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Tantallon Castle: The ruined fortress is the last medieval curtain wall construction in Scotland

Bojan Ivanov

The 14th-century fortress Tantallon in East Lothian, Scotland was the home of the powerful Douglas family. It is situated on a promontory opposite Bass Rock or only the Bass which is an island located in the outer part of the Firth of Forth. It was the last medieval curtain wall castle to have been built in the country.

The 1st Earl of Douglas, William Douglas, established the fortress and later it passed to his son George who became the Earl of Angus. The castle has been sieged many times throughout the centuries, but after all the damage and battles it remained the property of George’s descendants.

The 1st Earl built the castle after his elevation to the peerage to reflect his new noble status. It was a symbol of his status, but it was built in medieval style. The curtain wall type of construction started to become outmoded in the 14th century by the new tower houses. The wall of the castle is 49 ft high, 12 ft thick, and almost 300 ft long.

Inside, there are several chambers, and stairs accessing the parapet walk which connected the three towers. The Douglas Tower on the northwest was a circular tower 39 ft across and seven storeys high. It was the keep of the Lord containing his private belongings. The D-plan East Tower was 30 ft across and originally it had five storeys, reduced to only two after a siege in 1528.

The ruined Tantallon Castle. Author: Malcolm Manners. CC BY 2.0

The ruined Tantallon Castle. Author: Malcolm Manners. CC BY 2.0

The third tower is the central gatehouse which was 43 ft across and 79 ft high. It was the most beautiful containing chambers with fireplaces divided in four stories of which the internal walls are missing today. After the siege in 1528, the gatehouse’s façade was rebuilt with more military equipment at ground level. The changes covered the earlier remains of the round towers and gave the tower rounded edges for additional strength.

The castle had three towers which today are almost completely ruined. Author: Malcolm Manners. CC BY 2.0

The castle had three towers which today are almost completely ruined. Author: Malcolm Manners. CC BY 2.0

At the end of the 14th century, George married the daughter of King Robert III, Mary, and this came to an alliance between the Red Douglases and the Royal House of Stewart. Many royalties were held in the castle prison through the years including Isabella the Countess of Lennox after her husband, the Duke of Albany was executed. Another was the Lord of the Isles, Alexander, because of a conflict with King James I.

It was the home of the powerful Douglas family. Author: Magnus Hagdorn. CC BY-SA 2.0

It was the home of the powerful Douglas family. Author: Magnus Hagdorn. CC BY-SA 2.0

From 1426 until 1446 the fortress became the home of the 3rd Earl of Angus who made it his principal residence. After his death, King James II granted the castle to his brother George Douglas, the 4th Earl of Angus who is remembered for the victory at the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455 against the Black Douglases.

It is situated looking onto the famous Bass in Scotland. Author: Giuseppe Milo. CC BY 2.0

It is situated looking onto the famous Bass in Scotland. Author: Giuseppe Milo. CC BY 2.0

After this battle, the Red Douglases together with the 5th Earl, Archibald, turned against the Royal House. Ten years later, Angus made a deal with Henry VII of England against Scotland’s King James IV. The King besieged the castle on October 11th, 1491, but because of Angus’s soldiers, the castle was not severely damaged. During the reign of the 6th Earl of Angus, the castle was attacked by King James and the person who defended it was the servant Simon Penango because the Lord was not there. Angus counterattacked and captured the artillery of the King, then he fled to England and left the fortress to James.

The castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Author: Aly1963. CC BY 2.0

The castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Author: Aly1963. CC BY 2.0

It became a royal fortress until 1542 when king James died, and the Earl returned to rebuild and strengthened the castle. In 1557, after the death of Angus, the fortress was seized by Mary of Guise, Queen of Scots, who one year later appointed George Drummond of Blair as keeper of Tantallon. In 1566, Mary gave the captaincy to Robert Lauder and his son. It was the armies Oliver Cromwell that devastated the fortress in 1651, causing so much damage that the castle was abandoned.

Today, the castle is in the care of Historic Scotland. Author: agmoseman. CC BY 2.0

Today, the castle is in the care of Historic Scotland. Author: agmoseman. CC BY 2.0

Because of gambling debts of the 12th Earl of Angus the castle had to be sold. It was purchased by Sir Hew Dalrymple in 1699, who also owned the Bass, but he didn’t make any improvements. The ruined castle was handed over to the UK Government in the 20th century and today is in the care of Historic Scotland. It became a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and it is a category A listed building.