By Tim Porteus

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I climbed North Berwick Law, or Berwick Law as many call it, and felt rather ashamed of myself. This was because I had never done it before. I can’t quite believe this myself that I’ve left it to my late 50s to finally make the conquest.

How many times I have said to myself, and my family, as we explored different parts of East Lothian, “we must climb North Berwick Law someday” as its distinctive shape loomed into view. It’s a hill visible from so many places, just asking to be explored, but I always seemed to put it off. But finally I have done it.

It’s a huge pile of igneous rock, basically cooled and solidified lava, a remnant of ancient volcanic activity. It’s a giant plug on a now-extinct volcanic vent. Folklore tradition has a very different origin for the hill, as I have already written about.

When you stand at the base of the Law and peer up, you can see where the great glaciers of the Ice Age have scraped and polished the hill’s surface, making it quite rugged and craggy in places, and smoothed down in others. It’s 615 feet high, not a mountain by any definition, yet still impressive. If it were in a hilly area we would notice the Law less, but it looms up from flatter landscape, right next to the sea, and so demands attention.

No wonder it became a place of human settlement in the Iron Age period. How could you not use this hill as a location for a fort? Its steep, rocky braes are perfect for defence, it’s next to the sea with a “view of the whole world”, as my four-year-old put it – and was not entirely wrong!

Cast your eye to the north and across the Firth was the land of the Picts. The open sea can be seen to the north east and almost the entire of East Lothian is laid out before you, to the Lammermuirs in the south and the Pentlands in the west.

Here was the land of the Gododdin, the Celtic people who lived in our country when the Romans arrived, although they had a different name for them: the Votadini. They survived the Roman presence, perhaps entering into some alliance to preserve their tribe. The Romans were ruthless with those who did not co-operate and submit.

But later, in the seventh century, long after the Romans had gone, the Angles arrived from the south. The Gododdin resisted the invasion. The great early poem Y Gododdin tells us of a great assemblage of warriors who feasted at Edinburgh before heading south to their deaths in battle.

What wailing and sadness there must have been when the news of the loss of all those young, handpicked warriors arrived. The Goddodins’ fate was soon sealed, the Angles took control of the land and the Lothians became part of the Northumbrian kingdom. The remnants of the disposed Gododdin migrated to Wales, it seems, taking with them their stories and legends of what became known as ‘the old north’.

These were my thoughts as I found the remains on an old round house as we climbed to the summit of the Law. At first I wasn’t sure – it looked almost like a small standing stone circle – but on closer examination I realised the stones were the foundations of a Celtic round house. An archaeologist friend later confirmed this.

There are at least 21 Iron Age round houses or similar structures so far discovered on the Law; some are less obvious. But if you carefully study the ground as you ascend, evidence of these ancient homes can be seen. There is also evidence of old walls or ramparts.

So here a community of the Gododdin once lived. From their front doors they could see their sister forts of Dun Pender (also called Dun Pelder) but now named Traprain Law, and Din Eidyn, later to be called Edinburgh.

So I entered the circle of stones as my kids played on a rock nearby. I was now in a space where once a family might have lived. It was not large, but then again, why would it be? It was a place to sleep and sit round the fire together. No need to make space for all the modern ‘necessities’ of life. Their life would have been lived outdoors. But what stories were told in this intimate space, what lives were led, and when was the last night this was used as a home?

There is lots more to the history of North Berwick Law. The watch house from the Napoleonic period, the observation bunker from the Second World War and, of course, the whale bones, which are now made of fibreglass. All these connect to stories that make up the history of this fascinating wee hill.

But for me on that day, it was the walk through prehistory, and the mysterious remains from an ancient Celtic people, that left my imagination tingling.