Hermitage Castle 2 – Legends and History


There are many legends surrounding Hermitage.  One is that an early owner of the first castle on the site, Sir William de Soulis, was in league with the devil.  He had an arrangement with the devil that he could not be killed by iron or rope.  The borderers were nothing if not ingenious though – the legend is that they boiled him alive!
Another, in this case almost certainly true story, relates to another owner, Sir William Douglas.  Sir William committed a particularly evil act in the castle.  Jealous of Sir Alexander Ramsay, who had been appointed by the King as Sheriff of Teviotdale, he kidnapped Sir Alexander, imprisoned him in Hermitage and starved him to death.  Sir William was not a man to fall out with.  When Sir Willaim died, the castle passed to his son James Douglas, the hero of the battle of Otterburn, and then to George Douglas, the illegitimate son of Sir William.  George became the first Earl of Angus and founder of the Red Douglas line, so called because of his red hair.
However by the 1490s Archibald Douglas, the then owner of Hermitage was getting too close to the English for the liking of the Scottish king, James IV.  Hermitage was near the border and protecting an important invasion route from England.  Therefore James IV required Archibald to exchange Hermitage for Bothwell Castle, then controlled by the Earl of Bothwell.  Bothwell Castle was less strategic as it was in Lanarkshire, much further from the border.
The Bothwell Earl’s control of Hermitage resulted in one of Hermitage’s most famous incidents.  In 1566 James Hepburn, the fourth Earl, was injured in a skirmish with Little Jock Elliot of Park, a reiver, and was taken to his castle of Hermitage.  Mary Queen of Scots, who had been linked romantically with Boswell, was in Jedburgh about 25 miles away, on a royal tour of the Borders.  When Mary heard of Boswell’s injury, she immediately made the 25 mile journey with a small party to Hermitage to see him.  After two hours with Bothwell, she rode back the 25 miles to Jedburgh.  She may have had pressing business in Jedburgh, or considered it inappropriate to spend the night in the castle.  These would have been very difficult and exposed journeys across bleak moorland in October.  On the return journey her horse threw her at one point.  When back in Jedburgh she contracted a fever that nearly killed her.  Much later, whilst the long term prisoner of her cousin, Elizabeth 1 of England, Mary is reported to have wished she had died of the fever at Jedburgh.

Hermitage Castle 1 – the Castle’s Design

Hermitage Castle stands grim, formidable and brooding, radiating power.  Strangely it was also involved in one of Scotland’s most famous love affairs (covered in a future post).  It is strategically sited twelve miles south of Hawick in the Hermitage Valley just off Liddesdale, covering one of the main routes into Scotland in medieval times.  Liddesdale was the most lawless valley in the Borders, which really says something.  Hermitage provided protection for anyone trying to police this dangerous place.

The U.K. has a horrible history series of books aimed at teaching history to children by focusing on the more gory aspects – a whole book could have been dedicated to Hermitage. The first castle, a simple motte and bailey castle, was built on the site in about 1240, and was involved in the Wars of Independence.  In 1338, it was in the hands of an Englishman, Sir Ralph de Neville. It was attacked and taken for Scotland by Sir William Douglas.

It is not a picture-postcard castle; it was designed for war, and saw plenty of it.  The castle as we see it now was started in the 1360s by Lord Dacre.  However by 1370 the castle was back in the hands of Sir William Douglas, who remodelled it significantly from around 1370, when he was made Lord of Liddesdale.  Dacre’s small stone castle was extended and four massive towers were added over the next decades, one in each corner.

 A wooden fighting platform jutting out from the upper walls could be erected at Hermitage when needed.  To allow the fighting platform to cross between the towers, an arch was built between the towers on the east and west sides.  The openings along the top of the walls which could be mistaken for windows are in fact doors, so troops could enter the fighting platform.   The row of square holes below the line of doors are to anchor supports for the platform.

 Hermitage showing the doors to allow troops access to the

wooden fighting platform, and the arch carrying the fighting 

platform between the towers.

