Scotland is famous the world over for its beautiful Highlands, its rugged islands and its landscape of lochs. But the suburban seaside town of North Berwick, with its castle ruins on the cliffs and rocky beaches, is simply stunning At only a half-hour by train from Edinburgh, a visit to North Berwick is really a must.
A Brief History of North Berwick
As you follow the Scottish coastline east from Edinburgh, it doesn’t take long before you reach North Berwick. Today, the town is a well to do suburb of the capital, a fact betrayed by the expensive luxury cars that line the town center. But the town’s roots go far deeper. Robert II granted the town the special privilege of a royal charter in the 14th century and they received another in the mid-16th century.
The town just out into the sea, although not quite to the point of being a peninsula. On the west side is the aptly named West Bay while on the east is the Milsey Bay. (You won’t be surprised to know it’s also known as East Bay.) Past the bays, out in the Firth of Forth sit several islands, including Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith, and Bass Rock. These days none of the islands are inhabited — at least not by humans. They’re quite popular with the birds. This is especially true of Bass Rock whose white appearance is attributed to the, uh, waste the birds leave behind.
The islands have served as inspiration for some of Scotland’s most notable authors. Bass Rock, in particular, makes an appearance in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Catriona.
The town has the unique and unfortunate distinction of being responsible for the first major witchcraft persecutions in Scotland. More than seventy people were implicated in the trials which began in 1590 and alleged that witchcraft took place at Auld Kirk Green (what is today the harbor area). The trails are said to have served as an influence on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Fast forward to modern-day when for the last forty-odd years the area has steadily built up. The result is that North Berwick is one of Scotland’s most expensive seaside towns.
Things to Do in North Berwick
There is so much to do and see in North Berwick that you could spend far longer than a single day. But here are some highlights to enjoy for a day at the Scottish seaside.
As if out of a movie, the picturesque shores of North Berwick are also home to a castle. Tantallon Castle sits about three miles east of the town center, sitting on a cliff overlooking the bay and Bass Rock. Visitors can explore the ruins of the 14th-century castle at their own pace. You can climb up into the tower for spectacular views over the sea and the entire countryside. A visit to Tantallon Castle is really a must!
North Berwick Beaches
Beach bums around the world tend to flock to those seemingly untouched miles of white sand beaches. But the North Berwick beaches offer something more engaging. These are golden sands with rocky outcrops, some covered in different kinds of seaweed and other plants. The layout and structure of the rocks mean that many collect pools of water as the tide goes in and out. It makes your typical walk on the beach more special as you’re able to see something different every time. And it goes without saying these rocky shores are quite popular with children and dogs who like to climb on these natural landmarks.
While it might seem like it’s all just one long beach along the coast, they are actually broken up into smaller beaches. Milsey Bay Beach is directly next to the harbor area. The Haugh Road Beach is quite secluded as it sits between the sea and the Glen Golf Course. Some of these beaches are, in fact, private. Seacliff, near Tantallon Castle, requires a fee to enter.
Scottish Seabird Centre
With the world’s largest flock of Northern gannets calling Bass Rock home, it isn’t all too surprising that the Scottish Seabird Centre sits at the edge of the North Berwick harbor.
The centre is still relatively new. It was officially opened in 2000 by Prince Charles. The centre’s mission looks to serve with research and conservation. But they also run trips into the Firth of Forth to the islands for birdwatching. If you prefer to stay on dry land, you can learn inside the centre or by observing the island birds via their webcams.
Explore the Town
Visitors who arrive in North Berwick by train are in luck. The walk from the train station to the waterfront harbor area, where most people will want to go, is the perfect excuse to admire the handsome buildings, peer in shop windows, and explore the narrow small-town streets. While it is certainly no metropolis, North Berwick has just about everything you may be looking for. Many small independent shops and boutiques line both sides of the street. On weekends, it can get quite busy. The sidewalks fill up with visitors and you will have to go with the flow. It’s good advice.
John Muir Way
If beach walking isn’t your speed, perhaps trail walking is. A section of the 134-mile John Muir Way trail runs through North Berwick before terminating in Dunbar. The trail is named for the famed Scottish-American conservationist and begins in the west of the country in Helensburgh. You can walk or cycle the trail for a chance to observe plenty of birds and animals in nature or simply enjoy the landscape. It seems all to appropriate given that Muir is considered the father of the national park. He was instrumental in establishing Yosemite in the United States and is a co-founder of the Sierra Club.
No, it’s not a detective show set in the East Lothian seaside town. North Berwick Law is a hill created by a volcanic plug. The Law rises more than 600 feet above sea level, offering a dramatic position overlooking the town and the countryside. The Law is so prominent, in fact, that it can be seen all the way from atop Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to its strategic advantage, Berlick Law served as a lookout position during the Napoleonic Wars as well as World War II. There is also evidence of an Iron Age hill fort on the site, too.
While you can admire the massive landscape from afar, you can also go for a hike to the top for spectacular views of the area. The roundtrip walk takes roughly an hour. At the top, you’ll also find a whale’s jawbone as a sort of landmark and monument. In the 18th century, a real jawbone stood at the site but today’s is merely a replica.
There is no shortage of restaurants, pubs, tea rooms, cafes, and the like to choose from for a meal in North Berwick. But if you’re at the sea, you probably want to indulge in the experience. And indulge you can at the Lobster Shack. A food truck set up on a walkway between the East Lothian Yacht Club and the West Bay, the spot does take away orders but also has a tented eat-in area, too.
The seafood-rich menu includes favorites like fish and chips as well as lobster, seafood chowder, mussels, and more. The seafood is all ethically caught and as much as possible the cutlery and packaging are sustainably sourced and biodegradable. Plus, if the wind is just right, it’s served with a splash of the sea.
North Berwick is a relatively small town meaning parking is not always easy to find. Public transportation is the easiest way to reach the town.
There is a regular train connection between Edinburgh and North Berwick via ScotRail. It runs, roughly, once per hour during the off-peak times. The approximately thirty-minute ride starts at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and terminates in North Berwick making it direct and worry-free.
You can also reach North Berwick from Edinburgh by bus. EastCoast buses currently operate three routes from Edinburgh city center to North Berwick: 124/x24 and x5. Be sure to check the latest bus schedules for up to date routes, stops, and time information.
Save this post for later with Pinterest!
All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.