IT’S difficult not to notice the ruins of the old kirk of St Andrew as you enter Gullane from the west.

The fallen-down walls and tall standing central gable give it a very picturesque quality, perfectly situated just beyond the edge of the golf course.

I may be wrong, but I suspect it is not really a place many people purposely go to visit. As ruins go, there’s not a huge amount to explore; no cramped spiral staircase to squeeze up, or dank cellars to investigate.

But for me, such ruins have a different appeal. Not based so much on the physical exploration of what remains, but more an imaginative exploration of what we can no longer see.

It has really ancient origins, dating back to the ninth century when the first Christian site seems to have been established here. That gives it over a thousand years of Christian connection, and I suspect it may have been a pre-Christian sacred site before that.

The first kirk will have been wooden built, but the oldest surviving parts of the stone kirk we see today date from the late 12th century.

On my most recent visit to the kirk, I stood in the nave and tried to imagine what Scotland was like in the 1100s when parts of the walls around me were built. What a totally different world from ours, I thought, as I stood in the footsteps of those who stood on the same spot hundreds of years ago.

On reflection, perhaps there were more similarities than we may imagine: pestilence, plague and epidemics, injustice and inequality, cruel rulers and pious preachers.

There are some information boards with pictorial reconstructions that help us understand what we are looking at, but a ruin like this is the stuff of poetic imagination.

Poets such as Shelley were inspired by ruins, and today they are popular visitor attractions all over the world.

Compared to the scale of ruins such as the Acropolis or Pompeii, or even compared to nearby ruins such as Dirleton Castle, the old kirk of St Andrew may not impress. I don’t think it will ever be a popular tourist attraction.

But that’s why I enjoy visiting this place. It’s a ruin with solitude, while ironically being very accessible and amidst a busy part of East Lothian.

Over the years I have never personally met anyone else there visiting it. Many people know of it, of course, but because of its unassuming simplicity, I suspect few have got to know it.

“There’s not much to see,” was an honest comment from a friend once. He was right on one level, but I think what we see depends how we look, and how we connect.

For me anyway, the magic of this ruined kirk is not in what is visible but in the atmosphere of its story, and its unexpected tranquillity.

Once, of course, it was very busy, for it was the place of worship for people from the edge of Aberlady Bay to the fringes of North Berwick, as well as from as far as four miles to the south. Every Sabbath there would have been processions of people from each direction, coming to meet and worship here together.

Stand in the nave and you are at the centre of this ancient weekly migration. From here you will see a Norman arch, decorated with chevrons. Although the information board points out the craftsmanship is not of the finest quality, it makes me imagine some poorly paid, yet skilled, local stonemasons doing their best to beautify their kirk; and it is certainly good enough.

The arch was walled up many years ago, when the chancel became a burial place for the Yule family. So the decorated arch is now embedded in later stone, and looks like a fossil peeking out from a cliff face.

As I stood admiring it, I thought it had the atmosphere of a walled-up entrance into the past, in which figures from times gone by could emerge; or perhaps I could walk through it to another age. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Outlander (no comment here on what I think of that!).

The kirk was used for worship for over 400 years, and even survived the Reformation. There is an amusing tale of the vicar from that time, which I shared in my first book. I thought of him as I stood in his church.

It became a collegiate church in 1446, so prayers were said here constantly by a group of priors to help the soul of the local laird to get into heaven. The prayers were paid for, of course, and one wonders if the laird got value for money.

The kirk was finally abandoned around 1612, apparently because of a petition from parishioners.

One issue seems to have been the constant covering of sand blown over the kirk and kirkyard by endemic storms. What image does that conjure in our imagination? And what storms must they have been! But also, many people lived miles away from the kirk, as did the laird, and a new, more conveniently situated place of worship was wanted.

I can understand this. It’s a fair trek from, say, Dirleton to here, especially on an unpleasant, dark, cold winter’s morning. So a new replacement kirk was built at Dirleton, and St Andrew’s Kirk fell into disuse. Yet the kirkyard remained in use, and has many of its own tales to tell.

I have never been a fan of crowded places, to be honest. I’ve had my enjoyment of some favourite places ruined by being placed on a tourist ‘must-see’ list.

I doubt the ruins of the old kirk of St Andrew in Gullane will ever be on a tourist ‘must-see’ list; unless some celebrity gets married there, or it’s used as a movie location.

It remains for me a wonderful place to visit, and I always spot small details that I missed on previous visits. My kids are fascinated by the stories told on the gravestones.

As the lockdown eases, we are all understandably desperate to get out from our confinement and feel free once again to enjoy places. But then we often too readily build a new prison for ourselves by following the herd to overcrowded places where we are crammed into ‘must-go-to’ popular places.

Maybe a gift from the lockdown is the discovery of those places nearby, less well known, but in their own way special and magical.

For me, East Lothian is full of such small, less-well-known, special places, that will never be a on a ‘must-see’ list, but are all the more enjoyable for it. This old ruin is one of them for me.

It is such places I look forward to visiting as the lockdown eases.