Sea-fringed golf courses and an island bird haven
Battles and witchcraft, great houses and romantic castles, bird sanctuaries and boat trips, old fishing ports and lovely villages – there is something to delight everyone on this stretch of coast. But its central theme is golf, which in this part of Scotland is played by everyone from near-toddlers to ancients. The links run for miles along the shore, their turf perfectly maintained by the sea air and by expert mowing.
For 500 years Longniddry was a mining village, until in the 1920s the coal ran out; today it is almost Edinburgh commuter country. There are golf links and a rocky shore leading down to the flat Gosford Sands. But the area’s best-known feature is something that most people never see -Gosford House, a seat of the Earl of Wemyss.
The house, designed by Robert Adam towards the end of the 18th century, and its park, lie behind a red wall that runs seemingly for miles along the shore road. Within the walls, trees lean inland, away from the wind. There are a number of gateways, one of them three storeys high.
Off the inland road behind the estate is the picturesque ruin of the 16th-century Red-house Castle.
The country around Aberlady Bay is wonderfully rich; old trees, heavy boughed, arch over the road or divide sprawling, heavy-cropping fields of cereals or potatoes. By contrast, the bay itself is a flat, windy expanse of salt-marsh, low dunes and creeks. Children should not be allowed to wander alone, and bathing is unsafe. The local mussels and winkles should not be eaten.
The lovingly composed Myreton Motor Museum, south-east of Luffness Mains, includes not only vintage cars, but motor cycles, old aeroplane engines and military vehicles. It is open daily.
MEDIEVAL CASTLE Dirleton Castle, partly 13th century, has been ruined both by time and by Cromwell’s soldiers 300 years ago.
As horse training areas may be judged by the impeccability of their white rails, so the best golf courses may be recognised by the suavity of their turf. There is no more perfect turf in the world than that of the links around Gullane, occupied by club after club and by mile after mile of fiendishly contrived bunkers.
The holy of holies is Muirfield, founded by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1891, and still considered by many to be the finest championship course of all. Visitors, on certain conditions, are welcome at all the courses around Gullane, while for those who do not care for the game, there are miles of coastal footpaths, with the wind, sea-birds and wild flowers for company.
Gullane village’s preoccupation is made clear in pub and bar names like ‘Golf Addicts’, ‘The 19th Hole’ and ‘The Golf Bag’, but there are other attractions too. The handsome but roofless St Andrew’s Church – whose last vicar was dismissed by James VI for smoking – dates from the 12th century; and the sands in Gullane Bay provide probably the best and safest bathing on this stretch of coast. perfection of herbaceous borders and a bowling green that was laid out in the 17th century, its boundaries still defined by its original yews. This idyllic scene makes the castle itself even more dramatic – a gold-grey mass of stone that looks as though it had grown from the crag on which it stands. It dates partly from the 13th century, and was dismantled by Cromwellian troops in 1650.
Over some classic golf links, a well laid out nature trail leads to broad sands, where bathers are protected by the bulk of the island of Fidra, topped by a lighthouse.
Everywhere the visitor goes in the Firth of Forth, the 613 ft volcanic pyramid of North Berwick Law goes with him in views near or distant. From the summit, reached by a fairly tough climb, the odd shapes visible from below resolve themselves into a lookout post of the Napoleonic Wars, another constructed during the Second World War, and an arch made from the jawbones of a whale. There is an indicator that points out the enormous range of landmarks visible from this relatively lofty point; the trees clothing the side of the Law – a Scottish word for a hill – were planted in 1707 to celebrate the Union of Parliaments.
The lively and ancient burgh of North Berwick is gathered mostly about its harbour, which offers safe mooring to yachts, though space is limited; further anchorage is available outside. On either side of the harbour there are fine beaches, but bathing is dangerous if the sea is running even moderately high; the open-air, heated swimming pool near by is open from May to the end of August. Boat trips to the island of Fidra and to Bass Rock are available from the harbour.
By the harbour wall a forlorn little stone building is all that remains of the old kirk of St Andrews, and all that remains too of a scandal that in 1591 shook Scotland to its foundations. A year earlier, a local coven of witches had sought the death of James VI (later James 1 of England) by sorcery. The attempt was unsuccessful, but at the subsequent trial it was revealed that 200 witches had met in the kirk where they were addressed by the Devil in the form of a black goat. It is thought now that the ‘Devil’ might particularly in winter, of a vast population of wildfowl and wading birds.
The haunting whistle of the curlew must have accompanied the monk Aidan from Iona, when he first crossed the sands one low tide in the year 634 to found a monastery at Lindisfarne, at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria. Aidan’s monastery was destroyed by the Danes in the 9th century, but a manuscript written and illuminated there in the 7th century has survived – the Lindisfarne Gospels, a masterpiece of English Celtic art, now one of the treasures of the British Museum.
Lindisfarne became a holy island for a second time when, in 1093, building began on a priory that was to be a branch of the monastery at Durham. The ruins of the Norman priory church, in red weathered sandstone, still stand today.
The little village of Holy Island is tight-knit, the houses huddled together and looking inward to small squares and narrow streets. The jetty is still used by a handful of fishermen who go out for crabs and lobsters, but the decline of the herring fleet is evident in the hulks of the old herring boats, cut in half, upturned and used as storage huts, that lie like great black beetles along the shore.
Beyond the harbour, perched on a steep cone of rock, is the romantic outline of Lindisfarne Castle. It was no more than a ruined 16th-century fort when recreated by the architect Edwin Lutyens in 1902. It is now owned by the National Trust and is open on most days in summer. East of the castle are the remains of lime-kilns, and broad acres of rabbit-grazed turf slope down to the rocky shore. The north side of the island has a wide strip of dunes, and there are fine sandy beaches, unsafe for bathing because of strong tidal currents.
ROSS BACK SANDS
The effort of walking almost a mile across the rolling grassy dunes of Ross Links is repaid by a splendid sandy beach, which stretches for 3 miles and is deserted on many days of the year. The beach, which is safe for swimming, looks north to the fairy-tale castle of Lindisfarne, and south-east to the looming presence of Bamburgh Castle.
Almost cut off from the sea by a ridge of sand, Budle Bay is a large inlet of weed-covered flats of muddy sand, which are completely exposed at low tide. The flats are a feeding ground for large numbers of wildfowl and wading birds, which can be watched from the grassy banks beside the road to the south. It can be dangerous to walk far out on the flats, as the sea comes rushing into the bay as the tide rises, and sections of the flats become cut off.