Archaeological sites in Whitekirk

Tantallon Castle

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Tantallon Castle is a mid 14th century fortress, located 5 km (3 miles) south-east of North Berwick, in East Lothian, Scotland. It sits atop a promontory opposite the Bass Rock, looking out onto the Firth of Forth. The last medieval curtain wall castle to be constructed in Scotland, Tantallon comprises a single wall blocking off the headland, with the other three sides naturally protected by sea cliffs.

Tantallon was built in the mid 14th century by William Douglas, 1st Earl of Douglas. Douglas left it to his illegitimate son, later created Earl of Angus, and despite several sieges, it remained the property of his descendants for much of its history. It was besieged by King James IV in 1491, and again by his successor James V in 1528, when extensive damage was done. Tantallon saw action in the first Bishop's War in 1639, and again during Oliver Cromwell's invasion of Scotland in 1651, when it was once more severely damaged. It was sold by the Douglases in 1699, and the ruin is today in the care of Historic Scotland.


Шаблон:Location map Tantallon is of a singular construction within Scotland, due to its location on a promontory. The south-east, north-east, and north-west approaches are naturally protected by steep sea cliffs, and were only ever protected by relatively small defensive walls. To the south-west, a massive curtain wall blocks off the promontory, which forms the inner courtyard. The curtain wall is built of the local red sandstone, and has a tower at either end, and a heavily fortified gatehouse in the centre, all of which provided residential accommodation. A north range of buildings, containing a hall, completed the main part of the castle, enclosing a courtyard around 70m by 44m (230 by 145 feet). In total, the buildings of the castle provided around 1,100 m2 (12,000 square feet) of accommodation.

In its form, Tantallon follows on from the 12th century castles of Bothwell and Kildrummy, as a castle of enceinte, or curtain wall castle. It was the last of this type to be built in Scotland, as the smaller tower house was becoming increasingly popular. For example, Threave Castle, built at around the same time by William's cousin Archibald the Grim, is a much more modest tower. There are also similarities between Tantallon and "courtyard" castles, such as Doune, which also dates from the late 14th century, and is also entered via a passage beneath a strong keep tower.

Curtain wall

The curtain wall is over 15m (50 feet) high, 3.6m (12 feet) thick, and around 90m (300 feet) long. There are several small chambers within the walls, and stairs, with arched ceilings, accessing the parapet walk. This parapet walk, beneath the 16th century crenels of the curtain wall, connects the three towers.

The northwest tower, known as the Douglas Tower, was circular in plan and 12m (40 feet) across, although the west side has collapsed. Seven storeys high, this tower would have formed the lord's "donjon", or keep, containing his private accommodation, and connecting to the hall in the north range. The lowest storey was a pit prison, and the timber-floored chambers above were square, with vaulted garderobes, or privies.

The East Tower is of D-plan, with the curved face outwards, and 9m (30 feet) across. Originally consisted of five storeys, the bottom three were reduced to two after the 1528 siege, by the insertion of stone vaults. Large gun ports were also added in the basement at this time. The third floor of the tower was designed to have access to a parapet on the south-east wall, although this wall was never built.

The central gatehouse tower is square, 13m (40 feet) across, and up to 24m (80 feet) high. It contained four storeys of chambers, some with canopied fireplaces, although the internal walls and floors are now missing. The main entrance ran through a passage below, protected by a drawbridge, three pairs of doors, a portcullis, and machicolations; holes in the ceiling enabling the defenders to drop missiles onto intruders below. There are two bartizans, or corner turrets, facing in toward the courtyard, where a 16th century spiral stair gives access to the head of the curtain wall. The entrance was originally via a pointed arched gateway, flanked by round towers. A defensive barbican, or outer gate, was added in the early 14th century, and was destroyed in the 1528 siege, although fragments can still be seen. After the siege, the facade of the gatehouse was rebuilt, with more gun ports at ground level, and the gateway corridor was narrowed. The rebuilding covered up the remains of the earlier round towers, narrowed the main gate, and gave the tower rounded corners for additional strength.

Inner court

The north range of buildings, around 10m by 40m (30 by 140 feet), is connected to the Douglas Tower. The western section dates from the 14th century, and comprises the remains of the great hall, used by the lord, over the former laigh, or low, hall, used by the labourers, and later divided to form cellars. The marks of the hall's pitched roof can be seen on the inside wall of the Douglas Tower. The 16th century eastern section contained a bakehouse and further private chambers, and has partially collapsed into the sea. Only a small section of the other walls remains to the east, and contains a postern gate, giving access to the sea through a cleft in the cliffs below. The well is 32m (105 feet) deep, and was re-excavated in the 19th century.

