Welcome to North Berwick
Over 350 million years ago massive volcanic eruptions shaped the rock on which North Berwick now stands. It was buried under ash and layers of soft sediment until the last ice age when huge glaciers ground it away to expose the rock. As a result rocky promontories and outcrops dominate the coast: the Bass Rock’s awe inspiring sheer cliffs rise ominously out of the Firth of Forth to the east; North Berwick Law looms 600 feet over the town and can be seen for miles in every direction; and the focal point of North Berwick is a promontory jutting out into the Forth where the harbour lies. This is an area of living rock and sea cliffs punctuated by stretches of sandy beaches. The ancient and picturesque town of North Berwick (less than 20 miles east along the coast from Edinburgh), lies here: famed for its beautiful location and for its association with witchcraft.
Bass Rock, North Berwick
Hunter gatherers came to the coast at the end of the last Ice Age. There are a number of finds which testify to the arrival of the earliest settlers, such as the shell midden and burial ground around York Road. When the Romans arrived in Scotland they came across a loose federation of tribes whose economy was based on the cultivation of the land. In the Forth Valley they encountered the Votadinii, who had major settlements both at Edinburgh and North Berwick. On North Berwick Law evidence has been found of around 20 hut circles, dykes (which suggest farming) and defensive ramparts dated to this time.
In the 4th century BC the Romans withdrew from Britain. In the years that followed the power vacuum may have been filled by the Votadinii: in a strong position due to their military tradition unhindered by restraints placed on the inhabitants of occupied Britain to the south. However, in the 6th and 7th centuries power shifted south again and the Forth Valley came under the control of the Saxons and later the Northumbrian Angles. It was probably the Angles who gave the town the name we use today. Berwick is derived from the old English Bere and Wic meaning barley and farm respectively, while North distinguished it from Berwick-upon-Tweed to the south. Only after the battle of Carnam in 1018 did Malcolm II secure the area between the Forth and the River Tweed for the Kingdom of Scotland.
Around this time a motte and bailey (a wooden castle of Norman design) was built on Castle Hill, a small ridge beside the shore. It was later rebuilt in stone. In 1314, in the aftermath of English defeat at the battle of Bannockburn, Edward II stopped briefly at the castle before continuing to flee down the coast pursued by King Robert the Bruce’s general, Black Douglas. In the 15th century the castle was abandoned by its protectors, the Lauder family, in favour of the nearby Tantallon Castle, the spectacular ruin which still sits on the rocks a little to the east of the town. Only small fragments of North Berwick Castle now remain.
It appears, then, that not only did North Berwick grow as a farming community, especially for cultivating barley as the name suggests, but also to supply its castle. Its position at the mouth of the Firth of Forth provides another reason for its early prominence: it became the terminal of a ferry taking pilgrims to St Andrews from Earlsferry in Fife.
At the end of the middle ages North Berwick was to become associated with a phenomenon which would scar its history: witchcraft. In the late 17th century the spectre of Satan and Satan worship was continually evoked by a fanatical Calvinist church. James VI (later James I of England) came to power in 1567 at just 13 months. He was tutored by the staunch Calvinist, George Buchanan, and raised in this fiery environment. Before he took the reigns of government at 19 it seems that James came to see an attack on the occult as one of his primary duties. But it was the events at North Berwick which would truly set his campaign alight and lead to ‘witches’ burning at the stake from Shetland to Cornwall.
From a confession gained from the torture of a young servant called Gilly Duncan it was established that Gilly had participated in a coven at North Berwick Old Kirk in 1590 involving up to 200 witches. Apparently the witches, in cahoots with Francis Boswell (a rival for the throne), had gathered in an attempt to cause a storm to sink the king’s ship, who was returning to Scotland from Denmark with his new Danish wife. The result of the confession was not only the exile of Boswell but a witch hunt that culminated in a number of burnings and hangings. James continued with this obsession throughout his long reign, even writing a book based on his observations: ‘Demonology.’ Efforts have recently been made to restore North Berwick Old Kirk.
North Berwick has continued to have a reputation for the supernatural, which more recently has included UFO sightings. Some have claimed these bizarre happenings may have something to do with powerful electro magnetic fields, but no-one really knows. North Berwick’s famous rocky heights provide many a stunning vantage point from which one can observe the breaking waves and ponder both the town’s mysteries.