Overlooking the Forth Estuary and North Sea, Tantallon Castle not only offers amazing views out to sea but is also one of the most important castle sites surviving in the British Isles. Later this week, starting on Thursday 8 May, archaeologists will be working on site to learn more about the castle.
Home to one of Scotland’s most powerful families, the ‘Red’ Douglases, Tantallon was among the last of the great curtain-walled castles built in Britain. It was a comfortable residence but has a turbulent history, having been besieged by King James IV in 1491, James V in 1528, and finally by Cromwell’s invading forces in 1651.
Tantallon’s great curtain wall, with its three lofty towers, was built in around 1360 by William, the 1st Earl of Douglas. Behind the curtain wall is the inner close or courtyard, which contains a two-storey hall block and the castle’s deep well. On the landward side of the wall is a spacious outer close, with a rather fine doocot surviving at its centre. Beyond this are the castle’s outer defences, strengthened during the 16th and 17th centuries to enable the castle to withstand artillery attack. The archaeological team have set out to investigate and learn more about all of these areas of the castle.
The results of a geophysical survey last year revealed a wealth of buried archaeology, confirming that the castle’s inner and outer closes were once busy with buildings and activity. Last Autumn, our archaeologists, along with Kirkdale Archaeology, excavated several small trenches, targeting a range of archaeological features highlighted by the survey. The team was greatly helped by volunteers from the Friends of North Berwick Museum, Edinburgh Field Archaeology Society, and from further afield. We’re all very excited to return Tantallon to continue this investigation.
Last year’s excavations brought varied and fascinating results. In the castle’s inner close, excavation revealed part of a wall of neatly-cut sandstone blocks that may have divided this close into two zones, one perhaps more residential in nature and the other more of a service area. There were also tantalising glimpses of possible courtyard surfaces, across which the castle’s medieval inhabitants would have walked, now sealed well below the present ground surface.
In a trench near the castle’s towering curtain wall, part of the compacted floor surface of a building was investigated. This had animal bone, shell and pottery trampled into its surface, and appeared to have been cut through by an industrial flue containing ash and burnt debris. In another part of the inner close, shallow trenches filled with mortar and rubble may represent robbed-out walls or garden features.
In the outer close, where only a 17th-century doocot now stands, excavation uncovered possible artillery works, predating the 1651 siege. These could tell us much more about how the castle was besieged and defended.
We’re delighted to once again offer tours and opportunities to see the archaeology up close. Over these coming two weeks you can find out how this exciting research adds to our knowledge of the castle’s story. You will be given the chance to handle and examine excavated objects and chat with the archaeologists. We will be very happy to explain the latest discoveries! The results of this archaeological research are providing insights into both the everyday life of the castle and how it adapted to the threat of artillery and siege warfare. They will help us to add to the story of this amazing castle.
This weekend, 10 and 11 May, visitors to Tantallon Castle will be treated to a special event combining archaeology and historical re-enactment. Archaeologists Under Siege will feature a 17th-century soldiers’ camp and weaponry demonstrations, as well as a chance to see the archaeologists in action.