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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Ferniehirst Castle


Ferniehirst CastleThe lovely valley of the Tweed, and the whole stretch of the border-land through which it meanders, have been the theme of poet and painter from very, remote times. The ever-varying shades of human character which the fluctuating current of events made dominant in that region, and the stirring scenes of which it was witness, awake the harp of the Bother Minstrel, and called into existence the national historical ballads. And the situation of Tweed-side, upon the debatable ground betwixt England and Scotland, has caused each Tower and Keep to have its story of love or war, of jocund mirth or of unutterable woe. The hallowing influence of time and the growth of a higher form of human sympathy have conspired to render the stories of Border warfare interesting by force of contrast. And there is a flavour of romance about these bold Bother Barons—the Free Lances of our country, who held the balance betwixt England and Scotland in their own hands, which links them with the Ritters of Germany or the Knights of France, rather than with the soldiers of a more prosaic country. Their mixed origin, which combined the boldness and daring of the Southron with the "canniness" of the Scot, made them appear as a transitional race betwixt these two, and yet distant from either. And though their courage often bordered upon ferocity, and their liberty included an absence of all reverence for the Eighth Commandment, they are not the less interesting as studies of human nature.

The country in which they dwelt largely accounts for their peculiarities. The influence of scenery upon the formation of character has seldom been philosophically examined, yet there is much to be discovered in this line of investigation. The mysterious attraction which the snow-capped peaks of the Fatherland has for the Swiss emigrant whom Fate has transported to distant climes, has its parallel in the feeling with which the Borderer mourns his separation from the loved scenes of his youth, laments the inconstancy of fortune which has reft him from them, and hears in fancy reproaches of the departed spirits of his forefathers upbraiding him for his desertion. This forms the theme of many a Border ballad and song, and often awakens sad memories in impressionable hearts :—

"Their feeble voices from their stream they raise—
‘Rash youth! unmindful of thy early clan,
Why didst thou quit the humble peasant’s lot?
Why didst thou leave the peasant’s turf-built cot,
The ancient graves where all thy fathers lie,
And Teviot’s stream that long has murmured by?"

The verdant hills, the fertile meads, the whispering streams of his own native vale seem brighter and fairer when the memory comes back to him beneath the burning sky of a foreign land; and the peace once enjoyed in the scenes of his infancy becomes still more dear, as it is less attainable in the ever-whirling race after riches. With something of this feeling did John Leyden write, when, from his natal spot, he mused upon the vagaries into which the pursuit of wealth had led him beneath the tropical sky :—

"By Cherical’s dark wandering streams,
Where cane-tufts shadow
all the wild,
Sweet visions haunt my waking dreams
Of Teviot, loved while still a child;
Of castled rocks, stupendous piled,
By Esk or Eden’s classic wave,
Where loves of youth and friendship smiled,
Uncursed by thee, vile yellow slave!"

The Water of Jed, which rises, as Rowen Burn at an altitude of 1500 feet, on the western slope of Carlin Tooth, one of the Cheviot Hills, wanders in a varied course of about 22 miles, ere it falls into the Teviot near Mounteviot House, and then the conjoined rivers become tributary to the Tweed, and flow towards the North Sea. In its course the Jed passes through the ancient burgh of Jedburgh, and also is near to Feniehirst Castle which is now to form our theme. Teviotdale, though ostensibly a separate valley, is really parallel with Tweedside, and has all the characteristics of that famous vale. It has been chosen as a proper and convenient site for a Castle to accommodate an important branch of the powerful Ker family, so as to be convenient when raids over the Border were contemplated.

The original Castle of Ferniehirst was destroyed, as is afterwards related, by the Earl of Sussex in 1570; but the exact date of the erection of the previous Castle has not been definitely discovered. Certainly there was a Castle of some kind here so early as 1445, for Thomas Ker of Smailholme and Ferniehirst is mentioned in a Charter of that date. He was the descendant of a branch of the family who settled near Jedburgh about the year 1330; and the Ferniehirst representatives claimed to be the lineal descendants of Ralph Ker, who were proprietors in the district about the middle of the 14th century, though a long dispute ensued between the children of two brothers as to which progenitor was the elder of the two. Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst, in 1509-11 acquired the Barony of Ornam, and from him descended the later members of the family.