Outer court

Alongside the curtain wall is a deep, rock-cut ditch, with a larger second ditch around 100m (330 feet) away, defining the outer bailey, or court, of the castle. Within the outer ditch are two mounds, which Charles McKean suggests may conceal 16th century caponiers, defensive positions allowing covering fire along the trench. McKean notes that Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, the King's Master of Works, and a noted military engineer who built Scotland's only known caponiers at Craignethan and Blackness, was present with the King during the 1528 siege, and worked at Tantallon afterwards. A stone-fronted mound formerly ran along the outside of the ditch, although only a 30m (100 feet) section of the outer wall survives, at the south end, terminating in a two-storey round tower. This tower, with several gun ports, was built prior to the siege of 1528, and may have been inspired by the new artillery defences at nearby Dunbar Castle. A 17th century "lectern" type doocot, or pigeon house, is the only building within the outer court. Beyond the outer ditch is a 17th century ravelin, a triangular earthen artillery defence, and the remains of a third, smaller, ditch.


A map, dated to before 1300, shows a castellated site with the name of "Dentaloune", possibly a corruption of the Brythonic Din Talgwn or "towering fortress".Шаблон:Fact The barony of North Berwick, including Tantallon, was in the possession of the Earls of Fife at this time.

Early history

In 1346, William Douglas (c. 1327-1384), nephew of Robert the Bruce's companion Sir James Douglas, had returned to Scotland, from France, to claim his inheritance as chief of the name of Douglas. By murdering his godfather, Sir William Douglas of Liddesdale, William became the undisputed head of the House of Douglas. He was created Earl of Douglas in 1358.

It is not clear how Douglas came to possess Tantallon, but in correspondence of 1374, he refers to "our castle of Temptaloun". Douglas may have been made castellan of Tantallon, as a tenant of Isabella, Countess of Fife, and it appears that he built the present castle either shortly before, or shortly after, his elevation to the peerage.Шаблон:Fact It was intended as a status symbol, although it followed the medieval "curtain wall" type, which at the time was becoming outmoded and superseded by the tower house. The Douglases continued to hold the lands of Tantallon as tenants of Robert Stewart, Earl of Fife (c.1340-1420), from 1371 until 1372, when he resigned the title in favour of his son Murdoch. Tantallon was the home of William Douglas' sister-in-law and mistress, Margaret Stewart, Countess of Angus, the mother of his illegitimate son George Douglas (1380-1403). In 1388, when the 2nd Earl of Douglas died, the Earl of Fife claimed the lands of Tantallon, and confirmed the Countess' right to live there.

Harbour, showing the fortifications blocking the promontory]]

In 1377 the earl made his close friend, Alan de Lawedre of The Bass, Constable of Tantallon Castle, an office he held until at least 1389. Alan de Lawedre witnessed a charter by the Earl, of Kimmerghame, Berwickshire, to Sir John St. Clair, Lord of Herdmanston, dated and signed on January 2, 1378 at Tantallon. A further charter by Margaret, Countess of Angus, was signed at Tantallon on August 12, 1381. The signatories were: Sir James Douglas, Lord of Liddesdale, son and heir of the Earl of Douglas; Alan de Lawedre; and John & James St. Clair, the grantee's brothers-in-law.Шаблон:Fact

The Red Douglases

The Barony of North Berwick, surrounding Tantallon, stayed with the Earldom of Fife, but despite the Earl's claim, the castle passed outright into the Douglas family, and was inherited by George Douglas, illegitimate son of the Earl of Douglas, who also inherited his mother's Earldom of Angus in 1389. This was the start of the division in the House of Douglas. Archibald the Grim became head of the main line, known as the "Black Douglases". George Douglas was the progenitor of the "Red Douglases".

