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Ferniehirst Castle
Ferniehirst Castle - Fortress of the Kerrs

There are many castles older than Ferniehirst, and some considerably larger, but few that convey a more immediate sense of history and of their original purpose.

Ferniehirst, occupied in this century as a Youth Hostel for fifty years, was built to hold the gate for Scotland and to serve as a base for military raids and cattle-lifting forays. It commands the road to Otterburn and Newcastle, but is itself inconspicuous, concealed by frees and by the lie of the land.[1] It is quite obviously functional, whereas bigger castles often give the impression of having been very largely built for show, and it is difficult to imagine how people could have lived there, kept the place warm, or even simply found their way around.

Ferniehirst and its predecessors have been in the hands of the same family for over 500 years, and perhaps 700 if we are to include more temporary structures which probably existed on or near the same site before Ferniehirst itself. It is difficult to believe that a position of such strategic importance could have been left undefended for centuries, but the traces of the earlier structures are unlikely to be found; they would have been quite small (no more than two or three rooms superimposed on each other), with shallow foundations and largely built of wood: any stonework would have been cannibalised when the first castle was built in or about 1470.

The Chief of the Kerr Family at present lives and works mainly in London, and only partly in the family residence at Monteviot, five miles from Ferniehirst. He has nevertheless maintained family links with the famous fortress. These links find their most notable expression in the moving ceremony which is the high point of the Jethart Festival.

On the second Friday in July, the Jethart Callant, representing all the young men who rode out to battle from Jedburgh in days long past, but never forgotten, leads a cavalcade of 200 riders or more from the town to the Castle forecourt where he, and his Right-hand Man, Left-hand man and Herald (regrettably there is no room for all the other riders and they have to stay just out of sight with their horses) are welcomed in the name of the Family by Lord Lothian or by a Kerr kinsman, ofter but not always a close relative. Following on the speech of welcome. an older representative of the town recites the "Reprisal", a poem which recalls the capture of the Castle in 1548 by Sir John Kerr, his men and their French allies (see p 22). All present then sing a verse of "Jethart’s Here"[2], drinks are passed round and the cavalcade leaves to participate in several other ceremonies before the Callant returns the Jethart Flag to the safekeeping of the Provost for another year.

The other Border Burghs all have similar festivals, spread out through June and July, but the Ferniehirst ceremony is unique, as none of the other towns has a family linked with it in the same way as the Kerrs are linked with Jedburgh. But for some time now Ferniehirst has faced a new danger.

After an architectural survey made in 1983 the condition of the Castle was found to be in such a serious state of deterioration that repairs and restoration were obviously and urgently necessary. So the 12th Marquis of Lothian bought the Castle and surrounding land from the Lothian Family Trustees and undertook the necessary repair work to save this historic family home.

To assist the extensive expenditure involved, the Historic Buildings Council for Scotland made a grant available, on condition that public access is permitted.

The Castle opens to the public in 1986 when its previous tenants, the Scottish Youth Hostels Association, end their lease, because this opening to the public cannot be combined with youth hostel requirements.

Restoration work at Ferniehirst has been undertaken by craftsmen who are descendants of ancient Border families — Laidlaw, Purdie, Marjoribanks, Morrison, Turnbull, Armstrong and Smail.


[1]. As stated in THE COUNTY OF ROXBURGH, Vol.1 (Royal Commission of the Ancient Monuments in Scotland, HMSO 1956) which is extensively quoted in the first chapter "The House", Ferniehirst as it is today was constituted in the late 16th Century from the remnants of an earlier building, and stands almost intact on the high right bank of Jed Water about 2 miles above and to the south of Jedburgh. The present access is from the NW by a drive branching from the main road near Hundalee, but originally the approach was from an older road at a higher level on the NE. This older approach is still used by the Callant’s cavalcade (see below). Its hidden position and great strength were already commented on by hostile English observers in the 16th century.

[2]. This is the Town Song and is treated somewhat like a national anthem; thus men are expected to uncover their heads when it is sung. It is a Scots adaptation of Die Wacht am Rhein" and incorporates the battle-cry or slogan of the Jedburgh men in former and more warlike days. The Kerr motto is "Late, but in earnest (Sero sed Serio) and refers to our habit of showing up when the action was well under way, but generally with decisive effect, much like Blucher at Waterloo.

by Walter Laidlaw
(Former Custodian or Jedburgh Abbey)

The Castle, razed from tower to floor
Was built and garrisoned once more;
The Scots and French, led on by Kerr,
Courageous and well-trained to war,
On horse, on foot, from far and near,
With Jethart axe and Border spear,
Responded to the bugle-call;
They storm and scale the outer wall;
Though strong the tower, a breach they made,
Through which the English captain said,
"My noble chief, we mercy crave."
"You’ll get the mercy that you gave,"
The chief replied, and forward sprang;
A deadly conflict then began.
So fierce and furious was the shock,
Helmets were cleaved with every stroke;
Above the clang of sword and spear
Was "Forward" heard and "Jethart’s Here!"
So well the Kerrs their left-hands ply
The dead and dying round them lie,
The castle gained, the battle won,
Revenge and slaughter are begun.
Now trembling for his cruel deeds
In vain for life the foeman pleads,
But why, my muse, such scenes described?
Peace over all doth now preside.
The days of siege and raids are o’er,
The din of war resounds no more;
No sound except the song of bird
Within the forest glade is heard,
While thistles wave and roses bloom
To guard and deck the warrior’s tomb.

Ferniehirst Castle from South West elevation

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