Tantallon Castle

A major coastal fortress said to date from the late fourteenth 
century by the Douglases, but research into its early history does not support this assumption.

The land on which Tantallon was built was held by the earls of Fife until at least the late fourteenth century, although the castle is claimed to have been built by the Douglases during this time.  In 1346 William Douglas (c. 1327–1384) returned from France to Scotland to claim his inheritance when he came of age.  He was the half-nephew of Robert the Bruce's companion Sir James Douglas (d.1330).  In 1353 William killed his godfather, another William Douglas, in the Ettrick Forest, thus making himself the undisputed head of the House of Douglas.  In 1356 he escaped from the Black Prince's defeat of the French at Poitiers, although many of his Scotsmen were slain or captured there.  In 1358 he was created the first earl of Douglas for his part in negotiating the release of King David II (d.1371) from the hands of Edward III (d.1377).  Later, in 1364, he helped his king in negotiating the passing of the succession to Scotland on to Lionel of Antwerp, a son of Edward III.  However they were thwarted in this and Scotland passed to David's nephew, as King Robert II in 1371.  Douglas was soon reconciled to the new regime and it has always been presumed that Tantallon castle was built by him before his death in 1384.

The evidence cited for the Douglases building the castle is that William was holding the castle when first mentioned and that it appears on Gough's map of Britain, dated to 1355-66, as a castellated site with the name of Dentaloune.  This work is often said to copy a map of circa 1280, but as it contains Beaumaris, only founded in 1295 and Sheppy, renamed Queensborough in the 1340s, this seems unlikely.  We also know that on 21 June 1374, Earl William of Douglas and Mar (d.1384) sealed a charter in castro nostro de Temptalon.  Yet as late as 20 February 1388, the earl of Fife, who had inherited the title, was still the lord of the fortress.  In his charter, Earl Robert Stewart of Menteith (d.1420), granted his cousin, Countess Margaret Stewart of Mar and Angus (d.1418), who he found living at the castle of Temtaloun, which was his own ward, to stay there as long as she wished.  From this document we can see that her lover, Earl William (d.1384), could only have been castellan for the earls of Fife.  One wonders where Earl William's wife, Margaret (d.1390), the daughter of Earl Donald of Mar (d.1332), was living while her husband's mistress was in residence.

Notwithstanding the modern claim that Earl Douglas built the castle, the evidence shows that a castle was standing here in 1366 at the very latest - that is eight years before Earl William Douglas declared that the castle was his and eight years after he had been created an earl.  Judging from the size of the castle it is possible that the fortress was built in about 3 years - this is the time Edward I took to carry out comparable castle work - viz the upgrade of Harlech in Wales in 1286-89, or the building of Conway, Flint and Rhuddlan castles.  It is therefore possible that Earl William did build the castle.  It is also possible that William simply took the castle over from the earls of Fife who actually owned the land it was built upon and who continued to claim it as their fortress until at least 1437.  Considering that there are remains of a building underneath the current castle it is necessary to take a brief look at the earls of Fife as quite obviously they were responsible for building something here.

