ONE of my favourite areas of Scotland is East Lothian, not only because it is replete with history but also because it is usually the sunniest district of this country.

One of the places I regularly visit there is Dunbar, which I have added to my growing list of ancient towns.

Where possible I always acknowledge my sources and today’s include the excellent Dunbar & District History Society, which is based in the Town House in Dunbar’s High Street and is a positive goldmine of information about the area. Do go online and check the opening hours if you are planning a visit.

Dunbar is one of those numerous ancient towns of Scotland which owe their foundation and importance to their strategic location. Halfway between Edinburgh and the Border, it also has one of the finest natural anchorages at the Firth of Forth’s eastern extremity.

READ MORE: The Ancient Scottish town reborn after pivotal battle

For once there is little argument about the derivation of the town’s name. In Gaelic, Dun Barra means summit or hill fort and it has roughly the same meaning in ancient Brythonic whether spelled as din-bar or Dynbaer.

Dunbar is sadly associated with two of the greatest calamities in Scottish military history and I will be writing about both disastrous events.

In recent years, archaeological evidence has been found to show there was a settlement of some sort in the area of Dunbar about 10,000 years ago. Other excavations have found signs of human activity in and around the town over thousands of years of pre-history, with modern-day Castle Park being the site of a fort dating from the Iron Age – the promontory fort which gave Dunbar its name.

Though there is no evidence that the Romans permanently settled here, they made East Lothian part of the province of Britannia and knew the local natives as a tribe they called the Votadini, a Brythonic people whose territory spread from the Forth to the Tyne. A Roman map dating from the middle of the second century shows the Votadini as occupants of what is now East Lothian.

Finds at Traprain Law – between Haddington and Dunbar – show this hilly area was a centre of the Votadini’s trade with the Romans, until the tribe moved their capital to what is now Edinburgh. Later this native tribe would be named as the Gododdin.

Dunbar’s first mention in written history is found in the eighth-century Life Of Saint Wilfrid by Stephen of Ripon, by which time Dunbar had been subsumed into the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

But it was another saint of even greater stature who put Dunbar on the map of Christianity, by virtue of being born there. Saint Cuthbert (below) (c 634-687) was probably born into a leading family at Dunbar, because he was fostered out to another family of nobles at Melrose before becoming the leading missionary to the province of Northumbria.

The National: Saint Cuthbert.

He died as Bishop of Lindisfarne, and immediately a huge cult of veneration grew around him because of the alleged miracles attributed to him. Durham Cathedral owed its existence to Cuthbert’s sanctity – and interestingly this Dunbar-born Scot was England’s most popular saint for centuries.

Sometime around the seventh century, work began on Dunbar Castle as a fortress of the Northumbrians, but after the union of the Scots and Picts under King Kenneth MacAlpin in 843, that first castle was destroyed as the Kingdom of Alba began its extension into the southern parts of Scotland.

After William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England, Gospatric, the Earl of Northumbria, is said to have built the first stone Dunbar Castle in the 11th century. He was in exile at the court of King Malcolm III (Canmore), who gave the land to the Earl, whose son, also Gospatric, became the first Earl of Dunbar.

His descendent, Patrick, the 8th Earl of Dunbar and March, was an important figure at the time of the dispute over who should succeed the Maid of Norway as Scottish monarch. He was one of the main competitors for the crown, which was eventually awarded to John Balliol by King Edward I, to whom Earl Patrick had sworn allegiance. His wife, Marjory Comyn, disagreed and held Dunbar Castle in lieu of her husband.

The first Battle of Dunbar in 1296 followed – a comprehensive defeat for the kingdom of Scotland by a far superior English army led by King Edward I, who we know as Longshanks.

Determined to punish the Scots for what he saw as rebellion by Balliol, the puppet king he had installed who signed the Auld Alliance with France in 1295, Longshanks came north with what was the biggest army to invade Scotland at that point in history.

He set his huge force on the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, then the most important port in Scotland. The town had a defence garrison and held out bravely against the overwhelming force surrounding them for a few days but the English broke through and wholesale slaughter commenced. In the 15th-century chronicle known as the Scotichronicon, Walter Bower recorded: “When the town had been taken in this way and its citizens had submitted, Edward spared no-one, whatever the age or sex.

“For two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain, for in his tyrannous rage he ordered 7500 souls of both sexes to be massacred ... so that mills could be turned by the flow of their blood.”

