Castles give evidence of conflict outwith and within

Without is a defining preposition when you approach the borders. It offers a unique difference in vocabulary – in England you would live outside the town, but in Scotland outwith it.

Sunday, 7th April 2019, 14:13 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th March 2019, 12:28 pm
Smailhom Tower

The presence of tower houses and fortresses just over the border into Scotland reveals an exciting history of conflicts both within and outwith Scotland. In pursuit of this, let’s imagine two very different journeys. Both begin in Berwick-upon-Tweed. 

Travelling northwards, we pass Lamberton Toll, diverting to St Abb’s to allow ourselves some time in the nature reserve and to view the dramatic cliff scenery before we motor on four miles north west to the equally craggy coast around Fast Castle.

Rocks near St Abbs harbour

This ominous and dangerous ruined fortress figured in the wars between Scotland and England in the early 14th century, and again in Henry VIII/Edward VI’s ‘War of the Rough Wooing’ between 1543 and 1551.

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Later, the castle passed into the hands of the Earls of Home. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was as the residence of Edgar Ravenswood, Walter Scott’s hero in The Bride of Lammermoor.

Onward and upward, as it were, after a good journey along this craggy coast, eventually we arrive at the magnificent ruins of Tantallon Castle, a fortress to be reckoned with if ever there was one.

On the edge of the cliffs, and opposite the volcanic plug of Bass Rock with its vast gannetry, Tantallon’s ruins remain a majestic pointer to the power of this stronghold.

First constructed in the 14th century, it belonged to the Douglas family. Here there were numerous conflicts within, between the Red and the Black Douglases.

In the 16th century, there was further internecine fighting, this time including the Scottish king; Henry VIII of England was also content to involve himself in this treachery. This led to even greater internal conflict in the ‘Rough Wooing’, including Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus’ collusion with the English monarch.

It was Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland in 1650 that led to Tantallon’s final demise in a siege, after which it was left ruinous. The impact of Cromwell’s ruthless military campaign under General Monck is a repeated pattern in the history of these border castles.

Finally on this military outing, just a few miles west and two miles beyond North Berwick, we arrive in Dirleton. It is often described as the most beautiful village in Scotland, with its attractive 17th and 18th century houses and the ruins of a great castle, all set around a large village green.

Dirleton Castle also suffered at the hands of General Monck in 1650, after which time it was left to decay; the drawbridge and inner gate had been destroyed and the bodies of the captain of the local ‘mosstroops’ and two of his comrades were gruesomely hung from the walls.

The castle had originally been built in 1240 by John de Vaux, of a Norman family who had arrived with the original conquering army of the late 11th century. Later Dirleton became the property of the local Berwickshire Haliburton family. Finally, it was the possession of the Ruthvens, who were involved in various plots against Mary, Queen of Scots.

The castle is set within very attractive gardens dating back to the 16th century and including a fine doocot within the walls.

Now, in order not to weary the traveller, we complete this journey here. Then, a few days later we set out again from Berwick-upon-Tweed, but this time in a westerly direction.

This is real frontier land, with numerous tower houses – Smailholm Tower, beloved of Walter Scott in his youth (he often stayed here), and Greenknowe Tower, by Greenlaw, are but two.

Setting off on one of the attractive roads into the borders between Berwick and Kelso, just between Kirk Yetholm and Kelso, we stumble on more fortifications. This time it is Cessford Castle, an L-plan castle near the village of Cessford.

It was built in the 14th century by Andrew Ker, an ancestor of the Dukes of Roxburgh at Floors. In 1482, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, pillaged the area and knighted 20 of his soldiers at the ‘mains of Cessford’.

Ten years after Flodden, in 1523, the Earl of Surrey, one of the victors of that battle, besieged Cessford. It survived Surrey’s incursion, but ceased to be inhabited after 1650 and Cromwell’s war.

Leaving Cessford, and striking northwards past the village of Stichill and beyond Kelso, we arrive one of the most dramatic landmarks in this part of the borders – Hume Castle, which can be seen from miles around and well over the border into England.

Set on a volcanic outcrop, its powerful 18th century walls are a piece of theatre, converting the castle into an eye-catcher. The walls surround the remains of the earlier keep, which was once the main residence of the powerful Earls of Home.

Built originally in the 13th century, James II of Scotland stayed here following the 14th century wars of independence. Believed to be impregnable on account of its remarkable location, it was captured during the ‘Rough Wooing’. The castle was recaptured in 1548, with the Wooing being concluded at the Treaty of Norham in 1551.

By the 17th century, the Homes had moved to The Hirsel and again the castle fell victim to Cromwell’s forces in 1650. The castle’s governor, Colonel Sir John Cockburn, engaged in witty repartee with Cromwell’s troops and his amusing rhyme has survived:

“I Will of the Wastle

“Am King of my castle

“All the dogs in the town

“Shall gare gang me down.”

From this marvellous vantage point, now carefully restored and protected by the Berwickshire Civic Society, one can view the run of the frontier, with so many fortifications marking the landscape of the borders – sharp evidence of former conflicts, both outwith and within.