Outside Kelso, where the mighty Tweed splits into the Tweed and Teviot Rivers, a raised platform of land dominates the countryside. Straddling a narrow berth between the waters, its high banks hold dominion over the low flatlands either side. Now a shadow of its former self – with only smatterings of foundation walls, still staggeringly thick, and the odd teetering archway remaining – here once stood the impregnable behemoth of Roxburgh Castle.
Perhaps founded by King David I of Scotland (the castle being first recorded c.1198, during his reign), the stronghold changed hands more often than did most castles and keeps in Scotland’s Marches. Held by the English often for long periods, and on average for as long as the Scots themselves held it, Roxburgh Castle was indisputably a critically-strategic fortress. During the guerrilla campaigns of Robert the Bruce and his close-confidant James Douglas, ‘the Good’ and ‘the Black’, during the lead-up to the Battle of Bannockburn, Douglas had secured the recapture of many Border strongholds from the English. Roxburgh, however, scared him. Taking the castle was more than just a daunting prospect, it appeared to the scant Border forces under Douglas’ command nigh-on impossible. Nevertheless, Douglas attempted it.
By cover of darkness, Douglas, Walter Stewart (6th High Steward of Scotland) and a small force of men approached the fortress dressed in dark cloaks. Whether intended or not, the English forces inside the castle apparently mistook the attackers for cattle, and so Douglas’ men reached the castle undetected. Scaling the walls with rope and ladders, the small Scottish force took the Roxburgh garrison completely by surprise, inflicting heavy casualties on the English, even wounding the garrison’s leader with an arrow to the face. Successful, Douglas claimed Roxburgh for the Scots, a necessary and decisive blow to the southerners in the approach to the Bruce’s famous victory at Bannockburn.
The castle would change hands many times still before its final destruction. Following the Wars of Independence, Roxburgh was one of the last castles in Scotland to be held by an English garrison. Over a century later, in 1460, when the English were engaged in their civil war (the War of the Roses), King James II decided time was ripe to finally retake Roxburgh for his nation. He was standing close to a cannon when he ordered it to be fired on the castle, however, and it exploded, killing him. Queen Mary of Guelders continued the siege, allowing the castle’s garrison to leave peacefully when she was successful. She had the castle demolished that same year, so that the English might never be able to hold it again. Though the Earl of Hertford had a fort constructed at the same site during the War of Rough Wooing, in 1545, it lasted but five years before it too was razed.
‘Roxburgh! how fallen, since first, in Gothic pride,
Thy frowning battlements the war defied,
Called the bold chief to grace thy blazoned halls,
And bade the rivers gird thy solid walls!
Fallen are thy towers, and, where the palace stood,
In gloomy grandeur waves yon hanging wood
Crushed are thy halls, save where the peasant sees
One moss-clad ruin rise between the trees
The still-green trees, whose mournful branches wave,
In solemn cadence, o’er the hapless brave.
Proud castle! Fancy sill beholds thee stand,
The curb, the guardian, of this Border land,
As when the signal flame, that blazed afar,
And bloody flag, proclaimed impending war,
While, in the lion’s place, the leopard frowned,
And marshalled armies hemmed thy bulwarks round.’
- from ‘Scenes of Infancy’ by John Leyden 1803