Just 30 miles north, Dunbar waited in trepidation. Marjory Comyn asked Balliol for reinforcements and he sent a large part of his mounted cavalry to help. The two sides met near the castle on April 27, 1296, and the result was a humiliating rout of the Scots, with many of the Scottish nobility taken prisoner and moved to England. Longshanks himself arrived the following day and accepted the surrender of Dunbar Castle in person.

From Dunbar, Edward sent his troops all over lowland Scotland and completed the conquest of the country, which lasted until Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314.

During the long wars with England, Dunbar gave Scotland one of our greatest heroines, Lady Agnes Randolph, known to history as Black Agnes of Dunbar. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Randolph, former regent of Scotland, and nephew to King Robert the Bruce, who had married the older Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar.

During the Second War of Independence, on January 13, 1338, while her husband was away, an English army led by William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury, besieged Dunbar Castle. The countess refused to surrender the fortress, stating: “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, and I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.”

Agnes – known as Black because of her jet-black hair, dark eyes and sallow complexion – took shelter as Salisbury’s troops lobbed boulders from catapults at the castle. She responded by sending one of her ladies-in-waiting to clean the ramparts with a duster.

Next the English army brought up a siege tower called a sow in an attempt to storm the castle but Agnes told Salisbury to “take good care of his sow, for she would soon cast her pigs [ie, kill his men].” She then ordered her men to take one of Salisbury’s own boulders and crush Salisbury’s sow.

Salisbury bribed one of the castle’s guards to leave a gate unlocked but the man pocketed the money and told Agnes of the plan which she easily foiled.

Becoming daily more frustrated and enraged, Salisbury brought forward a prisoner, Agnes’s brother John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray, and showed him to Agnes, saying he would hang him if Agnes did not surrender. She merely laughed and claimed she would then inherit the earldom.

Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie with 40 men brought supplies to the castle and then charged out of the castle to rout the English vanguard. On June 10, with money running out, Salisbury lifted the siege. He is remembered in an English folk song: “Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the Gate.”

Dunbar remained a stronghold that was favoured by the Scottish monarchy, and was made a royal burgh in 1369-70 by King David II. Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany, lived in Dunbar Castle when he unsuccessfully tried to usurp the throne of his brother, King James III.

The first earldom of Dunbar died out in the 15th century and the castle, then owned by James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was destroyed in the aftermath of the defeat of his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1568 – Bothwell having taken her to the castle where he is said to have raped her and forced marriage upon the queen.

The following century saw the second Battle of Dunbar, and again it was a devastating defeat for the Scots. Following the execution of King Charles I, the Covenanter-led Scottish Parliament voted to make his son King Charles II. This infuriated Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament, which sanctioned an invasion of Scotland.

Cromwell led his New Model Army north. The English force consisted of 10,000 infantry and 5000 experienced dragoons, probably the best cavalry in Europe at the time. But the Covenanters forbade the recruitment of non-Presbyterians into the Scottish army, which weakened the ability of its general, David Leslie, to deploy the forces he wanted.

However, the Scottish army was still 25,000 strong and foiled Cromwell’s early efforts to take Edinburgh. He was forced to retreat to Dunbar and await new supplies but Leslie marched his troops swiftly to Dunbar and took up a strong position near the town.

Cromwell saw the danger and on the morning of September 3, 1650, he launched his best dragoons at the Scottish right wing which promptly collapsed. The New Model Army then routed the rest of the Scots, some of whom did not stop running until they reached Edinburgh.

Thousands of prisoners were taken south of the Border – some of them starved to death at Durham, while many more were sold into slavery. Cromwell duly occupied Scotland and incorporated the country into his Commonwealth – a dictatorship by any other name.

A harbour having been built as far back as 1574, Dunbar became an important fishing port. As with every other town in this series I will return to tell you about its later history.

No history of Dunbar could be told without mentioning its most famous son, John Muir. Born there in 1838, he emigrated to the US with his family in 1849. He would become a mountaineer, explorer, naturalist, conservationist, author and devised the National Parks scheme and the Sierra Club, earning the Dunbar man legendary status. He died at the age of 76 in 1914. He is commemorated with The Dunbear – a 5m high steel sculpture of a brown bear on its hind legs that stands by the A1.

I have repeatedly suggested that anyone who wanted to promote their town for a column should email me at – it was due to a reader’s plea that Dunbar came to be included, although in retrospect it should have been on my original list.

To be included in the series, towns have to have played a part in the history of Scotland and to have been established as a town, usually a burgh, before the Reformation in 1560.