Early in the history of Scotland the town of Jedburgh, and the valley of the Jed, were a favounte resort of royalty, for the Castle of Jedburgh, upon whose site has been built the present County Prison, was the chosen home of David I. Here also his son Malcom IV. lived and died; and was succeeded by William the Lion. Alexander II. resided frequently in Jedburgh Castle. The story of Alexander Ill’s connection with the Castle was a melancholy one.

Alexander III., who had paid frequent visits to Jedburgh Castle, was married to Joleta, daughter of the lordly De Coucy, Count of Breux, in the Abbey of Jedburgh, and celebrated his nuptials in the Castle by a grand ball. The family of De Coucy, thus united to the Scottish throne, was of Anglo-Norman descent, and held a high position in their native land for many years.

"The fame of the fearless De Coucy
Was boundless as the
sea."

Indeed, so superior were the claims of this family to renown that their battle-cry evinced their contempt for ordinary titles, and gloried in their own name as superior to added rank—

"Je ne suis Roy, vi Prince aussi,
Je suis le Seigneur de Coucy."

The wedding of Alexander III. with a daughter of this race was celebrated with becoming splendour. But the magnificence was marred by an untoward incident. Whilst the revels were at their highest an uninvited guest appeared in the shape of a grisly spectre, who mingled in hateful familiarity with the noble guests then present. So wretched a sight, so fatal an augury, could not escape remark and foreboding. The guests beheld with doubt and trembling the awe-inspiring vision, and feared to utter their apprehensive thoughts. As a quaint old writer has put it :—

"In the mid-revels the first ominous night
Of their espousals, when the moon shone bright,
With lighted tapers—the King and Queen leading
The curious measures—Lords and Ladies treading
The self-same strains—the King looks back by chance,
And spies a strange intruder in the dance,
Namely, a mere anatomy, quite bare,
His naked limbs both without flesh and hair
(As we depicture Death), who stalks
about,
Keeping true measure till the dance be out.
The King, with all the rest, affrighted stand;
The spectre vanished, and the strict command
Was given to break up revels; each ‘gan fear
The other, and presage disaster near.
If any ask, ‘What did of this succeed?’
The King, soon after falling from his steed,
Unhappily died; after whose death ensuing
Was to the land sedition, wreck, and ruin."

Apart from the superstition is undoubtedly the fact that Alexander III., so soon after his wedding, should have met a violent death. In less than a year from this time the King, riding by night on the perilous pathway betwixt Kinghorn and Burntisland, was thrown from his horse over the precipice which towers above the Firth of Forth, and killed instantaneously. And from this sad event arose the contest for the Scottish Crown which gave Edward I. of England an excuse for his fatal interference with the affairs of the nation. Few of the Kings of Scotland have been more deeply lamented than Alexander Ill., possibly because few of them were so upright in character and so morally pure as he; and it was not without foreboding that the statesmen of the time looked into the future of their country. A verse from an ancient ballad of the time expresses this feeling in quaint language :—

"Quhen Alysandre our Kyng wes dede,
That Scotland led in luve and lee,
Away wes sons of Ale and Brede,
Of Wyne and Wax, of Gamyn and Ole;
Oure gold wes changey’d into lede;
Crist, born into virginite,
Succour Scotland and remede
That sted is in perplexite."

The political dilemma in which Scotland was placed, and the ambitious designs of Edward, made the Border-land the scene of continued incursions and retaliations, and the chiefs of the various clans were compelled to erect strongholds in their own defence. The power which they thus attained made them less dependent upon either party than they would otherwise have been; and they came to look upon the Marches as a separate state, distinct from either Kingdom. A tacit bond of union existed between the various septs who inhabited the district, and they thus formed an alliance for mutual defence. The Scotts and the Armstrongs, the Johnstons and the Kers were the Ishmaelites of Scotland, ever ready for a foray either north or south of the Tweed.

