Hermitage Castle

My first impression of Hermitage Castle is that you’d have to really want to be there, to be there. Hidden deep in Border Reiver country, you have to go through narrow winding roads that disappear before inexplicably starting again until you pass by a lonely sign telling you to walk across the bridge and the castle would be somewhere over there.  Yep, that way, and a bit to the right. You can’t miss it, mate.

It’s  the most difficult place to find, rivalled only by the location of the bathroom in a stranger’s house party, and isolated in a “no one will hear your screams” kind of way.

Hermitage Castle c13th Century "The Strength of Liddesdale"

Hermitage Castle c13th Century.
“The Strength of Liddesdale”

Once considered as the “guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain,” Hermitage Castle has a history of being owned by distinguished noblemen no one seemed to like or trust, suspected of everything from treason and attempted regicide to witchery.

I’ve never seen a stronghold that reflected its history so much. It’s routinely described as one of the most “sinister and atmospheric”  castles in this country and, according to Radio Scotland, the embodiment of the phrase “sod off” in stone.

"Sod Off"

SO not going in there, dude.

Hermitage stands in the lordship of Liddesdale, held by the de Soules family in the 12th century. The first lord held the prestigious position of butler at the court of David I and the family moved to Hermitage after the second lord, Ranulf “the wicked Lord Soules”, was murdered in 1207 by his servants in nearby Liddel.

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Castle Court and Zombie Apocalypse Refuge Centre

Because of its strategic location in the Middle March, Liddesdale was a sought after place during the Wars of Independence in 1296. Hermitage quickly fell into English hands, and so started the dispute of its ownership between the de Soules and their English enemies. But that’s not enough drama, so in 1320 William de Soules was accused of plotting to kill King Robert the Bruce and was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, forfeiting his lands and titles to the crown.

In 1338, Sir William Douglas, “Knight of Liddesdale”, seized Hermitage and was described by the monks of Durham as “not so much valiant as malevolent.” He was a skilled knight and captured many castles for Scotland. His vaunted malevolence showed itself when his rival and compatriot, Sir Alexander Ramsey, started to become more liked by the king after Ramsay recaptured Roxburgh Castle in 1342, and the king took the office of Constable and Sheriff of Roxburgh from Douglas to bestow it upon Ramsey.


In a hissy fit, Douglas led a large force of men to Hawick, where Ramsey was holding court, seized Ramsey and tied him to a mule to take him to Hermitage. Here, Ramsey was imprisoned in the dungeon and starved to death, lingering for up to 17 days without food and water. His body is believed to have been found in the 1800s, when a mason broke down the walls and came upon a sealed dungeon, where a skeleton laid over a rusty sword.

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By 1346, Sir William Douglas was captured in the Battle of Neville’s Cross and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he agreed with his captors not to impede English armies marching through Liddesdale if they let him keep Hermitage. Unfortunately, the Scottish King David II knew of the pact and gave Hermitage to his godson and namesake, who was already Lord Douglas (and future Earl of Douglas). Lord Douglas killed the Knight of Liddesdale in 1353, during a confrontation in the Ettrick Forest.

Eventually, Hermitage passed to Lord Douglas’s illegitimate son,  George, the Earl of Angus, and this guy built the corner towers we see today. Maybe it was like doing superficial renovations to a house before selling, because during James IV’s reign, the 5th Earl was involved in some intrigues with the English, and the castle was given to the Bothwells, who later also proved untrustworthy when the 3rd earl, Patrick, made a deal with the English that he’d hand over Hermitage in exchange for marriage to a princess. He didn’t marry a princess, but his son James, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, married Mary, Queen of Scots.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (1534-1578)

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell

No one liked this guy either. Sure, it didn’t help that he was a prat, but to be honest, by now any Hermitage owner could spend half his fortune to give away food to the poor and people would just mutter, “Bloody show off. Typical, if you ask me–which you didn’t, but what a slimey toff!”

Jimmy here bore the brunt of trouble with the borderers. In particular, there was this encounter in 1566 with famous reiver Little Jock Elliot who could care less that Bothwell was an earl. Elliot was so famous there’s a ballad about him that highlights his “screw you” attitude.  The refrain goes, “My name is Little Jock Elliot, and wha daur meddle wi’ me!” Bothwell might not have understood Elliot’s accent or why this cattle lifter was singing during battle, but when the earl returned to Hermitage injured and barely hanging onto life, only to discover he couldn’t get inside the castle because the Elliot clan had taken it over while he was away, we can assume he got the message.

