The man and his wife on their picture-book lawn looked up as we sauntered past and were puzzled when I said we hadn’t been able to see the big house. “Och, ye jest go along the pathway. Nay one will bother,” said the man. There’s no law of trespass in Scotland. I was in Gifford in East Lothian, with my pal and former work colleague Mike Arron, hoping to get a glimpse of Yester House, a baronial mansion set among 500 acres of estate and woodland. The way in we found is barred by enormous iron gates and private signs since it was bought by Gareth Wood, the son of Sir Ian Wood, the oil tycoon, and his wife, Nicola, a former Miss Scotland. We didn’t know of this of course until we Googled the estate to discover it is undergoing a major injection of funding for restoration and modernisation on a massive scale following its sale for a reputed £8 million – half its asking price of eight years ago. Still, at the price the 14-bedroom mansion is labelled as the country’s most expensive house and we were also intrigued to learn that it had caught the eye of Lady Gaga.
Yester House was part of the community for centuries and under its new ownership and refurbishment, which includes I am told plans for an equestrian centre, its return to family use should be significant gain for the local economy.
We could have taken a footpath through the estate for some five miles but in the event, short on time and eager to explore this delightful village and more of an off-beat area of Scotland, we abandoned thoughts of viewing the historic pile, trespass or not, nor did we venture inside its two fine hostelries, the Tweeddale Arms and the Goblin Ha’ supposedly named after an underground chamber of the 13th century ruined Yester castle on the estate.
Instead we strode up the gentle slope of the broad village street to the brilliant white painted church whose origins begin with its consecration in 1241. The church and surrounding graveyard are immaculately maintained. A bell dated 1492 – significantly the year Columbus reputedly discovered America – and rung every Sunday is all that remains of the original church which was replaced in the 18th century. The list of ministers are recorded from 1572 but of particular interest to American tourists taking time off from attractions of Edinburgh to visit the Scottish coastal plain is John Witherspoon. He is commemorated in a large plaque on a wall near the church as the only clergyman to sign the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. He became president of Princeton College, New Jersey, in 1768 and was the first Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of America.
A little peckish after our cultural venture into Gifford’s past, the Lanterne Rouge, from the outside an unpretentious little cafe beloved of cyclists, was the ideal point to finish the visit with two bacon rolls and a large pot of tea. We heard it had been a bit of a “greasy spoon” in the past but now under the ownership of Cameron McVean it sparkles and a must eat place for visitors and locals alike.
East Lothian is largely off the radar of many visitors to Scotland. It is relatively undiscovered – except I am told by the Dutch – unlike more famous Highland destinations, but within a compact area south east of Edinburgh flanking the southern edge of the Firth of Forth, is some of the most spectacular coastline to be found in Britain. Meadows and fields where crops are sown and reaped virtually to the edge of the sea offer amazing vistas. Historic towns and attractions abound, even a racecourse at Musselborough, for aircraft enthusiasts the National Museum of Flight, a brace of castles, and even the ubiquitous distillery where tours end with a wee dram of a Glenkinchie single malt. And for good measure there is Preston Mill owned by the National Trust of Scotland with the last working water wheel in East Lothian.
One of the furthest communities along the A1 from Edinburgh and with a direct rail link, Dunbar is in attractive commuter distance from the capital and, so far, unlike fashionable North Berwick to the north east has lower property prices for those intending to re-locate or retire to the coast, a point not lost on developers. Like its nearest inland neighbour Haddington, a royal Scottish burgh and county town of Haddingtonshire, it has a wide central market area, with local shops and a surprising amount of fine dining for its size in the harbour area. Off the coast is the Bass Rock, a white-capped island spattered with millions of droppings of 150,000 nesting gannets in the breeding season, and described by Sir David Attenborough as one of the wildlife centres of the world.
How to get there: Fly to Edinburgh, look for direct trains to towns like Dunbar, or simply head by car to East Lothian.
Travel tip: If like me you live within easy access to Manchester Airport rail station, start the journey from there to destinations in Scotland and the North.
For more information visit visiteastlothian.org
Photos copyright John Williams.