Amongst these clans the Kers held a high position. For many years the head of the sept was Warden of the Middle Marches; and as the ground over which his empire extended formed the natural communication between England and Scotland, the post was no sinecure. The Castle of Ferniehirst, near Jedburgh, which was held by Sir Thomas Ker from 1474 till his becoming a priest in 1481, and dying three years after, naturally occupied a prominent place in this long contest; and for many years it was a centre around which conflict raged. Often has the courtyard rang with the warlike sound of spears and jacks, of boot and saddle, as the gay moss-troopers assembled within its walls, ready alike for feast or fray.

So important was Ferniehirst considered that, when the English under Surrey were engaged upon the storming of Jedburgh, it was deemed necessary to secure the Castle that the conquest of the locality might be complete. Lord Dacre was detailed for this service and sent with 800 men and several pieces of cannon to reduce the stronghold. He found the enterprise more difficult than he had imagined, for the walls of the Castle had been built to withstand a siege, and it was garrisoned by men who were fighting for life and liberty. Though ultimately captured by the English, it was not without great loss to the besiegers, and only the aid of the heavy ordnance made its defence impossible. The testimony of Surrey (no partial critic), to the courage of the Borderers shows most clearly their aspect in war. Writing to Cardinal Wolsey, he says:—"I assure your Grace I found the Scots at this time the boldest men and the hottest that ever I saw any nation." Detailing his battle at Ferniehirst, he writes:—"They found hardy men that went nae back for theym, though after long skirmyshing and moche difficutie, gat for the ordynance within the house, and threw down the same."

But the Borderer, though conquered, never yields. Lord Dacre, after his fatiguing siege, and, contrary to the express command of Surrey, encamped beyond the lines of the English army. No longer anticipating resistance, an easy watch was kept; and whilst the leaders were at dinner celebrating their victory, some of the Scottish troopers were hardy enough to approach the spot where the English horses were quartered, and turned them loose in the camp. The turmoil which the affrighted animals made terrified their masters, and the deepening twilight prevented them from ascertaining the true cause. The stampede which now ensued alarmed even the soldiers of Surrey, who believed that the horses, whose frantic gallop they heard in the darkness betokened the approach of a vast army to overthrow and utterly confound them. Nor was their error discovered before many of their steeds had fallen into the hands of the Scotsmen and became their lawful prey. The superstition of the age permitted Surrey’s statement that the Devil was seen in a visible form six times during this turbulent scene to pass unchallenged; and the accusation of witchcraft formed an easy excuse for the tremor of his own army. And though victorious, he had to confess that he found the inhabitants of the Scottish Border were of a different character from the mixed army under James IV., which his father had met and conquered at Flodden Field.

A time of reprisal at length arrived for the Border Chiefs. After the disastrous Battle of Pinkie in 1547, the English Army had again taken possession of the country near the Cheviot Hills, and garrisoned the town of Jedburgh. The French General, Monsieur D’Essé, however, had led his troops against them, and soon drove them from this stronghold. Taking advantage of the diversion thus made in favour of Scotland, Ker of Ferniehirst sought the assistance of the French troops to regain his ancient homestead. To this D’Essé consented, and despatched a reconnoitring party under the command of some of his own officers, whilst Ker followed with his main contingent. The Castle had been kept in garrison by the English from the time of its previous capture in 1523, and the rumour of disturbances in the surrounding country kept them on the alert. The advance guard of the French troops, therefore, found that the narrow pass that leads toward the Castle was defended by twenty-five, arquebusiers, who might serve as an outpost in case of attack, and might warn the keepers of the Castle of the approach of an enemy. The Frenchmen charged this picket and drove them in hot haste towards the fortress, pursuing them closely. They fired as they fled, endeavouring to keep their pursuers at bay; but ere they reached the gate ten out of the twenty-five were slain, and not one of them was without tokens of this bitter and close conflict.

