The Gododdin Heritage Trail: Nunraw to Whitecastle

In the past couple of weeks Autumn has roar’d in all its rainbow glory, then shook its head in mad defiance at the wild weather systems resulting in widespread leaf-fall across the county. O, & Daisy had her second birthday! Walking East Lothian is, on one level, the story of Daisy’s walks… arguably the luckiest dog in the county. I started doing them when she was old enough to go out after her injections, a veritable Snowy of companionship & enthusiasm. Happy Birthday Daisy!

We last left the Gododdin Heritage Trail at the gorgeous Nunraw Falls, so where next? At this point you would have two choices. The first is to head south through the woods of Nunraw, where we’re gonna enjoy a really quality adventurous walk through varying terrain up to the gloriously preserved & immensely evocative White Castle. I will describe this as ROUTE A.

The other course, ROUTE B, is to meander through Nunraw Estate to the Sancta Maria Abbey, being fully aware of the Access Code Scotland as you do so – ie there’s no popping up to the Big House anymore, saying I’d love to have a look at the medieval roof please. The previous owners, the Cistercian monks, accepted all-comers, but its in private hands these days, so its only the grounds where the Scottish public has free access. The fields are also accessible as long as you stick to the edges, keep dogs on leads & don’t disturb the cows – who are pretty docile at Nunraw, to be honest, quite a divine bunch still.


We have now arrived at what I feel is the principle core philosophy behind the Gododdin Heritage Trail. Across Britain there are a number of beautiful but long-winded country walks, such as the Southern Upland & the Pennine Ways. Most folk don’t have the time or inclination to decamp from modernity’s comforts & rough it for a week or two of hiking. One or two days, however, & yeah, they’re up for it, especially if they can get back to feed the cats! My Heritage Trail will cater for those wanting the hiking experience in miniature. You can drive to Gifford, East Linton, Papple, Nunraw, Haddington, wherever, & get yourself up to this section of the Trail, where natural beauty, healthy hiking & the serenity of solitude intermingle in a singular soul-warming session. You could take one, two, or even three days traversing the ground – its open to many variations – but I am sure it will be to the immense benefit of the individual Trailer’s well-being, & a decidedly positive boon to the local economy.

From the Falls, return to the rickety ‘Laird’s Bridge,’ at which point you must take the right bank of the burn & head east up the slope. You will found yourself in a forested world of long untread paths; sometimes visible, sometimes overgrown with fern. The general idea is to head towards the wall & enter the field beyond, where heading right along the line of the wall the going is far superior to hacking your way through the forest – altho’ that method can be much fun, Daisy loves it.

A good place to hop over into the field

Through these gates please (shut them behind you if you don’t hop over)

Through the gate & head up & left towards the deer fence

Eventually one comes to an open gate, which is tied to the wall-area by rope. At this point look up & to the left & you will see a fence which you should head towards up the steep slope. At the top you will see that the fences are actually the extremities of deer pens. At the corner of the fences turn right & head towards the treeline. At some point you’ll have to hop over a fence, roundabout the place where Routes A&B intersect. It is now time to enter a lovely stretch of forestry, which very occasionally is being worked, so be aware of that & don’t get under anyone’s feet when you’re there.

Hop over the fence here

There’s a track under the fern somewhere

Keeping Thorter’s Reservoir to your right thro’ the trees, you will reach a fine track which will then take you to a gate & thus the spacious and panoramic glory of the Lammermuirs. Yes, we’ve finally made it! From East Linton, lets say, where we hopped off the bus from Edinburgh, lets say, we’ve been on a lovely walk, seen some jolly cool things & filled our lungs & spirits with nature, with barely inch of tarmac stepped upon. And now, before us, spreads the  untameable splendour of East Lothian’s mountains like a phalanx of medieval men-at-arms.

Turn right

Thro the gates, turn right & hop over another gate

Passing through the gate,  turn sharp right & head over another gate, then veer up & to the left. At some point we have to cross the Thorter Burn, which hews its way thro’ a deep-gouged ravine. Keeping the Thorter to one’s right, the views are amazing & the mental ability to leap back 20 centuries to the age of the Gododdin & imagine yourself as one of the the tribe is particularly good fun.

Reaching the head of the Burn
Migrating Geese

What it looks like in the valley (we explored it & changed our minds – too boggy)

As you head south, you will eventually be able to make out the sleek curvatures of Whitecastle Fort, still defending the pass from Saxon nonsense & busybodying. You will soon enough come to the ideal crossing point. A clutch of gorse marks its beginning, which you enter via paths & meander down to the burn at the best & easiest place to cross. Over the Burn, & a fence  & up a slope, you are soon back on the tops, ticking off the final steps to the fort. Towards the finale a path bleeds out of the turf, assisting the final steep climb to Whitecastle & its epic views. Just beyond the fort, by the way, is a wee car-park, which is a perfect staging post for folk wanting to do only a small portion of the Trail.

The clutch of gorse – there is a cool path thro it, or just go around it to its left

Looking down on the crossing point
The crossing point
Daisy leaping over the Thorter Burn

Lookin back along the Thorter Burn
Whitecastle is on the right

The view north over the still fertile plains of the Gododdin
Some of the old fortifications – the road to Whiteadder is in the top right corner

The Carpark


Back at Nunraw Falls, return the way we came in the previous post a little while & back over the fence gate into the field with the adorable monkey puzzle trees. Turn sharp left here & keep the fence to your left as you climb a wee slope. Following the line of the fence you will eventually see Nunraw Tower & then come to a wonderful spot of ground that reminds me of the Italy-Slovenia-Croatia land border where there’s loads of different rules & languages within meters of each other. The photograph shows how within centimetres of each other, you are either in Scottish countryside, where only pooping dogs are frowned on (& disco-raves), private gardens & agricultural terrain opened to the Scottish public by its Access Code as long as certain tenets are adhered too.

Looking at the access point to the monkeypuzzle field – centre right. Then head towards where the photo is taken from

The handsome, red sandstone building the baronial style that is Nunraw is largely a Victorian mansion incorporating a 15th century tower house with its six foot thick walls rising four floors to a parapet carried on chequered corbelling. In the 16th century Nunraw is described as the ‘place and fortalice’ which the nuns of Haddington were obliged, by royal charter, to “fortify the nunnery and have guns aye loaded to shoot at our aulden enemies of England.” The interior has a painted ceiling executed in tempera which has been dated to 1461, emblazoned with the arms of medieval European kings. Originally it measured 30 feet by 18 feet and was composed of 14 strong oaken joists supporting long panels on which the colours had been laid. The ceiling today is somewhat smaller, 20 feet by 17 feet 6 inches, but two other sections are preserved in the National Museum of Antiquities.

Catholic Hist Gazelle 08.jpg

In each panel the prominent feature is the title and armorial bearings of monarchs who flourished in medieval days. The shields give the arms of the kings of Scotland and England, the kings of France, Arragon and the king of Sicily & others. There are two shields to each panel, the remaining space being filled in by representations of birds, beasts and allegorical figures. In the centre of the ceiling, the words “Gratus Esto”are printed and the monogram “P.C.H.” Experts are of the opinion that these letters refer to Patrick Hepburn and Helen Cockburn, his wife, who were owners of Nunraw from 1595 to 1617. Mr. M. R. Apted, M.A., Her Majesty’s Inspector of Ancient Monuments, in a recent article (1958) on “painted Ceilings in Scotland,” is satisfied that “the date of the Nunraw ceiling can be narrowed down to the years following the Union of the Crowns, since one of the emblems depicts the lion and the unicorn seated on either side of the thistle and since the arms of the King of England, although defaced, can be seen to have been quartered with the tressured lion rampant of the Scottish Royal arms.” I have seen ceiling myself, about 2009 I think it was,  a catalystic moment for the following sonnet.


Go thee to Garvald, go up to Nunraw
Summit of Cistercian activty
Gain’d from the Hayes of Hailes & Traprain Law
& many a Ravenswood dynasty.
Dally, then pass thro the Fortatrice door
Friends enter a centre of sanctity
So go thee to Garvald, seek out Nunraw
Summit of Cistercian acticity

As chapel-roof’d cherubim spread their wings
Thro the heraldrics of Christian kings
Far from the golden glow of Gallilee
Fathers offer coffee & compassion
To those souls tired of vices & fashion
Cistercian essence of god’s destiny.

So a Leither has moved into Nunraw – well kind of, the property was bought as something of  a holiday home by Linda Leith, who lives and works in North Carolina through her membership of an epic automobile-selling dynasty.  Her acquisition of Nunraw is a fascinating slice of religious real estate.

The Nunraw Doocot

Nunraw Tower was most recently used as a guesthouse by the Cistercian order of monks.  In 1945, the previous owner, Marcus Spurway, was willing to sell the old house and the surrounding farmland. His Grace the Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, knowing that Dom Camillus Claffey of the Cistercian order, the Abbot of Mount St. Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, in Ireland, was seeking a suitable site for an abbey, informed him of several properties then for sale. The second one inspected was Nunraw, &  on February 2nd 1946, the first six monks arrived. It is apt that an Order moved in, for the first records in the annals of Nunraw is when it came to the Cistercian Nuns of Haddington. A convent had been founded by the Countess Ada, mother of two Scottish kings, sometime between 1152 and 1158.

By the Tweenies, with repairs starting to mount up, & a shiny new abbey a half mile away built between 1952 & 1969, it was time to sell up. In steps Leith, paying £2 million in 2014 for the Abbey & grounds, & also ready to invest in full restoration of the tower and its cottages, as well as restoration of the property’ 19th-century glass house & its 16th-century beehive dovecot with its 450 nests & string courses which prevented rats climbing up and inside.

Of all the owners of Nunraw, the coolest geezer has to be Robert Hay, a gentleman antiquary whose adventures in Egyptology lasted eight years & produced some of the most wonderful early drawings of the discipline. Hay first visited Egypt in 1824, the same year that Lord Byron died at Missolonghi in Greece. He would spend more than eight years recording the ancient temples and tombs along the Nile, not merely with sketches and brief descriptions, as earlier travellers had done, but completely, with architectural plans and detailed copies of the murals and inscriptions.

“I am obliged to strip to my drawers and then I am perspiring as much as in a Turkish bath which is no agreeable thing for drawing,” wrote Hay wrote in his journal.  A man of some wealth, he had engaged more than half a dozen qualified artists and architects to do the copy work, which he checked closely for accuracy, while he reserved his own talents for the panoramic views. These provide reliable documentation of the small villages that bordered the Nile almost 200 years ago, and his artists’ evocative drawings of Islamic monuments, many of them no longer standing, show them as they looked in the 19th century, not yet hemmed in by the modern buildings of Cairo.

Hay married a Cretan girl – Kalitza Psaraki, the daughter of the chief magistrate of Apodhulo, Crete – who he rescued from a slave market in Alexandria. Like many of her compatriots, Kalitza had been captured by the Turks during the Greek war of independence (1821-1829) and transported to Egypt. Alarmed by their plight, Hay ransomed Kalitza and several other young women, and went on to pay for their education at an English school.  “I should counsel all travellers never to travel with any other companion than a wife,” wrote Hay in September 1829, before bringing her back to Nunraw for a long, happy, child-swelling marriage.

Unfortunately, the life of an East Lothian gentleman sucked the adventurer out of Hay, who remarked of the circumstance, ‘there is no great wonder, living as I do in the most unhealthsome atmosphere of the Lammermoor Hills!—my head being now only full of Hunting, Fencing, Draining, etc etc. We are all the creatures of habit: and if we happen to fall into bad company, we are too apt to get out of the good track and follow the bad! That is my case; no Egyptians or Syro-Egyptians live about the Lammermoors, so that my spirit is dried up within me!—and I go the way of all flesh, & do just as others do about me!’

Many of Hay’s copious manuscripts are held today in the British Library, and many of his plaster casts in the British Museum, though some objects were sold to a Boston banker and collector whose son later bequeathed them to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they formed the basis of that museum’s Egyptological collection. In 2001 archaeologist Caroline Simpson asked Dr. Michelle Brown, curator of manuscripts at the British Library, whether the library could contribute a work by Hay to an exhibition recreating the history of the people of Qurna. The library responded by donating what now serves as the exhibition’s centerpiece: full-size reproductions of two of Hay’s largest panoramas, each extending over seven folio pages and some three meters (10′) in length. The panoramas open a window on the daily life of 19th-century Qurna, showing the tomb dwellings of the Qurnawi people, the Theban hills, ruins of tombs and temples, and the villagers going about their daily tasks.

