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Hermitage Castle: Exploring the Turbulent History of the Scottish Borders

Located in the Borders area spanning England and Scotland, Hermitage Castle is an imposing and slightly creepy castle that has stood for centuries, enduring countless battles, conflicts and nasty goings-on. This imposing fortress has sheltered some of Scotland's most notorious figures as well as serving as a refuge for Border Reivers. Come meander with me at Hermitage Castle, to explore its architecture, inhabitants, and the turbulent and often violent history of the Scottish Borders.

Getting There

Hermitage Castle is off the main tourist track. The castle is within the town borders of Newcastleton, which is roughly 18 miles south of Hawick. Self-driving is the easiest way to visit but there is bus service from Hawick or Carlisle, with the journey taking around an hour each way. Bus tickets cost around £8-£10 per person.

We were on an epic road trip and were heading south after exploring the highlands and islands of Scotland. We followed a treacherous 7-mile-long single track, pot-holed, blind-cornered, gravel sheep path to Hermitage Castle. We later discovered that we had taken a local farm route and were advised to return through the town of Newcastleton rather than retrace our original route.

The castle is open to visitors from April to September, between 10:00 and 17:00. During the winter months, it's closed to the public. Admission rates are very reasonable, at £7.50 per adult, with discounts for students, seniors, and children. Since it is off the beaten path and doesn’t attract a lot of tourists, we were the only visitors there for nearly 2 hours. We had a delightful chat with the young local lad in the ticket booth who gave us extra stories about the castle and the region as he proudly identified himself as an “Armstrong”, a Reiver family which alternated between being allied or being in conflict with the occupants of the castle.

The Borders Region

The Borders region has a long and complex history of conflict and feuding between Scottish and English factions. The region was originally known as the "Debatable Lands," as it was disputed territory that was claimed by both Scotland and England.

During the Middle Ages, the Borders area was a lawless region with a system of local chieftains who ruled their territories with impunity. These chieftains were often involved in violent feuds with rival families over land, power, and resources.

The Reivers

Hermitage Castle was built in the late 13th century by Nicholas de Soulis, a Norman nobleman who was granted the land by King Edward I of England. Over the centuries, the castle passed through the hands of various Scottish clans and was the site of numerous battles and sieges.

The Reivers were a loosely-connected group of raiders and bandits who were active in the Borders region during the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period. They were notorious for their lawlessness and violence, and were known for brutal raids, thefts, and murders. The reivers were loyal to their clan and had no fealty to either the Scots or the British, switching loyalty and allegiances depending on the situation. Their inter-clan and cross-border raids caused much destruction and created widespread fear. The Reivers were active until the 17th century when the governments of Scotland and England worked together to take measures to suppress their activities. Despite this, the locals are proud and celebrate their connections to the reivers of the past. Hermitage Castle was often at the center of the conflicts and raids.

William de Soulis

The most notorious figure associated with the castle is undoubtedly the Scottish nobleman and descendant of the original builder, William de Soulis. De Soulis’ story has become part of Scottish folklore and song, who was rumoured to have made a deal with the devil and was eventually imprisoned and executed.

William de Soulis lived in the castle during the early 14th century and made significant renovations. According to legend, he also practiced dark magic and was rumoured to have made a pact with the devil. The stories say that he used magic to terrorize and oppress the local population, leading to his eventual downfall.

In 1320, William de Soulis was accused of treason and sorcery by King Robert the Bruce, who was then the ruler of Scotland. He was imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle, where he was later found dead. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery, but it is believed that he was either executed or committed suicide.

Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Bothwell

Another famous person associated with Hermitage Castle is Mary, Queen of Scots. She visited the castle on multiple occasions, and it's even rumoured that Hermitage Castle was where she conducted a love affair with James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell for several years until he became her 3rd (and final) husband. Many scholars suggest their relationship was much more complicated.

Mary rode 25 miles to this castle to meet with her trusted advisor in the region, Lord Bothwell, after he was injured in battle. On her return journey, she fell into a bog and became very ill. As she was too ill to travel, she stayed for nearly two months while recovering. Letters written by her suggest it was a miserable stay. She complained bitterly about the drafts and dampness of the castle and its surroundings. Later Bothwell would abduct and possibly rape, then marry and finally abandon Mary to her enemies which led to her long imprisonment and eventual execution in England. However, fate also had an unpleasant end in store for Bothwell: he died insane in a filthy Danish dungeon.

The Black Douglases

Over time, the castle became the stronghold of the powerful Black Douglases, who used the castle as a base of operations for their own feuds and conflicts with rival clans and families. The Douglas’ moved into the castle in the late 1300s and continued adding fortifications and strengthening the fortress while continuing to feud with other reiver families and build their power and wealth.

In 1455, the Black Douglases were declared outlaws by King James II of Scotland, and had all their land, including the castle, confiscated. Hermitage Castle was soon abandoned and fell into disrepair.

The Castle

Hermitage Castle is a fortified castle, also known as a “pele tower”. This was a very different style of castle. It was definitely built with defence in mind. There are no pretty bits, it is located in a barren and desolate location, and is as imposing as it was impregnable.

The castle was constructed primarily out of sandstone and features a rectangular-shaped 5-storey tower house, with thick walls and narrow windows. There are also smaller turrets and outbuildings located around the perimeter of the castle, which would have been used for storage and defence.

The tower house, and indeed the entire site, is in a state of disrepair, but you can still enter the walls and get an idea of how the castle was designed

A unique feature of Hermitage Castle is the "murder hole" located above the main entrance. This hole would have allowed defenders to drop heavy objects, such as rocks or boiling water, on attackers attempting to breach the castle's entrance.

Hermitage Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, meaning that it's protected by law and is recognized as being of national importance. Over the years, various restoration efforts have been made to stabilize the castle's structure and prevent further deterioration.

If you're looking for other things to do while at the site, there are several walking trails that take you through the surrounding countryside that follow the reivers routes. The Hermitage Waterfall is also nearby, and it's a popular spot for picnics and relaxation. Additionally, the nearby town of Newcastleton is home to several cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy a meal or a drink after your visit.

We enjoyed our visit to Hermitage Castle and were grateful to have this experience before visiting various points along Hadrian’s Wall. Its rich history, bleak location and imposing structure quickly reject fairy-tale castle stories and catapult visitors into the turbulent world of the reivers of the Border region. Whether you're a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply someone who loves exploring new places, Hermitage Castle will tick the boxes.


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