Tantallon Castle

The History of Tantallon Castle

LocationNorth Berwick, East Lothian, Scotland (Google Map Location)
Open for VisitorsNo
Owned byHistoric Environment Scotland
Official WebsiteTantallon Castle
Rooms AvailableNo

Tantallon Castle is a magnificent 14th-century fortress in East Lothian, Scotland, in a pristine coastal setting. The Castle is situated atop a promontory overlooking an estuary where several Scottish rivers meet with the North Sea. The Castle’s unique geographical setting provides it with natural defences- steep cliffs lead to the sea on three sides, and a single, large curtain wall shields the coastal promontory.

While the existing structure dates back to the mid-14th century, Tantallon Castle was preceded by a castle-like design according to maps from before 1300. The Douglas family were the owners of the Castle from its construction up to the late 17th century. The Castle was besieged multiple times over its history, which caused some parts to fall into complete ruin. Inside Tantallon Castle, the destruction caused by continuous wars and sieges can be witnessed. The Castle is today under the ownership of Historic Environment Scotland, a public organisation that maintains and promotes Scotland’s sites of historical significance.

History

While Tantallon Castle dates back to the mid-14th century, it was preceded by an older, castle-like structure. Maps of the region from before the 14th century indicate that the Castle was under the possession of the Earls of Fife during this time, who was among the highest-ranking nobles of Scotland.

In 1346, William Douglas claimed the estate where Tantallon Castle currently stands. William returned from France to Scotland to lay his claim over the estate. He even murdered his godfather, Sir William Douglas of Liddesdale, making him the uncontested heir of the property. He was then made Earl of Douglas in 1358, and it is speculated that he constructed Tantallon Castle around this time to celebrate his ascendence to the Earldom.

The Douglas family resided in Tantallon Castle as tenants of the Earl of Fife- a position held by the Stewart family in the 14th century. William lived in the Castle with his sister-in-law and mistress, Margaret Stewart, the 4th Countess of Angus, and their son, George Douglas. Other family members contested George’s claim over the estate since he was not considered a legitimate heir.

In 1389, the Parliament recognised George’s claim over Tantallon Castle and his position as Earl of Angus, inherited from his mother. The differences between the two branches of the Douglas family led to the family being divided into two branches. George and his descendants belonged to the Red Douglases, while the other side- the Black Douglases- was headed by Archibald the Grim.

George married Princess Stewart, daughter of King Robert III of Scotland, in 1397. Feeling empowered by the family’s royal alliance, the third Earl of Angus raised a rebellion in 1443 and attacked properties owned by the Black Douglases.

In 1452, George passed away, and King James II granted Tantallon Castle to George’s brother, who was made the 4th Earl of Angus. Archibald “Bell-the-Cat” Douglas was next in line for the Earldom. Archibald rebelled against King James IV of Scotland in alliance with Henry VII of England. In retaliation, the Castle was besieged by James IV in 1491. The Earl of Angus surrendered, and the Castle was not damaged to a large extent.

The 6th Earl of Angus, also named Archibald Douglas, married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII, in 1514. The married couple sought to appoint their son, James V, as the monarch and sent him to England but were unsuccessful in their attempt. In 1515, Tantallon Castle was then seized by John Stewart, the Duke of Albany. Shortly after this, the Earl of Angus made peace with the monarchy and was given back his estate.

Tantallon Castle was sieged again in 1528 when the banished Earl of Angus attempted to return to his residence and mount a defence against the Royal forces. For twenty days, Tantallon Castle was bombarded by cannons. However, the attackers could not make a lot of progress. The Castle’s deep outer ditch prevented the enemy’s artillery from advancing, forcing them to halt the siege. In 1529, the Earl of Angus fled the Castle, which allowed the King to capture it.

Tantallon Castle had sustained a lot of damage in the siege of 1528, and the King ordered its reconstruction. The Earl of Angus returned in 1542 and was still allied with Henry VIII. He was imprisoned in 1544 by the Scots, after which he defected to their side. In 1584, Tantallon Castle was acquired by the Crown.

After the 8th Earl of Angus passed away in 1588, the family moved their residence elsewhere. James VI captured Tantallon Castle in 1592. During the Bishops’ War of 1639, the Douglas family held on to their Catholic beliefs, leading to animosity from the Presbyterian Covenant, which opposed state intervention in the Scottish Church. The Presbyterians captured Tantallon Castle in 1639. During the third English Civil War in 1650, Parliamentarian forces led by Oliver Cromwell besieged Tantallon Castle, causing significant damage to the estate.

In 1699, James Douglass, the 12th Earl of Angus, incurred heavy debts due to his gambling addiction and was forced to sell Tantallon Castle. Sir Hew Dalrymple, who also owned the Barony of North Berwick and several nearby properties, purchased the estate, ending the Douglas family’s long history of residence at Tantallon Castle.

In 1925, the United Kingdom government’s office of works acquired the property. During World War II, several castles in the UK were used for military purposes by the British forces. Tantallon Castle was used as a training site for Royal Air Force bomber crews. The Castle also played a key role in preparing for the Allied forces’ Normandy landing.

Architecture

Tantallon Castle, by jsutcℓiffe, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A large curtain wall made of red sandstone secures Tantallon Castle on the side of the promontory. Steep cliffs leading to the sea on the Castle’s other sides provide natural defences against invading forces. The curtain wall has small chambers inside it, with stairs giving access to the parapet walkway. Towers are placed at either end of the curtain wall, along with a fortified gatehouse at its centre. The northern range contains the Great Hall and makes up the most prominent portion of Tantallon Castle.

The northwestern tower, named Douglas Tower, is seven storeys tall and served as accommodation for the Lord of the Castle, also known as a “donjon”. It sustained significant damage during the multiple times that Tantallon Castle was besieged. The lowest level of the tower functioned as a pit prison. The other tower which lies to the east of the Castle is D-shaped and is three storeys tall. The gatehouse at the centre is square in shape and is fortified. Holes in its ceiling allow defenders of the Castle to drop missiles or bombs on incoming intruders. 

Tantallon Castle has an inner and an outer court. The inner court to the west dates back to the 14th century. A bakehouse and private chambers used to stand in its eastern portion, which has partially collapsed into the sea. The outer court is demarcated by the curtain wall. Two consecutive rock-cut ditches alongside the outer court also strengthened Tantallon Castle’s defences.

Tantallon Castle’s caravan park allows visitors to stay in elegant caravan homes, providing magnificent views of the nearby Bass Rock and Firth of Forth.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where is Tantallon Castle?

Tantallon Castle is situated to the East of North Berwick in East Lothian, Scotland. The Castle is on top of a coastal promontory, providing scenic views of the seaside landscape.

How to get to Tantallon Castle?

Tantallon Castle can easily be accessed by cab, train, and bus. The Castle is about 50 kilometres from Edinburgh, making it easily accessible by road transport.

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