Friday, 5 November 2010

Hermitage Castle




The valleys of the border hills here have names which trip softly from the tongue and somehow manage to evoke a more idyllic and benign picture than they should of places so remote; Eskdale and Annandale, Liddesdale and Teviotdale, Lauderdale and Tweeddale. These places sound lovely but if they could talk they would tell tales of daring, heartbreak and hopelessness and you can sometimes feel it still as you drive through a border valley shadowed with hills dotted thickly with sheep, or down the side of a rushing river under a scabbard-grey sky. It can be beautiful and at the same time oppressing in its very beauty. It's a strange, fascinating and wonderful place.

These border lands of Scotland are thick with castles. Some have grown from humble beginnings into huge and ornate stately homes for the aristocracy while others have withered and died to become roofless ruins open to the skies, choked with ivy and left mouldering in forgotten corners; a fragment or a wall standing proud on a hillside or glimpsed through the trees across a river as you explore any one of the border valleys. But they first serve as a reminder that there are so many for a reason: these lands were a first line of defence for almost a thousand wild years of our wildest history.

The border between Scotland and England long ago was a moving feast dependant on treaty or whoever had the upper hand of power at the time. The people within came therefore to implicitly understand the need for protection regardless of which side of the border they were on. Borders in any case were often incidental to the families who lived here, linked as they were through affiliation, kinship or enmity. Any undefended site could be attacked by a fellow countryman on the make or a foreign invader, and locals would seek protection from those families able to build defensible positions. From the simple palisaded farmstead, to small thick walled and protective bastle houses to stark tall peel towers or the formidable castle of the wealthy landowner, all were built to protect themselves, their families or followers and above all, their interests. It gave too, to the inhabitants, a particular view of the world. It was a world where the self-seeking, double-dealing and oft underhand behaviours considered normal of the high Lords of the land were played out equally here by those of lower rank and on a more intimate scale. It was, more than any other, a place of bastions and belligerents. It's people were the most headstrong, self willed and defiant of any part of the kingdom and were almost constantly embroiled in conflict together whether through blood feud or blatant opportunism.
Gilnockie - A Border Tower House 
Home of an Armstrong Riever

The land hereabouts is often green and fertile, even in the depths of the hills. It's not the landscape of the highlands, yet it can be just as isolated and just as hostile. These bands of hills which separate Scotland from our southerly neighbours:- The Pentlands, The Cheviots, - famous for the sheep of the same name that would eventually help empty highland glens - the Lammermuirs, the Moorfoots, the Lowther Hills and the lonely Rhinns of Kells far off to the west, can be lonely places even today, but they're no longer the obstacles of ages past which funnelled armies to invade via the flat  'Merse-lands' of the coast to the east or, more occasionally, the west. These river valleys, which fall through hillsides streamed as if with silvery tears, were early routes of trade and commerce, attractive to the prestige of  religious houses with their abbeys and monasteries and their wool-based economies. These were rich pickings for the adventurous and the greedy and so were regularly targeted for looting and plundering by passing armies of both sides desperate to fill royal coffers or replenish war chests. It seems wars fought with God's apparent approval have always been overly rough on His Houses.

Sketch of Hermitage from MacGibbon and Ross'
 'Castellated and Domestic Architecture Of Scotland'

From this lawless medieval wilderness grew 'The Border Reivers', light cavalry skilled in stealth and attack by surprise, masters of the lightning raid and sudden disappearance back into the night. Reiver is an old English word for a raider or looter. It was said of the Reivers that they were Dalesmen by summer and Highlanders by winter, preferring the cold winter nights for their illegal activities, grateful for long hours of darkness and because cattle are better for moving in the winter. Reiver crimes included cattle rustling, theft, looting, arson, blackmail, murder and prison breaking. Reiving was unique in that it was not restricted to a minority group, they came from all classes and lived by the same 'code'. Even Wardens responsible for law and order were at times implicated in personal feuds or raids. Generations of men learnt skills which made them feared by all. Ruthless, implacable and with no allegiance to any other than themselves, they created mayhem and were a sair thorn in the side of Scots and English kings for hundreds of years. Monarchs from both sides of the border would try to use, manipulate or buy them off until eventually they would be destroyed or the best of them incorporated into the establishment as aristocracy. Riever families would become influential in maintaining kings on the throne or in opposing them if the situation was right.