So did his future third wife, Mary Queen of Scots, who in the middle of her annual progress (tour), heard of her rumored beau’s injured state and rode the 25 miles of difficult terrain to be with him. She only stayed a couple hours to quell the gossips and protect her reputation, but on the way back to Jedburgh , her horse stumbled on a bog and she contracted pneumonia which nearly killed her. Fortunately, she recovered from the illness so she can attend her beheading about a decade after Bothwell went insane and died in a Danish dungeon.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

Mary, Queen of Scots

So, clearly, the borderers won this round, and the last family to own Hermitage was headed by the “Bold Buccleuch” and notorious reiver, Sir Walter Scott, a descendant of whom was the writer of the same name whose historical novels revived interest in medieval Scotland. So much so that in the early 19th century, the  5th Duke of Buccleuch, Walter Montagu Douglas Scott made certain that Hermitage Castle was preserved so it could still creep people out even after the property went into public ownership in 1939.










Dunstaffnage Castle

It’s as difficult to find as it is to spell, but its location made it an ideal prison for the Jacobite heroine, Flora MacDonald.

Flora MacDonald 1722-1790

Flora MacDonald

Flora helped the incompetent halfwit Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee back to France where he came from after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Disguised as Flora’s maid, “Betty Burke,” the Young Pretender managed to escape, but because he was so lousy at his disguise (lifting his skirt high enough to expose his gender when crossing a river, etc), Flora was arrested on her way back home. Her imprisonment in Dunstaffnage defines its role in Scottish history. It’s a place associated with Scottish royalty, who were always either at war with the English or with other Scottish nobles.

Situated on a platform of conglomerate rock and surrounded by the sea on three sides, Dunstaffnage Castle is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland (dating back to the 13th century), and it’s unique because it has a history of being run and occupied almost exclusively by middle management.

Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle

The first clue that the castle’s owners are not the “hands-on” type of boss is its half-arsed welcome sign, located near a nondescript parking lot that leads to a path which takes you to the castle.

Blink and you miss it.

That’ll teach you to delegate.

It’s a historically strategic spot, but it hasn’t been a family’s principal seat since Robert the Bruce took it from the clan MacDougall during the Battle of the Pass of Brander in 1308, so ownership of the castle went to the crown during the Wars of Scottish Independence. A hereditary Keeper (from clan Macarthur) was left in charge of it, a post which must not have been easy, because during this tumultuous time the crown had an on-again-off-again relationship with England, made complicated by a third party called “Other Scottish Nobles,” who regularly flirted with both Scottish and English Monarchy.

As a royal stronghold, this ever-changing relationship status with England must have been hell for the castle staff. They never knew whether they were going to be served Spotted Dick or Haggis at meal times. And then the hereditary Keeper ran out of male heirs, and control of the castle passed on to that Keeper’s daughters, both of whom married into the Stewarts of Lorn. To add anxiety to the staff’s confusion, the MacDougalls never ceased trying to regain their stronghold. At one point they attacked a Stewart Keeper, John, while he was on his way to marry his pregnant mistress to make the child legitimate. He managed to make it to Dunstaffnage chapel, living just long enough to recite his wedding vows. John had a younger brother, Walter, but with the child’s legitimacy in question, no one knew who was in charge. The child had the locals’ support, and the disputes lasted six years, until Walter decided to bail.

No wonder the whole thing’s now a ruins.

Inside the ruins

Inside the ruins


In 1470, ownership went to Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, who was married to a daughter of the last Stewart Keeper, the murdered John. Colin never stayed here, but he appointed a cousin as hereditary Captain to oversee the castle as it was used as a base for government expeditions.

It stayed in the Campbell family until 1958, when it was handed over to Historic Scotland, who tries its best to recreate the castle inhabitants’ pervading sense of bewilderment by hiring people who go on extended lunch breaks, leaving visitors with no one who could accept their entrance fee payment.

If you’re lucky (like us), you could end up going there for free, and you will leave feeling like you had the authentic “castle history experience” , when you go back to your car with a sense that you were part of something that occurred that just wasn’t right.






