Stronghold of the Douglases | Scotland’s last great medieval castle | The architecture of warfare
Stronghold of the Douglases
Mighty Tantallon Castle was built in the mid-1300s by a nobleman at the height of his power. In 1354, William Douglas came into possession of all his father’s lands, as well as those of his uncle, ‘the Good Sir James of Douglas’, a close friend of King Robert the Bruce. The estates included the barony of North Berwick. In 1358 William was created Earl of Douglas, by which date the masons may already have begun to build his new stronghold.
In the 1380s the dynastic house of Douglas split into two branches, known as the ‘Black’ and the ‘Red’. Tantallon passed to the junior line, the ‘Red Douglases’, earls of Angus. For the next 300 years, the earls of Angus held sway at the castle. They were one of the most powerful baronial families in Scotland.
During this period the castle endured three great sieges, in 1491, 1528 and 1651. The last, by Oliver Cromwell’s army, resulted in such devastating destruction that the mighty medieval fortress was abandoned to the birds.
Scotland’s last great medieval castle
Tantallon was the last truly great castle built in Scotland. Its architecture harked back to the mighty defensive stone castles of the 1200s, such as Bothwell Castle. These were characterised by enormously thick and high stone walls enclosing large closes, or courtyards. Tall stone towers projected from great curtain walls, providing living quarters for the nobles.
Tantallon’s plan differs from most comparable castles only because of its situation, at the edge of a promontory. Although the curtain wall enclosed the entire site, the castle only needed formidable defences along its landward side. Its great curtain wall of red sandstone still stands remarkably complete, as do the three towers in which the mighty earls of Angus lived.
The architecture of warfare
The castle was constructed in the age before gunpowder artillery. Its high, thick walls had simply to withstand assault from stone-throwing machines, battering rams and arrows. This explains the almost complete absence of openings in the curtain wall, the concentration of defence on the battlements at the wall top, and the wide, deep ditch in front.
The proliferation of artillery changed all this – subsequent owners had to improve Tantallon’s defensive capability. They filled in the wall chambers to help withstand incoming cannon shot, inserted gun holes and built additional gun defences outside. These included a gun tower beside the outer gate, and a ravelin (an earthen gun emplacement) beyond.
In the end it was not enough. In 1651 Cromwell’s heavy guns, mounted on adjacent promontories, ripped the guts out of the end towers.