Once a major fortification that dominated East Lothian, Yester Castle (along with its subterranean cavern known as the Goblin Ha’) is now a rarely visited ruin buried deep within woodland. This important border fortress saw action during the Wars of Independence and the Rough Wooing.
Yester Castle was originally built by Hugo de Giffard during the late twelfth century. He was a Norman who was part of the retinue of Ada - daughter of William de Warenne, Second Earl of Surrey - when she came north to marry Prince Henry, son to David I of Scotland. The Scottish King had been keen to encourage Normans to settle in Scotland as he saw it as a means of using their military talents to bring his Kingdom firmly under Royal control. Hugo clearly prospered in Scotland as during the reign of William the Lion (1165-1214) he was granted land in East Lothian including the area around Yester. He raised an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle there at this time.
Major upgrades were made to Yester Castle in the thirteenth century. No later than 1267 a Stone Keep was built at the site probably by Sir Hugo de Giffard, grandson of the original owner. The upgrades included construction of the fine vaulted chamber known as the Goblin Ha' - a title deriving from the rumours that Hugo was a wizard whose armies of goblins had built Yester Castle. Dug into the motte it remains an incredibly impressive site and the careful visitor (equipped with a powerful torch!) can navigate down the stairs into the subterranean chamber from the entrance on the slopes below the castle. The upgrades made by Hugh were clearly extensive as Yester hosted a Royal visit from Alexander III in May 1278.
In 1296 the Wars of Scottish Independence erupted. Ten years earlier Alexander III had died without male heir leaving multiple claimants for the Scottish throne. Edward I of England was invited to arbitrate but he sought to gain overlordship of the country in the process. His eventual candidate, John Balliol, proved less pliable than hoped and when faced with Edward's demands for troops to serve in a continental war he rebelled. English forces under the command of John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey invaded and achieved success at the Battle of Dunbar. But the following year William Wallace led an uprising against the English culminating in his victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297). The following year, Edward I rode north with a large army to stabilise the situation. On his way three castles were recorded as falling to the invading army - Dirleton and Yester were specifically named whilst the third is believed to be Hailes. Edward seemingly granted Yester Castle to Adam de Welles, a Knight from Lincolnshire. When Robert the Bruce led his own rebellion against Edward, from 1306 onwards, Yester Castle was re-taken and partially demolished to deny the English any further use of the fortification.
The castle was returned to the Giffards after the war and repairs were made. But in 1357 the male line of the Giffards died out and the castle passed through marriage to the Hay family. Like the previous owners, the Hays were descendants of Anglo-Norman stock who had come north during the reign of David I. William de Hay had been butler to William the Lion and members of the family had shared the King's captivity following his defeat at the Second Battle of Alnwick (1174). Gilbert Hay had been a supporter of Robert the Bruce and was rewarded with the hereditary position of Lord High Constable of Scotland. His son - Sir William Hay, Sheriff of Peebles - married Joanna Giffard and acquired Yester Castle and its estates. He had an active military career including defusing the rivalry between the Douglas clans and partaking in the 1402 invasion of England where he was captured during the Scottish rout at the Battle of Homildon Hill. The subsequent dispute over ransom money between Henry IV and the victor of the battle, Henry Percy (Hotspur), led to the latter’s rebellion.
The Hays gained increasing power and influence eventually seeing the then owner, John Hay, being raised to Lord Hay in 1488. He commenced major rebuilding at Yester to convert the castle into a residence that reflected his new status. The old thirteenth century Keep of Sir Hugo de Giffard, over which the Goblin Ha' was constructed, was demolished and a tall wall (over 9 metres high) built to enclose the raised ground on which the castle was situated. The northern part of this wall survives to this day, built on top of the vaulted Goblin Ha' chamber and complete with a small postern gate. Also constructed at this time was the South East Tower which included fine carved stone; the ruined tower survives with the decorative stonework still visible.
The castle’s proximity to the English border ensured its continued involvement in border warfare. In 1513 a reluctant James IV took Scotland to war against England in support of the Auld Alliance. Invading Northumberland his forces were intercepted and engaged at the Battle of Flodden resulting in the death of the then owner of Yester Castle, John Hay. Thirty years later the castle itself saw action against English forces when it was attacked during the Rough Wooing - an attempt by Henry VIII to force the marriage of his son, Prince Edward (later Edward VI), to Mary Queen of Scots. The castle withstood the attack under the direction of the new Lord Hay, another John, but he too fell afoul of the border wars; he was captured and imprisoned following the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Pinkie (1547). He spent the next three years incarcerated within the Tower of London.
By the late sixteenth century the old castle could no longer meet the required standards of accommodation and comfort expected by the nobility. Coupled with the Union of the Crowns in 1603, bringing peace to the border, Yester Castle was abandoned in favour of new accommodation. Much of the structure was demolished to provide building materials for a Tower House built on the site of the current Yester House but the vaulted Goblin Ha' chamber survived thanks to being used as accommodation for the Hays' falconer as recently as 1737. Today the castle can be visited thanks to an East Lothian trail that runs through the Estate but the site is heavily overgrown and buried deep within woodland making it difficult to appreciate the majesty of this key castle that once dominated all around.
CANMORE (2016). Yester Castle. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
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Yester Castle is buried within woodland but the trek is worth it! There are remains of the (ruinous) South East Tower and the fifteenth century North curtain wall that still stands to an impressive 9 metres. Also visible (and accessible) is the thirteenth century Goblin Ha’ chamber but extreme care must be taken and a powerful torch is needed!
Goblin Ha'. The impressive thirteenth century vaulted chamber is accessible but you will need a torch!
South East Tower. The tower still stands to an impressive height and includes some finely decorated stonework.
Postern Gate and Wall. The castle's Keep was demolished in the late fifteenth century by Lord John Hay who then enclosed the site with this wall that stands in excess of 9 metres tall.
South-East Tower (Basement). The lower level of the South-East Tower.
Yester Castle is situated within the Yester Estate - private property but through which an East Lothian trail runs. The castle is adjacent to one option on this walk but there are no signs indicating the route - the path is shown in the photos below and on the Google Map underneath. Car parking is difficult and, other than the option detailed, there is none without blocking entrances or parking on private property! The option highlighted above is a short walk from the Estate entry point and CastlesFortsBattles.co.uk cannot advise on the legality of using it.
Car Parking Option
B6355, EH41 4PG
B6355, EH41 4PG
1. Assuming you have parked successfully, make your way to this point:
2. This was an original entrance to the Yester Estate but is now a private dwelling. Just to the right is the new entrance (pictured below):
3. When we visited the gate was locked and this seemed to be the norm - but a gap has been left in the fence for (thin) walkers. The only sign of the walk lets you know you’re on the right path.
4. Follow the (clear) path into the wood noting that it does get very muddy. Eventually you will see the left turn pictured below marked by a small wooden post (but no sign).
5. Follow the new path noting the castle is (not visible) across the valley and the water to your right. Eventually the path loops back on itself and runs adjacent to Hope’s Water before crossing it. The castle ruins then appear through the thick trees!