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Issue 77 - Built to Shock and Awe

Scotland Magazine Issue 77
October 2014


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Built to Shock and Awe

Charles Douglas visits Dalhousie Castle in Midlothian

Imagine that you were an invading medieval army approaching across the rolling fields of Midlothian from the south, and looming large on the skyline you saw in front of you the seemingly impregnable bulk of Dalhouse Castle. Your heart would have missed a beat.

Although nowadays transformed into a luxury hotel, this magnificent Norman-style fortress which over the centuries has hosted the likes of Edward I of England, Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell, still creates that same sense of shock and awe, albeit on a far more welcoming basis that in days of old.

And on that basis, Dalhouse Castle must surely be one of the formidable fortifications in the Scottish Lowlands. And as the southern stronghold of the powerful Ramsay family (family motto: “Pray and Work”), staunch supporters of the Scottish Freedom movement under Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, it needed to be.

Our story begins with Simundus de Ramesie, a vassal of David, Earl of Huntingdon, heir to the Scottish throne, who accompanied his feudal lord from England when he returned home to Scotland in 1140. On being crowned King of Scots, David I granted Simundus, or Simon, the lands of “Dalwolsey” on the approach roads to Edinburgh, and thus commenced the fortunes of the Ramsay Clan who were to rise to prominence as earls of Holderness and Dalhousie, and one of them was even to marry a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

It was on a strategic site overlooking the River Esk that Simon Ramsay built his first stronghold, albeit this was supplanted three centuries later by the current structure: an L-Plan castle with a drum tower. Although much of the current building dates from the 17th century, it is still possible to both see and imagine where an early moat surrounded the walls.

One of the almost forgotten heros of the wars between England and Scotand in the 14th century, was Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie. Appointed Warden of the Middle Marches, he waged a relentless guerilla operation to intercept the convoys of the enemy, capture their possessions and seriously hinder their operations. They were brave, resourceful men these Norman-Scots and no Anglo-Norman was going to be allowed to get the better of them.

One of Sir Alexander's sons, also Alexander, was made Sheriff of Teviotdale in 1342. In the incestuous world of Scotland at the time, this appointment aroused the jealousy of the Clan Douglas, who claimed the office as their own. Sir William Douglas of Liddesdale therefore fell upon Alexander Ramsay with a strong force of men and imprisoned him in Hermitage Castle, where he starved to death. Alexander’s brother, William, also endured captivity when he was captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 but fortunately survived to tell the tale.

Thus was the way of life in medieval Scotland, strength of arms and fathering a large family were the only guarantees of survival. In 1400, Dalhousie Castle successfully withstood a six month siege from an invading army led by Henry IV of England. In 1513, Sir Alexander's descendant and another namesake was killed at the disasterous Battle of Flodden in which the bulk of Scotland's nobility was killed. Dalhousie Castle thereafter passed to this Sir Alexander's son, Sir Nicolas, who became a staunch supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Nevertheless, needs must and after her final defeat, the Ramsays took the astute step of acknowledging her son as James VI of Scotland and they were later to be handsomely rewarded for saving that monarch’s life. In 1600, John Ramsay, one of Nicolas’s great-grandsons, killed the Earl of Gowrie and his brother, Alexander Ruthven, who were apparently attempting to kidnap the king in what was to become known as the Gowrie Conspiracy.

In gratitude, King James created John Ramsay Earl of Holderness and Viscount Haddington, and John's eldest brother George, who represented Kincardineshire in the Scottish Parliament of 1617, became Lord Ramsay in 1618. He was succeeded by his eldest son, who in 1633 was created Lord Ramsay of Keringtoun and Earl of Dalhousie, in the County of Midlothian, in the Peerage of Scotland.

The 1st Earl's grandson, the 3rd Earl, fought at the Battle of Bothwell Brig in 1679; the 4th Earl, was killed in a duel, and the 5th Earl became a Brigadier General in the British Army and fought in the War of Spanish Succession.

The 9th Earl (1770-1838) served as Governor General of British North America, then Commander-in-Chief of India. In 1815, he was created Baron Dalhousie of Dalhousie Castle in the County of Edinburgh, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, and this entitled him to an automatic seat in the British House of Lords.

His son, James Broun-Ramsay also served as Governor General of India from 1847 to 1856, during a period of great expansion of British interest on the sub-continent and was created Marquess of Dalhousie in 1849. The title died with him and in 1861, his cousin, Fox Maule-Ramsay (1801-1874), 2nd Baron Panmure, became 11th Earl of Dalhousie, bringing with him through his grandmother's family the extensive Maule estates in Angus.

By the turn of the 20th century, the seat of Clan Ramsay was relocated to the equally splendid medieval Brechin Castle in Angus, largely re-built by James Maule, 4th Earl of Panmure between 1696 and 1709. Although the Ramsays of Dalhousie continued to own Dalhousie Castle and its estate until 1977, it was leased out to a series of tenants, at one stage serving as a boarding school. Then in 1972, it was transformed into a stylish hotel and spa.

In March 2012, Robert Parker, owner of Doxford Eshot and Guyzance Hall in Northumberland purchased Dalhouse Castle, and in 2014, Castle Rocks, the 13th century workers' lodge, a two minute walk from the castle over Dalhousie Bridge, was fully restored and refurbished.

Today, therefore, guests can occupy one of the opulent twenty nine individually created bedrooms, many themed around famous historical figures and decorated in Scottish design fabrics such as tweed, tartan and twill. They can also enjoy dinner in the castle's ancient stone-walled, barrel-vaulted Dungeon Restaurant, partake in falconry at the on-site mews, and relax afterwards in the private spa.

Dalhousie Castle in the 21st Century, no longer under attack from invading armies, provides an idyllic location for small and medium sized weddings. In addition, its five function rooms and close proximity to Scotland's Capital make it a superb location for corporate events and meetings.


Dalhousie Castle
Bonnyrigg, Midlothian EH19 3JB
Tel: +44 (0) 1875 820 153
Fax: +44 (0) 8436 597 194