History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
One of the most famous of the Hepburns is responsible for the most vividly remembered event in the castle's long history. In 1566 the owner of the Hermitage was James Hepburn, better known to history as the 4th Earl of Bothwell. Bothwell had enormous influence at the Scottish court of Mary, Queen of Scots, and was almost certainly the queen's secret lover. In October of 1566 the Earl was wounded in a skirmish with reivers, and was carried to his castle to recuperate. When the queen heard the news, she impetuously set off from Jedburgh with her retinue on a wild ride to be at Hepburn's side. It was probably the worst choice she could have made politically, but Mary was not always given to carefully considered moves! Her hell-for-leather ride covered 25 miles through a barren and wild landscape, to spend only two hours with the Earl - for to spend more time with him could be seen as flouting propriety to an extent that even Mary would not countenance! On her return journey she took a fall from her horse into a marsh (the location near Windy Edge is now called Queen's Mire) and contracted a fever from which she almost died. The fallout from Mary's escapade was to turn many of her supporters against her, and that would only escalate when she married Bothwell the following year, shortly after the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, a murder in which Bothwell was heavily implicated. Mary's ghost is said to haunt the castle ruins.
As for Bothwell, he died far from Hermitage Castle, in Norway, where he was attempting to raise an army to restore Mary to the Scottish throne. At his death the castle passed to his nephew, Francis Stewart. Stewart was suspected of involvement with the North Berwick Witches in 1591 and his estates were seized. The 'witches' were accused of operating a coven, and their trial was the first major witchcraft trial in Scotland. The Earl was pardoned in 1593, but couldn't keep out of political intrigue and was attainted by Parliament later that year, and the crown once again took his estates. In 1594 James VI granted Hermitage to the Scott family of Buccleuch. But by that time the fortress had outlived its military usefulness. It had no adequate defenses against artillery, and was abandoned to decay. That decay was arrested in the 19th century when the writings of Sir Walter Scott helped raise Scottish pride in their heritage, and the Buccleuch family acted to preserve the site. It is now in the care of Historic Scotland.
Beside the chapel is a mound said to be the grave of a giant named Cout o' Keilder. This giant was said to have terrorised the region and was invincible due to his magical chain mail. Ah, but in folklore there's seldom such a thing as truly invincible; the giant was drowned in a pool in the nearby river. Even today this part of the river is known as the Drowning Pool. A less fanciful version of the tale is that the giant was actually a chief of the men of Kielder, now in northern Northumberland, and he was in conflict with William de Soulis (the wizard). He attacked de Soulis at Hermitage, and was forced into the water by de Soulis's warriors, where he died in the deep water. The mound was excavated recently and was found, sadly, to contain no bones at all.
Visiting Hermitage Castle
We travelled to Hermitage from Melrose, and it seemed that every mile of the route became more desolate and wild, the sky felt heavier, and landscape more bleak and unwelcoming. By the time we arrived at the castle I felt as if there was no place on earth I would less like to live than in this wild place. Yet exploring the castle was wonderful. The sheer height of the walls filled me with a sense of awe. The astonishing height of the arched entrance seems to be made for giants! I looked up at the walls and they seemed to hover over me, dominating the sky, and making me feel small and insignificant. There is just something about this place; it is romantic, bleak, even frightening, in a way, but compelling. I can see why artist JMW Turner came to paint Hermitage Castle.
NB. Don't confuse Hermitage Castle with The Hermitage, a woodland area near Dunkeld, Perthshire!
About Hermitage Castle
Address: Liddesdale, Borders, Scotland, TD9 0LU
Attraction Type: Castle
Location: on B6399, off B6357 5 ½ m (8.9 km) NE Newcastleton, off the Hawick-Newcastleton Road
Website: Hermitage Castle
Phone: 01387 376222
OS: NY496 961
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
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14th century (Time Period) - 15th century (Time Period) - 19th century (Time Period) - brass (Historical Reference) - castle (Architecture) - Henry II (Person) - JMW Turner (Person) - Mary, Queen of Scots (Person) - Medieval (Time Period) - Robert the Bruce (Person) - stone circle (Historical Reference) -
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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