As well as a moat, the castle was protected by the Hermitage water and a large area of marsh, making attack difficult. Once attackers had got though the marsh and over the moat, the main entrance was at one time at first floor level, reached by a wooden stairway.  The wooden stairway would of course have been removed by the defenders when an attack was expected.  However, assuming the attackers managed to get up to and through the wooden door, the defenders then had a pretty nasty trick up their sleeves.  The attackers would see a portcullis before them.  However, when they reached this portcullis the defenders would lower a second portcullis behind the attackers, trapping them in a “killing zone”, where they could be finished off by the usual defenders tools of boiling oil or arrows fired through murder holes.

Exploring History in the Scottish Borders

Exploring History book cover

The Scottish border area is steeped in history. This is the divide between the north and south of Britain, and the often fraught relationship between England and Scotland has left its mark.  Centuries of war and bloodshed didn’t produce Robin Hood characters, it produced a tough and often violent people, the border reivers.  In the 16th century the Scottish borderland made the American Wild West of the 19th century look like a kindergarten.

Illustrated by many full color photographs, “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders” provides an overview of the history of this turbulent area. The Borders’ past has left a legacy of splendid castles, beautiful ruined abbeys, and a depth of history few other areas can match. This book tells the story of the of the English/Scottish borderland from the time of the Romans, through the Scottish wars of independence, the turbulent 16th century and Henry VIII’s “rough wooing”, up until the reopening of part of the Waverley Line by Queen Elizabeth in 2015.

After centuries of conflict what was once the most violent part of the UK is now one of the most peaceful. It is a great place to visit – for many visitors it has more to offer than the nearby Lake District. Like the Lake District the Borders has beautiful countryside and strong literary connections, but the Borders also has a depth of history that the Lakes just cannot rival. It is also much less crowded and commercialized.

If your family comes from the Borders, or you are interested in Scottish history, this book should be of interest.  Armstrong, Bell, Douglas, Elliot, Gordon, Graham, Hepburn, Home, Irving, Jardine, Johnstone, Kerr, Little, Maxwell, Nixon, Pringle, Rutherford and Scott are all key Border families.  These families have shaped the modern world; their descendants include two U.S. Presidents, one British Prime Minister, the first man on the moon, and numerous major scientists.

Available from all Amazon sites in paperback and kindle format.  29,000 words and 33 original color photographs.

Hold down the control key and click on the following link for your Amazon site to get directly to the book.

USA:    www.amazon.com/dp/B0183U12R8

U.K.:  www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0183U12R8

Canada: www.amazon.ca/dp/B0183U12R8

And please just search for it on other Amazon sites.

Ian Douglas

The Douglas Tombs on Paris’s Left Bank

Earl of Angus St Germain Des Pres

St Germain Des Prés is a beautiful old church on the left bank of the Seine in the centre of Paris, which I had the pleasure of visiting at Christmas.  It is what remains from a major abbey of the same name.  The church predates Notre Dame, and was the place where the Parisian upper classes worshiped. The French philosopher René Descartes chose to be buried. It also has several 17th century Douglas tombs.   But who were they, and how did they end up so far from Scotland?  The date of death is the clue.

During what is called the “Auld Alliance” (Old Alliance), Scotland had a close relationship with France.  England was often both countries’ enemy, and on the basis that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it was in Scotland and France’s interest to have a close relationship.  But that changed in about 1560, when Scotland became officially Protestant.  Rather as we see between Sunni and Shia Muslins today, at the time there was real ill-feeling and often conflict between Protestants and Catholics, so Scotland’s religious reformation created a major religious divide between Scotland and Catholic France.  However those Scots who were Catholic still saw France as their ally and a place of safety.

William Douglas (c.1554–1611), who was to become the 10th Earl of Angus, visited France in 1577, and converted to Roman Catholicism.  Shortly afterwards Douglas was ordered to leave Scotland because of his faith, but didn’t do so.

In 1591 he inherited the earldom of Angus on the death of his father.  This allowed him to become a major player in the politics of the time.  In 1592 he was accused of involvement in a conspiracy to land Spanish troops in Scotland, to impose Catholicism on the Scots and to invade England.  This was only four years after the Spanish Armada, so Spain was seen as a deadly enemy of England.  England and Scotland were then becoming much more friendly, particularly as King James of Scotland hoped to inherit the English crown when his relation, Elizabeth I of England, died.

