Hermitage Castle is the spookiest castle I've ever visited. It is set off from the A7 overlooking the left bank of the Hermitage Water and is really quiet, but it feels a bit horrible and inhospitable. It was Walter Scott's favourite castle.

The name 'Hermitage' probably comes from an ancient holy man who used the site near Liddel Water as a remote and isolated place for contemplation and prayer. For most of its 400-year existence, Hermitage, "the strength of Liddesdale", was the key to control over much of the Border country, due to its position. It was "the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain", between Scotland and England and as such it was highly prized and much fought over. In 1242, according to John de Fordun, the two countries came to the brink of war because of the building of Hermitage, Henry III objecting that it was too close to the border, which was then the river Liddle. The timber motte and bailey castle was begun probably by Sir Nicholas de Soules, the King of Scotland's butler. Sir Nicholas had been one of the claimants to the throne of Scotland in the power vacuum following King Alexander's death without an heir in 1286. In 1320 Nicholas's son, William, was dispossessed of his land and castle at Liddesdale following his involvement in a conspiracy to kill King Robert the Bruce. Hermitage was frequently mentioned in the War of Independence and in 1300 Edward I ordered its repair at a cost of 20 pounds. That first timber castle has gone, but the mighty earthwork defenses remain.

By 1328, peace had been established between Scotland and England and English possessions in Scotland were being restored to their owners. However, the position of Hermitage meant it was too valuable to give away lightly. Not until 1332, when Edward Balliol seized the Scottish throne back from the Bruces was Hermitage given into English hands, namely Sir Ralph de Neville.

In 1338 Hermitage was attacked and damaged by Sir William Douglas. He kept the new sheriff of Teviotdale, Sir Alexander Ramsay, prisoner there and starved him to death.He was then made the new sheriff by King David II. In 1346, the English attacked and Sir William's become a prisoner himself. In exchange for his restoration to Hermitage, he betrayed his own king to allow the English army to pass through his land unchallenged. David responded by granting the castle and land to William's godson and relative, also William. This younger William murdered his predecessor at Ettrick forest, but was still unable to gain access to Hermitage which remained in English hands, as Sir William's widow married an English lord, Sir Hugh de Dacre of Cumberland. During his tenure, he built the first stone castle, the remains of which now form the nucleus of Hermitage. The fine stonework visible on entry to the castle dates from Dacre's fortified residence. A cobbled courtyard was surrounded by high stone walls with the residence on the first floor.

When William Douglas finally took possession of Hermitage in 1371, he set about strengthening the building, adding an enormous solid tower onto the stonework. He died in 1384 and his son didn't have much time for further improvements, dying at the battle of Otterburn in 138. Hermitage passed to George Douglas, illegitimate son of the younger William Douglas. He was the founder of the 'Red' Douglases and he added the four corner towers to the castle. The two great flying arches of stone between the towers at Hermitage which give it its individuality, were constructed for practical rather than aesthetic reasons. Around the top of the castle, timber fighting platforms were erected in time of trouble and it was much easier to build these around straight walls rather than go around the corners of the towers. Finally a rectangular wing was added to the south-west. Few openings break the line of the dark sandstone walls which rise sheer and imposing from the grassy earthworks. At the very top of the castle a series of doors led to the wooden fighting gallery.

In 1470 the Earl of Angus appointed David Scott of Buccleuch to the office of Custodian of Hermitage Castle, and for many years the Scotts fulfilled this duty.

In 1491 James IV seized Hermitage from the treasonous Earl of Angus, Archibald Douglas, and gave it to Patrick Hepburn, 3rd Earl of Bothwell, father of you-know-which hunkiest Scottish guy.

It was in Hermitage, that the gorgeous and manly 4th Lord Bothwell lay wounded after a border fray in 15 October 1566. He was visited there by Mary Queen of Scots, who rode there and back, a distance of 50 miles over wild moorland in a single day. Hermitage was too small to accomodate a royal party, but she was that desperate to see him. Not that she loved him or anything....

By then, the castle had undergone some modernisation, with more emphasis on comfort. The fighting platforms had disappeared, with a permanent wall-walk replacing them. Wide gun-holes had replaced narrow arrow-slits to accommodate the new artillery and the ravelin to the west of the castle built to provide an outer fighting platform for further artillery, as the arrival of gunpowder changed the face of warfare.

Bothwell's nephew Francis Stewart succeeded him, but he couldn't get on with James VI and Hermitage was forfeited back to the Crown in 1591 and 1594. Hermitage then passed into the hands of Sir Walter Scott of Branxholm and Buccleuch, the rescuer of Kinmont Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle in 1596.

The succession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603 marked an end to the centuries of border warfare and castles like Hermitage gradually declined. The place was probably forsaken as a noble residence by the seventeenth century and fell into ruin.

In the early nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott the writer had a portrait painted showing Hermitage in the background and there was a resurgence of interest in the old legends and folk-tales surrounding such sites. Repairs were carried out by the fifth Duke of Buccleuch in 1820 in order to prevent the castle fabric deteriorating further and it passed into State care in 1930.

THE LEGEND OF LORD SOULIS (Early owner of Hermitage)

This baron is supposed to have had dealings with a familiar spirit. His story was made into a ballad by Dr John Leyden

'Lord Soulis he sat in Hermitage Castle,
And beside him Old Redcap sly -
Now, tell me, thou sprite who art miekle of might,
The death that I must die?'

Naught that enemies can attempt, replies the spirit, will avail against him until

'Til threefold ropes of sifted sand
Around thy body twine.

In the end, this is what happens, when Thomas of Ercidoune, a wizard, binds up Lord Soulis as described, then wraps him in lead and boils him to death in a couldron.

And he wasn't even a foxhunter.


A guide to Hermitage Castle Scotland from TourUK

UK Heritage - Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle Photo Gallery

Hermitage Castle, Roxburghshire


Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles - Hermitage Castle

Travels in Scotland : Castles and Towers : Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle & Mary, Queen of Scots

Travels in the UK - A Perfectly Proper Holiday: June 25th

Hermitage Castle

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