The village of Belhaven has its origins as a subsidiary settlement of the burgh of Dunbar. As early as the twelfth century, and often afterwards, it is mentioned as the site of Dunbar’s port; the same references indicate that the settlement was already organised into tofts (or crofts) and tenements. Its function as Dunbar’s port continued into the sixteenth century, at which time new works at Dunbar replaced the ancient beach landing place. Subsequent quarrying and recycling has removed every physical trace of the harbour’s breakwater and pier although evidence in the burgh records suggests they were once substantial.
Belhaven came within the Royalty (or territory) of Dunbar Burgh and its inhabitants were always citizens and burgesses of the town. The location far from the town and with a plentiful supply of water from the now vanished Belhaven Loch meant that the antisocial process of tanning hides was once its main industry; many of the residents were self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables with a surplus to trade in Dunbar and their ground was easily watered from shallow wells. However that same water supply gave rise to an early brewing industry, reputedly begun by the monks of the May Island who had been granted land in the area. It is often speculated that the undercroft of the present Belhaven Brewery is a remnant of the monastic holding. Whatever its origins the brewery continues as the main surviving industry. In 1901 Dunbar Combination Hospital was opened to the south of the village and continues today as a community hospital, now with a nursing home on the site.
Even though Belhaven is located less than a mile from Dunbar, it once had its own range of shops and tradesmen. In 1826 there were 4 grocers & spirit dealers (one with a side-line in meal), a baker, draper, tailor & several dressmakers. On the construction side there was a firm of masons and builders, a wright, a joiner, and a smith advertising for trade. The village had its inn – the only one of these businesses to survive in the present century. All the shops and trades closed as transport became easier and the population found more choice (or better prices) in Dunbar or even further afield. However, the shape of the village has hardly changed in the past two centuries. It has the same street plan (with some extension along their length) and very often the same cottages. The perimeter of the village is defined by six large houses, or mansions, set in their own grounds, which have acted to prevent encroachment by expanding Dunbar (except on the southeast corner). Designation as a conservation area extends over much of the village and many of the older properties are listed.