Miss Jessel will shortly be departing these shores in pursuit of her governess duties. However, before leaving Old Blighty she decided to venture Up North from the Metropolis for a visit. Together we took a trip into the Scottish borders and visited the isolated and brooding ruins of Hermitage Castle. It was a somewhat wet and blustery day, and black and white photographs seemed to capture the bleak atmosphere of the place better than colour so here are a few of my pictures, along with a little bit of the history of the castle and some of the very juicy legends associated with this bloodiest of border strongholds.
The forbidding stone fortress that is Hermitage Castle is situated in the wild and remote Liddlesdale Valley, only 6 miles or so from the English Border. Rising up from the boggy earth, in the midst of the ‘debatable lands’, it was of vital strategic importance in the centuries long border disputes between Scotland and England.
Its history is one of bloodshed, revenge, betrayal and dark magic.
Little remains of the original castle built by the Lords Soulis – an earth and timber stronghold dating from the thirteenth century – all that is visible today is the earthworks upon which the later stone castle sits. In 1360 Sir Hugh Dacre began building the central stone tower, more of a fortified house than full-blown castle. Today you can see the central cobbled courtyard and spiral stairs giving access to the laird’s chambers on the upper floors.
Eventually three more towers were added to the central one, including a well tower and a prison tower. The last tower to be added was the Douglas Tower, added in the 16th Century and providing kitchens on the ground floor and well-appointed apartments for the Earl and his family on the upper floors. The apartments included a double arched window, fine fire-places and en-suite latrines, so although the Hermitage has always been a strong hold rather than a home, some luxuries were provided. Even the higher status captives in the prison tower were provided with a latrine…not so the common ones who were simply flung in a deep dark hole and left to rot at the laird’s pleasure.
However, as noted, Hermitage Castle was primarily a defensible position in very hostile territory. As such it has few windows. The openings that seem to look like large windows running round the very top of the castle are actually doors on to a long vanished wooden fighting platform. This platform also explains the two dramatic flying arches that help to give the castle its forbidding air (looking in part like gigantic demonic gateways…). The flying arches allowed the platform to run straight from one tower to the next without having to cut in and out again between the towers.
In the late 16th Century, as gunpowder threatened older castles, the Hermitage fell under Crown control, more defensive features were added including horizontal gun holes, allowing greater manoeuverability for cannons; and later till the large ravelin (grassy mound) in front of the West approach to the castle – the other sides were safe from artillery carriages due to the bog and river.
Dark deeds in the Debatable Lands
Hermitage Castle’s history is one of bloodshed and treachery – its strategic importance meant it occasionally fell into English hands; and more than one Scottish lord made a deal with the devil and took English coin in return for changing sides or looking the other way during a skirmish. Consequently it changed hands a number of times: from the Lords Soulis in the thirteenth century to the Dacres and Douglas’s in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to the Hepburns (Earls of Bothwell) in the sixteenth century. In later centuries the Dukes of Buccleugh and the Scott family owned it. At times it was run by the crown and in 1930 came into public ownership.
Some of its occupants exploits have passed into folk-lore and legend.
Wicked Lord Soulis and Robin Redcap
There is a very dark legend surrounding one of the Lords Soulis. One version says that in the thirteenth century Ranulf de Soulis (or in some versions it is Sir Nicholas) was an evil sorcerer. He was reputedly taught the magical arts by the famed scholar and wizard Michael Scott of Eildon.
De Soulis however was a very dark magician, and it was whispered he had made a pact with the devil who promised him immunity from harm by iron weapons or hanging. De Soulis could call upon the devil in the form of Robin Redcap when he needed an assistant for his dark deeds. The locals believed that De Soulis was kidnapping and sacrificing children during his rituals; in fear and desperation they sought out famous local seer Thomas the Rhymer for advice on how to kill one who was impervious to iron weapons or hanging.
The villagers followed Thomas the Rhymer’s advice to the letter – overpowering the Wicked Lord and taking him to nine stane rig, a nearby stone circle, where they killed him in the following manner –
The Boiling of Bad Lord Soulis
On a circle of stone they placed the pot,
On a circle of stones but barely nine,
They heated it up red and fiery hot,
Till the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.
They rolled him up in a sheet of lead,
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall,
They plunged him in the cauldron red.
and melted him lead bones and all. 
The guidebook takes a slightly more prosaic view, noting that the Wicked Lord Soulis was killed by his servants before the family relocated to Hermitage Castle. The legend goes to show how much a grain of truth can be embroidered after an individual has died – especially one with an already evil reputation.
Lord Soulis ghost is supposed to return every seventh year to the vaults in which he sacrificed his victims. His terrifying spectre and the frightful screams of his innocent victims have been heard on more than one occasion.
The Cout of Keilder
The tale of a terrifying knight possessed of magical armour is sometimes linked to the Wicked Lord Soulis, sometimes not. In one version of the tale the Cout of Keilder, a giant, comes as a champion to kill the sorcerer, but the sorcerer knowing the Cout has magic armour and cannot be killed by weapons tricks him and drowns him in Hermitage Water. Other versions say the Cout was wicked himself and terrorised the inhabitants of the castle until he was drowned.