Gretna Green

The month of June is over, so today I’d like to talk about weddings. Gretna Green is a famous  historical destination for eloping couples and is featured in countless historical romances. Because nothing says “commitment” like the unwillingness to keep trying to convince a girl’s parents to give her hand in marriage, or even waiting until both partners are over the age of 21. They gots to get married and they gots to do it now!



The Old Blacksmith’s Shop in Gretna Green, a village just outside of Carlisle and just inside Scotland, was the place for drive-thru weddings since The Marriage Act of 1753 was passed in England.  Along with officially making it impossible to wed before the age of 21 without parental consent, the law also stated that either banns should be read before a wedding or a special license must be procured.  Like most things England enforced in her complicated relationship with Scotland, the Marriage Act didn’t fly with the Scots. Their reaction was basically, “Screw that!” and hence the elopements.

Gretna Green didn’t have casinos like Vegas, but it did have drunken anvil priests and there’s a large inn in the village where the couple could stay to make sure the “deed is done” before furious family members of either the bride or groom could arrive to prevent a clandestine marriage.

The deed would be done in a room like this.

The deed would be done in a room like this.

...or a coach like this, if they're so inclined.

…or a coach like this, if they can’t get a room. And, btw, get a room!

The best thing about it is that the weddings provided a living for the working class people of the borders. Not everyone over the age of three can be employed in the mines or the mills. One of the first anvil priests was Joseph Paisley, an ex tobacconist and smuggler.

Joseph Paisley, sketchy character, at yer shervish.

Joseph Paisley, sketchy character, at yer shervish.

His granddaughter’s husband, Robert Elliot, not only described Paisley as “grossly ignorant” but also a “mass of fat” who “drank a good deal more than was necessary to his thirst.”  It’s said Paisley was so drunk during one time when he was performing two weddings that he ended up marrying the wrong brides to the wrong grooms. The couples were probably equally drunk, or they would have tried to stop him before the ceremony ended. When the mistake was finally brought to his attention, he is quoted as saying, “Ah weel, juist sort yersels oot.” No wonder he was so sought after. I’d have loved to have this dude perform my wedding. It would have been a riot!

There’s a collection of 19th century carriages in the museum, but for me the main draw for The Old Blacksmith’s Shop were the anecdotes like the one above. You see, in one of the elopement stories, someone died. The year was 1771, Jean and John from Carlisle were itching to get married, so they tried to evade Jean’s father by crossing the border by boat through Solway Firth (an estuary) during a violent storm. One of the seamen who helped them drowned. It wasn’t a good way to start a married life together, but somehow John managed to convince his intended to go ahead. I can imagine how he did it:

Jean: Oh, John… a man died because of us! We practically sent him to his death. Surely this is a sign from God. We’re not only disappointing our families, we’ve affected someone else’s!

John: Sweets, if we don’t get married, that man would have died in vain. Is that what you want? He helped us, he believed in our love. And now you want to dishonor his memory by not seeing this through?

John would have made a good lawyer. No word on whether he made a good husband, though. The couple was “sorted oot” by Paisley.

I’d like to say my husband’s family would have accepted me as the newest member of their family if he and I met in the 1800s. They’re lovely people, but… this would have been the 1800s and things were a little different in those days. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have met at all, because there’s no way I could’ve gone to university. But, if by some strange turn of events we did meet and fall in love, then…we might have eloped, too. I probably wouldn’t have minded being his mistress, but to have children who would grow as both “half-breeds” and bastards would have been just too cruel.

I should have worn a bonnet.

We don’t have kids, but that’s beside the point.

A trend in many of the stories about couples like Jean and John is that they were evading pursuit of angry and disapproving family members, who would often get there too late. Thankfully, not all of them involved a death but there are stories of cross-dressing Lord Chancellors and an impoverished earl marrying an heiress whose granddaughter also ended up in Gretna Green…some days there are even re-enactments of such events. There wasn’t one during our visit, so we tried to do our own version:










The Isle of Mull

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

With this quote in mind, I went on holiday with my family to the same place that Dr. Johnson visited sometime in the 18th century and formed the above opinion. After a forty-five minute ferry, I arrive in Mull and this is what I see:

Would YOU live here?

Am I missing something?

The Isle of Mull is one of the largest in the Hebrides, a group of islands off the Scottish mainland, the same place where, in 1588, it’s said a member of a little known fleet of ships called the Spanish Armada docked to get provisions and exploded into what I can only assume was a riot of colors.

The colors were later immortalized in the children's TV show, "Balamory."

