Alastair Durie

 photograph - North Berwick pool in the 1950s - a typical summer's day with more folk out than in!

Tourism had a long pedigree in East Lothian, from the discovery in the late eighteenth century of the seaside and sea-bathing for health through the development of golf in Victorian and Edwardian times as the centrepiece of the holiday experience. During the summer large numbers of day trippers and weekenders would come by excursion train and bus from Edinburgh, some to enjoy the beaches, others to golf, and the many guest houses and hotels were filled during the season, never more so than the during the Edinburgh Trades. The better-off took family lodgings for the summer, with father commuting back to the city during the week, but East Lothian also drew a moneyed clientele from the South of England, with mainline trains stopping at Dunbar. There was, until September 1939 and the outbreak of war, a through sleeper coach service London to North Berwick (Hajducki, 1992, p104).

Post-1945 the prospects appeared rosy for tourism in East Lothian: demand was buoyant, disposable income and free time alike increased, with paid holidays mandatory. The beaches were still cluttered with coastal defences, which had to be cleared but gradually the defence wire was removed as were thousands of concrete blocks; the remainder being used by many a family for changing and shelter. Golf courses, roughed up for cultivation or training areas, were restored, the swimming pools, hotels and other amenities reopened and revitalised. Yet promising though the prospects were, the picture was in practice much more complex. For all the positive factors, there were many others working against the longer-term health of tourism in the county, and many other tourist localities, not that these were apparent for some time. Indeed the 1950s and the 1960s were times of success and investment with some boom seasons; in 1966, for example, Dunbar had such a good summer that local hoteliers were turning away holidaymakers; swimming pool receipts surged, the caravan parks were full, and the entertainments, provided by the Publicity department under the vigorous leadership of Cairns Boston, at an all time high. That was, in retrospect, to be the high water mark as a whole series of changes began to make their impact. All resorts in Britain suffered to a greater or lesser extent, and East Lothian was not granted any immunity, which forced a whole rethink about tourism strategy.

Amongst the key changes was the decline in the popularity of the Scottish seaside. The railway network had contracted, with the closure of the branch lines except that to North Berwick, but the closures were not a serious loss, thanks to the motorcar, the bus and the caravan. Visitors could still come, and did so in numbers on impulse when the sun shone. But they stayed a shorter time, and spent less. The ending of the bona fide traveller, which had encouraged a lot of Sunday travel, and strict drink driving laws also made the day-visitor much less free spending. Time at the nineteenth hole was increasingly regarded with concern. Demographic and social change also played a fundamental role. East Lothian had long been a favourite destination for summer works outings and Sunday school excursions. One of the last passenger trains to visit Gullane, with its camping coach, in June 1958 was a Sunday school outing from Edinburgh. But there were fewer and smaller Sunday schools, or factories to sustain the old patterns. Fundamentally too, people were much more mobile. Yet while that could work in East Lothian’s favour, it could also work against, with people motoring to Devon and Cornwall rather than to local beaches, or going abroad.

Quality Street, North Berwick 1950s
Quality Street, North Berwick 1950s

The tourism business had always been highly competitive – business against business, resort against resort, region against region, country versus country, and became only more so in the 1960s. Consumer loyalty weakened as choice increased. There were those families who came summer after summer, as their parents had done, to the same locale, and even the same landlady, but there were fewer of them. The advent of the package holiday and the cheap charter air flight brought Southern Europe within the reach of many; cheap foreign travel and guaranteed sun proved an irresistible magnet [Bray R. & Raitz, V. 2001 pp34-54]. The tourist information offices of the county, seeking to draw people in to East Lothian, were outgunned by the travel agencies for Horizon, Intersun and other agencies. Promotion of the domestic scene, however slick, could only go so far in the balance against better climates and lower costs. There was increasing government involvement at burgh, county and national level. The formation of the Scottish Tourist Board in 1969 was followed by the creation of an East Lothian Tourist Board. With the decline of employment in the traditional industries of East Lothian, mining and agriculture, the importance of tourism seemed bound only to increase, assisted for the first time as it was by sustained government aid and promotion on a scale never before seen. And there had to be help and direction if the traditional resorts were to hold their market. But what was going to be their particular appeal?

