Situated in the Scottish Borders, the foreboding and sinister-looking Hermitage Castle is a partially ruined fortress that dates back to the mid 13th century.
The name ‘Hermitage’ is thought to have derived from the Old French word l’armitage, which means ‘guardhouse’, and the castle was known as the guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain.
Hermitage Castle was initially built in the typical Norman Motte and Bailey style by a Nicholas de Soulis, around 1240. The castle stayed within his family for the next 80 years, but was forfeited in around 1320 when William de Soulis was accused of witchcraft, as well as the attempted murder of King Robert I. It was said that Soulis was arrested and taken to Ninestane Rig, a nearby stone circle, and was executed by being boiled in molten lead. However, the truth of it was that he actually died as a prisoner in Dumbarton Castle.
During the English invasion, Hermitage Castle was captured and granted to Englishman Sir Ralph de Neville. However, the Douglases took Hermitage Castle in 1338, when Sir William Douglas, The Knight of Liddesdale, besieged the castle, forcing de Neville to leave. Sir William held onto Hermitage until 1353 when he was murdered by his godson, and namesake, William Douglas, future 1st Earl of Douglas. After Sir William’s death Hermitage passed to the English Dacre family for a brief period. The castle passed, via an inheritance, to the Earl William Douglas not long after, and so was once again in Douglas hands. It was the 1st Earl of Douglas who ordered the construction of most of the present building. The Earl had an affair with his sister-in-law, Margaret, Countess of Mar, and their bastard son, George, went on to become 1st Earl of Angus, whilst his legitimate son, James, inherited the Earldom of Douglas. This saw the formation of two famous branches of Clan Douglas – the ‘Black’ (Earls of Douglas), and the ‘Red’ (Earls of Angus).
The Black Douglases, who held Hermitage Castle, were a notorious family, and often fell on the wrong side of the monarchy. By 1455, the then king, James II, had had enough of the Black Douglases and he forfeited the title of Earl of Douglas, which would remain dormant until 1633. The castle, including other beneficiaries, passed to the Red Angus branch of Douglases.
The 5th Earl of Angus, Archibald Douglas, known as “Bell the Cat”, held Hermitage Castle at the same time as Tantallon Castle in East Lothian, and the Liddesdale estates. Despite appearing to be on good terms with King James IV, he secretly made a pact with the English king, Henry VII, sometime around either 1489 or 1491, in which Douglas agreed to hand over Hermitage Castle in return for English estates. However, James was already suspicious of Douglas’s relationship with the English monarch, and in 1492 ordered him to hand over Hermitage Castle and his Liddesdale estate to the Crown, and in return was compensated with Bothwell Castle, and Patrick Hepburn, 1st Earl of Bothwell became keeper of Hermitage. Patrick Hepburn would later die, along with a son, at the disastrous Battle of Flodden in 1513.
After the death of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, in the notorious Dragsholm Castle in Denmark in 1578, the title of Earl of Bothwell and Hermitage Castle passed to his nephew Francis Stewart. Stewart was also a grandson of James V, albeit through an illegitimate line, and he was even seen as a potential replacement for James VI by some. However, this was not to be, and the 5th Earl of Bothwell, after getting in trouble with the law, had to forfeit the castle in 1593, and once again Hermitage Castle reverted to the Crown.
In 1594 James VI bestowed the castle upon Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, who was known as a notorious Border Reiver, as well as a Warden of the western marches. However, after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the borders region between Scotland and England became a lot more peaceful, and the need for fortresses, such as Hermitage Castle, became obsolete. The castle eventually fell into disrepair, and by the beginning of the 1700s it was ruinous. Despite being a ruin, Hermitage Castle remained in a Scott property right up until 1930, when it was given to the state, and is now in care of Historic Scotland.
There are numerous ghosts that are said to haunt Hermitage Castle. Probably the most famous of them is the spirit of Mary, Queen of Scots, who’s second husband had been James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.