Castles in Scotland
Castles have been around for a long time – from about 1066 onwards, in the United Kingdom, and a couple of hundred years before this in other parts of Europe. And further back, in the Iron Age, fortified enclosures in defendable, hilltop settings were not uncommon.
What castles are the best preserved?
Castles, as we see them today, offer only a partial picture of their past. We see only what remains, often in ruins, with additions and alterations over time, due to conflict and changing fashions. The stone – though worn and damaged – still lasts, but most (if not all) of the wood has long ago rotted. The furniture, fittings and all the things that the occupants required for day-to-day living are gone. Historical records can help us, along with archaeological excavation, to piece together a fuller picture, but we will need to use our imaginations to fill in some of those gaps.
Castles Near Berwick
Take Tantallon Castle, for example. Like any castle, it has to be taken in context with its surroundings; it is sited there for a reason. Tantallon Castle hugs the promontory on which it stands solidly, overlooking the gaping mouth of the Firth of Forth. ‘Imposing’ is the word that comes to mind, as you take in the high, red sandstone walls. As well as the context within the landscape, you can’t separate a castle from another fact; people.
Humans carved the rock from the ground, put the stones together, cut the timber to craft the beams, furniture, and so on. They lived there and used the building. What we see today, as impressive as it is, only represents a shadow of its former glory. So let’s examine some Tantallon Castle facts to broaden the picture within our minds.
Why Tantallon Castle was built on the edge of a cliff
- First and foremost, a castle was built as a defensible homestead. This castle’s position, with sheer cliffs on three sides, gave natural protection. Attack from the seaward side was virtually impossible, but supplies could be brought in via the water in times of siege.
- Sighting of a castle was always strategic. From here, the coast could be surveyed across the Firth of Forth and out towards Bass Rock (where another castle stood). Signals could be passed, and when the cannon was introduced large stretches of water could be protected.
- The castle was large enough to house ‘retained’ mounted troops who could be mobilized at short notice and sent to where they were needed, or to raid enemy lands and property.
The Douglas Family in scotland
In the convoluted history of the Scots, the name of Douglas features prominently. William Douglas, son of Sir Archibald and nephew of ‘Good Sir James’ (a close friend of Robert the Bruce) was confirmed as Earl of Douglas in 1358, and it is thought that construction at Tantallon Castle was already underway – possibly in honor of his elevated title.
Red Douglas and Black Douglass feud
- The Douglas family fell out over a disputed inheritance, resulting in a family split, creating the ‘Red’ and the ‘Black’ Douglases. This added to the colorful history of Tantallon and ensured that it constantly faced the threat of siege and attack, with the Red Douglasses owning the castle for about 300 years. In addition, the ‘treasonous’ actions of some of the Douglasses, including the 5th Earl, Archibald, who turned against James IV to side with Henry VII of England, exposed Tantallon Castle to further trouble. In fact, a history of siding with English monarchs seems to have been a theme, with the 6th Earl of Angus, also called Archibald, colluding with Henry VIII to stir up trouble in the Scottish monarchy.
- Tantallon was considered suitable for royal visits; Mary, Queen of Scots stayed at Tantallon in 1566, confirming its status and importance, as well as that of its occupants.
The construction of Tantallon castle
- Was becoming a more popular form of defensible home.
- The curtain wall effectively cut off access to the headland, and although not as high or impressive, the wall continued around the top of the cliffs (now mostly fallen down). It is an impressive feat of engineering, with towers that would have provided high-status accommodation for the successive Douglas families. Some of the towers were between 5 and 7 stories tall.
- Within the inner courtyard, the only remaining structure is the dovecote – itself serving as a status symbol; the law dictated that only nobles could possess them. In addition, evidence shows that there would have been stables, a brewery, a bakery, workshops, and so on. It would have been a bustling place, filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of medieval castle life.
Conflict surrounding Clan Douglas and Tantallon Castle
- Tantallon Castle was at the center of some of the most important events of Scottish and English history and was put under siege a number of times. Although seized by various monarchs, it always ended up back with the Douglasses and generally suffered little damage – sometimes due to calculated surrender.
- Also, as the Douglas family sympathies often lay with the English crown, the castle was spared by the English troops during times of conflict. However, it did not fare so well at the hands of Cromwell during the English Civil Wars. In spite of the name, conflict spilled into Scotland, and Tantallon Castle, being a Royalist stronghold, withstood 12 days of heavy fire from almost every cannon that Cromwell had in Scotland. When the Douglas tower fell, the defenders surrendered. The castle was left in its ruined state, never to be used again.
Visit Tantallon Castle
These are just a few Tantallon Castle facts to illustrate a point; history is for everyone, and our heritage sites are here for us to enjoy, explore, learn from, and protect so that future generations can do the same.