By Tim Porteus

LAST weekend, we had the delight to finally be able to stay with good friends Chris and Sheilagh, who live on Bayswell Road, Dunbar, close to the town’s swimming pool.

It was wonderful to watch our kids play together and catch up in person after so long. They live at the east end of the road, literally a stone’s throw from the beach. So it is our tradition to have a barbecue there, and the evening gifted us with balmy and calm weather for the occasion.

The beach here is called by locals the ‘eye cave beach’, so named because of the nearby cave in the cliff. An eye has been painted on its back wall and, if you look carefully and long enough at the cave, you will notice the cliff around it morphs into a grimacing face.

The following evening, as the kids were playing in our friends’ house and I was on an errand to buy squirty cream for our traditional Pie Face game, I found myself wandering back to the cave with the intention of climbing into it. I had resisted the temptation to do so the previous evening because I knew my younger kids would want to follow, and it wouldn’t have been safe for my youngest. Now I had a brief moment of independence to let my own inner child out.

I didn’t go direct to the beach but veered round the swimming pool. The Castle Park area around the swimming pool is where Dunbar originated. The town’s name means ‘fort on the summit or point’, and a walk around the edge of the cliffs behind the swimming pool and beside the ruins of the castle gives evidence to this name.

The archaeological investigations done here before the construction of the swimming pool and later on the site of the public toilets have revealed this area has a history of human occupation dating back 2,000 years to the Iron Age.

As I wandered across the green by David Annand’s beautiful statue of a girl with a swan, I was aware I was walking over the graves of much earlier residents, for here there was an ancient cemetery. I stood for a moment and tried to imagine what the place would have looked like all those generations ago.

First a Celtic fort, perhaps the sea port of the tribe called the Votadini by the Romans, then a stronghold of the Northumbrian kingdom, which was in turn, so it seems, ravaged in an attack by Kenneth MacAlpin in the mid-ninth century; the birthing pains of the expanding nation of Alba. All this history, packed into such a small area; once protected by walls and a ditch on the landward side, and by foreboding cliffs and angry sea on the other.

The location is so strategic it was bound to be a place of military value. Dunbar is a sentinel for the Firth of Forth, and also the road from the south. No wonder the castle rose on the rocks, like a mad dream of impregnability. So little remains today that it’s impossible to picture it in its mighty medieval prime; although Andrew Spratt is the man to help with that!

I carefully wandered along the cliff edge by the castle ruins. The kittiwakes have claimed the remains of the fortress, nesting in every nook and cranny, squawking as if in triumph. I thought of the castle’s history; of Black Agnes and Mary Queen of Scots, and John Muir scrambling up the ancient walls in his youth; but also of the unknown history that these crumbling stones could tell if only they could speak.

The sun was low but not yet setting when I got to the eye cave. I scrambled up into it. In my earlier days I’d have leapt up like a mountain goat, but these days I climb more like a praying mantis.

A little modern litter didn’t take away my mood of wonder about the history of this place. While it may not have a particularly impressive interior, it’s a cave with a view! It looks out to the north-west and frames the location beautifully.

How old is this cave? I cannot say. It seems a natural formation with perhaps some parts cut away at the side a long time ago. It is literally under the Iron Age settlement, and if it existed in this form then, I cannot imagine it wasn’t used for some ceremonial purpose. It is a raised stage, with the beach below as the stalls.

From inside, the coast is framed beautifully. Is this the view that was enjoyed by St Bey (or Baya), the patron saint of Dunbar? She is said to have founded a church by the shore at Dunbar in the seventh century, and is said to have used a cave to pray. Likewise I’m told an ancient well associated with her is to be found in the rocks by the old outdoor swimming pool, hence the name of the street above where Chris and Sheilagh live: Bayswell.

I have not yet searched for the well; that will be on the list for next time! And I will not here venture into the debate about where St Bey’s church was, for that is ground held by eminent local historians such as Roy Pugh. But it was supposed to be on the shore.

There is an old traditional rhyme which refers to St Bey’s challenge to Ebba of Coldingham and Helen of Aldcambus to see who could build a church closest to the sea. According to the poem, St Bey won. One version reads:

“St Abb, St Helen and St Bey, They a’ built kirks, which to be nearest to the sea: St Abb’s upon the nabs, St Helen’s upon the lea, St Bey’s upon Dunbar sands, stands nearest to the sea.”

A later version says St Ann instead of St Bey, but they could refer to the same saint.

Perhaps that’s why Bey’s church is gone – reclaimed by the sea!

My thoughts were interrupted as I noticed the time. I had the squirty cream still clenched in my hands and the time for the Pie Face game was fast approaching.

So I scrambled carefully out the cave and up the steps to the house of our friends. My wife Kate was sitting merrily with Chris and Sheilagh.

“Where have you been?”my wife asked, despite knowing the answer. “Exploring,” I said.

“That’s the longest ever trip to get squirty cream from the local shop!” she said.

She was right. I’d taken a detour of 2,000 years. But I was back in the present in perfect time. The Pie Face challenge was on. Soon there were yells of delight and laughter as faces were splattered with cream... and the kids enjoyed the game too!