The East Lothians region of Scotland does not have the inspiring mountain views that attract tourists to the highlands, nor the sea lochs which bring fishermen to the western coast. What it does have, however, is some of Scotland’s most fertile soil and an amenable climate. Bounded by the Firth of Forth in the north, the North Sea in the east, and Edinburgh in the west, the area has long been one of wealth, prosperity, and political power.
The long history of this geographical legacy can be seen in Traprain Law, a grizzled hill overlooking the surrounding farmland. Its height led to its early and continued use as a political centre, defended by earthen ramparts from ancient times. During the Roman era, the fort was said to be under the control of the Votadini tribe, later known as the Gododdin. These warriors were immortalised in the words of the poet Aneirin, whose work describing the Gododdin’s doomed battle against Germanic newcomers was preserved in Welsh tradition. The mediaeval Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd even traced its origins back to exiled Gododdin soldiers forced southward from Scotland, pointing to the importance of Traprain and its surroundings in creating a sense of a British past.
While the disentanglement of the legendary and historical past of East Lothian–in ancient and mediaeval times–presents modern scholars with major challenges, its influence has been uncontested thanks to an extraordinary find. The Traprain treasures, found in 1919, are made up of a hoard of Roman silver objects, perhaps taken in raiding south of Hadrian’s Wall, but perhaps paid by Roman Britain so that local tribes would protect their borders. It testifies to the close relationship between wealth, military power, and political authority which concentrated in this region.
Other sites in East Lothian testify to the continued importance of this combination. Tantallon Castle, situated on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, was built around 1350 as the defensible seat of the Red Douglases. A powerful Scottish family, the Douglases were later given the title Earls of Angus, and Tantallon reflects both their noble status and the conflict the family engendered. Throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Douglases of Tantallon used their location on the Scottish Borders to play Scotland and England against each other in their own interests–policies which resulted in the besieging of Tantallon both in 1491 and 1528.
The castle was well-prepared for such treatment. Its thick curtain wall was built of porous stone, able to absorb some of the energy of artillery fire, and was strengthened in the 1450s with the addition of artillery platforms for defence. On the seaward sides, the castle is defended by steep cliffs and a maze of rocks, making a water-borne approach difficult. Tantallon continued to function as a shelter for local belligerents even after the Earls of Angus left it in 1588, but was ruined by Oliver Cromwell and never re-inhabited.
From Tantallon, it is possible to see not only the Bass Rock–today known for its seabird colony–but several other islands in the Firth of Forth which have sheltered bands of armed men both real and imagined. The small island of Fidra, for example, was used as the site for Tarbet Castle by the early Anglo-Norman settlers brought in by David I in the 12th century. Fidra was also well known to the author Robert Louis Stephenson, who lived and wrote in the area–some say his Treasure Island got its shape from the island.
The Anglo-Normans, however, did not remain at their off-shore base for long. Brought in by David I to reinforce his rule and to develop Scotland along more broadly European lines, the Norman de Vaux family granted Fidra to Dryburgh Abbey (another product of Anglo-Norman influence) in 1220. The grant prompted them to construct a new family seat on the mainland, which they did by reconstructing an existing timber castle at Dirleton in stone.
This castle, like Tantallon, suffered reverses in fortune during its centuries of occupation. Built by the de Vauxs, it later passed into the hands of the Haliburtons and the Ruthvens, both of whom updated the castle, which had been badly damaged during the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Visually, Dirleton reminds one of Bodiam Castle, with its round towers and surrounding moat (now dry). Like Bodiam, though, Dirleton’s military purpose represents only one side of what was, in its day, a luxurious aristocratic residence. Its pleasurable surrounds can be seen in its historical bowling green and in the doocot (dovecot). The keeping of pigeons served a practical purpose in lordly households, since several hundred of the doocot’s 2,000 residents might be eaten at a single banquet, but the structure also symbolised the prosperity of a lord’s estate. Today, the grounds are cared for by Historic Scotland, and exemplify the same relationship between wealth, military strength, and political control which came together at Traprain Law.
From earliest antiquity into the early modern period, then, the area of East Lothian has captured the realities of authority in Scotland, from the hilltops, to the rich fields, to the rough Forth coast.