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.

A Hidden Door to the Pharaohs? And Some Exciting Personal News

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?

A project I have been working on for 18 months now is nearing completion.  I have carried out a detailed study of Scottish Border’s history, and visited and photographed the key sites.  I will be publishing the result as an Amazon Kindle book in September.  Normally I want to post once a week, but to allow me to concentrate on this project for the next few weeks I may not post again until the book is published.

Tour of Scottish Islands and the Faroes

July 2015
Our tour should have started in Edinburgh’s port of Leith, but our cruise liner, the Marco Polo, was a little behind schedule, and so the tide at Leith was too low for the liner to berth.  Therefore we were bused from Leith to Rosyth, further inland and on the north bank of the Firth of Forth, but a deeper port. In fact, a large part of the British Fleet was based there during the First World War.   
Our change of port was a blessing in disguise, because it meant that we sailed out from Rosyth on Sunday the 5th July, under the Forth Rail Bridge on the day it was confirmed as Scotland’s sixth World Heritage Site by Unesco.  The other five are St. Kilda, Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, New Lanark(a mill town), and the Antonine Wall (built by the Romans further north than Hadrian’s Wall, but the belligerent Scots soon forced them to abandon it and withdraw to Hadrian’s Wall).  

The Forth Rail Bridge

The Forth Rail Bridge was built from 1882 to 1890.  It is a triumph of Victorian engineering.  In 1879, only 18 months after it opened, the Tay Rail Bridge over the River Tay estuary in Scotland had collapsed during a severe storm.  A train fell into the river and about 75 lives were lost (not all the bodies were found so numbers can only be estimated).  At that time building had started on the Forth Railway Bridge to the same design as the Tay bridge, but this was soon shelved. A complete redesign was necessary – it was essential that the Forth Rail Bridge was designed and built to a much higher standard.  It had to be indestructible.  Even so the Victorian designers went for a novel design, a steel cantilever bridge.  At 2.53 kilometres long it held the record as the longest bridge in the world for 27 years, and quickly became a Scottish icon.
In 1964 the Forth Road Bridge, at the time the forth longest suspension bridge in the world, was opened to replace the existing car and pedestrian ferry service.  Unfortunately by the early 2000s  it was discovered that the bridge was showing signs of corrosion, and the decision was taken to build a second  bridge.  The road bridge over the forth is a vital transport artery, and it was unclear how quickly the corrosion in the first bridge would progress.  The new bridge will open in 2016, and operate in conjunction with the existing bridge, which is being closely monitored.

A pier of the new road bridge under construction, with the 1964 road bridge and the 1890 rail bridge in the background

 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!

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.

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.