Hermitage Castle is a forbidding and oppressive place. Seen from the east or west the architecture seems utterly brutal, sheer walls relieved only by a blind arch. Radio Scotland once broadcast a feature in which Hermitage Castle was described as the embodiment of the phrase “sod off” in stone. It`s a difficult phrase to better. It inspired ballad writer Dr John Leyden to spin tales of myth and fantasy around its already bloody and twisted history, which have become entwined with reality over the years following.
The History of Hermitage Castle
Standing close to the English borders, Hermitage Castlestarted life as a wooden fort built by Nicholas de Soulis in 1242. It played a key role in the Wars of Independance and consequently changed hands many times. It has been dubbed ‘guardhouse to the bloodiest valley in Britain’.
In 1320 it was occupied by William De Soulis. William was widely despised, so much in fact that there are two stories of his untimely demise The first, and historically correct one tells that he was arrested, imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle and then executed after plotting against Robert the Bruce. The other ,based on a ballad penned in the 1700’s, tells us a different story. Here we have an dark sorceror, a highly skilled practitioner of The Black Arts, who annoyed the local villagers so much by stealing their children ( the final straw coming when he treachorously invited the Cout of Kielder and his party to a banquet up at Hermitage, then massacred the lot of them), that they petitioned Robert the Bruce constantly that they be released from the Scourge of their wicked Lord. Eventually Robert, fed up of being bombarded daily with tales of how De Soulis was using the blood of their innocent children in satanic rituals where he called up his evil familiar Robin Redcap, and also sick of hearing about other tales of De Soulis ‘arrogance’ from differeing sources replied ‘Boil him if you must but let me hear of him no more’. The locals took this literally. They stormed the Castle, enveloped De Soulis in lead and threw him ,head first into a boiling cauldron.
In 1338 the ambitious Sir William Douglas captured he castle, and it was here Douglas imprisoned ‘in a frightful pit or dungeon, apparently airless and deviod of any sanitation’ and starved to death the newly appointed Sheriff of Teviotdale Alexander Ramsey. On hearing the Sheriff was dead, Kind David II quickly appointed a new one – William Douglas. In 1371 the wooden castle was inherited by the First Earl of Douglas, who rebuilt it as a strong stone tower. In 1390 the Third Earl of Douglas erected four great stone towers on the corners, thus creating the castle that is seen today.
1492 saw the end of the Earls of Douglas at Hermitage. James II harboured grave doubts about the Fifth Earls’ loyalty to his King and moved him to the less strategically sensitive Bothwell Castle, then held by the First Earl of Bothwell. The reign of the Bothwells at Hermitage gives a slight break in its otherwise bloodthirsty and political history. In October 1566, The Fourth Earl of Bothwell, James Hepburn was injured in a skirmish with border revivers. Mary, Queen of Scots was at Jedburgh, 25 miles away at the time. Upon hearing this she dropped everything and rode with a small retinue to his side. As she was still married to Lord Darnley she could not be seen to spend the night at Hermitage, so after spending just 2 hours with Hepburn, she set off back to Jedburgh. Along the way she fell into a marsh and contracted a fever from which she almost died.
In the 1600’s Hermitage Castle was disused and fell into disrepair. In the 1800’s it was fames for its romantic gloom, and Sir Walter Scott and his friend Dr John Leyden enjoyed its inhospitality often. This interest gave Hermitage a new owner, the fifth Duke of Buccleuch, who undertook extensive repairs and ensured the external walls of the castle survived until 1930, when it was placed in state care.
The Ghosts of Hermitage Castle
Not only does Hermitage Castle look every inch the ‘haunted castle’, it also is home to several tortured, lost souls.
Not suprisingly the ghost of ‘Bad Lord Soulis’ and his evil familiar Robin Redcap are said to haunt the place. De Soulis has been seen many times, and sounds of demonical laughter have been heard from deserted ruin at night. The pitiful souls of the children he used in his satanic practices are said to wander here still, their broken hearted sobbing has been heard by lots of people, coming from inside the empty ruined walls.
One suprising spirit is that of a young woman wearing a white dress, who has been witnessed walking outside the castle several times. Its said that this is Mary, Queen of Scots, returning to be with Hepburn one last time, however there is no evidence that this apparition is linked to her in any way whatsoever.
In the early 1800’s a mason broke down the walls and discovered a sealed up dungeon, where a skeleton lay crumbling over a rusty sword. This is thought to be the remains of Alexander Ramsey, who`s blood curdling screams and cries for help are still heard echoing out from the castle over the bleak valley at night.