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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Tantallon Castle


Tantallon Castle

The ruins of the famous Castle of Tantallon stand on the east coast of Haddingtonshire, about three miles from the town of North Berwick. The Castle occupied a noticeable promontory at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, and has been adequately protected on three sides by its position on an elevated peninsula formed by precipitous rocks which rise from the water. Only the land-ward portion needed to be fortified, as the approach from the sea was quite impracticable for an invader. On the inner or westward side there was a deep rock-cut ditch, as well as lofty walls nearly 50 feet high and 12 feet in thickness, surmounted by battlements forming a straight line, without the machicolations for artillery of a later date. Within these walls is the large courtyard, which is about 500 feet long by 220 feet wide, outside of which there is a deep ditch and an elevated mound. On the westward side there is another ditch and mound, so that the Castle was perfectly protected on every side. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a Castle in all Scotland so completely secured by natural formations against an invading force. Even the entrance to the Castle was by a draw-bridge over the ditch, and a winding road which exposed intruders to the arms and artillery of those defenders within the Castle. No doubt the occupants in early times were entitled to consider Tantallon Castle as impregnable, being defended both by nature and the devices of man. The fine description of the Castle in its best days, given by Scott in "Marmion," Canto V., is both poetical in form and accurate in details, so far as one can judge from the existing ruins

"Tantallon vast;
Broad, massive, high, and stretching far,
And held impregnable in
war,
On a projecting rock they rose,
And round three sides the ocean flows,
The fourth did battled walls enclose
And double mound and fosse.
By narrow draw-bridge, outworks strong
Through studded gates, an entrance long,
To the main court they cross.
It was a wide and stately square;
Around were lodgings fit and fair,
And towers of various form,
Which on the court projected far,
And broke its lines quadrangular.
Here was square keep, there turret high,
Or pinnacle that sought the sky,
Whence oft the Warder could descry
The gathering ocean-storm."

The exact date and the name of the builder of Tantallon Castle are alike unknown, but it probably was erected about 1400, and possibly by Robert, Duke of Albany, third son of Robert II., and Governor of Scotland while James I. was a captive in England. It is certain that it was in the possession of the Duke’s eldest son, Murdoch, second Duke of Albany, who succeeded his father as Governor in 1420, and acted in 1424 at the Coronation of James. Albany’s Castles of Tantallon and Doune were forfeited to the Crown after the conviction of himself and his two sons of treason, and all three were beheaded in 1425 by the order of James I. These Castles remained in the possession of successive Kings till 1479, when Tantallon was granted by James III. to Archibald Douglas, fifth Earl of Angus, known in history by the sobriquet of "Bell-the-Cat."

An interesting historical event in connection with Tantallon Castle occurred in 1528, which involved Archibald, sixth Earl of Angus, in serious trouble. Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII., and widow of James IV., was married in 1514 to the Earl of Angus; but the young King, James V., resented being under the control of his step-father, and escaped in 1528 from Falkland where he had been confined against his will. Margaret had obtained a divorce from Angus in 1526, but two years afterwards he was forfeited for treason along with his brother and uncle, and he retired to Tantallon Castle, which he fortified against the royal Army.

The King went in person to superintend the siege of Tantallon, bringing against it all the artillery he could obtain from Dunbar Castle. But the stout walls of the Castle withstood all the efforts of the King, and he had to raise the seige. The Castle, however, was rendered up to the Royalists by the Castellan, as Angus had made his escape to England. James V. at once set about improving the defences of Tantallon, causing masons to strengthen the walls and build up many of the windows. The work then done may still be traced in the ruins.

After the death of the King in 1542, the Earl of Angus was permitted to return from exile, and regained his former Castle, which he proceeded still further to fortify, until it became recognized as one of the strongest Castles in Scotland. Here the Earl remained till his death in 1556 at an advanced age, and was succeeded by his cousin, David Douglas, seventh Earl of Angus. The Castle remained in possession of this family for many years. The eleventh Earl was created Marquess of Douglas in 1633 by Charles I., and the third Marquess in 1703 was raised in the Peerage to the rank of Duke of Douglas. He died in 1761 without issue, when the ducal honours became extinct, and the Marquessate devolved on the Duke of Hamilton.