The colors were later immortalized in the children’s TV show, “Balamory.”

I have no idea what Dr. Johnson was complaining about. There are certainly worse places in which to live. In fact, today many citizens in the Isle of Mull were “born in other parts of the world,” mostly (and understandably) hailing from a certain part of the world’s armpit called Newcastle. We stayed in Mull for a week, and in that time I never once saw a “true local.”

Seriously, where are all the Scots?

Seriously, WHERE are all the Scots?

This is the cost of the Highland Clearances, and it’s never been more obvious than in this remote Hebridean isle. The place names are Gaelic, but none of the island’s inhabitants speak it. It’s a beautiful place filled with romantic medieval castle ruins, deserted white sand beaches, peaceful lochs, white-tailed sea eagles, otters, golden eagles, corn crakes, deer, puffins, whales, seals… and the most a lot of people could say is that it’s their second home.

Everywhere there are remnants of Highland life–you can almost see a buffed, red-haired laird from historical romance, but the clans have long since left. It’s no longer illegal to wear tartan, but somehow I doubt those bleating sheep and fat cattle these lands were cleared for would have any use for such garments.



If there was anything left of traditional Highland life after the Jacobite Risings in the 17th century, the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution got rid of it much in the same way a washing machine would clean a stain from your shirt. How the stain got there, and the lessons learned from the stain, is soon washed from memory. It happened in another time, another era in your life. So, by all means, next time you wear that shirt, feel free to eat spaghetti bolognese without a napkin.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

Holiday homes in Bunessan, Isle of Mull.

It is easy to condemn the English, or the increasingly wealthy landed gentry, for the decimation and forced migration of a culture amused by caber-tossing that even the Roman Empire failed to subjugate.

But notions that our version of “progress” and “civilization” are the best and good for the world, and that the country is running out of space due to immigration, of how unfettered investments and globalization is good for the many and not the few, are still mostly unquestioned and often win elections. When it comes to greed and ambition, to hoarding resources, I think we all remain guiltier than a puppy standing next to a puddle.

That puppy is called Rusty.

That puppy is named Rusty.







Johnson, Samuel. Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Transcribed in 1775.

St. Conan’s Kirk

It just suddenly appeared. There we were, driving on the A85 and looking forward to seeing the town called Oban, when this church demanded our attention. It was free to look around, so we did just that knowing we’d be spending nothing more than our time.
Time is gold.

Time is gold.

For the most part, St. Conan’s Kirk is all about appearance. It looked ancient, so one assumes that from its enviable location in Loch Awe, this pile of stones would have witnessed more than a millennium of bloody battles between Highland clans consumed by their burning vengeance. It was probably built by someone called Lachlan or Cormag or some equally tough, Gaelic warrior-sounding name. Never would I have imagined the guy would be some Victorian called Walter. And he built the church for his mother.
Made for Momma

Made for Momma

So, Walt (as I imagine his mom called him) was probably one of the Campbells from Argyll, headed by the Duke. Or one of the Campbells who loved canning their soup.  Being a member of either family would have given him enough resources to build this here church so his mother could appear devout without having to bother to travel very far like some pilgrim when she was mother not only to Walter but to the First Lord Blythswood.

Now, far be it for me to speculate on old Walter’s relationship with his Mama, but somehow I get the feeling she was quite difficult to impress. The project started with Walter, but soon it also involved his sister Helen. Work began in 1881 and the original church was finished by 1886. Its present form, however, was “dedicated for worship as recently as 1930. ” That information was gleaned from the guidebook discreetly available just beyond the church’s doors for 70p.

It looked like this inside.

It looked like this inside.

Nice job, Walt.

Nice job, Walt.

I assume Walter worked on the kirk long after his Mama was gone, so he really must have wanted to prove to her that he was more than just a younger son destined not to become Lord Blythswood. And how come his brother got all the attention when Walt was a brilliant architect knowledgeable in the Romanesque and Norman styles that he employed with the construction of this building which, he probably would have relished pointing out, had not only a Cloister Garth just for the heck of it but also an ossuary with some bones belonging to Robert the Bruce.

That's KING Robert the Bruce, mom!

That’s KING Robert the Bruce, mom!

By the way, that window there behind Robert the Bruce’s effigy was the original window of St. Mary’s Church (circa 1483). That church was demolished in 1836 and the window was rescued from certain “death by rotting in an Edinburgh garden” by our sentimental Walter. I’d like to see your other son do something like that, Mrs. Campbell.

