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Issue 39 - Murders, trysts, tortures and treason

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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Murders, trysts, tortures and treason

Gary Hayden visits Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders.

There are few castles as grim and forbidding as Hermitage.

Built in the 13th century, on the disputed borderlands between England and Scotland, it changed hands many times. For four centuries, it presided over an area of conflict and bloodshed, earning it the epithet ‘guardhouse to the bloodiest valley in Britain.’ Even during times of peace and prosperity to the north and south, the border country remained tough, violent and inhospitable. It was home to the reivers: tribal-clans who lived in a state of semi-lawlessness and constant strife. Only the toughest could survive; and things do not come much tougher than Hermitage Castle.

It stands in gloomy isolation on bleak moorland 12 miles south of the border town of Hawick. It is stark, severe and unornamented.

Only its cavernous east and west arches break the monotony of its grey, slab-like walls.

The castle stands alongside the tree-lined banks of Hermitage Water. On a fine summer’s day, or a bright spring morning when the daffodils are in bloom, it can appear tolerably cheerful. But for the most part it is as bleak and oppressive a place as you are likely to stumble upon.

It is now little more than a shell. Its cold, mossy interior lies open to the elements, and its stairways and corridors no longer lead anywhere. But it is full of bitter memories, and is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in Britain.

The original motte-and-bailey castle was built around 1240 by Sir Nicholas de Soules (or Soulis). Sir Nicholas’s son William, also known as ‘Bad Lord Soulis’ and ‘Terrible William,’ was reputed to be a practitioner of the black arts, and has become the subject of a number of unsavoury legends.

It is said that during William’s time, local children would often disappear, never to be seen again. Legend has it that they were imprisoned in the castle dungeons, and then slaughtered during the wicked lord’s diabolical rituals.

According to one account, the local people eventually revolted. They stormed Hermitage Castle, bound William in chains, and then encased him in lead before boiling him alive in a cauldron at Nine Stane Rig, a stone-circle located two miles northeast of the castle.

An alternative version of the legend was popularised by the balladeer, Dr John Leyden, a friend of Sir Walter Scott. In his account, Bad Lord Soulis made a pact with the devil, trading his soul in exchange for a life of wicked pleasures and unbridled debauchery.

De Soulis had a familiar spirit, Robin Redcap, who promised him protection against injury from implements of steel, and assured him that nothing but a rope of sand could ever confine him: While thou shalt bear a charmed life, And hold that life of me, ‘Gainst lance and arrow, sword and knife, I shall thy warrant be.

Nor forged steel, nor hempen band, Shall e’er thy limbs confine, Till threefold ropes of sifted sand Around thy body twine.

But Redcap’s assurances proved worthless. A local magician, Thomas of Ercildoune, succeeded in binding Terrible William in a leaden belt filled with sand.

After which, the wicked lordmet his death in the boiling cauldron on Nine Stane Rig.

On a circle of stones they plac’d the pot, On a circle of stones but barely nine; They heated it red and fiery hot, Till the burnish’d brass did glimmer and shine.

They roll’d him up in a sheet of lead, A sheet of lead for a funeral pall; They plung’d him in the cauldron red, And melted him, lead and bones, and all.

Given such gory and diabolical legends, it is unsurprising that Hermitage has acquired its haunted reputation.

Sir Walter Scott once wrote: “The Castle of Hermitage, unable to support the load of iniquity which had long been accumulating within its walls, is supposed to have sunk partly beneath the ground; and its ruins are still regarded by the peasants with particular aversion and terror.” Many visitors have reported strange happenings and ghostly apparitions in and around Hermitage. It is said that the unquiet spirit of Bad Lord Soulis still haunts the castle and its environs, and that the cries and screams of children still echo within its walls.

Hermitage Castle later passed into the hands of the Douglas family. Sir William Douglas was much admired on account of his victories against the English, and became known as ‘the Knight of Liddesdale’. But at times his conduct was far from knightly.

In 1342, King David II appointed Douglas’s former comrade-in-arms, Sir Alexander Ramsay, sheriff of Teviotdale. Sir William was incensed. He seized Ramsay, held him captive in one of Hermitage’s dungeons and starved him to death. He then succeeded Ramsay as sheriff.

According to legend, Ramsay’s life was miserably prolonged by a trickle of grain escaping from a granary situated above the dungeon. His lean and hungry ghost still wanders disconsolately through Hermitage’s deserted passages.

Sir William Douglas eventually received his just deserts. In 1346, he entered into a pact with his old enemies, the English; and was later murdered by his own godson, also named William, as a punishment for his defection.

It was not until 1371 that the younger William took over the castle. It was he who built the enormous stone tower that makes up the central block of the present building.

The most romantic episode in the castle’s history occurred in 1566. James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, was wounded in a skirmish with reivers and taken to Hermitage to recover. When Mary Queen of Scots heard about this, she hurried to visit him on his sickbed, in spite of the scandal linking the two of them romantically.

She stayed just two hours and then hurried away to Jedburgh, 25 miles away. En-route, she stumbled into a bog and became so unwell that she was confined to bed for a week.

The following year, Hepburn was implicated in the death of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley. He and Mary later married. An apparition of Mary Queen of Scots, wearing a white dress, is now said to haunt Hermitage, though there seems no clear explanation as to why.

Information Hermitage Castle is now a Historic Scotland property. The website says: ‘An awesome, eerie ruin, set in a lonely spot, Hermitage Castle has a history filled with intrigue, murders, trysts, torture and treason.’ The castle is open from Easter through to September, seven days a week, from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Admission: adults £3.70, children £1.85, concessions £3. Tel: +44 (0)1387 376 222.

Due to its remote location, the castle is not served by public transport. The site is not easily accessible to visitors using wheelchairs or with limited mobility.

See The Historic William de Soules Colourful legends aside, the historic William de Soules did meet an untimely death – albeit not in a boiling cauldron at Nine Stane Rig. In 1320, he was accused of conspiring to kill King Robert the Bruce in an attempt to seize the Scottish throne. He forfeited his land and property and was executed for treason.