Mary Queen of Scots Visit to the Scottish Borders

Earlier this year I visited Jedburgh, and the house Mary Queen of Scots is believed to have stayed in during a visit to Jedburgh in October 1566.  The house is now a museum, dedicated to Mary.

Mary Queen of Scots House

Mary Queen of Scots House

I attach photos of what is now called Mary Queen of Scots House, and of the ruins of Jedburgh abbey.  Jedburgh Abbey was burnt down by Henry VIII’s forces in 1523, and when partially rebuilt destroyed again in 1544 and 1545 during the “rough wooing”.  The rough wooing was an attempt by Henry VIII to terrorise the Scots into agreeing to their infant queen Mary being married to Henry’s son Edward when she was of age (often in the 16th century 12 years old would be considered to be old enough for the bride).

Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey

Mary visited Jedburgh just 6 months after she had given birth to the future James VI/I, to preside over the 16th century equivalent of a circuit court.  During her visit she learned that James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, had been hurt.  Mary had been romantically linked with Bothwell.  He had been involved in a skirmish with border reivers, and the injured Bothwell was taken to Hermitage Castle (see photo).  When she heard of Bothwell’s injury, Mary made the 25 mile journey to Hermitage with a small party to see him.

Hermitage Castle 2 – Legends and History

Hermitage Castle

After two hours with Bothwell, Mary rode back to Jedburgh.  Perhaps she had pressing business in Jedburgh, or considered it inappropriate to spend the night in the castle.  Having cycled between Jedburgh and Hermitage, I can confirm that this would have been a difficult and exposed journey across high and bleak moorland.  On her return journey, although Mary was an expert horsewoman, her horse threw her. When back in Jedburgh she was ill with a fever that nearly killed her.  During her long imprisonment in England, Mary is reported to have said that she wished she had died in Jedburgh.

Mary Queen of Scots House is near the centre of Jedburgh and has excellent displays on the tragic queen’s life.

To learn more about the fascinating history of the Borders area, “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders” is available from Amazon.



Sweetheart Abbey’s Lost Prayer Book

As someone who is fascinated by the history of the Scottish Borders, it was great to read yesterday that a small 700 year old treasure, a prayer book, of one of the great Scottish Abbeys, Sweetheart Abbey, had been returned to Scotland and was now being held in the National Library of Scotland. This had been lost for 300 years. Rather than just blog a summary, I have published the National Library of Scotland’s full press release below.   

Sweetheart Abbey's Prayer Book

                                                    National Library of Scotland Press Release

Sweetheart Abbey Breviary arrives at the Library

Historic monastic manuscript is major acquisition for National Library of Scotland

A monastic treasure written in Scotland 700 years ago has been acquired by the National Library of Scotland.

The early 14th century Breviary, from Sweetheart Abbey near Dumfries, is the Library’s most important medieval manuscript acquisition for 30 years. It is an extremely rare example of a medieval religious manuscript which was both written and used in Scotland.

Unlike many remaining Scottish liturgical manuscripts, which exist as fragments only, the Sweetheart Breviary is an entire volume in a remarkably good condition. It consists of 200 vellum leaves, and contains the text for many of the monastic prayers used each year in medieval Scotland.

Sweetheart Abbey was the last Cistercian monastery to be established in Scotland. It was founded in 1273 by Dervorgilla de Balliol, mother of the Scottish king John Balliol, in memory of her husband John de Balliol. On her death in 1290, she was laid to rest next to her husband’s embalmed heart and the abbey was named in her memory. The Breviary was written between 1300 and 1350.

The first leaf of the manuscript bears a large inscription in a medieval hand: ‘Liber sanctae Mariae de dulci corde [a book of St. Mary of Sweetheart]’. Only four other manuscripts survive from the library of this abbey, bearing similar inscriptions, but none of these volumes was apparently written in Scotland.

The Breviary is remarkably compact and, although comparatively modest in decoration, is a very attractive volume. It includes a calendar, featuring a number of Scottish saints, which further confirms its strong Scottish connections. The Cistercian elements in the liturgy are also in keeping with its origins and use at Sweetheart Abbey.

Its whereabouts were unknown for some 300 years until it recently came on the open market in an auction in Vienna. Prior to that, the last known trace was in 1715, when it was described in the printed library catalogue of the English antiquarian Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725).

‘We are delighted to have made this significant addition to the national collection. It is a rare survival that will shed new light on our collective past,’ said National Librarian Dr John Scally.

The National Library of Scotland acknowledges the generous assistance of, and contributions from, The Friends of the National Libraries, The Soutar Trust, The National Library of Scotland Foundation, and the B H Breslauer Foundation in the purchase of this manuscript, and for their prompt decision-making in making these contributions.


