Our Dunbar

CoastWord weekend kicks off with mince and tatties at the Ridge Café. I eat as I browse an East Lothian Courier and stumble upon a double-page spread about the festival:  ‘Stories poems and songs to hold center stage for 3 days’, alongside a photo of my own face gazing back at me.

An auspicious start.

There are children everywhere – running out for a quick play, back in for a biscuit - all with painted whiskers because, as the waitress explains, today is ‘Wildlife Day’ to raise money so the children can ‘adopt an animal and go and visit it’.

This is my third CoastWord Festival - the first as a visitor, the second as a performer and this time to (drum roll) receive the baton from the one-and-only-Rachel-McCrum as CoastWord Festival Writer in Residence.

I know!

But what, I hear you ask, does being ‘Writer in Residence’ involve, exactly?

Well the brief is broad. ‘Come to Dunbar and write about what you want,’ was more or less what CoastWord Director Hannah Lavery suggested. ‘See what inspires you.’

So I arrived in Dunbar clutching my passport (to join the library, you understand) and set about letting it inspire me.

I love a good story - I’m nosey too – and by mooching round the café I find numerous details, all intriguing (for a novelist at least). There are posters for Hypnobirthing; Kite flying; and a chainsaw course offering hire of protective clothing and saw. Posters for a Blondie tribute band, ‘Dirty Harry’. A list of intended marriages: Thomas and Natasha, Robert and Irene, Stuart and Stacey, Ewan and Maxine. There are signs and stories telling me that one East Lothian vote was disallowed in the recent Scottish Parliamentary Election because the voter put their name on it; that I’ll get an £80 fine for not cleaning up after my dog; and that a farmer is driving 500 miles to the Highlands in his tractor for charity.

These are the stories that we tell.

As I enjoy my mince and tatties a woman at the next table shows her companion photos on her iPhone: ‘I keep looking at the lighthouse. I can’t keep my eyes off the lighthouse,’ she says.

What lighthouse? Peggys Point? Portland Head? Bell Rock? I Google it (I’ve joined the library, see) and find it’s probably Barns Ness, three miles outside Dunbar.

But who knows?

These are the stories that we tell.

My ‘Starting Fiction’ workshop goes well. We write about shoes and all sorts turn up: We tell stories of oxblood loafers, ruched red ankle boots, slip-ons, sling backs, Kurt Geiger and Clark’s Startrites.

I walk back to the Dunmuir Hotel past the Commonwealth War grave No: 305395 of Private W Lough of the Royal Army Medical Corps who died 24 November 1918. It is only later that I realise the First War ended on 11 November 1918.


At tea time I sit in the hotel bar ready and waiting for the Festival’s famous ‘Coorie In’. I order the Dunmuir 8oz Burger ‘with Doddington’s smoked caddy’s cave cheese and bacon, hand cut chips, onions rings and baby leaf salad’. It arrives, balanced on a board with the chips in a mini silver bucket. I am about to tuck in when all around me people start to sing.

Bheir me o, horo van o
Bheir me o, horo van ee
Bheir me o, o horo ho
Sad am I, without thee.

It is the Eriskay Love Lilt and everyone in the room, bar me, appears to be singing it.

Bheir me o, horo van o

I think it is an impromptu rehearsal by the choir ‘Dunbar Sings’ led by Karen Dietz which results in me, in effect, trying to eat my tea in the middle of a flash mob.

What is the etiquette for eating an 8oz Dunmuir burger topped with Doddington’s smoked caddy’s cave cheese and bacon, hand cut chips, onion rings and baby leaf salad in the middle of a flash mob?

I have no idea. I pick bits off my burger with my fingers. That’s not really eating is it? That’s not rude. Surely it’s only rude if I tackle it with a knife and fork? I take a strand of cheese. Mmmh. Definitely smoked. I take a chip.

When I’m lonely dear white heart.

There’s another verse.

I take another chip.

It is still only Friday evening – there are another two full days of CoastWord yet.


These are the stories I will tell of CoastWord 2016:

Of discussing lipstick shades and the poet Stevie Smith with Janice Galloway and of feeling my skin creep as she recited ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.

Of sitting at Dunbar railway station chatting about high heels and Flannery O’Connor with Liz Lochhead.

Of Isla Dewar telling me not to expect more than flashes of happiness or I’d have to go and lie down.

Of hearing songs about cough linctus abuse and poems about Highland coos and vinyl LPs.

Of hearing stories about love and loss and front doors all painted the same shade of shitty brown.

Of watching vintage film of old Dunbar filmed only yesterday. ‘Settle down now. Let’s all settle down!’


And of how the sun shone; all weekend. Of course it did. This, after all, was the CoastWord Festival.

Your Dunbar - and for a year My Dunbar - Our Dunbar.

I’m looking forward to exploring it and hearing the stories it has to tell.


Catherine Simpson is a journalist and novelist. Her novel Truestory was recently published by Sandstone Press.