A town of three harbours, Dunbar was once a major herring and whaling port. Its old harbour dates from 1710. Around the harbours are attractive former warehouses and granaries.
When John Muir was growing up in Dunbar, one of the largest and most exciting developments in the town’s history began. The long awaited Victoria Harbour, built in the shelter of the castle ruins, was opened in 1842 and spelled the final death knell for most of the remains of Dunbar Castle. In 1567, following the Battle of Carberry Hill, the castle was destroyed by an Act of Parliament, and has been a ruin ever since.
The castle’s walls, severely weathered by the salty sea winds, now make convenient nesting sites for kittiwakes. In spring and summer Dunbar Harbour hosts the most accessible colony in Britain with more than 600 pairs of kittiwakes nesting in the old Dunbar Castle ruins.
At the east end of the harbour is an 18th century fort and battery, built to protect the harbour from privateers who were particularly active at the time of the American War of Independence. The building of the fort, and of the new harbour, probably hastened the decline of the castle.
Dunbar Harbour is a busy working harbour with a commercial fleet landing mainly shellfish. There is a thriving Sailing Club and a Coastal Rowing Club and attracts many diving clubs to enjoy the seas around Dunbar.
The harbour is also home to one of the largest lifeboat stations in the area and, if you're lucky, you may also see Sammy, the resident friendly seal, who spends his time swimming around the harbour hoping for a fish supper from the fishermen.Looking to the future Dunbar Harbour Trust has plans for the construction of an off-shore breakwater, the deepening of the Victoria Harbour basin and the completion of other major engineering works. This will provide a 24/7, all-weather, all-tide port of refuge for the Outer Forth Limits and the North Sea, which will allow the return of the RNLI All-Weather Lifeboat, John Neville Taylor, to an along-side mooring within the safety of the harbour.
Successful completion of the Harbour Development Plan will open up Dunbar Harbour to an expanded inshore commercial fishing fleet, with the facilities and infrastructure in place to support recreational sailors as well as divers and rowers. The intention is to expand tourism opportunities, develop cultural and heritage amenities, and secure the long term future of Dunbar Harbour.
The first harbour was at the mouth of the Biel Water in 1370, when Dunbar was designated a Free Burgh by Royal Charter. This anchorage became a free harbour, known as Belhaven. By the mid-16th century the main "harbour" facility was in another location, east of the Castle called Broadhaven. Today this is a link between the Victoria and Cromwell harbours and a number of boats are moored in this area.
Work on building the Cromwell Harbour started in 1655 and the structure, with its small basin, was completed about 1730.The harbour was used by Oliver Cromwell and his invasion force that defeated the Scottish Covenanters at the Battle of Dunbar. General Johnny Cope landed at Dunbar with his army, after sailing south from the North East of Scotland, prior to losing the battle of Prestonpans to Bonnie Prince Charlie. In peaceful times, the harbour was famed for its herring fishing fleet and whaling industry and was a busy export centre for grain. The harbour suffered particularly badly in a storm in 1655, when the inhabitants petitioned Parliament for help. Cromwell's government, established following his great victory at Dunbar in 1650, responded with a grant of £300 towards the construction of the East Pier. The completion of the works in the harbour in 1730 led to Dunbar's dramatic growth as a fishing and, for a time, whaling port.
By 1735, the harbour was again in a very poor condition. A national collection was made to fund improvements. Further improvements were necessary in 1744 following another storm, and again in 1785 when it was deepened with a new pier built on the west entry.
In 2009 the restoration of McArthur’s Stores was undertaken by Dunbar Harbour Trust to create 11 fishermen’s stores, an office for the Trust, and a meeting room that can be used by harbour users and the wider community. McArthur’s Store or Spott’s Girnell (granary) as it was first known when it was first recorded in 1658 is located on a spur of rock within the Cromwell harbour. Early charters described the property as the “white herring house with girnell” with its close, yards, and falls, with “full sea in all places”. The building is one of the oldest continuously used harbour buildings in Scotland.