A dour, menacing, dreichness of a stronghold, Hermitage Castle was once known as the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley [Liddesdale] in Britain. Thanks to both its turbulent history and phantasmal appearance, it has a reputation as one of the most sinister and atmospheric castles in Scotland. It is also one of the best preserved-strongholds in the Borders, with the oldest surviving parts of the building dating from the early-mid 14th century.
Probably built by Sir Nicholas de Soulis in 1240 (to replace an earlier castle at Castleton), Hermitage was held by the Soulis family until 1320, when Sir Nicholas’ descendant William de Soulis was forced to forfeit the castle under suspicion of witchcraft, and the attempted regicide of King Robert I of Scotland. William’s familiar-spirit, Redcap Sly, is said to haunt the corridors of the keep.
Hermitage Castle became a royal stronghold during the Second War of Independence, was then captured by the invading English forces, before being retaken by Sir William, Earl of Douglas – a well-renowned knight known both as ‘The Knight of Liddesdale’, and ‘The Flower of Chivalry’ for his prowess in battle. After a brief stint in the hands of the Dacre family, Hermitage returned to the Douglases, first the branch known as the Black Douglases, and then to the Red. In 1492, King James IV granted Patrick Hepburn, 1st Earl of Bothwell, Hermitage Castle. In time, the castle fell to his descendant James, 4th Earl of Bothwell. As James lay wounded in Hermitage Castle, Queen Mary of Scots made her famous horseback ride from Jedburgh to see him, shortly after the birth of her son. She was to be married to Bothwell once he and his fellow conspirators had murdered her then husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Of course, history did not unfold in the Queen’s favour. Alongside other nefarious spirits, the ghost of Queen Mary is also said to haunt the castle walls.
Finally, in 1594, Hermitage Castle was granted by the crown to Sir Walter Scott ‘the Bold’ of Buccleuch. The Scotts of Buccleuch retained ownership of the castle, and in 1820 the 5th Duke of Buccleuch conducted some repairs. In 1930, Hermitage Castle passed into the care of the Nation, under protection of Historic Environment Scotland. The castle is open to visitors from April 1st through October 31st each year, and closed in winter.
‘A strange brooding silence still prevails. The Hermitage Water alone refuses to be quiescent… it sings, sometimes a soft cradle-song, sometimes a dirge, while the alders wave their flags and pay their tributes to the old, battered fortress. Within these silent walls there has been feasting and mirth, revelry and song… fasting and sorrow, the wail of captives and sighs of despair.’
- an excerpt from Liddesdale 1952, by John Byers
‘guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain… there is a menace about the massive walls, about the rain-soaked hillside, about the dreary gurgle of the river.’
- an excerpt from The Steel Bonnets Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers 1989, by George MacDonald Fraser