Castles / History / Scotland / Walks

Dirleton Castle: Siege, War, Witchcraft & Murder in East Lothian, Scotland

We learn how to Save Money while seeing Nice Things – Lisa indulges her History Lust – Nobles Behaving very Badly – Witches! – Chris & I hit the Charity Shops with Great Gusto, Little Success

Scottish weather being Scottish weather, Chris and I have made a pact: if it’s not pouring rain in sheets, it’s safe to venture out. Waking to only semi-threatening weather, Chris suggested we set off for East Lothian, roughly an hour away, where there’s more to see that’s pretty and historical than here in West Lothian.

Planning to explore a significant portion of Scotland, purchasing the Historic Scotland Membership seemed a natural choice. It allows entrance into hundreds of sites for what works out to be a minimal price. If you’ve visited castles and other historic sites in the UK, you’ll know admissions often run in the £ 10 – 15 range – sometimes per person. That adds up awfully quickly.

I’m old enough to remember when a lot of these sites were free, but free doesn’t pay upkeep on these treasures. Neither do “requested donations,” which, when you’re a student – which I was the first few times I went to Europe – is pretty pathetic. You can’t begrudge them the money, and this makes the pass all the more fiscally sensible.

It’s a win/win.

Well worth the money


Meandering along the Firth of Forth, as the fields of grazing sheep whizzed by my eyes were trained on finding any sign of rubble denoting History Happened Here. Chris spotted a sign for Dirleton Castle, figured it would put a twinkle in my eye, then set course.

Though Dirleton’s a small village, and you’d think something like a castle would stand out, the signage is poor. Turns out the damned thing is cheekily hidden in the middle of town. Eureka moment past, a rousing game of Find the Front Door commenced. While I reckon this was a good strategy in the Middle Ages, in 2017 hiding an entrance is just plain rude. Fortunately, there are locals well-trained in pointing.

If you’re wondering, the entrance is off a playground next to the castle. Are there signs telling you that? No. No, there aren’t.


Dirleton, Well-hidden entrance


Our immediate thought on entering was “let’s see how much our Historic Scotland Membership saved us!” The answer: £12.00. With the passes costing somewhere in the neighborhood of £80.00 for the two of us, we realized we’ll be in the black in no time.

Rejoicing, in through the gardens we went.


“Arts & Crafts Garden,” Dirleton Castle


Lisa’s Nerdy History Ramble

In its four hundred year history, Dirleton’s been home to some wealthy and influential families,  several of which had difficulty playing well with others while busily adding on to the old place:

13th centuryde Vaux family (Norman, originating in Rouen)

14 – 15th centuriesHaliburton (English, originating in Berwickshire, transfer by marriage when John Haliburton wed the de Vaux heiress)

16th Ruthven (Janet Haliburton married William Ruthven)

late 1600sNisbet (or Nesbitt) – Purchased by lawyer John Nisbet in 1663 – The Nisbets never lived at the castle, instead building a new home, Archerfield, nearby.


Archerfield House, home of Nisbet family


Dirleton also played a role in the Scottish Wars of Independence, as well as Oliver Cromwell‘s Third English Civil War (1650), when the castle was attacked by Royalist moss-troopers, several of them hanged off the castle walls.


Dirleton Castle, Exterior Stairs


Proper History of Dirleton:

Built: John de Vaux, Anglo-Norman knight, c. 1239

More than 100 servants, priests, bakers and butchers, gardeners, grooms, etc., were employed at the castle, producing most everything they required, surplus items sold to pay for luxuries every self-respecting nobleman needs.

The castle was built with ample storage for food and such, via huge vaults and cellars. It was in these cellars I discovered I’ve entirely forgotten how to use my camera, it’s been so long. It was also in these cellars Chris made inordinate fun of me for same.


Kitchen – apologies for the blurred photo




Under Siege:

Primarily a nobleman’s residence, Dirleton was ordered to be captured by Edward I in 1298, on his way to meet William Wallace at Falkirk. The castle was taken in two days, once Bishop Bek of Durham was able to intercept supplies en route to Dirleton by sea.

The castle was recaptured by the Scots at an unknown point, then retaken by the English in 1306. Dirleton was again under Scottish hands by 1314, the year of Robert the Bruce‘s victory over Edward II at Bannockburn. Bruce ordered the castle destroyed, the stumps of the demolished towers currently visible on the north-east and south-east corners.


