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.
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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.