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A Semi-Ruined Beauty—Hermitage Castle

Dive into a history that is filled to the brim with torture, intrigue, murder, and treason. Hermitage Castle is an exceptional yet eerie ruin with many tales to tell its visitors because of its role as “the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain”. Its name derives from Old French, l’armitage—guardhouse[HDC1] .

 [HDC1]Guardhouse in French is poste de guarde. The origin of l’armitage, while French, is an English: topographic name from Middle English, Old French (h)ermitage ‘hermitage’ (a derivative of Old French (h)ermite ‘hermit’), or a habitational name from a place named with this word.

The History of Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle is a gorgeous semi-ruined castle situated perfectly in the border region of Scotland. Nowadays, it is under the care of Historic Scotland. The castle has a reputation, both from its history and its appearance, as one of the most sinister and atmospheric castles in Scotland.

It is situated in a beautiful location in which the mind and imagination can run wild.

Still of Hermitage Castle
Most of the castle is still in good condition. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Early History

Nicholas de Soules allegedly built Hermitage Castle around 1240. It was built in a typical Norman motte-and-bailey design. It stayed in the family until around 1320 when his descendant, William de Soules, forfeited it because of suspected witchcraft and the attempted regicide of King Robert I of Scotland.

Legend has it that Soules’s tenantry, having suffered unbearable depredations, arrested him, and at the nearby Ninestane Rig (a megalithic circle), had him boiled to death in molten lead. In actuality, however, he died a prisoner in Dumbarton Castle. Hermitage Castle is now reputed to be haunted by Redcap Sly, de Soules’s familiar spirit.

The Douglas Family

In 1338, the Englishman, Sir Ralph de Neville, was besieged by Sir William Douglas, The Knight of Liddesdale, known as the “Flower of Chivalry”. It was here that Douglas had imprisoned, and starved to death, his erstwhile comrade Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie. Upon the death of Douglas, the castle fell into the hands of the Dacre family for a time.

However, it soon fell back into the hands of the Earl of Douglas via inheritance. It was then that he enabled the entire construction of most of the present building. This was possibly done with the help of John Lewin, master mason at Durham Cathedral.

Front gat of Hermitage Castle
Entrance to the castle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Under the Hepburns

King James IV was very suspicious of Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus, nicknamed Archibald “Bell-the-Cat,” and his relationship with Henry VII of England and ordered him to relinquish The Hermitage to the Crown. In 1492, Patrick Hepburn, 1st Earl of Bothwell, had a charter of the lands and lordship of Liddesdale, including Hermitage Castle, upon the resignation of the same by Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus.

This ended in the latter getting the lordship of Bothwell (but not the Earldom) which Patrick had resigned for the exchange. The Hepburn’s of Bothwell, then rising in favour with the king, became keepers and lords of The Hermitage. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, once held the castle.

Later, in 1584, Thomas Kerr of Ferniehirst was made keeper of Liddesdale and Hermitage Castle. Francis Stewart, 1st Earl of Bothwell, Bothwell’s nephew, received a new creation as Earl of Bothwell, and was made keeper of the castle. Many viewed him as a potential replacement for James VI due to being a grandson of James V, albeit through an illegitimate line. Unfortunately, in 1591, Bothwell was arrested, tried, gaoled and forfeited for his supposed involvement with the infamous North Berwick Witches.

In 1593, he was able to obtain a pardon. However, it didn’t take long for him to become involved in intrigue and again become attainted, by Act of Parliament. The Hermitage once again reverted to the Crown.

Hermitage Castle with green hills and trees surrounding it
Hermitage Castle is spectacular. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Decline of Hermitage Castle

In 1594, James went forth and granted the castle to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, a notorious Border reiver, Warden of the western marches, Keeper of Liddesdale, and leader of the daring and infamous attack on Carlisle Castle to rescue Willie Armstrong of Kinmont. In 1603, the castle became obsolete after the Union of the Crowns.

This then led to the castle falling into disrepair. By the end of the 18th century, it had become a ruin. Hermitage then went forth and gave its name to the Viscountcy of Hermitage, conferred in 1706 on Henry, third son of the first Duke of Buccleuch as a subsidiary title of the Earldom of Deloraine.

This title became extinct in 1807. Some repairs to the castle were carried out in 1820 by the fifth Duke of Buccleuch.

The current day

The castle remained in the hands of the Scots until 1930, when its care was handed over to the Nation. Now, it is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish Government. The Hermitage Castle ghost is said to be Mary, Queen of Scots.

You may be interesting in reading about other Scottish castles such as Melville Castle and Drummond Castle.

Hermitage Castle Timeline

  • 1240- Hermitage Castle is allegedly built by Nicholas de Soules
  • 1320- The castle is forfeited because of suspected witchcraft and the attempted regicide of King Robert I of Scotland
  • 1338- The Englishman, Sir Ralph de Neville, is besieged by Sir William Douglas, The Knight of Liddesdale, known as the “Flower of Chivalry”.
  • 1492—Patrick Hepburn, 1st Earl of Bothwell, has a charter of the lands and lordship of Liddesdale, including Hermitage Castle, upon the resignation of the same by Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus
  • 1584—Thomas Kerr of Ferniehirst is made keeper of Liddesdale and Hermitage Castle
  • 1591—Bothwell is arrested, tried, gaoled and forfeited for his supposed involvement with the infamous North Berwick Witches
  • 1593—Bothwell is able to obtain a pardon
  • 1594—James goes forth and grants the castle to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, a notorious Border reiver, Warden of the western marches, Keeper of Liddesdale, and leader of the daring and infamous attack on Carlisle Castle to rescue Willie Armstrong of Kinmont
  • 1603—The castle becomes obsolete after the Union of the Crowns
  • Late 18th century—the castle has become a ruin
  • 1820—Repairs to the castle are carried out
  • 1930—The castle remains in the hands of the Scotts until its care is handed over to the Nation

Hermitage Castle Facts

  • The castle is under the care of Historic Scotland
  • The castle has a reputation, both from its history and its appearance, as one of the most sinister and atmospheric castles in Scotland
  • The name of the castle derives from Old French: l’armitage—guardhouse
  • The castle is known as “the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain”
  • Hermitage is associated with the de Soules, the Douglases and Mary Queen of Scots

Featured in TV and film

  • Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Books on Hermitage Castle

  • Hermitage Castle, Roxburghshire, author unknown (1957)
  • Hermitage Castle by Nick Bridgland (1996)

Who Owns Hermitage Castle?

Nowadays, the castle is owned by and under the care of Historic Scotland. Historic Scotland (Scottish Gaelic: Alba Aosmhor) was once an executive agency of the Scottish Office and later the Scottish Government from 1991 to 2015, responsible for safeguarding Scotland’s built heritage and promoting its understanding and enjoyment.

Tourism

Right now, Hermitage Castle is closed, and it is unknown when it will open. The castle is not easily accessible to visitors using wheelchairs or with limited mobility. The site has an uneven grass surface which can get boggy, and the castle has many interior steps. However, there is a splendid view of the castle from the road. Nearby, you can visit Kielder Observatory, Kielder Water & Forest Park, Kielder Forest, and Calvert Trust Kielder


 [HDC1]Guardhouse in French is poste de guarde. The origin of l’armitage, while French, is an English: topographic name from Middle English, Old French (h)ermitage ‘hermitage’ (a derivative of Old French (h)ermite ‘hermit’), or a habitational name from a place named with this word.

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