The first earl of Fife, who may have been responsible for works on the scale of Tantallon, was Earl Malcolm who died in 1266.  He had married Susannah, the daughter of Prince Llywelyn of Gwynedd in 1237 after being precontracted when she was a child in 1228.  Harlech, the original evidence rather than modern speculation shows, had been a castle of Prince Llywelyn, although it was quite different from the castle which Edward I finished in 1289.  Malcolm left two underage sons.  The elder became Earl Colban when he reached his majority about 1268.  He seems to have died in 1270.  It therefore seems unlikely that he had the time or opportunity to build a major fortress at Tantallon.  His son, Earl Duncan, was only 8 at the time of his father's death and only inherited the earldom in 1284.  He was murdered four years later on 25 September 1288, leaving a 3 year old son, Duncan, as next earl.  Again it seems unlikely that he built a castle at Tantallon, although the unstable state of the realm following the death of King Alexander III in 1286 might have made such building works sensible.  Duncan came of age in 1308 and came to support King Robert Bruce against Edward II.  He was taken prisoner at the disastrous battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332 and then assisted in the crowning of King Edward Balliol.  In 1341 he abandoned King Edward's cause and joined with King David (d.1371), being captured with his king at the battle of Neville's Cross in 1346.  Narrowly escaping execution as a traitor to King Edward Balliol, he was allowed home to raise his ransom in 1340.  He died 3 years later leaving only a daughter as heiress.  Over the next 18 years she married several times and was widowed on each occasion.  Finally she resigned her earldom of Fife to one of her brothers-in-law, Earl Robert of Menteith (d.1420), saving her mother's dower, on 30 March 1371, as she found herself unable to withstand the encroachments of others.  It therefore seems most unlikely that under her troubled leadership a castle was built at Tantallon.  The evidence would therefore tend to suggest that the great remains of Tantallon castle were built by Earl Duncan of Fife, sometime after 1318, when the Scottish wars died down and his death in 1353.  This would leave the next few years for the Douglas clan to turn their constableship of the castle into de facto ownership - even if it did take nearly 100 years for them to acquire undisputed control of the castle.  If this scenario is correct the castle was probably built only a decade or two before its traditional founding date by the Douglases.

Earl William Douglas' legitimate son and heir, Earl James, was killed at the battle of Otterburn in 1388.  As a consequence, in 1389, Countess Margaret of Angus and Mar (d.1418), resigned her earldom in favour of George (d.1403), her illegitimate son by Earl William.  Thus George became the first Douglas earl of Angus and Mar as well as lord of Tantallon castle.  From this time onwards the titular ownership of the earls of Fife to Tantallon seems to have been removed.  Despite this, the earls of Fife continued to hold the surrounding barony of North Berwick and often pressed their claim to the castle, even though it had passed initially to Earl James (d.1388) and then his sister.  At this time the house of Douglas was again divided.  The head to the main line was now Archibald, the illegitimate son of James (d.1330).  This line became known as the ‘Black Douglases'.  George of Angus became head of the ‘Red Douglasses'.  The history of the castle itself appears obscure at this time for the fortress seems to have passed from James (d.1388) to Isabella (d.1408) - the daughter of Earl William (d.1374) and her husband, Malcolm Drummond (d.1402).  After the death of James, the new regent, who was also earl of Fife, Robert Stewart (d.1420), wrote to the constable of the castle, Alan Lauder, ordering him to deliver the castle to his custody.  Alan obviously refused and Stewart's brother, King Robert II (d.1390) had to command Lauder again to turn the fortress over the earl of Fife.  It was only on 20 January 1389, Countess Margaret of Mar (d.1390), the mother of Isabella (d.1408), agreed to allow Fife into the castle in his position as superior of the barony of North Berwick and exercise his right of wardship.  In return Fife agreed to protect the countess from all comers and maintain her and her men there.  Later a special protection was given to Malcolm Drummond (d.1402) on 19 June 1389 which included his castle of Teintalon.  Malcolm and his lady also played a part in the history of Kildrummy castle.  Meanwhile Fife had taken control of Tantallon and was issuing orders
, witnessed by Drummond, from there in his position as Guardian of Scotland.

After the death of the second earl of Angus and Mar in 1437, the earl of Fife claimed the castle and the king wrote to the inhabitants of the barony of North Berwick as well as to Alan Lauder, the keeper and constable of Tantallon castle, directing them to obey the earl of Fife in all things and to render up the fortress to him.  Presumably this was not done as the earls of Angus remained firmly in control of Tantallon and Earl James (1437-46) made the castle his main stronghold.  It was around this time that the main castle ditch was said to have been widened and a barbican built directly in front of the gatehouse.  The castle was now used as a secure prison.  From 1425 to 1433, Countess Isabella of Lennox (d.1456), the widow of the executed Duke Murdoch of Albany (d.1425), was held at Tantallon.  During this period, from 1429 to 1431, another royal enemy, Alexander, Lord of the Isles (d.1449), was held here until his reconciliation with King James I (d.1437).  In 1443 Earl James rebelled and raided the Black Douglas lands of Abercorn.  This led to inevitable retaliation and the forfeiture of the fortress to the Crown in 1446 - just a few months before James' death.  In 1452 King James II (d.1460) granted Tantallon to the fourth earl, George Douglas, brother of the third earl.  He led a royal army which defeated the Black Douglases at the Battle of Arkinholm in May 1455.  He was also standing next to the king in 1460 when he was wounded and the king killed by an exploding cannon.

