St Anne’s Upon Dunbar Sands Stood Nearest to The Sea

The ancient ecclesiastical history of Dunbar is illuminated by an ancient rhyme, but it is confused because there are two versions. The rhyme was

St Abb, St Helen and St Bey
They all built kirks which to be nearest to the sea
St Abb’s upon the Nabs,
St Helen’s on the Lea,
St Bey’s upon Dunbar Sands stands nearest to the sea

The second and probably later version has

St Ann’s upon Dunbar Sands, stands nearest to the sea.

The situation at St Abb’s and St Helen’s [At Old Cambus] is clear enough but there is doubt in Dunbar. The situation at Dunbar needs some clarification Traditionally St Bey’s well is at Bayswell and can be accessed with difficulty in the rocks at the end of the former swimming pool. Recent Archaeology found evidence of a possible church in Castlepark and some Christian burials near the site of the old guardroom. It is now clear that the Castlepark site was an important one in the Northumbrian period. A fragment of a pectoral cross, similar to that which was found in Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham was found when excavation was done for the Leisure Pool.

Wilfrid, a contemporary of Cuthbert, was exiled to and imprisoned in Dunbar in 680 AD by King Ecgftrith and it is reasonable to suppose the cross belonged to him.

The early church was probably in Castle park and though close to the sea it is hardly on Dunbar Sands. Rennie Weatherhead explored the St Bey option in an article in vol XX1V of our transactions in 2000. It seems clear that in Dunbar we have a situation of two kirks and two saints. The settlement on the Castle Park disappeared and was only recovered when the new leisure pool was being planned and excavation was undertaken. Meanwhile a great castle was built when Cospatrick, the Earl left Northumbria after the appearance of William the Conqueror in 1066 and was accepted in Scotland by Malcolm Canmore.

Recently David Anderson gave me an extract from ‘The Book of Sundials’ by Margaret Scott Gatty 1809-1873.The book was re-edited and enlarged in 1846 and again in 1900. She lists a sundial [number 1637], details of which had been submitted by Miss Ritchie of Barnlea. The sundial came from St Anne’s Court, which Miss Ritchie described as a quaint mansion with two courts. One side was formed by an old building supposed to have been the church of St Anne’s. She said that the church had long since ceased to be used as a church, [presumably after the Reformation] and the sea now washed the building at high tide. It seems clear that this building was the medieval St Anne’s and was certainly closest to the sea. She said there was an idea that the dial was formerly on the church, but it had been moved when the church was dismantled. Her grandfather lived at the court and she recollected that there was an old pulpit in the cellar. The property had passed to other hands and she had taken the sundial to Barnlea presumably before 1846.There is no sign of it now at Barnlea.

The sundial was dated 1649 and would therefore have been made after the building was used as a church. It had three faces and the motto ‘Watch For ye kno’ not the hovre’.

It would be good if anyone knows its present whereabouts.

After the Ritchie family disposed of the property it may have been altered to form a tenement as I recollect Miss Isa Grahame[b1888-d1995] remembered it at the time of its collapse. She asked me c.1970 if I knew where St Ann’s was in Dunbar. She told me that it had been on the East Beach and she remembered that it had been destroyed in a great storm when she was young. She gave a graphic description of it looking as if it had been cut with a knife. It was damaged several times, severely in 1905 and it finally collapsed on 20th October 1906 in the worst gale for twenty-five years.

This would certainly seem to be the location of the St Ann’s church in the rhyme and certainly it could not have been closer to the sea.

An Episcopalian congregation was established in Dunbar in 1874 and in 1876 an iron church was built on Baker’s Croft. In 1888 a start was made to build the present Episcopalian Church. Ideas were put forward by H M Wardrop but he died and the work was continued by Sir R Rowand Anderson, the leading architect of the day. It opened for worship in May 1890 and was consecrated in 1892.The church was dedicated to St Anne. It may have been so named after the old church on the East Beach.

Stephen Bunyan 28 Feb 2020


  1. J Miller, History of Dunbar
  2. David Perry, Castle Park Dunbar
  3. Conversation with Miss Isa Grahame c 1970
  4. Extracts Provided by David Anderson
  5. Material and image provided by Dunbar History Society
  6. Conversation with Mrs Sheila Gray and Mr L Gray 2020
  7. Illustration -The Collapse of St. Ann’s Court 1905

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