North Berwick was one of many estates held by Sir James Douglas (1286-1330) who had been a close ally of Robert the Bruce and had profited accordingly. By the mid-fourteenth century the barony was in the hands of his nephew, William Douglas. However, his claim was disputed by another branch of the family headed by William Douglas, Knight of Liddesdale. The issue was resolved when the former murdered the latter in the Ettrick Forest in August 1353. William Douglas now became head of the family and in 1358 this was recognised by David II who created him Earl of Douglas. In recognition of his new status, William built Tantallon Castle.
The initial castle consisted of a substantial curtain wall, four metres thick, that spanned the neck of the headland. Large round towers were built at either end whilst the entrance to the structure was via a central tower. The western tower (now known as the Douglas Tower) was seven storeys high and provided the high-status accommodation. The Great Hall was built directly adjacent within the Inner Ward which was enclosed by a wall that followed the line of the cliff edge. A sea-gate provided access from a small harbour below.
William, Earl of Douglas died in 1384 leaving a legitimate heir, James, and an illegitimate son, George. James inherited the entire Douglas estates but he was killed four years later at the Battle of Otterburn (1388). The mother of the illegitimate George - Margaret, Countess of Angus - now sought to promote her son's claim. The Douglas family divided into two factions with James' heir - Archibald the Grim - leading the Black Douglases whilst George (now Earl of Angus) headed the Red Douglases. Tantallon Castle was held by the latter.
George died in 1403 and was followed by his son, William. He made numerous upgrades to Tantallon including widening the defensive ditch and also adding the barbican. William was a loyal supporter of James II and was used by the King as a gaoler for key opponents. On Royal orders William incarcerated Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles at Tantallon between 1429 and 1431. He later led the King's army at the Battle of Arkinholm (1455) where he decisively defeated the Black Douglases.
Tantallon Castle was besieged by James IV in October 1491. The then owner - Archibald, Earl of Angus - had entered into a pact with Henry VII of England. The outcome of the siege is unknown but Archibald survived and was clearly pardoned by the King for he received a gift from the King in Christmas 1491. He died in 1513 in the same year that his sons perished alongside James IV at the Battle of Flodden.
The castle and earldom then passed to Archibald's grandson - also called Archibald - who married James IV's widowed queen, Margaret Tudor, in 1514. Margaret had hoped the marriage would secure her role as Guardian but her regime was undermined by John Stewart, Duke of Albany and she withdrew to England and the safety of Harbottle Castle. Archibald continued his quest for power and in July 1525 took custody of the young James V and held him within Edinburgh Castle. The King was imprisoned until May 1528 when he finally escaped and rallied his forces at Stirling. Archibald fled to Tantallon Castle and prepared for siege. It is likely he had already made some upgrades to the castle in anticipation of this most notably adapting it for artillery. A dedicated gun tower was added to cover the entrance whilst the east tower was also extensively modified. These enhanced defences proved effective as, despite being bombarded for almost three weeks, the castle proved resilient and James V had to lift the siege. Ultimately however the King forced Achibald into exile and took control of Tantallon Castle himself. James V made extensive modifications to Tantallon Castle most notably adding the Fore Tower to the Middle Tower.
Archibald was ultimately pardoned and returned to Scotland in 1543. However, as a Protestant, he immediately entered into an agreement with Henry VIII of England to support the proposed marriage of Prince Edward to Mary, Queen of Scots. An English ambassador, Sir Ralph Sadler, was sent north and based himself in Tantallon Castle. The negotiations soon broke down and an English army under Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford invaded in May 1544. Archibald changed his allegiance in 1545, possibly prompted by the desecration of Douglas tombs at Melrose Abbey by English troops, and led the Scots to victory at the Battle of Ancrum Moor (1545). Tantallon Castle saw action in 1548 when it bombarded English ships engaged against the French.
The end came for Tantallon Castle in 1650. In September that year an English army under Oliver Cromwell had defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar and had subsequently overrun southern Scotland. A force of 91 men under Alexander Seton established their base at Tantallon Castle and probably built the earthwork ravelin at this time. Operating from this secure facility they launched attacks on the English supply lines which followed the coastal route back towards Berwick-upon-Tweed and thus ran directly past the castle. Unsurprisingly the English were not willing to leave this garrison in their rear and General George Monck was tasked with reducing the castle. He commenced an artillery bombardment, smashing a breach and took the castle. The damage was so extensive the castle was never rebuilt.
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Visit Official Website
Tantallon Castle is an impressive late fifteenth century fortification. The substantial curtain wall that separated the Inner Ward from the mainland survives to its original height although the internal buildings and cliff-top curtain wall have gone. Bass Rock Castle can be seen across the water.
Tantallon Castle Layout. The castle consisted of Inner and Outer Wards both of which were protected by their own ditches. A traverse wall and gun tower were added in the sixteenth century probably prior to the 1528 siege. The ravelin was an earthwork artillery fortification added prior to the 1651 siege.
Tantallon Castle. The Inner Ward curtain wall was a substantial barrier and survives to its original height. Three towers - the Douglas Tower (left), Middle Tower and East Tower (right) augmented the defences and provided the high status accommodation. The access to the Inner Ward was through the Middle Tower and this weak spot was bolstered with the addition of a barbican and forework.
Gun Tower and Traverse Wall. These were added by Archibald Douglas in the 1520s during which time he had control of the young James V and it is likely the upgrades were made to ensure he had a secure facility to retire to in the event he lost control of the King. This happened in 1528 and Archibald was besieged in Tantallon but the castle's upgrades ensured the facility held out.
Douglas Tower. As the name suggests this seven storey tower provided the high status accommodation for the Douglases. The Great Hall was located directly to its rear. The basement included a pit prison.
Middle Tower. The four storey Middle Tower served as the Inner Gatehouse. It sustained heavy damage during the 1528 siege and was fronted with a Fore Tower built from the distinctive green basalt with bands of red sandstone.
East Tower. The East Tower was originally five storeys tall and originally served as high status visitor accommodation. It is likely Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles was imprisoned within. The tower was rebuilt in 1528 to take artillery.
Inner Ward. The Inner Ward would originally have been enclosed by a curtain wall on all sides. The water/sea gate, seen in the bottom-right of the picture above, enabled supplies to be disembarked directly into the castle.
Bass Rock. The Bass Rock can be seen across the Firth of Forth. A castle was built on this volcanic plug no later than the fifteenth century.
Tantallon Castle occupies a rocky promontory overlooking the Forth Estuary. Built in the mid-fourteenth century by William, Earl of Douglas it was later used to imprison Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. Regularly upgraded, the castle withstood sieges led by James IV and James V but was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell.
Tantallon Castle is found off the A198 to the east of North Berwick. It is well sign-posted and clearly visible from the road. There is a dedicated car park on-site.