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Scotland > Scottish Borders and the Lothians DUNBAR CASTLE  and the BATTLE OF DUNBAR (1296)




The ruins of a medieval fortress albeit in a poor state of repair with a portion having been destroyed to create an entrance for the harbour. No access is allowed to the ruins but the exterior can be viewed the surrounding area. With regards the battlefield there is no monument but a good view of the terrain can be seen from Spott Loan.



ENGLISH FORCES - John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey


Deployed from Dunbar in a single formation.

Total: Unknown

( Probably exclusively cavalry )


To defeat the Scottish forces and maintain the siege of Dunbar Castle




Total: Unknown (in excess of 100)

( Probably exclusively cavalry)


To defeat the English forces besieging Dunbar Castle.


Deployed on slopes of Doon Hill overlooking Dunbar.


Edward I, having been requested to arbitrate on the Scottish succession, ruled in favour of John Balliol and declared him King of Scotland on 17 November 1292. However, Edward's attempts to assert his overlordship left John little choice but to rebel. Defying English demands for men and money to support a continental war, the Scots entered into negotiations for mutual support with the French. Ultimately this led to war with a large English army sacking Berwick-upon-Tweed on 30 March 1296. The attack on this significant and prosperous port was brutal; over 7,000 were killed out a total population of 12,500. Edward then spent much of April 1296 rebuilding Berwick as a military outpost.


On 23 April 1296, as a precursor to advancing onto Edinburgh, Edward sent John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey north to secure Dunbar Castle - a key outpost on the coastal road. The fortification was held by a garrison loyal to King John and Surrey commenced siege works to dislodge them. Fully aware the defences of the castle were inadequate to repel such a significant force, the garrison sent a plea for help to King John. He was camped at Haddington, some 10 miles to the west, and sent a significant portion of his army to assist.


The English army was led by John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey - John Balliol's father-in-law and a competent military commander with previous experience fighting in Wales. It is likely his force consisted of almost entirely mounted men.

King John had not accompanied his army to Dunbar and instead placed John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch (Red Comyn) in charge. However, the Scottish forces also included numerous other high status magnates including John de Strathbogie (Earl of Atholl), Alexander (Earl of Menteith) and William (Earl of Ross) undoubtedly confusing the command chain.

The Battle

The Scottish forces arrived on the morning of 27 April and formed up on Spottismuir - a ridge of high ground overlooking Dunbar.

- Stage 1: English Advance

Undeterred by the formidable Scottish defensive position, Surrey left his infantry to maintain the siege of Dunbar Castle but moved his mounted forces to engage the Scots.

- Stage 2: Crossing the Spot Burn

In order to assault the Scottish position, the English had to cross the Spott Burn. This seemingly disrupted their lines for Comyn, with his forces now on the slopes of Doon Hill, misinterpreted the manoeuvre as one of retreat. Hoping to capitalise on the disruption to the English lines, he ordered the Scots to charge.

- Stage 3: Scottish Attack

The Scottish charge consisted of a disorganised descent down the hill. By contrast the English, having now forded the Spott Burn, reformed and counter charged routing the Scots. Whilst fatalities seem to have been limited - records suggest only one Scottish Knight, Sir Patrick Graham, was killed - significant numbers of Scotland's best warriors were captured including John Comyn, John de Strathbogie (Earl of Atholl), Alexander (Earl of Menteith), William (Earl of Ross) and perhaps as many as 100 Knights. A handful successfully escaped into the Ettrick forest.


The battle effectively put central and southern Scotland under Edward's control with key castles - most notably Roxburgh and Stirling - being handed over to the English. On 21 June 1296, perhaps influenced by the fate of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the earlier Wars of Welsh Independence, King John capitulated to Edward I. On 8 July, at Montrose, he was stripped of his Royal regalia and forced to abdicate with Edward I choosing to keep the Scottish throne vacant. The Wars of Scottish Independence had seemingly ended but, just 10 months later, William Wallace would kill William de Heselrig, High Sheriff of Lanark and start an uprising that would later see Surrey humiliated at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297).



Castle Car Parking Option

EH42 1ET

56.004034N 2.516438W

Dunbar Castle


56.005617N 2.517554W

Battlefield View (Spott Loan)

EH42 1RL

55.965593N 2.526002W

Notes:  Castle is located next to Dunbar Leisure Centre. No sign-posts but the castle is clearly visible from the road. The leisure centre had a car park or alternative on-road parking is possible.

Perched on a rocky outcrop, Dunbar Castle evolved from a Dark Ages fort into a substantial medieval fortress. When the castle was besieged by English forces in 1296, it became the scene for the opening engagement of the Wars of Scottish Independence - the first Battle of Dunbar. It subsequently had a turbulent history and was attacked on many occasions.


Situated on a rocky outcrop projecting into the Firth of Forth, there has been a fortification on the site since at least Roman times. During this period a timber fort was occupied by the Votanidi tribe and later became part of the Kingdom of Northumbria which stretched from the Forth to the Humber. Later taken by Picts, little is known about it until AD 849 when it is recorded as owned by Kenneth MacAlpin. He had seen off his competitors to become King of both Picts and Gaels against a backdrop of Viking raids.

The medieval fortress probably evolved from the earlier defences but is generally credited to Gospatric, Earl of Northumbria or his son, also Gospatrick, who took the title Earl of Dunbar. The former had been a magnate of Northumbria but had been expelled following William I's 'Harrying of the North' in 1069/70. The castle continued to be developed over the subsequent centuries and became a substantial fortification that comfortably withstood an attempted assault by King John of England in 1214.