Long before the last-named date, however, Tantallon Castle had to pass many tribulations. The Covenanters had become a strong force in Scotland, and when the famous Assembly at Glasgow in 1638 passed a resolution abolishing Episcopacy, this was regarded as the signal for an armed revolt. At that time many of the leading Covenanters had been imprisoned as rebels in the dungeons on the Bass Rock, which rises abruptly from the sea at no great distance from Tantallon. In the following year, 1639, the conflict between the opposing forces became serious. General Leslie with a select company of a thousand musketeers attacked and captured Edinburgh Castle, and on the same day a bloodless victory gave them possession of Dumbarton Castle. Dalkeith was won by Monro with five hundred men, and they soon spread their conquests further. Strathaven Castle, belonging to the Marquess of Hamilton, also fell into their hands, as well as Brodick Castle, which was one of the seats of this nobleman.

A special attack was organized upon Tantallon Castle, the property of the Marquess of Douglas. The slogan by which the men were encouraged was designed to awaken their animosity. It ran thus:-

"Ding doun Tantallon,
Mak’ a brig to the
Bass,"

the purpose being to release the unfortunate Covenanters imprisoned there. The first part of the task was accomplished, but the second was impossible. Yet these intrepid soldiers, inflamed with religious zeal, carried out the demolition of Tantallon Castle which James V. had not done with the aid of his artillery. The strong walls were thrown down, and the remaining portions were garrisoned against the Royalist Army. This was the beginning of the destruction of the Castle. Then in 1651, when Cromwell invaded Scotland and gained a victory at Dunbar, he sent General Monck (afterwards Lord Albemarle) to complete the overthrow of the ancient structure, and this he did most effectively. The ruins have been so long exposed without any attempt at repairs that they have become now irreparable.

The after-history of the Castle may be soon told. The place in all its disrepair still belonged to the Douglas family, but from them it was to pass away. In 1700, or thereby, the Duke of Douglas sold the ruined structure to Sir Hew Dalrymple, Bart., President of the Court of Session, with the title of Lord North Berwick. He was the third son of the first Earl of Stair, and was regarded as one of the best lawyers of his time. At his death in 1737 he was succeeded by a series of heirs to the baronetcy, and the title has been continued till the present day. Tantallon now (1927) belongs to Sir Hew Clifford Hamilton-Dalrymple, who is the ninth Baronet.

The story of Tantallon Castle shows that it has long been a prominent land-mark in the history of Scotland. Built by Murdoch, Duke of Albany, the grandson of Robert II., it was forfeited by his treason, and came into the possession of James I., thus becoming a Royal Castle. For centuries it was the residence of the Douglasses, Earls of Angus and Dukes of Douglas, and resisted a siege conducted by James V. against his stepfather. Then the Covenanters reduced it partly to ruins, and Cromwell and Monck completed the work of destruction. The Castle has stood in its present site for five centuries and a quarter, and is still attractive from its historical associations. And musing over this ruinous pile these lines seem appropriate

"'Why sitt’st thou by that ruined hail,
Thou aged cane so stern and grey?
Dost thou
its former pride recall,
Or
ponder how it passed away?

‘Know’st thou not me? ‘the deep voice cried,
‘So long enjoyed, so oft misused?
Alternate, in thy fickle pride,
Desired, neglected, and accused!

‘Before my breath, like blazing flax,
Man and his marvels pass away;
And chasing empires wane and wax,
Are founded, flourish, and decay.

‘Redeem mine hours—the space is brief—
While in my glass the sand-grains shiver;
And measureless for joy or grief
When Time and thou shalt part for ever!'"


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