Smailholm Tower occupies a volcanic knoll just ten miles from the border with England. Built in the first half of the fifteenth century by the Pringle family, the tower was intended to provide a secure residence from the lawlessness that plagued the area. In the eighteenth century it would become home to the famous novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott.
Smailholm Tower was built in the first half of the fifteenth century by the Pringle family. They had owned the estate of Smailholm Craig since at least 1455 when the owner was recorded as Robert Pringle. His father, George, had risen to prominence under the patronage of Archibald Douglas, Earl of Wigtown (of the Black Douglas line). The Earl built Newark Castle in the Ettrick Forest circa-1423 and it is possible that George Pringle raised Smailholm around the same time in imitation of his master. The Pringle family survived the downfall of the Black Douglases in 1455.
Smailholm Tower was a five storey rectangular structure built on top of a volcanic rock. The lower two storeys consisted of a single vaulted room divided by a timber floor with both levels serving as a storage area. The entrance into the tower, which was protected by a heavy wooden door and an Iron Yett, led directly into this compartment. The floor above consisted of the Great Hall which was afforded a few small windows and a large fireplace. The levels above were used for high status accommodation and a spiral staircase embedded within the south-east corner of the tower provided access to all floors. The structure was built of roughly coursed stone with red sandstone ashlar dressings. Today this gives the castle a somewhat motley appearance but originally it would have been covered in some form of rendering or harling that would have given it a uniform facade. The tower was surrounded by a barmkin (curtain wall) which ranged from one to two metres thick and was topped with a parapet walk. It enclosed courtyards to the east and west. The latter was the larger of the two and hosted the ancillary buildings as well as an additional hall to augment the facilities in the Tower itself.
The primary purpose of Smailholm Tower was to provide a secure residence for the Pringles and their immediate family. Ever since the Wars of Scottish Independence in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, lawlessness and incessant raiding plagued the region. A key function of Smailholm was to provide a continuous watch for attackers with a beacon being lit should they be sighted. A seat for the watchman was built into the chimney stack. Nevertheless, when attacks came the tower could do little more than shelter a handful of animals and a few dozen people. There is evidence of several other houses in the vicinity of Smailholm and these families probably abandoned their homes and sheltered behind the safety of the barmkin in times of trouble. Livestock may have been herded into external compact, secure enclosures - so-called beef tubs - that may have been able to resist less determined/resourced attacks. However, for the wider population of Smailholm, safety would have been achieved by vacating the area, herding whatever livestock they had with them.
Anglo-Scottish relations deteriorated during the early sixteenth century when James IV of Scotland, fulfilling his treaty obligations with the French, invaded England. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of Flodden (1513) along with hundreds of other Scots. The then owner of Smailholm, David Pringle, lost his eldest son and three brothers in the battle. In the decades that followed the borders suffered from raiders and in the 1540s a further war with England, the Rough Wooing, caused further misery for the local populace. In early 1544 a raiding party from Wark Castle attacked Smailholm and herded away 123 cattle and 8 horses. A further attack was made in November 1544 by English Reivers and their Scottish allies who led off 100 prisoners, 600 cattle and 100 horses. The Wark garrison made further attacks in June and July 1546. Such losses must have been economically crippling to the settlement and forced the then owner - John Pringle - to become an 'Assured Scot'. This meant he promised the English he would not hinder or resist their operations in Scotland. The measure seemed to work for no further attacks were recorded upon Smailholm. These attacks perhaps prompted modification of the tower for at some point during the sixteenth century the upper storeys of the Tower House were extensively modified including insertion of a splayed gun-loop to enable the entrance to be defended.
In the latter half of the sixteenth century the main branch of the Pringle family relocated their primary residence to Galashiels in the Ettrick Forest. Smailholm was leased to a cadet branch of the family. Nevertheless the tower continued to be occupied and in July 1640, during the Second Bishops' War, it was briefly occupied by Sir Andrew Ker of Greenhead on behalf of the Covenanters who beat off a Royalist attack.
By 1645 the owner of Smailholm, James Pringle, was in financial difficulty and sold the tower to Sir William Scott of Harden. He leased it to a kinsman, Walter Scott, who built a new house within the barmkin to serve as the main residence. This two storey structure replaced the original north range and incorporated a kitchen. It only remained in use for around fifty years before the Scotts built a new house nearby at Sandyknowe. Smailholm Tower itself was abandoned at this time. Nevertheless the tower had a powerful effect on the young Walter Scott - the famous novelist, playwright and poet - who came to live at Sandyknowe in 1773. Here he started to amass the ballards and tales of the Borders that he would later publish in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Whilst its builders would never have imagined it, Smailholm Tower's influence on the world of literature world was profound!
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Smailholm Tower dates from the mid-fifteenth century and is an excellent example of a border stronghold. On a clear day there are fantastic views from the top of the tower. Traces of a number of houses and farm buildings that once surrounded the tower can be seen around Smailholm Craig.
Smailholm Tower. The tower was built on top of a dolerite, a volcanic rock that forced its way through softer sandstone millions of years ago.
Border Towers. Smailholm has many similarities to Newark Castle which was built by the Pringle’s' patron, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Wigtown.
Barmkin. The tower was surrounded by a barmkin (curtain wall) that enclosed the ancillary buildings.
Great Hall. The tower's first floor consisted of the Great Hall. A fireplace dominated this room whilst maximum use was made of the small windows by embedding benches next to them.
Tower. The tower was clearly built with defence foremost in mind given the limited number of windows (many of which also had iron grills). The tower was built from course rubble with red sandstone ashlar for the corners and detail. Originally the castle was harled which would have given it a uniform appearance.
View. The views from the Tower are impressive. An Orlit building, part of a 1950s system for tracking aircraft, can be seen on the summit of Smailholm Craig.
Kitchen Block. The buildings inside the barmkin have been reduced to foundations although parts of the curtain wall still stand to an impressive height. Originally the wall was topped with a parapet walkway.
The view north.
Smailholm Tower is located on Sandyknowe Farm which is accessed from an unnamed road between the B6404 and Smailholm. The site is well sign-posted but be aware you will driving onto a working farm. There is a dedicated car park adjacent to the tower.
Sandyknowe Farm, TD5 7PG
Sandyknowe Farm, TD5 7PG