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Blog - Tantallon Castle

Posted on 20/01/2014

A potted history of Tantallon Castle, East Lothian, Scotland

Scotland is a country not short of a castle or two, but they’re not of the aesthetic variety in most cases. Imposing forts that overlook sea defences, many were used to protect Scotland from raiders and other terrible situations during hard times, and Tantallon Castle is no different.

A 20-minute train ride away from Edinburgh, and accessible from the A1 and and A119, Tantallon imposes on the sea in the North Berwick area, from a cliff overlooking the Firth of Forth. Built on a previously fortified spot by William Douglas, the 1st Earl of Douglas, in the 1350s, Tantallon is steeped in Scotland’s dark history, and remained in the possession of one of the most powerful families in Scotland for almost three centuries.

House of political treason

Tantallon castle housed occasional political prisoners in the 1400s and provided a backdrop to plenty of treasonous planning by various Earls of Douglas over the years, including more than one that involved supplanting the young James V. The 6th Earl of Angus even married the king’s mother following the death of James IV, and attempted to take the infant king to England. Eventually, he incarcerated the teenage king at Tantallon, but James V escaped at age 16, and returned swiftly to successfully besiege the castle in 1528.

Sieges and improved fortifications

Besieged three times between 1491 and 1651, Tantallon was the last castle in Scotland to be built with curtain walls, and although these were suitable for dealing with catapult onslaught and other mediaeval artillery, they were not so good for gun battles. During the repairs that followed the 1528 siege, James V had many chambers and passages behind the wall filled in with rocks and masonry, as well as adding a crenellation to the parapets. This and other strengthening work can still be seen today.

Further association with the English

Following James V’s death in 1542, the 6th Earl of Angus returned for his castle. The Douglas family retained their political interests, which were always very England-orientated, and even made the castle available as accommodation for the English ambassador, when the two countries were negotiating a marriage between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry VIII’s son, Edward.

Devastated by Cromwell

Although the castle was spared ransacking by English troops on several occasions due to the well-known English sympathies held by the Douglas family, its retention of Catholicism during the Scottish Reformation eventually put the castle in the line of fire of Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarian troops in 1651. A small group of men based at Tantallon intercepted Cromwell’s lines of communication, which led to him laying siege to the castle with around 2-3,000 men, although the men inside numbered only 91. It took 12 days, but eventually Cromwell breached the Douglas Tower with cannon, and Tantallon was left ruined. The men inside, however, were allowed to leave unscathed; granted quarter because they had demonstrated such bravery.

Intriguing day trip

Tantallon is a category A listed building, and is in the care of Historic Scotland, despite being left to decay for many years, and even quarried for stone during the 1700s. There are many interesting features to examine, and it has a breathtaking view of the Bass Rock in the Firth, and the sea beyond. So much of it still remains that it makes an excellent day-trip out of Edinburgh, helping visitors understand the historical context, and with excellent views of the surrounding sea and countryside.

Photo credit: jsutcℓiffe