Scottish Brochs

Dun Carloway Broch

The remains of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs have always fascinated me. Brochs are tall (up to 15 meters/50 feet) round towers, with an outer double-skinned, dry-stone wall.  The double skinned walls are bonded together by rows of slabs, which often form stairs between the inner and outer walls, and provide access to upper floors.  The following photograph shows the inner stairs in the Dun Carloway broch.  These would have been dark and dingy.

Dun Carloway broch - between the walls

Between the dry-stone walls of Dun Carloway broch.

Brochs are unique to Scotland – 571 sites for these strange and quite sophisticated buildings have been identified in Scotland, although some people believe that the number of brochs is less than that, and some sites attributed to brochs are the remains of simpler buildings.   Archaeological research has shown that the main building period was from 100 BC to 100 AD.

In some of the surviving ruined brochs traces of timber has been found, supporting the idea that they had timber floors.  It is likely that the ground floor was used for key livestock, and the upper floors for residential accommodation.  Some brochs stand alone on the landscape, others are surrounded by the remains of settlements. Some are within defensive earthworks.

Brochs were common in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, and in Caithness in the far north of the mainland.  There were a number in the south of Scotland, including a cluster in Galloway, and several in Lothian and the Borders, although only scant remains exist of these southern brochs today.

The reason for building brochs is much disputed by researchers.  It seems clear that defence was the driver to build many.  Another reason for building brochs would have been as high status homes for local magnates.

Tall buildings with a very small door and no windows would have been very difficult to attack. In fact in 1153, long after brochs had fallen into disuse by the local population, the Viking Orkney Sagas record that the Mousa broch was used for protection by a Viking party that had abducted the mother of Earl Harald of Orkney.  They managed to hold out for a winter against the Earl and his troops.

The fact that such complex building were being built contradicts the view that Scotland 2000 years ago was an unsophisticated place. It also shows that the economy was sophisticated enough to support teams of broch “architects” and “master builders” who travelled between sites and communities.  These structures are too complicated to be designed and built by local people without the involvement of specialists, although local communities would no doubt have provided the labor.

In the summer of 2014 I was lucky enough travel by boat to several of Scotland’s islands and the Faroes, a group of islands half way between Scotland and Iceland.  This should have allowed me to see two of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, and therefore the world, as brochs are unique to Scotland.

Dun Carloway broch is on Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and Mousa, the best preserved broch, is on a small island off the main Shetland island.  Unfortunately the weather was too bad for the ship to land in Shetland (Scottish summers!), but I did manage to spend some time at Dun Carloway.  Although much ruined now, with some of the stone robbed and used by local farmers, I couldn’t help but be impressed by this 2000 year old building facing the Atlantic on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides.  It must have been built by a sophisticated, organised people, not the uncivilised barbarians Roman writers lead us to believe lived north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Text and photographs copyright Ian Douglas 2016.

The Faroes

Torshavn, capital of the Faroes
The first stop on our islands’ cruise was the Faroes, a small archipelago 200 miles (320 kilometres) north west of mainland Scotland, and 200 miles south east of Iceland.  The first people to live on the island are believed to have been Irish monks from about 400 A.D., but by about 800 they were replaced by Norsemen (or Vikings as we know them).  Archeological digs were underway when we visited to try to learn more about the history of the islands. 

The Faroes, like Greenland and Iceland, became a Danish possession.  In 1948 the Faroes were granted substantial autonomy, although Denmark still remains responsible for defence, foreign affairs, legal matters and currency.  The population is 49,000, with about 20,000 living in or around the capital, Torshavn (in English Thor’s Harbour).  The other 29,000 are spread over the 540 square mile archipelago of volcanic islands.

During our visit the weather was overcast (a very common experience in the Faroes!).  In the morning we took an organised tour to the Vestmanna sea cliffs, and in the afternoon we spent several hours walking round Torshavn.
Some of the Vestmanna sea cliffs
We took the tourist excursion to the fishing village of Vestmanna, on the west of Streymoy, the Faroes’ main island.  We left our bus and boarded a sightseeing boat with about 40 other tourists.  The cliffs rise to about 600 metres above the sea, and are peppered with grottos and caves, with sea stacks just off shore.  The scenery was spectacular, but unfortunately there seemed to be something of a scarcity of birdlife, or I missed the best shots.
A sea stack off the Vestmanna cliffs
It was an interesting experience to try to take photos from the boat though, and I soon discovered the disadvantages of a DSLR.  Several times I was wrong-footed in my choice of lens as the boat weaved in and out of the grottos and around sea stacks.  When a wide angle would have been useful to record the view on entering a grotto in the cliffs I had my telephoto lens mounted.  On other occasions when I needed a telephoto to record birdlife at a distance I had my wide angle on.  Also I was concerned that when changing lenses in the mist and spray I would get water in the camera.  I wished I had a good quality bridge camera like a Panasonic FZ1000 or Olympus Stylus 1s, which would have allowed me to cover a range of distances without changing lenses.

The guide told us that, in his words, it was a sport to climb and put lambs on some of the larger sea stacks in the spring, and to collect them fattened in the autumn!

In the afternoon we walked round Torshavn.  There were plenty of coffee shops!  In many ways it reminded me of Norway.  Some of the older buildings in Torshavn and during our bus journey to Vestmanna had grass covered roofs.  Apparently rather than cutting the grass (difficult in view of the slope) the owners put a lamb on the roof!
The Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, site of the first Viking parliament

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle


Carlisle on the west and Berwick on the east coast were the two main military fortifications on the English side of the Borders in the 16thcentury.  Carlisle, just 10 miles from the Scottish border, was a walled city with a massive and strong castle.  The castle still stands, and some of the walls still exist.  However the castle lacks the romantic look of castles such as Norham or Caerlaverock; Carlisle Castle is built for business, not for decoration, and that business is war.   The city walls connected to the castle, creating a strong defensive system, with the castle the place of last resort.  The castle is on the north edge of the old town and on slightly higher ground than the town.
Carlisle has been an important military centre since the time of the Romans, and probably before that.  Positioned at the meeting point of three rivers, the main west coast road to Scotland, and the road from the west across the north of England to Newcastle, it is in a strategic position.
Carlisle and much of northern England was for many years disputed territory between the English and Scots. In 1066, when William the Conqueror won his victory at the Battle of Hastings, Cumberland and Carlisle were controlled by a chief who is likely to have considered himself a vassal of the King of Scots.  So Carlisle is not recorded in the Domesday Book – it wasn’t part of England at the time.  However, in 1092 William the Conqueror’s son Rufus invaded the area and annexed Cumberland, including Carlisle, for England.  The Normans were great castle builders, and therefore he immediately began building a wooden castle. 
The castle was rebuilt in stone in 1112.  The castle has been added to over the centuries and now consists of a large outer ward protected by walls and a strong gatehouse. Once in the outer ward, there is a further gatehouse, called the Captains Tower, which controls access to the inner ward, the centre of the castle.  In front and below the Captain’s Tower is the Half Moon battery, a semi-circular artillery fortification, build in the 1540s to provide additional firepower to control access to inner ward. 

The Captain’s Tower with the Half Moon Battery below. 

In more recent times the ground level in the outer ward was raised to create a parade ground.  Before that was done the Half Moon battery’s field of fire allowed it to control the outer ward, and would have turned it into a killing zone if invaders had breeched the outer ward’s walls.   At one time there was an inner moat and drawbridge, in front of the Captain’s Tower and Half Moon battery, assisting in protecting access to the castle’s inner ward.  Within the inner ward is the castle’s keep, the centre of the castle and its last redoubt.

The Scots retook Carlisle and controlled it from 1135 until they withdrew in 1157 because they recognised they were up against overpowering English force.  The Scots captured the castle again for a short time in 1216.  However ninety nine years later in 1315, a year after the Scots major victory at Bannockburn, even Robert the Bruce was unable to capture the castle in an eleven day assault.
  Around 1541, because of increased concern about an attack from the Scots in alliance with France, the castle’s and town’s defences were modernised on the orders of Henry VIII.  This involved strengthening some walls to withstand artillery bombardment and to enable them to carry defensive heavy guns.  At the same time the keep was lowered and its roof strengthened to take heavy guns, and the Half-Moon gun battery was built in the outer ward.
During the time of the border reivers, the castle was the centre of power in the English West March, and used as a prison for Border reivers.  Another famous prisoner was Mary Queen of Scots, who fled to England in May 1567 following what was effectively a civil war with her Protestant subjects.  She was held in the castle for several weeks after landing in England following a journey across the Solway Firth.
The castle’s last hurrah was in 1745, during the Jacobite rebellion.  Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army made its way into England via Carlisle, and the town and castle surrendered to them.  When the Jacobites retreated via Carlisle, they left a garrison of 400 men to delay the English army’s pursuit.  However the castle, which was designed to resist attacks made with the military hardware of the 1500s, proved no match for the artillery available in the 1700s, and after a few days bombardment it surrendered.
The castle we see now was remodelled a little in the 1820s as a military barracks, but very extensive amounts of the earlier castle remain.  It is now under the protection of English Heritage.

 Whilst in Carlisle it is worth visiting the Cathedral, England’s second smallest cathedral.  The cathedral has a long history going back to the 1100s, and is situated in the cathedral precinct which has an attractive gatehouse, and a building called the Fratry, which was the dining hall for the monks, and is now partly used as a restaurant. 


Carlisle Cathedral and stain glass window.