In 1566, Hermitage Castle was the setting for a dubious scenario of a slightly different kind. The incumbent lord of the castle was James Hepburn, the Fourth Earl of Bothwell. He had been variously described as “the hunkiest Scotsman” and “gorgeous and manly”.
The Ghost of Mary Queen of Scots
On the 8th of October, he was wounded in a skirmish with a noted Reiver, one Little John Elliot of the Park. He stayed in the castle to recuperate. On the 15th of October, Mary Queen of Scots was at Jedburgh as part of the annual royal ride-about, so to say, from Edinburgh. She was then still married to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her second husband, and had just a few weeks earlier given birth to her son.
On hearing that the Earl was injured, she was said to have dropped everything and hurried to his bedside. Jedburgh is 25 miles from Hermitage. In these days of motorized transport and macadamized roads, this is a very short distance. However, in those days when the normal mode of travel was by horseback over indeterminate terrain, it was not exactly the kind of journey to be undertaken at the drop of a hat.
Nevertheless, Mary Queen of Scots rode from Jedburgh to Hermitage. An entourage of servants accompanied her, as much to protect her reputation as her person. Of course, she did not stay the night. After all she was still married and, anyway, the castle was too small to accommodate a full-scale royal visit. So she stayed for a very brief two hours. Said brevity of time did nothing to douse the flames of rumors which were already rampant, linking the two in an illicit tryst.
On the journey back, her horse stumbled while crossing a bog. She fell into the marsh. Back in Jedburgh she was bed-ridden for a week, laid low with a fever which nearly took her life. She probably considered it worth the risk.
Shortly after that, her husband was murdered. James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, whom she had visited so briefly, was implicated amongst the conspirators to the dastardly act. This did not stop her from marrying the earl in May 1567. However their marriage was not the bliss they sought. Not long afterwards, Mary had to abdicate, whereas the earl died insane as a prisoner in Drangholm Castle in Denmark. His mummified body can be seen in the nearby Farevejle Church.
The ghost of Mary Queen of Scots, dressed in a beautiful white dress, still visits Hermitage Castle now and then. Perhaps it is reminiscing the all too brief rendezvous with the lord of the castle on that day so long ago, or their short marriage, only the apparition could tell.
Legends and confusion surrounding the castle
Hermitage Castle is also connected with Sir Walter Scott which was the name used by two very different persons.
In 1594, King James VI granted the castle to Sir Walter Scott of Branxholm and Buccleuch who was well-known as the Bold Buccleuch. He was a notorious Border Reiver, Warden of the Western Marches and Keeper of Liddesvale. In the 1596 daring and infamous attack on Carlisle Castle to rescue another notorious Reiver, Willie Armstrong of Kinmont, Sir Walter Scott was the leader of the attacking force.
In the early 19th century, a writer by the name of Sir Walter Scott had his own portrait painted with Hermitage Castle in the background. This generated a resurgence of interest in the old legends and folk-tales surrounding the castle. Dr John Leyden, a friend of Sir Walter Scott, was a ballad writer who produced many stories of myth and magic which had become confused with reality over the years.
The sightings of Alexander de Ramsay
There is one tale which may actually be more truth than fiction. In 1338, Hermitage Castle was captured by Sir William de Douglas. Sir William, the Knight of Liddesvale, was born about 1300. He distinguished himself with his valor and success in battle and was called by his contemporaries the “Flower of Chivalry”.
Sir Alexander de Ramsay, the ancestor of the present Earl of Dalhousie, was one of the most valorous knights in the court of David II. In 1338, he captured the Castle of Roxburgh. The king was so pleased with this exploit that he immediately conferred upon Sir Alexander the office of Sheriff of Teviotdale. He forgot that the said office was already held by Sir William, the Knight of Liddesvale.
Sir William solved the problem in his own way. When the unsuspecting new Sheriff, Sir Alexander, was presiding at a court at Hawick, Sir William captured him and carried him off to Hermitage Castle. Then he was imprisoned in one of the deepest dungeons, a frightful pit apparently airless and devoid of any sanitation, without food until he died of starvation.
Sir Alexander’s incarceration was prolonged by some grains of corn which fell through some cracks in the floor of an upper chamber above his prison cell. Still, that was not enough to sustain him forever and he finally died from lack of nourishment. The Chronicler, Andrew Wynton, remarked,
“Of his dethe wes grete pete. To tell you thare-off the manere is bot sorow to tell here.”
News of Sir Alexander’s death reached the king. He quickly appointed a new one, none other than Sir William de Douglas. In fiction, the story would probably have Sir William arrested by the king and executed for having done away with one of the king’s appointed men. However, the stark truth was that expediency won the day over justice, as usual.
In the early 1800s, a mason broke down the walls and discovered a sealed-up dungeon. In the dungeon there was a skeleton crumbled over a rusty sword. This could be the mortal remains of Sir Alexander de Ramsay. His ghost still haunts Hermitage Castle. Its bloodcurdling screams and cries for help can still be heard echoing out from the castle over the bleak valley at night. Its tragic and emaciated figure has also been sighted numerous times.
Duality of Hermitage Castle
Its very name has two possible origins. One possibility is that the word “hermitage” is the Anglicized form of the Old French word “l’armitage” which means “guardhouse”. Hermitage Castle is well-known as the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain. It is also known as the “Strength of Liddesdale” because it is a key post in controlling the Scottish Middle March.
Another possibility is that the name “hermitage” comes from an ancient holy man who used the site near Liddel Water as a remote and isolated place for contemplation and prayer. This sage is said to have lived in the valley long before the castle was built.
