Hermitage Castle Part Two

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”.

Photo in Hermitage Castle

Photo in Hermitage Castle – Courtesy of Nick

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.

Further information on Hermitage Castle:

Hermitage Castle on Wikipedia