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
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
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
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:-
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
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
While in my glass the sand-grains shiver;
And measureless for joy or grief
When Time and thou shalt part for ever!'"