In 1397, George Douglas married Mary, daughter of King Robert III, allying the Red Douglases with the Royal House of Stewart. From 1425 to 1433, Isabella, Countess of Lennox, the widow of the executed Duke of Albany, was warded at Tantallon. In 1429 another royal enemy, Alexander, Lord of the Isles, was held at Tantallon until his reconciliation with King James I two years later. The 3rd Earl of Angus (1426-1446) made Tantallon his main residence, and was in rebellion from 1443 until his death. He raided the Black Douglas lands of Abercorn, leading to retaliation, and his forfeiture in 1446, a few months before his death. In 1452, King James II granted Tantallon to the 4th Earl, brother of the 3rd Earl, who led the Royal force which defeated the Black Douglases at the Battle of Arkinholm, in May 1455.

The Red Douglases, in the person of Archibald "Bell-the-Cat" (1453-1514), the 5th Earl, turned against the Royal house in 1482. Around 1490, Angus struck a treasonable deal with Henry VII of England, against James IV of Scotland. On 11 October 1491, Tantallon Castle was besieged by James IV, with guns sent from Edinburgh and Linlithgow, and crossbows and culverins (a primitive type of hand gun) from Leith. However, Angus submitted and the castle did not suffer extensive damage. By 1493 Angus was back in favour as Chancellor of Scotland.

The 16th century

In 1514, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus (1490-1557) married James IV's widow Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, and Regent of Scotland for her infant son James V. The couple unsuccessfully conspired to take the young King to England, sparking off civil war. The Regency was handed to John Stewart, Duke of Albany, who seized Tantallon in 1515, although it was returned the following year when Angus made his peace.

In 1525, Angus, with support from Henry VIII of England, staged a virtual coup d'état, taking custody of the young King, and becoming Chancellor. But, in 1528, the sixteen-year-old James V escaped, and, joining his mother at Stirling, pronounced Angus attainted, banishing him to "north of the Spey". Angus instead retreated to Tantallon, and then to England. The castle was seized by the King, but Angus managed to return and refortify his stronghold. On 23 October 1528, King James laid siege to Tantallon. The castle was bombarded with cannon for 20 days, although the King's guns could not be brought close enough to the walls to do substantive damage, due to the deep outer ditch. The King lifted the siege and returned to Edinburgh, at which point Angus counterattacked and captured the King's artillery. In May 1529, Angus fled to England, leaving the castle to James. Tantallon was retained as a Royal fortress until James V's death in 1542, when Angus returned and recovered it.

To repair damage sustained during the siege, the King set about rebuilding and strengthening the castle. Oliver Sinclair was installed as captain, and the surviving accounts for the period 1537-1539 record that George Sempill was the master mason, carrying out the repairs under the direction of John Skrymgeour, the King's Master of Works. The front of the gatehouse was rebuilt, and the East Tower strengthened. Wide-mouthed gun holes were punched through the landward walls of the tower, and a crenellated parapet was added to the curtain wall.

On Angus' return in 1542, he was still in contact with Henry VIII, and allowed Sir Ralph Sadler, English ambassador to Scotland, to reside at Tantallon during the attempts to negotiate a marriage between the infant Mary, Queen of Scots and Edward, Prince of Wales in 1542-43. When the Earl of Hertford invaded Scotland, during the ensuing War of the Rough Wooing of 1544, Tantallon was bypassed by the English army, due to the Earl's English sympathies. Angus was finally imprisoned at Blackness Castle in 1544, after which he changed sides to support the Scottish cause. The gunners of Tantallon were rewarded in August 1548, after firing on English ships during an engagement in the Firth of Forth.

Angus died at Tantallon in January 1557, and the castle was seized by the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise. It was given over to the Laird of Craigmillar, and repairs were carried out the following year. In 1558, George Drummond of Blair was keeper of Tantallon, with a garrison of seven horsemen and 22 soldiers. James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton took control in 1565, on behalf of his nephew, the young 8th Earl of Angus, but the following year, Mary, Queen of Scots gave the Captaincy to Robert Lauder of the Bass, and his son, Robert Lauder, younger of the Bass, the Keeper then being the Earl of Atholl.Шаблон:Fact The appointment of the Lauders followed the surrender of Sir William Douglas of Lochleven, who was one of those charged with the murder of Queen Mary's favourite, David Rizzio, in March 1566.Шаблон:Fact Mary visited Tantallon herself in November 1566. The younger Lauder fought on the side of Queen Mary at the Battle of Langside in 1568, and was replaced by Gavin Hume of Shiells, a younger son of Alexander Hume of Polwarth (d. 1532).Шаблон:Fact The Yester Writs (no.798) record an Andrew Hume as Captain of Tantallon Castle in 1577.

