North Berwick Law: discovering one of Scotland’s best kept secrets

When I was first researching North Berwick as a place to live, I kept seeing references to the North Berwick Law.

As a qualified lawyer myself, I had a fleeting notion that maybe by a weird quirk of the Scottish legal system, North Berwick was some kind of ancient jurisdiction with its own set of set legal rules and conventions. Like a Celtic Vatican City perhaps.

Of course, it didn’t take me long to come across pictures of this strange pyramid-like hill rising from the landscape and to discover that ‘law’ is an old Scottish word for conical hill.

But it seemed odd that after spending most of my life living in the UK, I had never heard of North Berwick Law.

North Berwick Law from south-east

I am very familiar with North Berwick Law these days – my daughter even attends Law Primary School which sits in its shadow. But even so, I still alway look at the Law with a great sense of wonder as it looms over the town.

In fact it is the very weirdness of North Berwick Law, rising starkly from the East Lothian flatlands, that for me makes it a must-see attraction.

But in addition, if you climb to the top you’ll get wonderful views across the countryside and out to sea, not to mention a decent workout.

What is North Berwick Law

Sometimes known as Berwick Law, the Law, as it is mainly known locally, is a volcanic plug – the remains of an ancient volcano.

The plug is the hard magma core of the volcano that developed as a lava flow ceased and cooled. The plug remains because the volcano has been subjected to the forces of glaciation. And it is the action of glaciers flowing broadly west to east across East Lothian that has created the Law’s distinctive shape – which is known as a crag and tail formation.

A crag and tail forms when the force of an advancing glacier erodes softer material surrounding harder rock. This causes the hard rock to be exposed as a crag, with a steep side. The presence of this crag provides some shelter to the softer material left behind by the glacier. As a result, a tapered kind of ramp (known as the tail) forms on the crag’s leeward side.

Crag and Tail diagram by Jonathan Oldenbuck –  A: Crag of hard volcanic rock, B: Tail of softer rock, C: Direction of ice movement.

It is thought that Scotland’s landscape has been subject to several periods of glaciation over the last 750,000 years, with the last ending about 11,500 years ago. In the lowlands of Scotland, glaciers scoured the landscapes creating fertile plains and crag and tail formations where they met harder igneous rock, like the phonolitic trachite rock that forms the Law. This is the same rock that forms North Berwick’s other main landscape icon Bass Rock .

Other well known crag and tail rock formations include Castle Rock (crag) and the Royal Mile (tail) and Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

North Berwick Law

Visiting North Berwick Law

The Law is to the south of the town on Haddington Road. As you can see from the pictures on this page, you can’t really miss it (even in the mist). But for those who want the precise location, you’ll find it at:

  • Ordnance Survey Grid Ref: NT 55637 84233
  • Latitude:56°2’56″N
  • Longitude:2°42’50″W.
The law across the Golf Course

How long to climb North Berwick Law?

The summit of the Law is 187m (614 ft) above sea level. The actual climb is a bit less than that because, according to the Ordnance Survey map, the car park is 40m above sea level. Therefore the climb from there is about 137m (449 ft)

There is a winding path leading to the top of the Law (more details below). From the car park to the top, the climb takes about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how fit you are. You can do a round trip in under an hour, but allow yourself at least 1 hour 30 minutes, so you can enjoy the views from the summit and as you climb.

How to reach the top of the Law

As you exit the car park, you’ll immediately find yourself on the John Muir Way – a path that stretches from Dunbar, the birthplace of Muir, all the way to Helensburgh on the West Coast of Scotland. However, you only need to stay on the John Muir Way for a couple of hundred metres, passing the lovely allotments on the right hand side.

North Berwick Law "Frog Pond"
North Berwick Law “Frog Pond”

Just before you reach the small pond (which we call the Frog Pond because it teems with tadpoles and frogs in Spring), you’ll see a path veering off and up to your left.

Take that path and after a short while, you’ll reach a seat. From there, the adventurous and those in a hurry can take a direct path up the hill, but it is probably best avoided as it is steep and quite eroded.

Instead, and for a more gradual ascent take the path to the right. This path soon turns back to the left and leads you upwards with beautiful views of the town and Fidra Island unfolding in front of you.

North Berwick Law track

Next, a grassy track appears near a seat. This leads to steeper, rockier and quite eroded slopes. However, there a plenty of paths to choose from and you’ll you’ll soon reach the whale’s jawbone arch that dominates the summit. This is now, sadly a fibre glass replica, as the one pictured below was removed because it was becoming dangerous.

Whale Jawbone on top of the Law in 2005 Photo by Andrew Bell – Wikicommons

What is at the top of North Berwick Law?

The whalebones

A whale’s jawbone was first positioned on the top of the Law in 1709, as a landmark for sailors entering the Firth of Forth. The original bones were replaced in 1789 and then renewed again in the 1850s.

The jawbone above came from an Antarctic whale and was installed in 1935, having been dragged to the summit by the Clydesdale horses of a local farmer. Over the years, the bone suffered damage from the wind and was taken down in 2005.

In 2008, a fibreglass replica, weighing 560kg, was installed with the help of a helicopter. The replacement cost approximately £20,000, funded by a group of local businessmen, with additional funding from East Lothian Council.

The lookouts

The stone building that you pass as you reach the summit was built in 1803 at the time of the Napoleonic wars as a lookout and signal station. Navy ratings were stationed there with instructions to light a bonfire if enemy ships were sighted. That would be a signal to other observation posts to light their own fires to convey the message of potential invasion across the country.

In addition, you will also a see a World war two look out post near the summit. The Firth of Forth was a target for German ships and planes during the war because of the industrial sites and the Rosyth naval base beyond Edinburgh. The law was obviously a good vantage point for spotting imminent danger.

The Triangulation pillar and direction plaque

You will find a triangulation pillar or trig point at the summit that is used for landscape mapping. Other local trig points can be found on Whitekirk Hill and Traprain Law.

There is also a bronze plaque set on a stone plinth, from which you can identify the locations stretching out before you as take in the 360 degree views.

The views

On a clear day, the view from the Law are far reaching.

To the west you can see down the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, the Forth Bridges and the Pentland Hills.

To the north and north-east you’ll see the coast of Fife, the Isle of May and Bass Rock.

To the south-east you’ll see the coast at Dunbar, with the steaming cement works chimney.

And to the South the flat farmland stretches out to the Traprain Law and the Lammermuir Hills beyond.

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