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.
Further information on Hermitage Castle:
Image by Leslie Rodger