Dunbar Castle was the scene for the first major battle of the First War of Scottish Independence (see right). In 1292 Edward I had arbitrated between rival claimants for the Scottish throne and had ultimately chosen in favour of John Balliol; an individual Edward was confident would be his vassal. However, Edward's excessive demands for men and money to support a war with France placed the new Scottish King in an impossible position. He was left little choice but to rebel and sought to agree a mutual defence pact with France. Outraged Edward raised an army to deal with the threat and by March 1296 the two countries were at war; the Scots launched a failed attack on Carlisle Castle on 26 March but this was followed by a brutal English assault on Berwick on 30 March. The sacking of the latter, Scotland's largest port and a thriving mercantile community, was designed to awe King John into submission. After one month militarising Berwick, Edward commenced preparations for penetration into southern Scotland and a key installation along the coastal road was Dunbar Castle. Although owned by Patrick, Earl of March - who supported Edward I - the castle itself had been handed over by the Earl's wife, Marjory Comyn, to the forces of King John. The castle was besieged by John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey prompting the Scottish garrison to send a frantic plea to help to King John. He duly detached the mounted elements of his army, under the command of John Comyn, but the subsequent battle was a disaster with the Scots routed and over 100 high status prisoners taken. With the arrival of Edward I and the main English army on 28 April 1296, Dunbar Castle surrendered to the English. Later that year King John capitulated to the Edward I and was stripped of his throne. Thousands of other Scottish magnates would subsequently pay homage direct to Edward I at a gathering at Berwick Castle.

Despite the English victory at Dunbar, which saw the Scottish throne left vacant, the Wars of Scottish Independence continued. William Wallace rebelled the following year and starting a guerrilla war against the English which reached its high point at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297). Although Wallace was defeated, another rebellion, this time led by Robert the Bruce, started in 1306. Edward I's death, a Burgh-by-Sands on his way north to suppress the revolt, led to a change in fortune for the Scots; the new English King, Edward II, was no substitute for his father. In the first years of his reign he would lose control of almost all the castles in Scotland until finally, prompted into action by a siege of Stirling Castle, he brought and army north. At the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), Edward was decisively defeated requiring him to flee the battlefield. Refused entry into Stirling Castle, Edward rode at speed to Dunbar pursued all the way by the Scots. He left his horses outside the castle's gates and took a fishing boat back to England.

Dunbar Castle was slighted after 1314 to prevent further military use - its coastal location and port facilities being regarded as too useful for the English with their significant maritime assets. However, whilst the First War of Scottish Independence ended in 1328, peace did not last long. Once Edward III had overthrown Roger Mortimer, Earl of March he keenly restarted the war. A significant English victory at Halidon Hill (1333) saw southern Scotland re-conquered and Dunbar Castle was fortified once more. However, it was later recaptured by the Scots and, under the command of Agnes Randolph, successfully withstood a five month siege as the English tried to re-capture it.

Dunbar Castle was taken into Crown ownership following the forfeiture of George II, Earl of March. By this time the castle was ruinous but substantial rebuilding was initiated. The upgrades were significant enough to enable the castle to withstand another English assault, led by Henry Percy, in 1435. Another attack in 1448 saw Dunbar Castle badly damaged once more and it is unclear what rebuilding took place before the castle was purposely slighted in 1488 to again deny its use to the English.

Dunbar Castle was rebuilt in 1515 during a period of fighting between England and Scotland. The conflict continued sporadically through the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI culminating in the war of the Rough Wooing; an attempt to force a marriage alliance between Edward VI and Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1547 the English had significant success at the Battle of Pinkie but the English commander - Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset - was unable to press home his advantage. The following year though he did raid into Scotland attacking Dunbar Castle and leaving the site ruinous.

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The castle was extensively upgraded by Marie de Guise, widowed Queen of James V, between 1550 and 1560. These upgrades restored the castle to a first rate fortification and accordingly her daughter - Mary, Queen of Scots - made regular use of the site during her reign. Of note she chose it as the location to rally her supporters following the murder of her unpopular Italian secretary, David Riccio, at Holywood Palace. Another important visit occurred in April 1567 when she arrived there with James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. He had allegedly kidnapped Mary and had taken her first to Hailes Castle and then onto Dunbar. Whether this action was with the connivance of the Queen or not is disputed. Either way, it spelled the end for her regime with key magnates rising in rebellion. On 15 June 1567 at Carberry Hill near Edinburgh she surrendered to her opponents and was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle where she was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James. Whilst she escaped and rallied her forces she was defeated at the Battle of Langside, fought on 13 May 1568, and fled to Carlisle Castle in England. Bothwell fled to Dunbar Castle and then abroad to Norway hoping to enlist the support of Frederick II of Denmark. However, the King imprisoned him and he was never released.

Bothwell left some of his supporters to hold Dunbar Castle and Regency forces besieged the castle in September 1567. They were eventually ejected but Dunbar Castle was once again slighted to prevent any reoccurrence with some of the stone robbed to rebuild the quay side at Leith. The castle was never rebuilt and suffered further destruction when the Victorian harbour, complete with its own gun battery in the north-east corner, was built in 1844. This created a new entrance for the harbour with ships sailing through what was once the centre of the medieval castle. What is left has been closed to the public since 1993 when a portion collapsed into the sea.

The Keep was upgraded into an artillery blockhouse in the sixteenth century.