Sitting close to the border between Scotland and England, Hermitage Castle is a dark, brooding fortress with a long and violent history. It was named after the nearby hermitage which sits by Liddel Water. It controlled access to the Scottish Middle March and was built purely for defence. Its high sheer walls, lack of windows and its isolation in the Borders moorland give it an eerie atmosphere.
The first castle on this site was constructed by Sir Nicholas II de Soules in the early 13th Century. It was a simple wooden motte-and-bailey fortress with a rectangular design. Henry II of England objected to such a massive fortress so close to the border and its construction almost sparked an English invasion.
The Soules family held on to the castle until 1320, when Nicholas's son William de Soulis conspired to kill King Robert I of Scotland; a treasonable act that saw him imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle until his death and the forfeiture of the castle and its lands.
Local legends tell of a member of the Soules family who was a dabbler in witchcraft and child abductor. He believed himself to be indestructible by steel and incapable of being bound by rope. His aggrieved local tenants duly bound him in lead and boiled him alive at nearby Nine Stane Rig, a nearby Neolithic site.
Sir William Douglas, 1st Earl of Douglas took the castle by siege in 1338. He fortified the castle in stone and most of the early parts of the castle date from around this time. He lost the castle to Hugh D’Acre for a time, but it soon came back to him.
The 3rd Earl added the four great corner towers in the 1390s. By 1455 the Earls of Douglas had enraged the King that James III of Scotland forfeited the Earl’s lands and gave them to the other branch of the family, the Earls of Angus.
The 5th Earl of Angus was too close to King Henry VII of England for James IV of Scotland’s comfort. Indeed, the Earl had made a treaty with King Henry to conduct his relationship with the Scottish King according to English instructions. King James made him give up his Border estates around Liddlesdale and Hermitage Castle in exchange for estates near Glasgow. Hermitage Castle and its titles were given to the Hepburn family.
In 1566 Hermitage Castle was held by James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and Mary, Queen of Scots, lover. He was badly wounded in a skirmish with some southern rievers. Mary rushed to be by his side and visited the castle for a mere two hours. On her way back to Jedburgh her horse threw her into a bog and she contracted a fever. It was only a few days after the birth of her child and it was said that the illness she caught that day almost killed her.
Bothwell was charged with treason after Mary's abdication and his lands were forfeited to the crown. His nephew took on a new creation of the Earldom, but he too was arrested and attainted by an Act of Parliament.
Hermitage Castle passed to Walter Scott, 1st Lord Scott of Buccleuch. He was a famous border riever himself and led a infamous attack on Carlisle Castle to free another reiver.
In the early 17th Century the castle was rendered obsolete and abandoned. It had poor artillery defences and the Act of Union between Scotland and England meant that the border no longer required strong defense.
Hermitage Castle remained with the Scott family until 1930s when it was handed over to the Scottish Government. Today it is looked after by Historic Scotland. It is open to the public during the summer months. Facilities available at the castle include toilets, a gift shop, parking and a picnic area.
Status: Ruin / Visitor Attraction
Owner: Historic Scotland
Tel: +44 (0)1387 376 222
Opening Times: April to September Daily 9.30am to 5.30pm / Closed during the winter
The tower at Hermitage Castle