The resistance which they had met only stimulated the attacking force to greater energy; and when Ker arrived on the scene, with the remainder of the troops, they at once set about an ascalade. Throwing long poles instead of ladders against the walls, they boldly clambered up the escarpment; whilst many of them, infuriated by the blood already shed, made good their entrance by climbing up the rough-cast wall, heedless of the showers of missiles which the besieged rained incessantly upon them. Once on the battlements their task was comparatively light. They soon drove the English soldiers inside the donjon tower, the citadel of the Castle, and then, leaping from their elevation into the base-court below, they proceeded to attempt a breach in the wall of the inner works. Sheltering themselves from the stones that still poured down on their heads, they were not long in making an entrance. As the captain of the English forces saw his game played out, he offered to surrender if the lives of his troops and of himself were spared. But D’Essé would not listen to such terms of capitulation, and insisted upon an absolute surrender. Thinking himself safer with D’Essé than with the Borderers, now all aflame for revenge, the captain consented; but one of the Borderers, his sworn foe, came up and struck off his head at one blow.

The pent-up vengeance of the Scotsmen now had full sway, and they placed no restraint upon their passions. The unfortunate Englishmen had to endure the punishment due to the sins of their forefathers. It is even said that the prisoners that D’Essé had taken were brought forth that the Borderers might wreak their fury upon them, and fearful barbarities were practised upon their victims. The French General Beaugé, however, describes these as only fair retaliation for the conduct of their enemies towards themselves.

The term of the existence of Ferniehirst Castle was reached in 1570. The death of the Regent Moray had thrown political affairs into confusion, and Sir Thomas Ker of Ferniehirst and Sir Walter Scott of Buccleugh entered England with fire and sword, and joined the Earl of Westmoreland in a foray across the Border. Though successful in this enterprise they soon suffered retribution. Queen Elizabeth, enraged at the daring raid, ordered the Earl of Sussex and Lord Scrope to invade the Scottish territory and lay the Borders in ruins. These two noblemen at the head of a large army, entered the land of Teviotdale and laid waste the territory. The Scotts of Buccleugh, the Kers, and the Homes were the chief objects of their revenge; and it is computed that they destroyed in this fatal conflict not less than fifty Castles, sacked and burned 300 villages, and finally took possession of Home Castle, which had been the centre of disaffection to English rule. The abode of so well-known a warrior as Ker of Ferniehirst was not likely to be spared in such a wholesale demolition; and the troops which Sussex led against it left little save the bare and blackened walls.

The present edifice consists of these ruins, with some modern additions which render it habitable as a dwelling-house for the tenant of the farm. But its glory has long passed away; and it stands now as a monument of that dim and shadowy past which was tenanted by beings whose boldness and daring are seldom met with in these latter days. The Age of Iron has given place to the Age of Electroplate, and we now plume ourselves upon the perfection of our shams, and indulge in congratulations over the success of our deceptions.

"Now avardlie wisdom is deceit,
And falset haldin policie;
Richt few from gull can now debait,
So great is the hypocrisie.
Some will speak fair and friendfullie,
For profit wald dissaive their brother;
Sae rife is infidelitie,
Ane kinsman skant may trew ane other."

Sir Thomas Ker of Ferniehirst, who died in 1484, left a daughter, Margaret, who married her kinsman, Thomas Ker of Smailholm, who thus came into Ferniehirst by marriage. The eldest son of this union was Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst, whose death took place about 1545, when he was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Sir John, who deceased in 1562. The next in succession was that Sir Thomas Ker of Ferniehirst, the adherent of Queen Mary, to whom reference has been made, and who died in 1586. His eldest son, Sir Andrew, was created first Lord Jedburgh in 1622, and there were three successive Barons Jedburgh, the fourth who bore the title, being Robert Ker of Crailing, the nephew of his predecessor, and the representative of the male-line of Ferniehirst. By a special contract it was arranged that failing direct issue the title and estate should fall to the Earl of Lothian. On the death of Robert fourth Lord Jedburgh without heirs, the Master of Newbattle, son of the Earl of Lothian; succeeded, and as ultimately he became second Marquess of Lothian on the death of his father in 1703, the present (1926) tenth Marquess includes among his titles that of Baron of Jedburgh.

See another account of Ferniehirst castle here


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