are the lighthouse and the ruins of a twelfth century chapel.

I spent a couple of glorious August days at Yellowcraigs with my granddaughter this year, real bucket and spades weather. We even ventured into the sea. Yes, we do have such days in Scotland though, like angels' visits, they are few and far between.

Here is Yellowcraigs as it was in May a couple of years ago on a walk round the coast to North Berwick. Not quite so golden, but lovely all the same.

This is Edinburgh's commuter belt. What's not to like!

You may also be interested in the following posts:

A day out from Edinburgh: North Berwick

What were the Scots doing in Barbados and how did they get there?

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