 A Border Reiver


There would be many attempts to limit, to control and to dominate them and this was the purpose of Hermitage Castle.

I first came to Hermitage Castle many years ago on an Autumn day full of heavy showers from a sky pressing down on the land yet seemingly determined to hurry past. The castle itself sits cold and dour in the isolated heart of Liddesdale which is the most bleak, hard and unwelcoming part of the borders. Possibly no valley or glen in Scotland has a more brutal past than Liddesdale even though many might put up strong competition. It's seen armies pass by and stop to brutalise the local inhabitants, seen too those same inhabitants dish out brutalities of their own to the unwary or unfortunate.  It's fitting that local history would indicate such brutality as I find Hermitage to be the most moodily oppressive castle in Scotland. Its very position in the middle of the valley floor of the Liddel Water is aimed not to inspire notions of safety by a lofty position, not to show impressive power or welcome to a weary traveller but to dominate and intimidate, to ensure that all who come near understand that its presence is a stark statement of overwhelming and uncompromising power in the midst - maybe even in spite - of its isolation. I remember its walls, dark with rain and the huge arch gaping like a maw of glistening stone ready to spew forth forces hell-bent on destruction or to close behind souls destined to be lost forever. Several words come to mind as I try to describe it; sinister, malevolent, grotesque, implacable, hostile. Its massively thick walls and high window slits, its crow step gables and its square, squat bulk all remind me of a huge immovable beast sitting there ravenous, sullen and obstinate.


Originally the site was one of a wooden Norman motte and baile castle of the De Soulis family, one of those Normans invited North by a Scots king, who brought with them the feudal system of land ownership and allegiance paid in military service. Given its origins it could have been named after the French 'l'Armitage' for 'guardhouse' though it may also be named for the cell of an Achorite hermit who lived nearby. Later it was changed to a stone castle, prompting the English to protest and raise an army, so dangerous was it thought to have such a stronghold so close to the border of the day, Later still it was transformed into a Kings statement of power and intent with a thousand men quartered in and around its walls. Over the years it has been controlled by De Neville's Maxwell's, Douglas', Dacres', Hepburns' and Scott clans. The Armstrongs too, that most celebrated of reiver families perhaps, also occupied it from time to time when it was not in use by the others, and although the king may have quartered a thousand men here it was noted that the Armstrongs could field three times as many horsemen from the local area, dressed in quilted jacks and bonnets of steel.

It was here while James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell held the castle that Mary, Queen of Scots, made a famous marathon journey on horseback to visit the wounded Bothwell, only a few weeks after the birth of her son, after he had foolishly attempted to take on an Elliott riever on his own. They were to marry shortly after the murder of her 2nd husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, despite Bothwell being implicated amongst the conspirators. Later, after Mary's forced abdication, Bothwell fled to Norway and his titles and estates were forfeited by Act of Parliament. Whilst attempting to raise an army to restore Mary to the throne, he was captured by King Frederik, and imprisoned at Dragsholm Castle in Denmark, where he died years later in appalling degradation and lonely insanity.



Floor Plan from
MacGibbon and Ross'
'Castellated and Domestic Architecture Of Scotland'

It was also from here that Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, Warden of the western marches, Keeper of Liddesdale, lead the daring and infamous attack on Carlisle Castle to rescue Willie Armstrong of Kinmont.  Armstrong, a notorious reiver, was captured by the forces of the English Warden of the West March in violation of a truce day in 1596, and imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. Walter Scott of Buccleuch, on whose land the arrest had been made, protested to the English Warden, Sir Thomas Scrope, 10th Baron Scrope of Bolton. When Scrope refused to release Armstrong, Buccleuch led a party of eighty men on a daring raid into England and stealthily broke Armstrong out of the castle in the night. The raid on Carlisle created such a diplomatic incident between England and Scotland that war between the two nations appeared imminent until Buccleuch surrendered himself to the English authorities. Tried and found guilty, he was placed in the custody of the English Master of the Ordnance at Berwick, Sir William Selby, and afterwards sent to London. When Buccleuch reached London he was taken before Elizabeth I of England and was asked by the maiden Queen how he dared to undertake an enterprise so desperate and presumptuous.

