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Dunbar Castle

Dunbar Castle ScotlandDramatic coastal view of Dunbar Castle
during a severe storm Date 1836. SCOTLAND/DUNBAR CASTLE - 16 Inch Canvas Print (40cm) by Mary Evans.

For almost a thousand years the East Lothian fortress of Dunbar has been at the centre of events in Scottish history. The impregnable castle site in Dunbar harbour was defended by the Votadini tribe in Roman times, held by Northumbrian and Pictish warriors in Scotland's 'dark ages' and was finally captured by Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scots in 849 AD. In 1072 Malcolm Canmore granted the lands and title of Earl of Dunbar to a Norman knight Cospatrick, whose son had raised the first stone castle here by 1140. The English King John failed to take Dunbar castle in 1214 but eighty years later Edward Longshanks was more persuasive. The 9th Earl of Dunbar swore fealty to King John Balliol and then to Edward I, helping the English to besiege Caerlaverock in 1300 and holding Dunbar Castle against the Bruce until 1314. When Edward 11 fled the field of Bannockburn, he made for his ally at Dunbar in search of shelter and a fast ship south.

In 1338 Lady Agnes, Countess of Dunbar, proved to be a patriotic chatelaine, as befitted a woman with Bruce blood in her veins. In her husband's absence, she held the castle for five months, prophesying that 'the Thistle would out-thorn the Rose' and this proved to be the case, thanks to Sir Alexander Ramsay and his men who braved the rocky coastline to bring in supplies from the sea. Agnes well understood the power of psychological warfare, sending bread and wine to her famished besiegers and ordering her maids to parade in their best linen along the castle battlements to wipe away the marks made by English missiles.

Halfway along the coastline between Berwick and Edinburgh, Dunbar was of immense strategic value in the Border wars of the later 1300s and 1400s. The key to Scotland's south-eastern flank, Dunbar changed hands several times as a result of siege and treaty. The Scots Parliament finally ordered it to be slighted in 1488 to make it less attractive to invading English commanders. James IV rebuilt the castle in 1494 in time for it to be attacked by the Earl of Hertford in 1544 and be badly burned by German mercenaries under the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1548. A royal castle after 1435, an English spy in 1537 noted that James V frequently rode in secret at night to Dunbar Castle to check the expensive batteries of artillery that he had gathered there. His daughter Mary appreciated Dunbar's security, fleeing there in March 1566 two days after the murder of her secretary Rizzio. Little more than a year later, Mary was forcibly carried off to Dunbar by her abductor the Earl of Bothwell, accompanied by eight hundred pikemen.

The strength and importance of Dunbar so worried the Scottish Parliament that it was dismantled in the 1570s. The demolition of this once mighty fortress was completed in the 1840s by the Victorian inventor Robert William Thomson who demonstrated his new technique of detonating explosives by electrical charge on the ruins of Dunbar.

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