In 1482 the fifth earl, Archibald 'Bell-the-Cat' (1453–1514), the son of Earl George, turned against the king.  Eventually, on 11 October 1491, the castle was besieged by King James IV (d.1513).  Guns were sent from Edinburgh and Linlithgow, and crossbows and culverins from Leith.  Despite this the castle does not seem to have suffered much damage.  Angus soon submitted and by 1493 he was chancellor to King James.  The rehabilitation was so strong that in 1514 Archibald's grandson, another Archibald, the 6th earl (1490–1557), married James IV's widow, Margaret (d.1541).  She was the sister of the ‘Tudor' king, Henry VIII (d.1547).  As such Archibald became regent of Scotland for her infant son, James V (1512-42).  The couple unsuccessfully conspired to take the young king to England, sparking off yet another civil war.  The regency was then handed to Duke John Stewart of Albany (d.1536) who seized Tantallon in 1515.  It was returned the following year when Archibald made his peace with Albany on 28 March 1516.  The terms of the peace make it plain that Temptalloun was now the earl's main castle.

In 1525, Archibald, with support of his brother-in-law, Henry VIII of England, staged a virtual coup d'état, taking custody of the young King James and becoming chancellor.  Three years later in 1528, the 16 year old James V escaped.  With his mother at Stirling he pronounced Angus attainted and banished him to north of the River Spey.  Instead Archibald moved first to Tantallon and then to England after burying his muniments in a large beef pot under a little bridge near the farthest gate of the castle.  Again this shows that the castle contained the main muniments of the earls of Angus and so was their primary fortress.

On 23 October 1528, King James in person laid siege to Tantallon which was defended by Archibald's servant Simon Penango.  James V borrowed French guns from Dunbar castle which was held by the French garrison of the duke of Albany.  According to Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie's chronicle (written 1565-80), the guns supplied by Captain Maurice of Dunbar were ‘Thrawinmouth, Mow and her marrow (partner), two great botcards, two moyanes, two double falcons, four quarter falcons, with powder, gunners and bullets'.  James left three hostages with Maurice in pledge of returning the guns.  The castle was then ineffectively bombarded for 20 days.  The trouble was the guns could not be brought close enough to the walls to do substantive damage due to the deep outer ditch and defensive works.  Consequently the king lifted the siege and returned to Edinburgh 16 miles from Temtalloune.  This proved a mistake for Archibald promptly counterattacked the remaining royal forces and captured the artillery and killed the principal royal gunner David Falconer.  In May 1529, Archibald again left for England and the castle became a royal fortress until James V's death in 1542.  Archibald then returned to Scotland and recovered the castle and his muniments from the safe resting place under the little bridge.

After the 1528-29 siege, the king's secretary, Sir Thomas Erskine of Brechin, was made keeper and then the castle was given to the king's eldest illegitimate son, James.  Accounts for the period 1537–1539 record that George Sempill, the master mason, was carrying out repairs under the direction of John Scrimgeour, the royal Master of Works.  At this time the front of the gatehouse was rebuilt and the E tower strengthened.  Originally it consisted of five floors, but now the bottom three floors were reduced to two by inserting stone vaults, improving resistance to artillery bombardment.  Wide-mouthed gun ports were cut through the landward walls of the tower.  Finally a new crenellated parapet was added to the curtain wall.  It was probably around this time that several of the earlier mural chambers and passages within the great curtain wall were filled with masonry.  The Pitscottie Chronicle stated that: ‘the king caused masons come and ranforce the wallis, quhilkis war left waste before as transis (passages), and through-passages; and maid all massie work, to mak it the more strang'.  It seems possible that the gun tower beside the outer gate and possibly the ravelin (an earthen gun emplacement) beyond were also built around this time.