 Buccleuch is reported to have replied, "What is it that a man dare not do?"

 Unaccustomed though she must have been to such rejoinders from her own courtly nobles, Elizabeth not only did not resent the answer, but turning to a lord-in-waiting, reputedly said,

"With ten thousand such men, our brother in Scotland might shake the firmest thrones of Europe."

Despite the valley of Liddesdale being a bleak and desolate place it's easy to sit by Hermitage Castle and hear in your mind the soft sound of horses breathing, their feet behind you on wet grass as they come ever closer until you almost feel the heat of them as they pass, hear the creak of leather and the gentle rattle of a sword or scabbard as weary men dismount. Easy too to see a frosted Cheviot hill grieve against a bleak November sky and imagine God obsessed voices of Covenanters calling on the wind, or see a stand of leafless border birches slanted against the prevailing wind become the spears of border reivers coming home from a raid. As I left that first time I was caught in another reiving squall. The sky turned instantly dark and sheltering by some trees I listened to the rumble of hard rain on the ground around me and imagined it hammering down on a leather jack or steel bonnet for a few short moments before it disappeared back up Liddesdale as quickly as it had come and I could once think of heading home.

The tracks and paths of the Rievers are grass covered now, gently softened over ages back into the hillsides. Stolen cattle and roving bands of horsemen no longer keep them clear and modern roads take us in comfort and speed where we want to go. Despite this, in my imagination the valleys still echo to the memory of horses hooves and the wary challenge of a watchman from the tower. It's a simple step to understand how isolation gave the Reivers such an independent spirit and how the bleakness of their existence sowed seeds of determination. Their story lives on in the rich folk lore of the region and in the ballads collected by Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg and in the heritage of ballad songs transported across the sea to America. It's easy to hear the same songs sung of old wild west outlaws, living nobly by their own creed until treacherously slain, and transplant the names of one culture for another. The area provided many great men in the generations after the border rievers, men who perhaps had some of the same spirit. Allan Ramsay, Thomas Telford, Alexander Murray, Mungo Park and David Hume all came from the Borders as did a man called Cook, who crossed the border in search of work and who's son became England's greatest navigator. And of course there was that man named Walter Scott. He became a bit of a story teller I think.


Something about The Borders makes me think about these things. It might be the power of landscape or weather on my imagination or the pull of history on the emotions, or any combination of the three, but whatever it is I'm glad that it evokes a reaction like that. I'm glad I live in an area so rich in inspiration and history.

And I'm glad I don't have to live in Hermitage Castle.

See you later.

Listening to

3 comments:

Morning's Minion said...

This is beautifully written--a grim subject matter but a lyrical treatment of place and ambience.
Am I mislead in thinking that Scotland's turbulent history has often romanticized those that we might today label as outlaws?
It was all in where one's allegience landed, I daresay.
I only know of my Scots kin that they were given the boot after the Battle of Worcester--they were probably no better [or worse] than they'd ought to be.
I'll be reading this again when I have a moment to investigate some of the place names.

Rebecca S. said...

I finally found some time to sit down and read this fascinating description of Hermitage Castle and the Border Reivers. I have Mark Knopfler's album Get Lucky and the first song is called 'Border Reiver,' so now I know a bit of what he is singing about! You are indeed very fortunate to live where there is such a rich history and tangible evidence of it all around. But what a history of warring and violence! Life must have been a very desperate affair most of the time in those days. I am glad you are truly appreciative of where you live - it sounds absolutely wonderful.

Alistair said...

Hullo MM - glad you enjoyed it. I think you're right. It must be natural for stories to be embellished and exaggerated over generations of telling and it's natural too to brush over some of the less savoury traits of our ancestors and over-emphasise what we would be most proud of. Same with glamorizing the actions of some from lawbreaking to heroic battles against authority and the establishment.

Rebecca - It's a lovely place right enough and history's all around us here. I'm sure there were plenty of times when life was just bearable or even plain boring, repetitive and downright miserable, but that's not what people record, mainly tales of murder, mystery and heroic derring do.

Much more interesting though!

Cheers ladies.

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