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.
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.
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