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.
Advertisements

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.

Exploring History in the Scottish Borders

Exploring History book cover

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.

Available from all Amazon sites in paperback and kindle format.  29,000 words and 33 original color photographs.

Hold down the control key and click on the following link for your Amazon site to get directly to the book.

USA:    www.amazon.com/dp/B0183U12R8

U.K.:  www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0183U12R8

Canada: www.amazon.ca/dp/B0183U12R8

And please just search for it on other Amazon sites.

Ian Douglas

Greenknowe Tower and the Snowdrops

Greenknowe Tower with Snowdrops

I was robbed!  Two weeks ago in England I paid £5 to see some snowdrops.  Today (1 March) in Scotland I saw a beautiful field of snowdrops in front of Greenknowe Tower for nothing.

Greenknowe Tower is an L-plan tower and is near the village of Gordon in the Borders.  It is as old tower of the Seton family, although since it doesn’t have a roof or windows I don’t think they live there anymore. It is looked after by Historic Scotland.

Greenknowe was built in about 1581.  It was built for defence by gun, and has many gun ports to provide the defenders with an excellent field of fire all round the tower.  It also like many Scottish tower-houses has an iron yett.  The yett is an iron grill like a portcullis, but while a portcullis is raised and lowered vertically, a yett opens like a door.

Greenknowe Tower yett

Greenknowe’s yett, with the Seton crest and build date on the lintel above it.

 

Carlisle Castle and the Escape of Kinmont Willie Armstrong

Carlisle is in the news as I write this, because rainfall we are supposed to see only once in a hundred years has flooded parts of the city, and parts of Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.  I spent several weeks in and around Carlisle last summer when researching and photographing for my book “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders”, so I thought I would share some images with you of Carlisle Castle in better weather, and the story of the most jailbreak in Borders’ history, involving Kinmont Willie Armstrong.

Carlisle’s massive castle was the centre of English administration in the English western Borders.  It was close to being impregnable. Once through the outer walls which are shown in one photograph, any attackers who survived that far came up against a gatehouse, called the Captains Tower, which controls access to the inner ward, the centre of the castle.  The other photograph shows the Captain’s Tower.

In front of and below the Captain’s Tower is the Half Moon battery, a semi-circular artillery fortification built in the 1540s to provide additional firepower to protect the Captain’s Tower.  In more recent years the ground level in front of the Captain’s Tower was raised to create a parade ground.  Before that the Half Moon battery’s field of fire would have been deadly, if attackers had reached that far.

Even that was not considered strong enough to defend against the Scots.  At one time there was a moat and drawbridge in front of the Captain’s Tower and Half Moon battery, to further protect access to the castle’s inner area.  Beyond the Captain’s Tower was the castle’s keep, the centre of the castle and its last redoubt.

Kinmont Willie Armstrong was a notorious reiver, who was arrested by the English on what was supposed to be a truce day.  Willie deserved to be arrested, but arresting him on a truce day was illegal.

Willie’s arrest on a truce day caused outrage throughout the Borders.  After negotiations for his release came to nought, the reiver families decided to take action. But Carlisle was too strong to be taken by frontal assault, even though the reivers could have easily organized an army of several thousand men.  Stealth was the answer.

On a dark, rainy night, similar to what Carlisle has been suffering in recent days, a group of about 80 reivers, led by the head of the Scott clan, made their way to a small postern gate in the outer wall of the castle.  A postern gate is a small secondary gate, not the main gate.  It isn’t clear whether they had help from inside, or they removed several stones surrounding the door bolt to open the door (a common reiver tactic when attacking fortified towers and farmhouses).  Then they were in, and released Kinmont Willie, who luckily was being held in the outer ward of the castle.  Thankfully they were able to release him through stealth, and not bloodshed.

The incident outraged Queen Elizabeth I, who put pressure on King James VI of Scotland, who eventually made the head of the Scott clan travel of London to apologise to her.

849ab-carlisle2bcastle252c2bincluding2bthe2bmassive2bkeep-0198cbdb0-carlislecastle-2bthe2bcaptain2527s2btower2band2bthe2bhalf2bmoon2bbattery-0163