Dunbar Parish takes its name from the ancient Brythonic settlement of the same name. Dunbar translates as fort/settlement on the height and although it was first written down in the 7th century, archaeology in Castle Park has revealed the remains of habitation stretching back into the pre Roman Period Iron Age. Dunbar’s strategic position gave it a significance far beyond its size. It became the caput of an early medieval earldom, which passed into the Monarchy’s hands in the 15th century. The parish may have origins in a Northumbrian shire running deep into the Lammermuirs and along the east bank of the River Tyne.
The parish of Dunbar is bounded on the northwest by Whitekirk & Tynninghame, on the west by Prestonkirk, on the south by Stenton and Spott and on the east by Innerwick. The northern edge borders the sea, from the estuary of the Tyne on the west to the Dry Burn on the east. The parish is traversed by the Hedderwick Burn, Biel Water and Spott Burn. It contains the coastal Royal Burgh of Dunbar, flanked by the villages of East Barns, West Barns and Belhaven. Beltonford and Broxburn were smaller communities and anciently Belton, Pinkerton and Hedderwick may have been populous places (significant enough to have had chapels associated with the Collegiate Church of Dunbar). More than 20 farmtouns (later rebuilt as farm steadings) and a number of coastal fisher settlements completed the settlement pattern; many of the steadings have been further converted to housing.
The red soil of Dunbar has long been hailed as prime arable land; wheat, barley and potatoes were traditionally the major crops. Reclamation along the low-lying coast increased the acreage available as did extensive drainage in the period before and during the agricultural revolution. A drained glacial loch is remembered in the placename Lochend but Belhaven Loch, West Barns Loch, and the Saltirlach are no longer recorded on maps; the Belhaven and Eweford Burns are now underground water courses. Limestone was long burnt at Oxwellmains and East Barns but became a major industry when the Blue Circle (now Larfarge) Portland Cement Works was established in the early 1960s. On the east flank of the Tyne Estuary sand was excavated for glassmaking; the area, and a Scots Pine plantation on the adjacent military training ground, has been integrated into the John Muir Country Park.
The twentieth century saw major changes to the parish of Dunbar. The sea and the land both declined in economic importance; in particular, the mechanisation and industrialisation of farming led to a marked decline in the rural population although the parochial population soared. This major change was signposted in the 1960s when the burgh of Dunbar was selected to recieve a tranche of new population under the Glasgow Overspill Scheme. Further major changes were signalled in successive structure plans that anticipated the expansion of the burgh to around the 10,000 mark. The implementation of these plans was ongoing into the next century and meant that the urban footprint expanded far beyond its historic limits. At the same time the hamlet of East Barns vanished under quarrying works: all of these parish changes can be traced in the Archive Collections at the John Gray Centre.
East Lothian Fourth Statistical Account 1945-2000: The parishes of Dunbar, Innerwick, Oldhamstocks, Spott, Stenton. vol 6
James Miller, History of Dunbar, Dunbar, 1859
E Patricia Dennison, Historic Dunbar, Archaeology & Development, Oxford, 2006