A grassy mound just outside the nearby chapel purports to be the burial-place of the Cout. It is sited outside the graveyard on unconsecrated ground.
The Knight of Liddlesdale
One of the bloodiest tales associated with the Castle relates to the turncoat Sir William Douglas. Jealous that Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie was made Sheriff instead of him, he ambushed Sir Alexander whilst at Church in Howick and carried him off to Hermitage Castle as a prisoner. Sir Alexander was slowly starved to death, only sustained by a few grains of wheat falling from the granary room above him. His emaciated corpse was found with the fingers gnawed to the bone. When a skeleton was found walled up in the castle, with a rusty sword and a handful of chaff beside it, it was rumoured to be the remains of the unfortunate Sir Alexander Ramsay.
I would guess that a version of this gruesome tale has made its way into modern fiction as part of the exploits of Ramsay in The Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin.
Sir Alexander Ramsay is said to walk within the castle still, and his anguished cries sometimes reverberate off the moss covered walls.
A Queen’s Tryst
In October 1566 James Hepburn 4th Earl of Bothwell was lying wounded in Hermitage Castle. Mary Queen of Scots was at Jedburgh 25 miles away when she heard the news. Bothwell had become a trusted advisor to Mary and she rode over extremely rugged terrain to visit Bothwell. It being unseemly for a married woman to remain overnight, she returned to Jedburgh the same day. On her return visit she fell from her horse into a bog, the queen was rescued but succumbed to a dangerous fever and almost died. It is said that the apparition of a white lady at the Castle is Mary Queen of Scots.
Later Bothwell would abduct and possibly rape, then marry and finally abandon Mary to her enemies resulting in 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.
WT Stead on Hermitage Castle
The noted Victorian Journalist WT Stead was very interested in the supernatural. He complied a number of ghost stories and eventually set up Julia’s Bureau to transcribe messages from beyond the grave. WT visited Hermitage Castle in his youth and recounted his experiences in his 1897 book ‘Real Ghost Stories’:
“When I visited Hermitage Castle I was all alone, with my memory teeming with associations of the past. I unlocked the door with the key, which I brought with me from the keeper’s cottage, at a little distance down the valley. As it creaked on its hinges and I felt the chill air of the ruin, I was almost afraid to enter. Mustering my courage, however, I went in and explored the castle, then lying down on the mossy bank I gave myself up to the glamour of the past. I must have been there an hour or more when suddenly, while the blood seemed to freeze down my back, I was startled by a loud prolonged screech, over my head, followed by a noise which I could only compare to the trampling of a multitude of iron-shod feet through the stone-paved doorway. This was alarming enough, but it was nothing to the horror which filled me when I heard the heavy gate swing on its hinges with a clang which for the moment seemed like the closing of a vault in which I was entombed alive. I could almost hear the beating of my heart. The rusty hinges, the creaking of the door, the melancholy and unearthly nature of the noise, and the clanging of the gate, made me shudder and shiver as I lay motionless, not daring to move, and so utterly crushed by the terror that had fallen upon me that I felt as if I were on the very verge of death. If the evil one had appeared at that moment and carried me off I should have but regarded it as the natural corollary to what I had already heard. Fortunately no sulphureous visitant darkened the blue sky that stretched overhead with his unwelcome presence, and after a few minutes, when I had recovered from my fright, I ventured into the echoing doorway to see whether or not I was really a prisoner. The door was shut, and I can remember to this day the tremour which I experienced when I laid my hand upon the door and tried whether or not it was locked. It yielded to my hand, and I have seldom felt a sensation of more profound relief than when I stepped across the threshold and felt that I was free once more. For a moment it was as if I had been delivered from the grave itself which had already closed over my head. Of course, looking back upon this after a number of years, it is easy to say that the whole thing was purely subjective. An overwrought fancy, a gust of wind whistling through the crannies and banging the door close were quite sufficient to account for my fright, especially as it is not at all improbable that I had gone to sleep in the midst of the haunted ruins.
So I reasoned at the moment, and came back and stayed another hour in the castle, if only to convince myself that I was not afraid. But neither before nor after that alarm did any gust of wind howl round the battlements with anything approaching to the clamour which gave me such a fright. One thing amuses me in looking back at a letter which I wrote at the time, describing my alarm. I say, “Superstition, sneer you? It may be. I rejoiced that I was capable of superstition; I thought it was dried out of me by high pressure civilisation.” I am afraid that some of my critics will be inclined to remark that my capacities in that direction stand in need of a great deal of drying up.”
Eventually the political scene changed: James VI of Scotland became James I of England, effectively ending border warfare and making Hermitage Castle redundant. No longer of strategic importance the castle was neglected and fell swiftly into ruin – its crumbling walls became home to wild birds and it’s ruined halls were patrolled only by lonely spectres of a vanished age. Were it not for the efforts of Sir Walter Scott and the 5th Duke of Buccluech, and in the twentieth century, Historic Scotland, the castle might have been lost forever – and with it a colourful and bloody part of border history.
Coventry, Martin; Haunted Castles and Houses of Scotland, 2004
Historic Scotland, Hermitage Castle, 1996