View from castle walls, looking inland


Haliburton Family

Whether the de Vaux family returned to Dirleton following the siege is unknown. Out of male heirs, the castle then passed to the Haliburtons by 1350.

Inheriting a castle badly damaged by the wars, the family continued the rebuilding process through the 15th century, inhabiting Dirleton for the next 200 years.


Winding stairway


The Haliburton family were squires of the earls of Black Douglas, who built nearby Tantallon Castle, on the east side of North Berwick from Dirleton. Chris and I plan to hit Tantallon in the near future. Actually, there’s lots of historical rubble in the area I can’t wait to explore.


North Berwick Law


North Berwick, beach

Ruthven Family

Upon the death of the last Haliburton heir, Patrick, the castle passed to his daughter Janet, when she married William, 2nd Lord Ruthven of Perthshire, in 1515.

The Ruthven family was involved in the notorious murder of David Riccio (or Rizzio), secretary and possible lover of Mary, Queen of Scots. Patrick, 3rd Lord Ruthven, led the band that hatched the plot. Riccio was murdered at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, in 1566.

The Ruthvens would go on to disgrace the family name, participating in other political coups. Read more about this cheeky family here.


Interior, Dirleton

Great Hall, Dirleton

Detail, Great Hall

Dirleton village itself has a connection with the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1649 – 1650 (which preceded the infamous American Salem Witch Trials by about 50 years), brought about after the 1648-1649 Second English Civil War, when the Kirk party:

… passed a new Witchcraft Act in 1649 and encouraged local presbyteries to seek out witches. The intense period of witch hunting began in 1649 and continued into 1650, being largely confined to the Lowlands, particularly Lothian and Fife, but spilled over into northern England, where Scottish witch prickers were active.

The unfortunate women were deemed guilty, hanged on the Dirleton village green.

N.B.: “Witch pricker” has become my new favorite occupation title ever.

Village of Dirleton, from castle


Dirleton’s checkered past was a pleasant surprise. I was glad Chris had sprung for the £3 brochure, which at first I’d thought an unnecesary expense, what with Wikipedia existing and all. Turns out, it’s much easier sniffing out historic detail if you have the basic outline in front of your face, plus, the map was an excellent self-guided tour.

Sometimes Chris has good ideas. Don’t tell him I said that; it may go to his head.


Gazing out the window


How to reach Dirleton:

The village of Dirleton is approximately 43 minutes (22.1 miles) from Edinburgh, via A1. It’s a lovely drive, skirting along the Firth of Forth. But, do keep in mind the castle itself is under an enchantment, and does not wish to be found.

After you’ve finished climbing narrow, winding stairs and gawping at rocks, if you’re feeling peckish there is a restaurant located across the street from the castle. It’s likely to be more expensive than running into nearby North Berwick, a lovely tourist destination to roam around, but if you’re near perishing the place is right there and looks all historic and such. Yes, this is what passes for a restaurant review: it looks nice.

We found a Gregg’s in North Berwick, a chain restaurant selling sandwiches and baked goods. We weren’t famished, so it sufficed. Even that was nearly £ 14, which is ridiculous for two pre-packaged sandwiches and drinks, but still half what we’d have paid at the restaurant across from the castle.

The UK has fabulous charity shops with interesting collections of everything from breakable dust collectors – figurines and crystal and such – clothing, books, and other stuff fun to look at. If you’re in North Berwick, have a stroll down the main street. In addition to resale, they have lots of quirky little shops, cafes, etc. And it’s just, plain pretty. A tourist town, sure. But one worth seeing for its genuine charm and history.

Lisa’s charity shop find

All in all, a pleasant day. I can’t remember Chris getting on my nerves once, though I may be blocking it out. We’ve had a couple outings since. It all blurs.

A General Guide to Finding Dirleton Castle:

Dirleton village is located approximately 43 miles from Edinburgh, via the A1. Watch the signs to find the town; good luck with the rest of it.

Opening hours:

1 April to 30 September:
Monday to Sunday, 9.30am to 5.30pm

1 October to 31 March:
Monday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm


Member/Explorer Pass holder: FREE
Adult: £6.00
Child aged 5–15: £3.60
Child under 5: FREE
Concession: £4.80

One thought on “Dirleton Castle: Siege, War, Witchcraft & Murder in East Lothian, Scotland

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