On King James' death in 1542, Archibald reclaimed his lands and allowed Sir Ralph Sadler, the English ambassador for Henry VIII to Scotland, to reside at Tantallon during the attempts to negotiate a marriage between Mary Queen of Scots, and Prince Edward of Wales during 1542–43.  On 25 October 1543 Sadler reported that the house of Temptallon was unfurnished as the lodgings had been taken down to be built anew.  Despite not initially being able to find ‘bedding or household stuff' for either purchase or hire, Sadler had moved in by 6 November and though it was ‘a slender lodging' the strength of the castle made him feel safe.

The failure of the negotiations led to the War of the Rough Wooing in 1544 when Henry attempted to force the marriage of his son on the Scottish princess.  During this the earl of Hertford invaded Scotland unsuccessfully.  Archibald by this time was imprisoned in Hamilton castle and Tantallon was held by his son, the Master of Morton.  The castle was initially bypassed by the English army, though when the army fell back, and Angus had abandoned his English alliance, the castle of Oliver Sinclair, presumably Tantallon, is listed amongst places burned.  In August 1548 the gunners of Tantallon were rewarded after firing on English ships during an engagement in the Firth of Forth.  Archibald finally died in his castle of Tantallon in January 1557.  On the death of his heir, his nephew, David, soon afterwards, the castle was seized by Queen Mary of Guise, who was regent for her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots.  It was again repaired the following year with timber being sent from Leith and barrowmen cleared out the well.

In 1558, George Drummond of Blair was keeper of Tantallon with a garrison of 7 horsemen and 22 soldiers.  The castle then seems to have become something of a backwater until it saw action again during the Bishops' Wars.  The Douglas family tended to remain Catholic after the Scottish Reformation, so incurring the wrath of the Presbyterian Covenanters, who opposed Charles I's attempts to interfere with the Scottish church.  In 1639, the Covenanters captured Tantallon while William, newly created Marquess of Douglas, was staying in Edinburgh.

In 1650, during the Third English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces invaded Scotland, taking control of the south of the country after their victory at Dunbar in September.  In February 1651, Cromwell found his lines of communication under attack from a small group of Royalists based around North Berwick.  One group, led by Alexander Seton, comprised 91 men in Tantallon castle.  In reply Cromwell sent over 2,000 troops under General Monck, together with much of the artillery he had in Scotland to negate the problems.  On 14 February Seton was made viscount of Kingston by Charles II, but after 12 days of bombardment a breach was made in the Douglas tower to the W, while the E tower was largely collapsed.  To achieve this it is possible that the heavy guns were mounted on the promontories to either side of the castle.  The defenders were then compelled to surrender on offer of quarter before the breaches were forced.  They left within the castle 15 or 16 great guns and 120 spare arms.  After the siege Tantallon was garrisoned by a small force of 35 men which were split with the Bass rock.  In 1670 an inventory mentioned the drawbridge (drawling), a wooden portcullis shod with iron and an iron yett at the ‘tumbler'.  Within the castle and still apparently functional were the well chamber, the garden chamber, the dining room, the lady's chamber, the long hall, the chamber in the Douglas tower, the red and the blue chambers and finally the long loft.  After this the castle was soon allowed to go to ruin.


Tantallon's plan is dictated by its situation at the edge of a rocky promontory with its back to the sea.  The main fortress consists of a largely sea-girt courtyard around 230' long by 144' wide, set at the summit of cliffs some 100' high.  Although a curtain wall enclosed the entire site, the castle only needed formidable defences along its single landward front towards the west.  The other sides were protected largely by the sea except for a short section to the east where a sea wall and postern or sea gate were constructed and gave access to the coast through a cleft in the rock face.  Other sea gates are discussed under Dunvegan.  On the landward side a great curtain wall of a reddish brown sandstone still stands remarkably complete, as do parts of the three connected towers in which the mighty earls of Angus once lived.  Behind the main defences the hall and service buildings inhabit the inner ward or courtyard.