photograph - Twilight of a Tourist Boom - Dunbar Outdoor Pool

Mass tourism after the 1960s was forever gone; niche tourism the way forward. The appeal of windswept east coast beaches, however tidy, might be in decline, but golf was clearly a continuing banker, as it had been, and East Lothian was quite well placed in that it had such a range of natural and historic attractions. It had battlefields, and although Prestonpans was no Culloden, its potential and that of the battle of Dunbar, was not exploited. In an ideal world, a larger and less ruined castle than Tantallon or Dirleton or a ducal great house would have helped greatly, as might a close link to a literary figure. Scott was the preserve of other localities but could not North Berwick, a feasibility study in October 1979 suggested, exploit the connection with Robert Louis Stevenson and Treasure Island? There were ideas around. But, and this became increasingly apparent, not all types of tourism were mutually compatible, and there was continuing tension between competing strategies and groups. The interests of the bird watchers and the wildfowlers at Aberlady Bay clashed, as did those of respectable visitors and the arcades enthusiasts. Moves to vulgarise North Berwick were blocked. Planners refused all applications for amusements arcades and for many years tawdry shops selling trash. Hoteliers disliked caravan parks as lowering the tone. A scheme to convert the old barracks at Dunbar into a Coach and Sports centre was scuppered because, or so one account avers, the catering rights were to go to an outside interest, i.e. from Edinburgh (Tindall 1998 p250). There was real debate over which developments were acceptable and who should pay for them; hoteliers, shop keepers and others were in favour of the promotion of tourism; residents and second homers less sure, and resistant to paying for growth. The colonisation of North Berwick as a high-class residential suburb of Edinburgh, led to a shortage of both serviced and self-catering accommodation, and to a lack of enthusiasm for the summer crowd. These tensions were to surface again when in 2002 Britain’s gaming laws were liberalised, and some saw casinos and gambling as the way to rejuvenate decaying seaside resorts; North Berwick had been happy as the ‘Biarritz of the North’, but as the ‘Atlantic City of Scotland’ – never!

It was the planners who generally got caught in the middle; powerful interests on the council were firmly in favour of growth, the more so as the traditional industries declined. New jobs mattered, even in what traditionally had been seen as a low wage, seasonal sector. In 1980 it was estimated that the equivalent of 1750 full time jobs were in tourism. Although one can question the validity of this and indeed virtually all statistics in that sector as most were part time and seasonal, the employment was significant and by 1993 it was up to over 3000. The push for tourism was on: but of what kind? Some constraint had to exercised: in a retrospect of the year in the East Lothian Courier, a massive projected development at Seafield near Dunbar in the mid 1960s came to nothing, or so some said, because of the rigour of the planning conditions imposed. Local objections could and did stymie development, which would have been in retrospect beneficial: in the early 1970s the Scottish Railway Preservation Society tried to buy the closed Haddington branch line as a centre for their operations, but failed to get local support which objected to the noise, smoke pollution and danger to children: the Society went instead to Bo’ness. It is true that in 1969 East Lothian was the first County Council in Scotland to acquire an abandoned line for conversion to a walk at Pencaitland along the disused Smeaton to Gifford line (Hajducki 1993 p173) at a cost of £3,860 with a further grant from the Scottish Development Department to bring the walk up to scratch. While this was a source of pleasure to dog owners, and local walkers, it was no way comparable to the West Highland Way or other longer distance trails, which required overnight accommodation.

The 1960s was the watershed decade. Though tourism was still thriving, it was obvious that its continuing success could not be taken for granted. And government had to take an increased part in steering development and promotion. In 1964, in response to a government initiative, the County Council submitted a Tourist development scheme. It started by showing just what had been done already to re-open the beaches, pointed with pride to the establishment in the early 1950s of Aberlady Bay as the first local nature reserve in the United Kingdom and what was in the pipeline by way of new or enlarged camping and caravan sites; Dirleton, for instance was to be home to a 120 vans site, to be run by the Caravan Club. Picnic facilities and overnight parking in lay-bys on the A1, to be known as an International Tourist Route, were to be provided. Sailing, fishing, horse-riding and walking all received favourable mention, and county’s heritage in the form of its historic villages, doocots and mining at Prestonpans were to be listed and explained. If Dunbar and North Berwick were the major resorts (with 780 and 905 – or 85% – of the county’s tourist beds, and a further 68% of the caravan stances), others were not to be neglected and every effort was to be made to spread the tourist trail inland as well as along the coast. Another objective was to try to lengthen the season, always a desirable objective for any tourist destination, but seldom realised, and simply not possible in East Lothian with no prospect of winter sports. Pony trekking from Gifford was an asset, but never likely to be a major activity.

Information bureaux and literature were seen as central to the marketing of the County, as was true for its competitors, and over the next few years a whole range of general and specialist publications came out, some in book form, others as leaflets, ranging from Archie Mathieson’s 10p booklet ‘Life on the Seashore’, through a series of ‘ Walks around…’ to Special Breaks in East Lothian. An East Lothian Golfing Handbook was an essential part of the portfolio, the more so as the Opens of 1972, (Lee Trevino’s year) 1987 and 1987 underlined the claim that East Lothian was ‘Scotland’s Premier Golfing County’; the significance of golf in the late 1980s was reflected in a print run of no less than 20,000 for that brochure. Golf’s appeal, too, was not as seasonally constricted as that of the beach and the sea, and it exercised a special fascination for American and Japanese tourists, a well-heeled constituency whom the tourist industry particularly wished to attract, given their spending record. Surprisingly, it was not until June 1995 that the first new 18-hole course in the county for 40 years was opened at Whitekirk. It is little wonder that several large golf and leisure complexes are currently on the agenda for development as well as marinas (East Lothian Local Plan, 3 April 2001). Also in a move to attract the foreign visitor, heather and tartan were featured, not entirely convincingly, in promotion; and a Highland Games started at Meadowmill in 1991.

The last decades of the twentieth century were difficult for all British holiday resorts, and Dunbar had an especially hard time: three large hotels went out of business and became derelict, and the golf club factory closed, a decline which some blamed on a lack of local drive and vision. The construction workers who came to build the cement works and Torness power station offered better business to the B&Bs than the summer trade. Some of the inland resorts did rather better, notably at Haddington where the very old tradition of pilgrimage was revived in the mid 1980s. Had the Holy well at Whitekirk, once a very popular medieval draw, been found, it too might have drawn visitors in number. Heritage and sport were clearly the strongest cards that the county had to play, and the John Muir Centre in Dunbar, for example, offered some hope of reversing decline, as did local attractions such as the Riding of the Marches at Musselburgh. A Museum of Flight was established at East Fortune (1971), and the Giant Beam Engine at Prestongrange rescued as the first step towards a much needed Museum of Mining. The problem with heritage sites and museums, and a Fishing Museum was also on the agenda, was that virtually every region in Britain was following this line of development, and by the 1990s many were in financial difficulty. The big complexes, as at Beamish, or Ironbridge, or New Lanark, did establish themselves after massive investment but while East Lothian had made an early start, it had failed to follow this through on the scale required.

It is easy to be critical, but harder to see what else would have been any more successful. The reality was how difficult and competitive the environment was in which East Lothian tourism operated. It was an industry subject to external shocks over which it had no control; the outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001 undid years of good work. Nor did the county reap, as the Stirling area did through the film ‘Braveheart’, the bonanza of accidental promotion. But the virtues of a good coastline, attractive beaches and villages, and a range of heritage attractions, along with golf and leisure, remain positive assets. The county may never regain the popularity of its Victorian and Edwardian heyday, but it will always remain on the map of favoured tourist destinations.


  • Bray, Roger & Raitz, Vladimir (2001) Flight to the Sun: the Story of the Holiday Revolution, Continuum, London and New York
  • County of East Lothian Development Plan, (1962)
  • East Lothian Council (April 3, 2001) East Lothian Local Plan 2000
  • East Lothian District Council (September 1980) Three-Year Tourism Programme for Dunbar and North Berwick
  • Hajducki, Andrew M (1994) The Haddington, Macmerry and Gifford Branch Lines, Oakwood, Oxford
  • Hajducki, Andrew M (1992) The North Berwick and Gullane Branch Lines, Oakwood, Oxford
  • Tindall, Frank (1998) Memoirs and Confessions of a County Planning Officer, The Pantile Press, Midlothian