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Issue 89 - The View From Barnhill's Bed

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016


This article is 2 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The View From Barnhill's Bed

Charles Douglas visits the strangely named Fatlips Castle

Be careful about intimacy. Tradition has it that the 16th Century Turnbull laird who built the original Minto Castle was renowned for the ‘fullness of his pucker.’ It seems he had a habit of embracing visiting ladies in a rather more familiar manner than was considered appropriate. Another tale relates instead that the tower is haunted by a nocturnal ghost, who used to kiss the occupants as they slept. Whatever the reason, somehow the name of Fatlips Castle stuck.

Four miles north of Jedburgh in Roxburghshire, close to the border with England, this small four-storey peel tower, with its parapet walk, sits atop Minto Crags above the River Teviot, surveying the surrounding landscape. The Turnbulls of Barnhill, whose lands were originally granted to the family by Robert the Bruce, also built the nearby Barnhills Tower, now totally ruined but still visible on the north bank of the Craigend Burn. The Turnbulls, who in all probability descended from Robertus de Turnbulyes in the 13th Century, soon gained notoriety as one of the great reiving (cattle rustling) clans of the neighbourhood.
In The Lay of the Last Minstrel, written in the 19th Century, Sir Walter Scott makes reference to Barnhill's Bed, a shelf on the nearby cliffside: On Minto-crags the moon beams glint, Where Barnhill hewed his bed of flint; Who flung his outlawed limbs to rest, Where falcons hang their giddy nest, Mid cliffs, from whence his eagle eye, For many a league his prey could spy For the occupants of the Anglo-Scottish border, stealing cattle from one another, and from further afield, was a way of life from the 13th to 17th Centuries. Scotland and England were repeatedly in conflict, and the livelihoods of those who lived in the pathway of invading armies were constantly under threat. In order to survive, they frequently robbed one another.

The crunch for the Turnbulls came in the early 16th Century when James IV, despairing of the lawlessness of his Border subjects, held a mass hanging beside the Rule Water, two miles from Denholm. Minto Crag was subsequently burned in 1545 during the period known as the Rough Wooing. The Turnbulls thereafter scattered, many of them choosing to emigrate overseas to the New World while their lands, and what was left of their castles, passed to their neighbours and great rivals – the Elliots.

Situated high on Minto Crags, the steep and muddy approach path to Fatlips Castle is not for the faint hearted. Stout shoes or wellington boots and perhaps a walking pole will be necessary, should you visit. On both the ascent and the return journey, make sure that you maintain your sense of direction. In my case I found myself at a farm gate, completely lost, and in the end had to skirt a field in order to find the avenue of trees where I had left my car. On the summit above me the tower remained squat and defiant, looking for all world like a defensive fortification. However, I reminded myself that by the time of the Elliots’ tenure the dangers of invasion from intruders had passed. Fatlips had become redundant.

The Elliot family's ancestral seat at Minto Castle, near Hawick, was demolished and replaced with Minto Park. Another of the great riding clans of the Borders, it was the Elliots of Redheugh who were recognized as the principal family until their lands and chiefship passed to the Eliotts of Stobs. Gilbert Elliot, a descendant of the Stobs branch, became a Lord of Session under the judicial title of Lord Minto. In 1700, he was created a baronet. His son also became a Lord of Session, and his great grandson, Viceroy of Corsica and Governor of Bengal. In 1813, he was created 1st Earl of Minto.

For the Elliots of Minto, however, Fatlips Castle became something of a folly situated on their estate. Having been severely damaged, the keep sat empty for a long period until extensive restoration work was begun in 1857. In 1898, the 4th Earl of Minto commissioned renowned Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer to upgrade the interiors, to serve as a shooting box, and around the same time it was decided to incorporate a private museum. Unfortunately, following a spate of vandalism and a fire, the castle was abandoned in 1960 For fifty years it remained in a ruined state until David Black, of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, urged Historic Scotland and Scottish Borders Council to approve funding for a weatherproof roof to protect the building. Further contributions towards the £220,00 cost came from the Minto family and the SBC's Landfill Tax Credit Scheme.

Today an iron grilled entrance to the repointed tower leads to a vaulted basement, where no doubt the cattle were long ago quartered. To the right is a narrow re-built spiral staircase that gives access to the two floors and garret above. The tower measures just over eight metres from north to south, and just under ten metres from east to west. The great hall on the first floor is resplendent with a large oak dining table. There are shuttered windows in each of the walls provided with seats, and the east wall contains a fireplace. A round caphouse in the garret provides access to the corbelled parapet walk where, on those clear sunny days of August and September, the views over Teviotdale are truly spectacular.

You can almost imagine the thoughts of an approaching enemy as this towering stone fortress came into view high above them and fully understanding the confidence of those who occupied it. Throughout the Middle Ages it was such strongholds that kept Scotland safe and, more importantly, kept their occupants safe from the Law.

Visitor Information

Fatlips Castle
Minto Crags, Hawick, Roxburghshire, TD9 8SB

The key to Fatlips is available from Thos. B. Olivers Garage, in the village of Denholm, which is around two miles away. There is a £10 deposit payable for the key, £5 of which is returnable and £5 goes towards castle maintenance.

Contact: +44 (0) 1450 870 221.

There is also a ‘Friends of Fatlips’ Facebook group.

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