North Berwick and Tantallon


It’s raining again so we’re in reflective mood today; thinking back to a holiday so recently passed that already seems like it was a lifetime ago.

Having originally planned to go to west Wales, only to be thwarted by either the weather forecast or H’s inability to distinguish north from south (depending on who you believe!), we struck out for the one remaining patch of country showing on the weather map – Edinburgh.

We have family in Scotland and we’ve been to Edinburgh a fair few times so this time we were determined to strike out and go somewhere new.

Along the Forth of Firth to the east is a stretch of coastline littered with my favourite holiday destinations; castles and beaches so it seemed an obvious choice for our first day of exploring.

North Berwick itself is a little town with great personality and atmosphere; the main street has lots of little independent shops and very few big brands, and the sky and the sea give it that relaxed feeling of all seaside towns. In fact, being built of granite and full of little streets of painted cottages it isn’t a million miles from south Devon (although H will hotly contest this!), it’s just a bit flatter.

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Almost on top of this beach at North Berwick (where we ate Vension pasties and H drank the first Irn Bru of the trip) is the Scottish Seabird Centre. It looks like a grockle shop and cafe from the outside but the lower floor is something rather special.

In among a good amount of child-friendly displays on the different seabirds are 6 big projection screens, each streaming a live feed from a camera located on one of the numerous islands just off the coastline. The genius part is that in from of each screen is a joystick; the camera has full rotation and an incredibly zoom focus. We saw cormorants fishing and mucking about at the water’s edge, gannets on the Bass Rock, puffin after puffin after puffin, and most memorably, a pair of Perigrine Falcons sat on the railings of the lighthouse on the Bass Rock eating a pigeon which one imagines was newly lifted from the streets of Edinburgh.

You can see the Bass Rock from a different angle here – the little white rectangle is the lighthouse.
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The white that covers the entire top of the rock – that isn’t lichen, or barnacles, or even what is euphemistically referred to as guano. No, that white, that would be birds. A complete, live, rippling, blanket of gannets.

They come to nest on the rock and bring up their little fluffy grey chicks on this island barely touched by man. The birds themselves are beautiful (thank you to the cameras that let you get close up) with cream bodies and yellow heads. They dive for fish and have a clever internal mechanism that means that they can take a deep breath and somehow inflate the area around their heads to cushion the blow as they hit the water – it’s the ingenious engineering of mother nature at its best.

If you fancy keeping an eye on any of the birds, the camera feeds are streamed onto the internet (as controlled by the visitors to the centre) and they can be found here.

When you go down to the shoreline at Berwick you can see why the birds might just like it – the rocks are covered with limpets and a carpet of little whelks on every pool.
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Further along the coast stands what remains of Tantallon Castle.

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It’s rather unusual in its set up, from this angle you would think that you were looking at the front of a square keep, or possibly the outer curtain wall of a bigger castle within. In fact this is one of the few curtain wall castles in that part of Scotland, taking advantage of a prominent headland.
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This pretty much is the castle, on the other three sides there is a hall and small walls to prevent the residents toppling over the cliff edge into the sea after too much revelry; no defences are needed when it would be nye on impossible for anyone to scale the cliffs in any force to take the castle from the sea.

And so the keep looks out onto a broad green lawn where once upon a time there would have been stables and other wooden buildings, and where now there is just springy turf and a view to the sea beyond.
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The curtain wall itself has remained in relatively good repair, despite numerous attacks and a siege that resulted in a gatehouse extension being hastily popped on the front in soft green stone taken from the cliffs around. Apparently its softness was an advantage in ‘bouncing’ the incoming shot!

I can’t say I’d have wanted to be up on the walls watching the attacking army streaming across the fields, it’s not exactly unsteady, but to be on a curtain wall like that feels a little like one of those enormous towers of lego bricks we used to make – if it isn’t supported by cross bracing it would just push over wouldn’t it?
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It has stood on the cliff in all weathers for 660 years or so, and that’s no mean feat, so perhaps the lego comparison isn’t very fair!

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Well no armies were attacking the day we visited so the only thing that we could watch approaching across the fields was the weather.

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When we arrived, the view from the castle window was of blue skies and calm seas, but as we came down from the walls, a low grey mass of thunder was marching steadily towards us.

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It might have looked atmospheric and somehow suitable Scottish while the rain was trickling down the beaches of Berwick, but as the drops hit, and the picturesque viewpoints turned into necessary hidyholes as the rain lashed in through every crevase, you begin to have a little more respect for the people who made this fortress their home.

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In the minute or so it took us to desperately sprint back to the information point and our car we were soaked to the skin, although on the plus side it gave us ample opportunity to reinforce the British stereotype for eccentricity for the American tourists who saw us drying off in the car with the only thing to hand – a pair of H’s (fortunately clean) hockey socks!

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  • Pat 24/07/2009 at 5:23 pm

    Thank you for a peek into a beautiful part of the World that I have never seen!

  • Rachel 30/07/2009 at 1:54 am

    Thanks for sharing those pics and such a great description of the trip! Looks like an amazing place to visit!