Although I have lived in Edinburgh for a while now I have never east to North Berwick which is only 20 miles from Edinburgh, so after finding out that East Coast Buses operate a hop on hop off bus tour around the area which leaves from Edinburgh I thought it was a great opportunity to pay a visit. North Berwick is a popular seaside town which was made into a royal burgh by King James I in the 15th century and it was also formerly a popular holiday destination for the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, it is situated on the east coast along the Firth of Forth.
My journey started at Waverly Bridge where I picked up my explorer ticket and then waited for the East Coast Explorer bus, it is possible to get the bus at North Berwick for £3 less otherwise there are departures from Edinburgh at 9.30 and 10.30am during the summer season. The weather was dull and overcast (a typical Scottish day!) which was not originally ideal for an open top bus but thankfully during the course of the day there were some good sunny spells and only a few light rain showers. The journey to North Berwick took just over an hour, along the way I got to meet Bill one of the tours live guides who shared some local knowledge on places as we passed through, such as how Portobello got its name and that one of the oldest golf courses in the world at Musselburgh where apparently Mary Queen of Scots used to enjoy playing (she seems to have been everywhere in Scotland!).
On arriving in North Berwick there was a 15 minute break before the circular tour began which gave me a chance to quickly head down to the beach area and enjoy some of the great views looking out towards the Bass Rock and the May Isle. The Bass Rock was apparently a former prison and both of the islands have boat trips which leave from North Berwick at the Sealife Centre, an idea for another day perhaps as the bus tour stops by there too. I would suggest that unless you have brought a packed lunch like I did then North Berwick is a good place to catch lunch as the options at the stops on the tour are limited.
The East Lothian tour has a total of 10 stops and it goes in a circular route which takes around an hour to complete, many people seem to use the tour to visit the Museum of the Flight but I planned to visit three different sites on my trip. The majority of the stops could be visited within an hour which allows you to hop straight back on the next bus but some places like the Museum of Flight and the Sealife Centre will take longer to visit.
My first stop of the day was the picturesque Tantallon Castle ruins which was stop 3 on the tour and it is one of two Historic Scotland owned castles in the area. The bus stops around a 5-6 minute walk from the entrance with the castle being a bit off the beaten path, you might accumulate some field flies along the way and there are many more at the top level of the castle during the summer season so white is probably not the best colour to wear as I found out!
Tantallon Castle dates back to the 14th century and was formerly owned by the nephew of Robert the Bruce the red douglas, over the years it has seen its fair share of action with the last main battle taking place during the English civil war in the 17th century. In that period troops were based in the castle where they launched attacks on Oliver Cromwell’s troops until the castle was eventually besieged in February of 1651 and reduced to the ruins which you can now explore.
Tantallon in its day must have been a pretty well defended castle, it sits perched upon a cliff face which is at the rear of the castle and at the front there is a moat with bridge to enter the castle, then as a further line of defense there is a defensive post with holes in the wall where men with guns were stationed. It still looks quite impressive and imposing and although inside it is mostly ruins the outer walls still offer a good idea the castles former stature when it was in use. As you walk through the entrance and to the rear you can enjoy some terrific views of the Bass Rock and you can also climb several sets of stairs to the top level observation deck where you can get a good view of the layout of the castle.
It took just under an hour to explore the whole site, which for me was ideal for catching the hop on hop off bus but it is possible to stay longer if you want to linger and perhaps chill out on one of the benches at the back of the castle and enjoy the views with a packed lunch.
The next stop for me on the tour was Preston Mill which was 10 minutes away in East Linton and apparently a filming location for Outlander, the popular book and TV series which I have yet to see or read about. The Mill is one of the oldest left in Scotland and it dates back to the 16th century, although amazingly it was still used as recently as 1959 but is now owned and maintained by the National Trust.
The only way to see inside the Mill is by a guided tour and luckily enough i arrived just as a tour was starting at 12.30pm which was the first tour of the day, the tour began outside where the guide explained what each building was and how the mill was powered naturally by the River Tyne. I then got to go inside the mill and learn about the milling process where oats were cleaned and prepared either for human consumption or for animal feed. The first thing you notice as you enter the mill is the noise of the machinery, there are so many things working in tandem to create a seamless process.
There are three levels to the mill and the tour really begins upstairs on the highest level where the killin is and this where the oats were heated and then when ready they were shoveled down a shoot to the next processing stage in the 2nd level. The ground level had some of the main machinery and it is the noisiest level, you can also see marks on the wall where flooding has taken place as the mill is close to the River Tyne it often floods and sometimes this can be fairly extensive with floods reaching as high as the the upper level of the mill.
The mill tour takes around 40 minutes and afterwards you can take some pictures of the mill and also there is a picnic bench where people can enjoy a packed lunch. I found the tour interesting, seeing a mill in action is something that is pretty unique and its amazig to think of the ingenuty of people hundreds of years ago. After the mill I was able to hop back on the next bus and contunted my tour around North Berwick. The next stop for me was another castle which is the last stop on the tour before North Berwick, this time it was Dirleton Castle.
As soon as I entered the grounds I found that there was an armoury demonstration taking place, it was being held in the gardens outside the castle and although it was aimed at kids it was equally enjoyable for adults. There was a guy dressed up as a knight who had a wide selection of medieval weapons with everything from a mace to morning star and he explained how each was used in medieval times and during battles. The demonstration lasted for about half an hour and it if i ever end up back in medieval times i now know will know how to use the weapons (top tip when in a medieval battle keep your helmet on, helmletness knights are only found in hollywood apparently!).
After the demonstration it was time to explore the castle and like Tantallon this castle is also in ruins but it does have more extensive grounds. I entered the castle at the rear up the garden steps and inside there are a number of rooms and sections to explore inside. There is only one upper level but you can go down a level to the pitt jail and to the storage area which is one of the oldest parts of the castle. After exploring the castle there are some nice gardens to walk around and explore and also a small museum with more information on the history of the castle.
The castle saw a lot of action during the wars of independence but the oldest parts of the castle date back as far as the 13th century, it was badly damaged during the English civil war like Tantallon Castle.
The trip to Dirleton was my longest stop of the day, partly due to the armoury exhibition taking place which I watched for about half an hour but also because you can spent some time exploring the gardens outside the castle. I spent around 90 mins at the site which meant i missed my bus connection but luckily my ticket allowed for unlimited travel on the East Coast buses which meant i was able to get a local Edinburgh bus back to the city at no extra cost.
The hop on hop off bus left from Waverly bridge in Edinburgh and it travelled direct to North Berwick and then to all of the attractions I visited. I then took the 124 East Coast bus back to Edinburgh although I could have also taken the same hop off bus which heads back to Edinburgh at 5.40pm and 6.40pm.
Transport: East Coast Tour Bus: £18 / Attractions: Tantallon Castle: £6*, Preston Mill: £6.50 Adult, Dirleton Castle: £6* / Food: Packed Lunch
*Free with Historic Scotland Pass