So, no. Walter was not a lord. But he was talented and dedicated and to be honest, “Blythswood” sounds like a made-up name anyhow. After Walter’s death in 1914, his sister Helen continued the work according to Walter’s plans. Says something about our guy if he had such a devoted sister. I keep asking myself if I would do the same thing for my brother… I’ll keep asking until I don’t feel bad about my answer any more.

Then again, said devotion might altogether be about something else. It certainly provided Helen with an outlet to showcase her own considerable talents during a time when ladies weren’t supposed to have any beyond the ability of bearing an heir. St. Conan’s Kirk is no doubt a beautiful building that would provide the perfect backdrop to a wedding where the bride is supposed to look like a princess. The building certainly looks ancient enough to provide an illusion of reality to any bride’s royal wedding fantasy.

Cynical, I know, but the Victorians were notorious for keeping up appearances and I’m inclined to think Walter’s family was not above this. Mrs. Campbell wanted to appear devout, so her son built her a church to show his affection but this labor of love ended up being more about himself than anything.  Helen might have wanted to honor her brother’s memory (what kind of sister wouldn’t?), but she chose to do it in a way that would prove her own remarkable skills and employ locals for years and years. Actually,  I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it all for the gargoyle bunnies.

I might have done it for the gargoyles.

I probably would have, as well. Those bunnies are adorable.






Martin, J.C., Saint Conan’s Kirk Loch Awe Guidebook, House of Letterawe, 1954.

Hartside Pass

Standing proud at 1,904 feet above sea level, the sign at Hartside Summit proclaims that this section of A686 is called Hartside Pass. It ascends from Cumbria’s Eden Valley and according to AA Magazine, it’s one of the top ten drives in the world. With a steep gradient and notorious bends it provides a zigzagging  journey to the heart of the North Pennines. From this viewpoint, you can see across the Solway Firth and straight to Scotland. No matter where you look, you’ll be greeted by magnificent views of barren, windswept fells and big skies, as well as rolling fields dotted with grazing cattle and contented sheep.



I am “Zenned.”

Hartside Pass is within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as I sat on that wooden bench to contemplate the scenery I found myself agreeing with the smug claim. It’s no wonder so many poets and writers found their inspiration with the landscape in this part of the country. It is so peaceful and isolated that it’s hard to imagine people ever went up there for anything other than serenity and maybe to clear the voices in their head and put everything back into perspective. But as I look out from the summit’s viewpoint, what really impresses me about Hartside Pass is that it’s associated with this guy:

John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836)

McAdam was born in Ayr, Scotland and the word “tarmac” is named after him (for Tar McAdam) to honor his contribution to the field of road construction.  He is credited for designing the world’s first modern roads. McAdam was an engineer involved in the colliery and ironworks business. Sometime in the 1820s he was tasked by the Alston Turnpike Trust to build Hartside Pass to provide an efficient means of transporting products of the mining companies operating in the area. According to Craig David, McAdam

“discovered that massive foundations of rock upon rock were unnecessary, and asserted that native soil alone would support the road and traffic upon it, as long as it was covered by a road crust that would protect the soil underneath from water and wear.”

The method made roads a lot cheaper to build. There was still a need for surveying routes, but the actual labor could be performed by unskilled locals who’ll work for a pittance during their free time–when they are not working at the mines. Just see these charming guys here, lovingly and not at all condescendingly depicted bearing their exploitation with a grateful smile:


I bet they loved this.

Hartside is near the border between England and Scotland. Transport was difficult, unimproved until the 17th century because of the unstable relationship between the two countries, plus there were the border reivers.

So McAdam, a younger son of an impoverished baron, was responsible for the greatest advancement in road construction methods since the Roman times. The “macadam” principle is still utilized today for road maintenance, mostly with asphalting. Considering the unremitting rugged condition of the Pennines, Hartside Pass is a remarkable human achievement.

McAdam was undoubtedly a brilliant man, but as I look around from my spot at the summit to take in the harsh and poetic scenery, my thoughts are occupied by the  anonymous villagers depicted on the viewpoint sign. Their names are lost in history, their lives remain mostly untold, but the road they built is still here. I doubt they made much money for all their toil, but I give them a silent thanks before making my equally unnoticed but infinitely less significant journey back home.