At six stories high and 90 meters in length, the curtain wall of Tantallon Castle is built to intimidate enemies and impress friends. The blood-red sandstone looks especially daunting in front of the blue seas and green fields that surround the medieval structure on the East Lothian coast.
Standing to the east of North Berwick and a near shout away from Bass Rock, Tantallon dominates a rocky peninsula on the banks of the Firth of Forth. An important and visually stunning bit of land, the castle was fiercely contested by both relatives and kings since its construction in the mid-1300s.
Surrounded on three sides by high cliffs and sharp rocks, the castle and its courtyard were defended on the approach side by a 15-meter curtain wall some three and a half meters thick. Virtually impossible to breach in the century it was built, it would be almost 200 years before the structure could be realistically tested in open battle.
A Lasting Legacy?
William Douglas built Tantallon on his appointment as the 1st Earl of Douglas in the 1350s. As with many who received titles and lands, he sought out structures and architecture he felt reflected his new found status. The Douglas house was one of the most wealthy and powerful families in the country and likely felt a need to both show and use their vast resources.
Tantallon was the last curtain wall castle to be built in the country. By the time of its construction the design was fading out of style. Powerful houses began to favour tower houses such as the nearby homes of Chrighton and Borthwick. The tower house became the commonly used design for years to come.
Built around three towers joined by heavy fortifications, Tantallon welcomed visitors and deterred foes at its mid-tower gatehouse. A short bridge spans a deep defensive moat that drains sharply towards the cliff edge. Narrow and surrounded, unwelcome enemies would have a tough day attacking the gate in front of an aggressively hostile structure.
The castle’s western Douglas tower was the tallest point from the coast to North Berwick. Designed to house the laird of the house and his immediate family, the tower would have been an important status symbol to the neighbouring lands under his protection and enemies that might want to take them.
Projecting power for the time was more than just a compensating ego boost too. Tenants who paid rents on nearby lands and surrounding fields relied on the castle and its laird for protection against invading armies, cattle thieves, and criminals. Being able to show your power, your ability to protect your lands and stores, and demonstrate your family wealth was an important statement for the time.
Such enemies and criminals on the wrong side of the laird could find themselves locked in the Douglas tower’s cold, damp dungeon with little hope of escape.
The castle’s smaller east tower housed servants and visiting guests in smaller accommodations with an equally spectacular view.
Guests may have visited for feasts in the grand hall built on the rear side of the Douglas Tower. The hall’s stonework building made up a western wall to the castle that looked out over the nearby beach harbour. The harbour built on the neighbouring beach would have received supplies and ferried them by road to the castle above. One of the critical parts of the castle, the Kitchens, sat under the great hall waiting for incoming supplies to prepare feasts and serve dinner to the banquet above.
Timber beam roofs and buildings likely filled the courtyard behind the curtain wall. One of these wooden structures, a loading dock built to the back of the courtyard, allowed heavy supplies to be unloaded directly from ships at the bottom of the cliff. A crane-like structure to bring large packages directly from the sea at high tide.
The Douglas House and its legacy
Looking to secure the Douglas house for generations to come, Tantallon was built in North Berwick while Hermitage Castle was constructed in the Scottish borders. Both structures create strong, powerful defences that dominate their own landscapes. Both are remarkable for their size and defensive capabilities.
Following the death of William’s son, James Douglas, the house split into two warring factions. Without an heir, the lands of James passed to his sister Isabel. His inherited titles passed instead to a cousin, Archibald.
The title, Earl of Douglas, would be passed down the line of succession from Archibald onwards. This side of the family came to be known as the ‘Black Douglases’ after Archibald’s father James ‘the black’ Douglas.
The castle of Tantallon was passed to the illegitimate child of William and half brother of James, George Douglas. This side became the Red Douglases, taking the formal title ‘Earl of Angus’ from his mother Margaret Stewart, 4th Countess of Angus.
Red Douglas Line
The two sides of the divided house fought viciously over the next hundred years. George Douglas initially allied the Red Douglas house with the Royal House Of Stewart, marrying the daughter of King Robert III. Enemies of the king were imprisoned in Tantallon’s tower dungeon for years at a time.
When the castle and title passed down to the 3rd Earl of Angus, James Douglas, he made it his primary residence until his death in 1446. Family ties shifted over time and the 3rd Earl found the house in rebellion against the king, James II.
The 8th Earl of Douglas had brought the black Douglases to the side of the crown. A powerful move and an attempt to drive out their main rival for good. James II forfeit land, including the castle, from Angus and the red house.
Just a few years later the Black Douglases themselves were in rebellion against the king. This time the Red Douglas House came to the King’s aid to defeat their cousins in battle. Almost every member of the Black Douglas house was either killed in battle or executed shortly afterwards. The family were all but wiped out. One of the most influential, wealthy, and powerful houses in the country would never hold any titles again.
Only the 9th Earl survived from the Black Douglases. He remained in rebellion and on the run until his capture in 1484 where he was imprisoned for the remainder of his life in Lindores Abbey. Both the titles and lands of the house were formally forfeit in 1455. Many of the lands he once owned were passed to the Earl Of Angus, remaining in the Red Douglas house for generations to come.
Tantallon Under Siege
The remaining house, the Red Douglases, had a remarkably uneasy relationship with the Scottish Royal House. Seeking yet more power and influence, the 5th Earl conspired with Henry VII of England against the king, James IV.