Because of Angus’s likely involvement in the plot, King James imprisoned him in Edinburgh Castle, but Angus escaped after six weeks.  There are two versions of his escape.  One is that his wife smuggled a rope into his cell, the other that one of the warders helped him.

Angus made his way to the North of Scotland where he joined with two other Catholic earls, Huntly and Erroll.  After several years, sometimes trying to raise an insurrection and at other times in hiding, he was reconciled with the king, and given a royal appointment to police the unruly Scottish Borders.  But his barely disguised Catholicism increasing became a problem with the staunchly Protestant church, and in 1609 the church took proceedings against him and he was forced to retire to France, where he died in 1611.  His tomb, with a statue of the earl in armour, is in a prominent side chapel in St Germain Des Pres, an indication of his high status.

Orchardton Tower

Orcharton Tower Orchardton is the only round tower house in Scotland of its era, although there are at least 23 in Ireland.  It is situated in Galloway, post code DG7 1QH.  The nearest town is Dalbeattie.

The tower is thought to have been built for John Cairns.  The land was originally owned by the Douglases, but is likely to have been confiscated from them when they were toppled from power by James II in 1455.

The builder may well have come from Ireland – then as now much there would have been a great deal of contact between Dumfries and Galloway and Ireland. Orcharton Tower inner.jpg

The tower house is in fact quite narrow, and much of the accommodation would have been in an attached building that now only exists in a few layers of stone above ground.  The tower is now a shell, but there is a spiral stairway which allows the visitor to walk to the top.  Like many tower houses for defense the entrance door was on the first floor.

Threave Castle – The Mighty Border Stronghold of the Black Douglases

Threave Castle

Threave castle was a mighty Douglas stronghold, built on an island in the middle of the River Dee and close to the town of Castle Douglas.  The island was accessible by a ferry or by a hidden causeway just below the surface of the river.  The island has probably been used as a defensive stronghold from the year dot, but the tower that dominates it today was built for Archibald Douglas, the lord of Galloway, in the late 1300s.  At the time Douglas needed a strong castle because of the danger of attack from his two main enemies.  Those were the Gallovidians (the inhabitants of Galloway), notionally Douglas’s subjects but a wild and lawless people, and the English.
At its peak, the island on which the castle stands would also have had a whole range of buildings for retainers, and workshops for craftsmen providing services to support their Lord’s household.
Threave – The low wall in front of the Tower 
is the remains of the artillery wall.

 The castle had several layers of defence.  The River Dee itself provided a major hurdle for attackers – in the middle ages it would have been far wider than today’s channelled river, and many of the fields on its banks would have been marshland.  Secondly, there was a ditch around the tower.  Thirdly in about 1447, (the date was confirmed by tree-ring dating of timber gateposts and coin finds), a low level artillery wall was built round the tower-house, to provide protection from the increasing threat of an enemy’s artillery.  This state of the art defence included three towers where the defenders could mount their artillery.  And finally, the immensely strong tower-house itself.

King James II, having grown concerned about the Black Douglases increasing wealth and power, decided to bring them to heal. He murdered the earl of Douglas at Stirling Castle in 1452.    The Black Douglases’ power came to the end in 1455, when King James set about systematically destroying the Douglas castles, Threave being the last on his list.  When Douglas himself was abroad in France the castle withstood a siege of two months, and only capitulated when the garrison was bribed by the king.  King James, like kings do, then took ownership of the castle.
In the 1500s the castle was acquired by the Maxwells.  This was ultimately to lead to its downfall.  The Maxwells remained Catholic for far longer than it was politically expedient in Scotland to be Catholic.  Therefore a similar fate befell Threave as befell the Maxwell’s other great castle of Caerlaverock.  In 1640 the Covenanters attacked and badly damaged it.
Today it is an impressive ruin, under the care of Historic Scotland, which operates a ferry to the island for visitors.