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 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 always 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.

And, of course, 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

Geology of the 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 ice age 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 and dates from the Carboniferous period (358 to 298 million years ago).

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

Wildlife and nature

You’ll find plenty of wildflowers along the route to the law, although they are mostly small and low-growing given their exposure to the wind. Look out for purple milk-vetch and wild thyme, typical of the kinds of plants that prefer the well-drained soil of the Law.

There is also plenty of exposed rock on the Law which provides an important habitat for mosses and lichens. According to the East Lothian countryside services, there are some species that are found in only a few locations in the country.

You may also come across some of the North Berwick Law ponies. These Exmoor ponies were introduced in 2014 to help keep the grasses low by their grazing so as to protect the wildflower habitats. They roam wild around the Law and are gentle and harmless. If walking with your dog, keep it on a lead so as not to frighten them.

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 best to avoid it 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 the Firth of Forth 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. You’ll soon reach the whale’s jawbone arch that dominates the summit, passing a couple of small abandoned lookout buildings on the way.

This is now, sadly, a fibreglass 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 North Berwick 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 they saw enemy ships. 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 see a Second World War lookout 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. You can find other local trig points 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 views 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.

The iron age hill fort

There is also evidence, apparently, of the earth workings of an iron-age hill fort at the top of the law. You can see this marked on the map below

I have to admit that I’ve never been able to identify these. But it makes perfect sense that ancient people would have used the Law in this way. Bronze and Iron Age people frequently used high points in the landscape to build defensive military structures.

You will also see the notation ‘hut circles’ on the map below on the south side of the Law.

This is because there is evidence of an iron-age settlement there. Archeologists have uncovered the remains of at least 21 round houses, middens (rubbish heaps), and a farming field system dating back 2000 years. Along with these signs of a peaceful community, there are also defensive stone walls and ramparts, suggesting the residents needed military protection as well.

These residents were likely to have been the Gododdin, a Celtic tribe known to the Romans as the Votadini. When the Romans arrived, the Gododdin likely formed some sort of alliance with them to preserve their tribe and way of life. The Gododdin survived the Roman occupation of Britain, continuing their farming and settlement in the area.

North Berwick Law quarry and rock climbing

If you walk past the path that leads up the Law and instead head around the base of the hill, you will see that the southern slopes of the Law have been hollowed out at the bottom by stone quarrying.

Traces of quarrying stretch at least 400 meters along the foot of the hillside. According to an 1804 estate map, a quarry around 180 metres long was already present over two centuries ago.

The gradual growth of the quarry is documented in editions of the Ordnance Survey 6-inch maps, from the 1854 Haddingtonshire Sheet 2 to the 1895, 1906, and 1948 versions. The quarry remained active until about the 1950s and, for a while after its closure, the pit served as a refuse site. This means the present-day ground level is probably several meters above the final quarry floor.

Unsurprisingly, the rock from the quarry was used for the stonework of most of the pre-20th century buildings in the town, So, if you visit the quarry site, you will see that the rock is of the same reddish-brown colour as these older town buildings.

These days, the western end of the disused quarry site is used for recreational rock climbing. If you are near the pond you can often be surprised by the site of somebody clinging to the rock suddenly appearing above the tree line.

Key questions answered

Is there an admission fee to visit North Berwick Law?

No, there is no admission fee to visit North Berwick Law.

What are some visiting tips for North Berwick Law?

It is best to wait for a clear day when the wind has dropped to get the most out of a walk up North Berwick Law. Otherwise, it can be very breezy at the top and, if fog rolls in, you won’t be able to see much.

How do I get to North Berwick Law?

Access by car is from the B1347. Tap in postcode EH39 5NX to your maps app.

If walking from the town centre, walk up Law Road. Cross the A198 at the traffic light junction with Clifford Road and St Baldreds Road. Keep heading uphill, with the sports centre and the primary school on your right. Take the left turn where the road bends left after the primary school. You’ll see a signpost to the Law.

But, let’s face it, you can’t miss it – it’s a 187m (600 ft) conical hill, rising up out of a flat landscape!

Can I park at North Berwick Law?

There is a car park at the foot of the hill. Parking is free. There is a useful sign in the car park with information about the Law and the flora and fauna you can find there.

There is a gravel path that exits the car park, but note that the majority of the route to the summit is an unmanaged rough track.

Is there any historical significance associated with North Berwick Law?

Yes, North Berwick Law has remains of iron-age forts, a Napoleonic wars signal station and a second world war lookout. At the foot of the Law there is evidence of iron-age dwelling houses and a settlement.

Final words

In summary, North Berwick Law is a fascinating hill with a rich history and geological importance. It was formed from volcanic activity and played a role in the town’s defence over the centuries.

The Law offers stunning panoramic views from the top and has several walking trails leading up to it. It is a popular destination for both locals and tourists who are interested in history, geology, or outdoor activities.

A visit to North Berwick Law promises an unforgettable experience that combines nature and history with a chance to experience the beautiful fresh air of East Lothian. Although, it’s true to say, that on a blustery day, you might experience that fresh air a bit more forcefully than you expect!

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