Troubled by treason and plots, James briefly lay siege to the castle with crossbows and early handguns. The Earl quickly submitted to the king and little damage was done to the structure. Less than 2 years later, clearly in favour with the king again, the earl was appointed Chancellor of Scotland. The house and the crown were at an unsteady alliance once more.
The 6th Earl, Archibald Douglas, had a relationship with the royal house even more complicated than his predecessor. The Earl married Margaret Tudor, widow of James IV, daughter of Henry VII, and Regent of Scotland for her infant son, James V.
The marriage caused a sharp division between rival houses sparking civil war and unrest. A huge amount of fighting took place between the Earl, Margaret, and the Duke of Albany, John Stewart.
Stewart initially won out, taking the regency of Scotland and possession of the royal children. He captured Tantallon from Angus and charged him with treason by the end of 1521. Angus was sent as a prisoner to France. His early ambition and attempt to grab power had cost him. He remained in custody in France until his escape in 1524.
Returning first to London, Angus gathered support for an effective coup from Henry VIII. Learning an early lesson, his future attempts to seize power would be more calculated than before. With an ally in the English king and friends in Edinburgh, Angus returned to Tantallon and took a place in the regency council.
Still fighting his own political enemy’s Angus took guardianship over the teenage king James V in 1526. The agreement was set to last three months, but Angus refused to give up the position when it expired. Angus had effectively seized power by holding the king against Margaret and others who would attempt to rescue him.
It was 1528 before the king managed to escape custody and flee to Stirling. He swiftly denounced Angus and banished him ‘north of the spey’. Angus fled again, first to Tantallon and then over the border where he still had strong allies.
The sixteen-year-old King seized Tantallon while the Earl was in exile. When Angus returned he managed to re-enter Tantallon and fortify his position.
James borrowed as many guns, munitions, and men as he could from nearby castles and strongholds to lay siege to Tantallon. With a battery of cannons, experienced gunners, and plenty of manpower, the King bombarded the castle for 20 days.
Defensive fortifications surrounding the castle, combined with its huge outer walls meant that the king’s bombardment was too far away and too weak to significantly damage the Earl’s stronghold.
Without succeeding to take the fortress under force, James hand no choice but to leave camp and return to Edinburgh. Angus took the opportunity to counterattack, capture the king’s artillery, kill his opponents, and strengthen his own position with the king’s own provisions.
The following year Angus fled to England, leaving the castle to be finally surrendered to the crown. James retained the castle as a royal stronghold, repairing the damage he himself had inflicted during the siege and strengthening its weakest points against future attack.
An already strong fortification, the king set out to improve Tantallon’s defences against constantly improving modern artillery. After almost 200 years, the structure was, for the first time, finding itself under threat against an attacking force.
Rooms and chambers within the front of the gatehouse tower were filled with masonry to add strength to the wall. The front gatehouse was rebuilt with additional stonework defences and the east tower architecture was strengthened.
A crenellated parapet was built on to the curtain wall to provide a secure firing position and additional gun holes were made through the wall to increase defensive firepower.
Tantallon was rebuilt a new, modern defensive structure even more intimidating than before.
When James V died in 1542, Angus returned to the castle and recovered it for himself. The king had damaged and rebuilt the entire fortification and Angus recovered it with improvements intact.
Tantallon changed hands several times again but never saw battle again for the next hundred years.
Tantallon Under Siege, Again
Following the Scottish Reformation, the Douglas family remained Catholic against intense pressure.
Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1650, taking control of the south after a decisive victory in the battle of Dunbar. The area provided a highly useful base from which a number of attacks could be launched on nearby targets. A large number of local castles, churches, and abbeys were attacked and seized in a short period of time.
During their campaign, Cromwell’s forces faced a series of guerilla attacks from a small band of royalists who had based themselves at Tantallon. Communications and supply lines for his entire army were disrupted by just a handful of fighters in a local fortification.
This group, made up of 91 men, fortified themselves against a force of two to three thousand sent to capture the castle. Cromwell sent most of the artillery he had in Scotland at the time to lay siege to Tantallon.
In the 123 years since the castle’s last major siege, technology had moved warfare forward a long way. Canons no longer lacked the power needed to impact the wall and munitions no longer had trouble ripping chunks of masonry from the battlements.
For twelve days Cromwell’s forces lay siege to the castle. The structure was reduced from its noble home to the ruins seen today.
Breaching through the Douglas tower left the defenders little choice but to surrender. Full quarter was given to the men who garrisoned themselves in the castle. The attacking force even recognised the bravery of such a small force holding itself against a vast army.
Cromwell’s campaign marked an important change in history for castles and fortifications.
In the time between the siege of James V and Oliver Cromwell, advancing technology had reduced the role of great castles dramatically. While at one time a strong castle manned by only a skeleton crew was almost impenetrable; a small crew of capable gunners was almost all that was required to destroy one by the end of the 1600s.
With the advent of strong artillery and improving ballistics, simple static defences would never have the same importance they once did when Tantallon and Hermitage castles were first built.
After its partial destruction, the castle was left in its state of ruin. Little has changed between the ruins that were abandoned by Cromwell and the castle that stands today. Damage done by artillery fire is still visible, compounded by natural decay.
Eventually the site holding the castle was sold out of the family to settle gambling debts. More recently it was given to the government, the liability and maintenance too much to hold in private hands. The structure today is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland.
The site is now open for visitors to explore. Tantallon’s towers can be climbed for their spectacular views. To visitors venturing to the top they are just as intimidating as they were to foes almost 700 years ago.
The castle is one of Scotland’s incredible historic places. A great visit whether fascinated by the history, captivated by the scenery, or simply enjoying the wild country.