After admiring the history of Nunraw Tower, its now time to get out over the field, either hopping over the fence at the iron gates, or simply heading west a hundred meters to the normal field-gates, depending on the presence of cattle. We are now in the grounds & by turning left along a fine road, one comes to a track through the woods. Take this & plunge into the trees, passing a cool pond & eventually coming to a hole in the wall – a clear shortcut created by the monks since the building of their new abbey.

A Meeting of Borders

Take this track

“Let all guests be received like Christ himself, for He will say I was a stranger & you took me in,” said Saint Benedict, one of the initiators of the monastic life, at Monte Cassino in Italy during the 6th century.  In the 21st Century,  at the new Sancta Maria Abbey, there are large, south-facing several bedrooms en suite, reasonably priced, with disabled access, & full board refectory fare. The Abbey also has a teashop, which will next year be moving into a fabulous soon to be built frontage for the abbey. For Trailers of the future, this is an amazing oasis of duvets & brews before setting off on their hikes into the hills.

The temporary teashop

Nunraw Abbey is made of stone quarried from “Rattlebags” near Dirleton. Work began on the Abbey in 1952, & on the 22nd August, 1954 the Archbishop laid the Foundation Stone of the Abbey in presence of over 13,000 people from all over the country, happy to be there despite rain and mist and some women losing high heels in the mud. 65 years later the head honcho is Father Mark, a very cool chap indeed.  He is the leader, I guess, of a group of vegetarian gentlemen who rise at 3.15 am & pray up til 7.30 AM – the best time, they say, for during early hours the mind is quiet & open.

The monastic life is quintessentially a mix of espirit de corps & devotion to God. The Cistercians in particular have always opened their doors to anyone, & have provided many a wounded soul sanctuary from their sufferings due to the stresses of the modern world. “Let people be themselves,” says Father Mark, who showed me around the precincts with a key card, which completely tickled me & showed how the Cistercians in particular are keeping up with the churning timewheels of modernity! The only drawback is that dogs aren’t allowed in, & I know why. Watching Father Mark’s attempts to swat away Daisy’s overenthusiastic muddy paws from his immaculately white gown was pretty funny (sorry father).

On leaving the Abbey after your cup of tea or whatever, there are two ways to continue the walk. The first is to loop round to the right along the road a little while, then enter a farm area. Its road leads you back into the Nunraw Grounds to a place called the Avenue. Instead of following the tarmac as it curves to one’s left, there’s a muddier track to the right which will eventually lead us to the ROUTE A intersection. This involves a brilliant woodland path overlooking the Thorter gorge. Eventually you take a rough course downslope to the Burn itself, & reach a bridge in much better condition than the Laird’s Bridge.

Crossing the bridge, veer right a little & head towards a wall, at which point you will enter the forest of ROUTE A. Once through the wall, turn sharp right & head to a gate, over which you will enter the field with the deer fence. There’s no need to head to it, just return right & aim for the trees & our inevitable confluence with ROUTE A.

Entering the farm on the left
Entering the grounds of Nunraw Tower
… & definitely no disco-raves
Continue straight at the road-bend along a track
Over the gates, turn right

At this point take the loose path & down to the left

On entering the field you will walk up hill along the line of the trees to meet the Nun’s Walk route

OK, nearly there. A bit of a bumper edition, this one, but all bases need covering & I’m the only one hacking out a Trail at the moment, so its gotta be done. This final course is the easiest way to get from Sancta Maria to Whitecastle, whether on the tarmac or via the woodlands & verges by the roadside. Its a straight shot really, just a little uninteresting. If I were you I’d just get cracking on into the woodlands & then up onto the moors – that’s why we’re here, right!

The road to Whitecastle

Enter the woods in the centre of the picture

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2 thoughts on “The Gododdin Heritage Trail: Nunraw to Whitecastle”

  1. Hi there, thanks for this post and thanks for your great blog – I have just moved to East Lothian from London and I’m beginning to explore the area. I have read the Scottish Access Code but would like clarification on a. climbing over fences and locked gates and b. walking around the boundaries of fields with livestock and crops. In your experience, do landowners disapprove of this or they ok with it? Thanks very much, Simon


    1. Hello Simon

      However disaprooving landowners might be, walking boundaries has been enshrined in law & is even encouraged to improve the health of the Scots – hopping over fences is also cool as long as you don’t break them! Vehicular access is frowned on, but if you’re on foot & are nowhere near the curtilage, you’ll be fine


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