In keeping with its tradition, Hermitage Castle is the starting point of two tails of the genealogical kind. When Sir William de Douglas, the Knight of Liddesvale, died at the hands of his near kinsman and namesake, William Douglas, the First Earl of Douglas, Hermitage Castle fell into the hands of the Dacre family for a time. Then it came back into the possession of Earl William. His sons provided the seeds, so to say, of the two famous branches of the house, the “Black” (for Earls of Douglas) and the “Red” (for Earls of Angus)
Nevertheless, would-be visitors to Hermitage Castle do not have to be in two minds about whether to add the castle to their itinerary. This is a must-do for any avid fan of the spooky and the spectral.
Back to part one of Hermitage Castle.
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Hermitage Castle is full of tales with two tails, so to say. The location of Hermitage Castle has the mark of duality. It is in Scotland, in the southern part of Roxburghshire, a few miles from Riccarton Junction, on the north bank of Hermitage Water which is formed by Twistlehope Burn and Braidley Burn to become a tributary of River Liddel, not far from the ancient border between Scotland and England.
It stands on what is called “debatable land” meaning land that is exchanged between Scottish and English hands during the border wars and skirmishes. Sometimes, its ownership changed hands even without a fight when the incumbent lord of the castle switched allegiance from the Scottish king to the English king or the other way round.
The first castle on the site was a Norman motte and bailey fortification, most probably built by Sir Nicholas de Soulis in the 1242. The mere construction of the castle almost brought Scotland and England to the brink of war. Sir Nicholas was the butler of the King of Scotland. King Henry III of England objected vehemently to the construction of the fortification because it was too close to the border which was then the River Liddel.
Hermitage Castle remained the property of the Soulis family until about 1320 when William de Soulis lost his life and forfeited his lands on account of charges of witchcraft and attempted regicide of King Robert I of Scotland. Here, again, there are two versions of how William de Soulis met his end. The official version is that he died, a prisoner, in Dumbarton Castle. The popular version is very much more interesting:
The atrocities and the haunting of Bad Lord Soulis
William de Soulis, nicknamed the Bad Lord Soulis, was said to have been a practitioner of the black arts. Children in the vicinity of the castle disappeared under suspicious circumstances. It was said that he abducted the children and kept them in the castle dungeon to be used in bloody rituals.
The Bad Lord Solis had an assistant in the form of a familiar called Robin Redcap. The Red Caps was also the name given to bands of robbers in the border regions who had a macabre practice. They soaked their caps in the blood of their victims to attain the signature gory color. In the case of Robin Redcap, the blood of the abducted children was used to summon him.
Robin Redcap promised Bad Lord Soulis that he would not be harmed by forged steel or ever be bound by rope. With such a reassuring guarantee of safety, Bad Lord Soulis had no qualms about dealing with his tenantry as he pleased. The local peasants appealed to the King Robert the Bruce for help. It was rumored that the final straw came when the evil lord of the castle invited the Cout of Kielder and his party to a banquet at the castle. The entire group of dinner guests was treacherously massacred.
Finally, the king was so fed up with being bombarded with the daily pleas of the people that he was reported to have said,
“Boil him if you must but let me hear of him no more.”
Taking this as a royal command, the people around Hermitage Castle did just that. First they consulted a wizard, Thomas of Ercildoune aka True Thomas. They wanted to know how to get round the unholy enchantment of Robin Redcap regarding immunity from injury by forged steel and ropes.
The good wizard put on his thinking cap and came up with a simple solution. A belt was made of lead, thus bypassing the mantra against forged steel. Then sand was poured into the belt, thus nullifying the defense against rope. With this special device, the peasants stormed the castle. Bad Lord Soulis was bound in the rope of sand and taken to Nine Stane Rigg, an ancient megalithic circle of nine stones on top of a nearby hill, two miles north-east of the castle. In a ballad, the end of the scourge of Hermitage was celebrated in verse like this,
“On a circle of stones they placed the pot,
On a circle of stones but barely nine;
They heated it red and fiery hot,
And the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.
They rolled him up in a sheet of lead—
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall;
They plunged him into the cauldron red,
And melted him body, lead, bones, and all.”
Thus ended the reign of terror with the perpetrator boiled in a brass cauldron of molten lead wrapped in a sheet of lead. His ghost and those of his victims still haunt Hermitage Castle. The screams which were part and parcel of his nefarious rituals can still be heard coming from inside the castle walls. Sometimes the sounds of demoniacal laughter can also be heard coming from the deserted ruins at night.
The pitiful souls of the children he used in his satanic practices are said to still wander around the castle with broken-hearted sobbing. His dark presence still shrouds the ambiance of the surroundings with an evil foreboding.
Once, every seven years, his ghost keeps a tryst with Robin Redcap at Hermitage Castle, according to the words of the ballad,
“And still when seven years are o’er,
Is heard the jarring sound,
When hollow opes the charmed door
Of chamber underground.”
Incidentally, Robin Redcap is said to be still lurking somewhere in the shadows of the castle grounds, waiting for lost travelers.
Paranormal Activity at the Drowning Pool
The final chapter of this reign of terror has a touch of ambiguity as is common with most tales associated with Hermitage Castle. About a quarter of a mile to the north-west of the castle there is a small mound next to the ruins of a chapel. This mound is said to be the grave of a giant of an Englishman, a Tynesdale baron called the Cout of Kielder.
This cout is said to have terrorized the area wearing magical chain-mail armor which was impervious to blows. He was finally killed by drowning in a deep pool of water in the river. This pool, which is very near to the grave, is known as the Drowning Pool. Whether he was the one and same man as the Cout of Kielder massacred by the Bad Lord Soulis is open to conjecture.
A visitor had once experienced the eerie sensation of being pushed toward the water when he was near the Drowning Pool. Whether there is a ghost lurking in its depths or there is other paranormal activity is open to investigation. More about the castle and its specters can be found in Hermitage Castle Part Two.
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Image by Leslie Rodger