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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.