The ruins of Fast Castle are simply breathtaking. It sits atop a rocky promontory that projects from rugged cliffs just over three miles northwest of St Abbshead. The site is completely surrounded by sheer cliffs that fall 150ft to the sea below at its landward end and 100ft to the sea at its seaward end.
The layout of Fast Castle is very similar to that of Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire, though this one is on a smaller scale.
The history of Fast Castle
The ruined remains of this coastal fortress sit in Berwickshire, south-east Scotland, in the Scottish Borders. It lies roughly 4 miles (6.4 km) northwest of the village of Coldingham, and just outside the St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, run by the National Trust for Scotland.
The site is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The early history
It is unknown when the first structure appeared on the site. However, its defensible position made it very attractive to the earliest inhabitants of the area. There is also evidence of Iron Age habitation at the site, and it was centrally positioned in the British kingdom of Bryneich, and its Anglo-Saxon successor state of Bernicia.
Fast Castle was first recorded in 1333. Then, in 1346, the site was occupied by an English garrison. It was used as a base to pillage the surrounding countryside. In 1410, a force led by Patrick Dunbar, second son of the 10th Earl of Dunbar and March, seized the castle and imprisoned the governor, Thomas Holden. Its new Scots governor William Haliburton was also able to seize Wark Castle, Northumberland, in 1419.
The castle then fell into the hands of the Home family. In 1503, they hosted Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, at Fast Castle when she was on her way to marry James IV. Following the Scot’s defeat, as well as the death of James IV, at the battle of Flodden in 1513, in which many of the Homes family members were killed, a power struggle ensued between the Regent Albany and various other nobles including Alexander Home, 3rd Lord Home, Chamberlain of Scotland.
During this chaos, in 1515, Fast Castle was destroyed. Then, in 1516, Alexander Home was executed and his land was forfeit.
Rebuilding Fast Castle
In 1522, the castle was rebuilt at the time when the Home estates were restored to Alexander’s brother George Home, 4th Lord Home. In 1647, during the Rough Wooing of Scotland carried out by Henry VIII, the castle was once again captured by the English. However, Fast Castle was back in Scottish hands by the time Mary, Queen of Scots stayed at the castle in 1566.
The recapture of Fast Castle from the English is said to have been instigated by Madge Gordon, a well-known Coldingham widow. Once again back in the ownership of the Home family, the English ambassador Nicholas Throckmorton stayed at the castle with the 5th Lord Home on 11 July 1567, where he was “intretyed very well, according to the state of the place, which is fitter to lodge prisoners than folks at liberty, as yt is very little so yt is very stronge.”
Strange times at Fast Castle
Fast Castle then passed to Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig via his mother, a widow of Lord Home. It was then briefly recaptured by the English in 1570. The castle was always very well-armed. In fact, some of the guns were taken to Berwick on Tweed during the English intervention against the supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1570s. In 1584, the keepers of this castle, Innerwick, and Tantallon were commanded to surrender their castles to the crown.
Sir Robert Logan, who was a notorious dissolute and “ne’er do well”, was implicated in the Gowrie conspiracy to kidnap the young King James VI. In 1594, Logan contracted with the famed mathematician (and apparent wizard) John Napier in order to search Fast Castle for treasure. He was told to “…do his utmost diligence to search and seek out, and by all craft and ingine to find out the same, and by the grace of God either find out the same, or make it sure that no such thing has been there.”
For his effort, he expected to be awarded a third of the treasure he found. However, there is no record of discovery. Logan then died in 1606. His estate was then forfeited in 1609.
Fast Castle in ruins
By this time, the castle was in ruins. It did briefly pass to the Douglas family, then back to the Earls of Dunbar, then the family of Arnot, back to the Homes, and finally to the Hall family. Between 1971 and 1986, excavations were carried out at Fast Castle by the Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society.
The current day
Nowadays, the castle is accessible from nearby Downlaw farm with a steep trail leading to the castle. The concrete path now replaces the drawbridge. The castle is now completely ruined, and it is quite dangerous to visit as it is right next to steep cliffs.
Fast Castle Timeline
- 1333- Fast Castle is first recorded
- 1346- The site is occupied by an English garrison
- 1410- A force led by Patrick Dunbar, second son of the 10th Earl of Dunbar and March, seizes the castle and imprisons the governor, Thomas Holden
- 1503- Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, is hosted at Fast Castle when she was on her way to marry James IV
- 1515- Fast Castle is destroyed
- 1516- Alexander Home is executed and his land forfeit
- 1522-The castle is rebuilt at the time when the Home estates were restored to Alexander’s brother George Home, 4th Lord Home
- 1647- During the Rough Wooing of Scotland carried out by Henry VIII, the castle is once again captured by the English
- 1566- Fast Castle is back in Scottish hands by the time Mary, Queen of Scots stayed at the castle
- 1567- The English ambassador Nicholas Throckmorton stays at the castle with the 5th Lord Home on 11 July 1567, where he was “intretyed very well, according to the state of the place, which is fitter to lodge prisoners than folks at liberty, as yt is very little so yt is very stronge.”
- 1570- The castle is briefly recaptured by the English
- 1584- The keepers of Fast Castle, Innerwick, and Tantallon are commanded to surrender their castles to the crown
- 1594- Logan contracts with the famed mathematician (and apparent wizard) John Napier in order to search Fast Castle for treasure
- 1606- Logan dies
- 1609- Logans estate is forfeited
- 1971 to 1986- Excavations are carried out at Fast Castle by the Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society
Fast Castle facts
- Fast Castle was once comprised of a courtyard and keep, built on a narrow sloping plateau, 27 by 82 metres (89 by 269 ft)
- Cliffs up to 45 metres (148 ft) high are on either side of the castle which render it relatively impregnable
- The layout of the castle is very similar to that of Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire, though Fast Castle is on a smaller scale
- A pulley system with a basket was used to access the sea below
- The site is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument
Books on Fast Castle
- The Gold of Fast Castle by Kathleen Fidler (1970)
- Fast Castle: A History from 1602 by Keith L. Mitchell (1989)
- Fast Castle: The early years by Mary Kennaway (1992)
- Fast Castle: Excavations by Keith L. Mitchell (2001)
Who owns Fast Castle?
Fast Castle is now under private ownership.
To get to Fast Castle, you need to embark on a rather long walk from the parking area to the castle. It is a little under three-quarters of a mile long. The path is fairly stable. However, some sections are rather steep and lower down it skirts around the top of a gully which drastically drops to the sea below.
The platform that the castle stands on is only accessible via a drawbridge that is now a concrete walkway. Be careful when wandering around as the castle is in ruins and situated right alongside steep cliffs.
Nearby, you can visit St Abb’s Head, Eyemouth Museum, Ayton Castle, and Coldingham Priory.