The curtain wall is some 50' high and 12' thick.  Set within it are several small chambers and stairs with arched ceilings accessing the wallwalk that connects the entire front together.  The Romanesque arched ceilings of these are a distinctive architectural feature of the castle.  These were all filled in as a precaution against artillery and have only in the last 100 years been largely cleared out again.  The overhanging battlements on the curtain date to a later phase as the masonry appears of a slightly darker hue.  To the north the Douglas Tower, first called such in 1556, was of a similar size to that of Dirleton keep, being just 2' larger at 39' diameter.  However it was much taller, being six storeys high rather than just three.  This gave it a height of over 80'.  Internally the rooms were square, with the lowest floor forming a subterranean prison, while higher levels were obviously for accommodation as the attached vaulted garderobes show.  The smaller south tower was D shaped and of five storeys before its sixteenth 
century renovation to house artillery.  Notice the third floor doorway which once led to the destroyed or unfinished south curtain wall as well as the fireplaces and garderobes on each floor.

The main feature of the castle is and always was the square central gatetower, 43' across and 80' high.  It was four storeys high above the gate passageway, while some of the internal rooms had canopied fireplaces.  Round arched doorways and fireplaces also abound.  The main entrance ran through a central passageway, protected by a drawbridge, three pairs of gates, a portcullis and murder holes.  There are two projecting bartizans, or corner turrets, facing in towards the courtyard.  This is the opposite of the design at Dalhousie and Dirleton and most other castles where the bartizans face outwards.  Externally two impressive bartizans rose out of the rectangular turrets that flanked the original gateway.  The main gate had a fine pointed arch which is still mostly intact and looking remarkably unworn for its great age.

Originally access to the upper floors of the gatehouse was reached by an internal spiral stair set in the thickness of the 
north curtain wall.  However this was filled in during the sixteenth century and a new internal spiral stair turret was added to give access to the summit.  The gatehouse was further protected by a barbican, or outer gate, which was probably added in the early fifteenth century and destroyed in the 1528 siege.  Some fragments of this can still be seen.  After the siege the outer face of the gatehouse was rebuilt in a curved form for greater strength against artillery, while gun ports were added at ground level and the main entrance narrowed. 

Within the enceinte a range of buildings, containing a hall, lay against the 
north curtain.  This range was around 33' wide by 130' long and joined with the Douglas Tower.  Within the range was an upper and a lower hall, the latter eventually being abandoned and divided into store rooms.  Note the ghost of the upper hall's roof etched into the walling of the Douglas Tower.  In the sixteenth century an east section was added containing a brewhouse, bakehouse and kitchen - part of this has since collapsed into the sea.  A further suite of probably fourteenth century buildings lay along the south-west wall of the enceinte as can be ascertained from the timber holes and roof line between the gatehouse and the south tower.  The well near the gatehouse is 105' deep.

In front of the curtain wall is a deep, rock-cut ditch.  South-west of this is a large outer, bow shaped enclosure about 330' across.  This is the outer ward of the castle.  It was originally enclosed by a wall which is now mostly just a grassy hummock.  The ward was later modified to mount artillery.  At the southern extremity of the bailey is a rectangular projecting section of walling forming an outwork covering the outer gate.  The surviving wall of this contains several gun ports and ends in a 2 storey round tower.  This appears to be of 2 phases with the upper section of a noticeably different stone.  Within a sharp inturn, protected by the gun positions, are the remains of a hole in wall type gateway, which, like the main gatehouse, originally had a sharply pointed archway.  Quite possibly this and the stone wall around the ward, date to the time of the original construction of the castle.  Within the outer ditch are two mounds, which may conceal sixteenth 
century caponiers - defensive positions allowing covering fire along the ditch.  A seventeenth century 'lectern' type dovecot is the only building still standing within the outer ward.  Beyond the outer ditch is a seventeenth century ravelin, a triangular earthen artillery defence, and the remains of a third, smaller, ditch.

Why not join me at Tantallon and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry