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.
We may be on the brink of the most exciting archaeological find of the decade, possibly the 21st century. Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist who is based at the University of Arizona, has studied some very high definition photographs taken by Factum Arte, a Madrid and Bologna based organisation which works with museums and galleries to record and reproduce museum collections.
Factum Arte recently build a facsimile of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Luxor, sited about a mile away from the original, which tourists can visit without endangering the actual tomb. To plan this, they took extremely detailed photos and scans of the original. By carefully examining the photos of the walls for indentations and cracks, Reeves believes he has identified two sealed doorways leading from the tomb.
Reeves speculates that the doorways could lead to the tomb of Tutankhamun’s step-mother, queen Nefertiti, one of the few major figures whose tomb hasn’t yet been identified. Initial confirmation that there is a sealed tomb or at least an area leading off Tutankhamun’s tomb could be obtained by carrying out a radar scan. This would not damage the existing tomb.
It is wait and see.
And My Exciting News?
An 1890 bridge is in near perfect condition, and a 1964 bridge showing major signs of corrosion. What a compliment to those original Victorian designers and builders of the railway bridge!
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.
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.
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.