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Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle has a history filled with intrigue, murders, trysts, torture, and treason.

Hermitage Castle

‘The Strength of Liddesdale’

Hermitage, in deepest Liddesdale, is a lonely spot. The feeling of foreboding is heightened by the presence of the awesome castle ruin. It has inspired colourful local legends – of the wicked Lord Soules and of a giant Englishman with impregnable armour who drowned in the nearby Hermitage Water. In truth, though, Hermitage has no need of myths. It has a history of torture, treason – and romantic trysts – sufficient for a host of castles.

For most of its 400-year existence, Hermitage Castle was the key to controlling the Scottish Middle March. In The Steel Bonnets, George Macdonald Fraser’s fascinating book on the Border reivers, the author describes Hermitage as ‘the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain’. Contemporaries called it ‘the strength of Liddesdale’ and as such it was fought over time and again. Even the building of the castle in the 13th century brought Scotland and England to the brink of war.

Border bulwark

The mighty stone castle rises up from impressive earthworks, the latter all that remain of the original castle, built by Lord de Soules in the 1240s. The present castle was begun by an English lord, Sir Hugh de Dacre, around 1360, and transformed out of all recognition by his successor, William, 1st  Earl of Douglas, one of Scotland’s most powerful noblemen, who created the awesome stronghold we admire today.

The castle was designed not so much for residence as defence, and the interior is just as dour as the outside. Even in the 16th century, Hermitage was adapted to counter the threat posed by gunpowdered artillery, with gunholes punched through its thick walls, and a massive gun defence built outside, to protect the castle’s western approach.

A perilous journey

Hermitage Castle was also the scene of a dramatic episode in the life of Mary Queen of Scots. In October 1566, her trusted noble James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was wounded in a skirmish with reivers (cattle thieves). On hearing the news, Mary rode out from Jedburgh, a 25-mile (40 km) journey across difficult terrain. She fell perilously ill on the return leg and came very close to death.

It has been suggested that her two-hour visit was a secret lovers’ tryst with the man who later became her third husband. However, this was almost certainly malicious gossip. Their hasty courtship probably did not begin until the following year.

On the arduous journey back to Jedburgh, Mary’s horse stumbled, throwing her into a bog, from which she contracted a fever. She was confined to bed in Jedburgh for a week, and it was said she was fortunate to recover from her ordeal.

Romantic ruin

In 1603, when Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England also, Hermitage lost its strategic importance. It was abandoned by its noble owners and left to decay. But Sir Walter Scott, through his writings, helped arouse a spirit of nostalgia among Scots, and during the 19th century the haunting ruin was preserved for posterity by its owners, the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry.

Events at Hermitage Castle

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26 November 2014

Ruth Nicol: Three Rivers Meet

Duff House

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Standing Stones of Stenness Guided Walk

Stones Of Stenness Circle And Henge

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