17th century

After a period of peace, Tantallon again saw military action during the Bishops' Wars in 1639. The Douglas family had remained Catholic after the Scottish Reformation, incurring the wrath of the Presbyterian Covenanters, who opposed Charles I's attempts to interfere with the Scottish Church. In 1639, the Covenanters captured Tantallon while William, newly created Marquess of Douglas, was in Edinburgh.

In 1650, during the Third English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces invaded Scotland, taking control of the south of the country after their victory at Dunbar in September. In February 1651, Cromwell found his lines of communication under attack from a small group of Royalists based at Tantallon. This group, led by Alexander Seton, comprised just 91 men. Despite this, Cromwell's retaliation was to send 2,000 to 3,000 troops under General Monck, together with much of the artillery he had in Scotland, and lay siege to Tantallon. Seton was ennobled by Charles II, as Viscount of Kingston, on the 14th February, during the siege. After twelve days of bombardment with cannon a breach was made in the Douglas Tower. The defenders were compelled to surrender, but only after quarter had been granted to them in recognition of their bravery.Шаблон:Fact After the siege Tantallon was left in ruins: it was never repaired or inhabited afterwards.

Later history

James Douglas, 2nd Marquess of Douglas, the 12th Earl of Angus, was forced, due to gambling debts accrued by himself and his father, to consolidate his estates. The ruins of Tantallon did not provide an adequate return,Шаблон:Fact and in 1699 were sold to Sir Hew Dalrymple, the President of the Court of Session, who also owned the Barony of North Berwick, the Bass, Fidra and other properties in the area. Dalrymple allowed the castle to decay further, and to be quarried to a certain extent for stones. Sir Walter Scott described the castle at length in his 1808 epic poem Marmion. In 1924, the castle was handed over to the UK Government's Office of Works by Dalrymple's descendant, Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple, and is now in the care of Historic Scotland.


In March 2009, psychology professor Richard Wiseman released a photograph taken at Tantallon, which appeared to show a figure standing behind railings in a wall opening. The image, taken in May 2008 and sent to Wiseman as part of a research project, was described in The Times as showing a "courtly figure dressed in a ruff". Wiseman stated that three photographic experts had confirmed that the image had not been manipulated, and that no costumed guides were present at Tantallon. A second photo, taken 30 years earlier, and showing a different figure in a similar location, was printed in The Scotsman a few days later.





  • Шаблон:Cite book
  • Fraser, Sir William. (1885) The Douglas Book. 3 vols. Edinburgh.
  • Lindsay, Maurice. (1986) The Castles of Scotland. Constable & Co.
  • Maxwell, Sir Herbert. (1902) A History of the House of Douglas. 2 vols. Freemantle, London.
  • MacGibbon, David, and Ross, Thomas. (1887) The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, Vol. I. D. Douglas, Edinburgh.
  • McKean, Charles. (2004) The Scottish Chateau (2nd edition). Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0750935278
  • McWilliam, Colin. (1978) The Buildings of Scotland: Lothian, except Edinburgh. Penguin.
  • Richardson, J. S. (1950) Tantallon Castle. HMSO.
  • Salter, Mike. (1994) The Castles of Lothian and the Borders. Folly Publications.
  • Tabraham, Chris. (1997) Scotland's Castles. BT Batsford/Historic Scotland.

Primary Sources

  • Historic Manuscripts Commission - MSS of Colonel David Milne-Home of Wedderburn Castle, London, 1902, p.257.
  • Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, Vol. XI, 1559 - 1566, Edinburgh, 1916, p.lxxi.
  • Harvey, Charles C. H. and MacLeod, John (eds). Calendar of Writs preserved at Yester House 1166-1625. Scottish Record Society, Edinburgh, 1930
  • Young, Margaret D. (ed.) (1993) The Parliaments of Scotland - Burgh & Shire Commissioners, Vol. II. Edinburgh, 1993, p.407.

Internet sources

External links


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20 April 2014
Tantallon Castle was the seat of the Douglas Earls of Angus, one of the most powerful baronial families in Scotland. Mary Queen of Scots stayed at Tantallon in 1566.
18 May 2016
Great views of Bass Rock with free telescope to explore it closer. No café but great for picnic! Entry fee is 5.50 for and adult, unfortunately no student discount.
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Tantallon Castle, North Berwick EH39 5PN, UK

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