Author: Winston C Irvine

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Thursday, October 21st, 2010 at 2:10 pm
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Historical Tantallon

It was a glorious morning and I rose early, slipped into my sturdy walking boots and hiked the 3 miles to the impressive ruins of Tantallon Castle. I was drawn like a magnet to this huge fortification that towers majestically above the sea and couldn’t help recalling some of the stirring words from Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion.
‘Tantallon vast,
Broad, massive, high and stretching far,
And held impregnable in war,
On a projecting rock it rose,
And on three sides the ocean flows.’
However the castle was built in the middle of the 14th century without any clear indication of who ordered its construction although it was claimed by two of the most influential aristocrats of the time – William Douglas and Robert Stewart, the former being favoured as the rightful heir and earl to the old barony of North Berwick.
With the construction of Tantallon complete and the emergence of William as a powerful political figure in Scottish affairs, only one other man dared challenge his position as the rightful earl his godfather, the infamous knight of Liddesdale.
Furthermore, William waylaid his godfather on a trail deep inside the forest of Ettrick and put him to the sword; and so it was that William Douglas became the undisputed overlord in the border lands.
In the turbulent years that followed, Tantallon continuously went from strength to strength and the residing earl, Archibald, took steps to make it even stronger, so that it would be able to withstand the effects of cannon bombardment.
Consequently, Archibald thumbed his nose at King and Parliament and was advised to toe the line or be brought to book. Archibald’s immediate response was to build a massive bank and a deep ditch some 100 metres long across the castle’s approaches.
He also constructed a new traverse wall and a small round tower, both equipped with gun holes of the early 16th century type, which flanked the entrance gateway and the outer ward.
The young king, James V, ordered a sizeable force to be dispatched to Tantallon, if only to exert his authority. This force comprised two huge cannons, two great batards, several moyens, two double falcons and four quarter falcons. Several more falcons were pressed into the King’s service from Dunbar Castle, along with some small arms and the gunners to fire them.
It was early Spring when the soldiers marched upon Tantallon. All the fertile land had already been cleared fo domestic animals and the woodland clearings beyond the old ox road were filled with encamped men.
At precisely 6.30 the following morning, abttle thunder broke all around: cannonballs screamed overhead and thudded into Tantallon’s newly construycted bank; and men prepared to march.
By 7.15, fresh-faced drummers were beating out a rhythm on their drums, ‘Ding Doon Tantalloun, Ding Doon Tantalloun.’ This nerve-wracking beat was supposed to be the origin of the Scot’s March, nevertheless Tantallon was not to be ‘Dinged Doon’ that day, or in the 21 days of siege that followed.
There were several reasons for the blockade’s failure, including the shortage of powder and shot. It is assumed that the newly constructed bank soaked up the artillery barrage that was intended for the weaker walls of the castle.
The following year, Tantallon was in Crown hands and the 6th Earl of Douglas was exiled to England for the second time in his villainous life. After much bickering and bantering, Archibald, the next Earl in line, was restored to his estates.
However, inside the space of three years, at the young age of 34, he was dead. Stricken by an unknown and incurable disease that was attributed to an evil spell cast by Agness Sampson, a condemned witch who was ultimately burnt on the stake on Castle Hill, Edinburgh – she dies cursing all future heirs to the Douglas estates.
This great fortress was to come to the forefront in Scottish history again, when a band of some 30 desperadoes, known locally as Moss-Troopers, attcked Cromwell’s lines of communication and therefore caused more havoc than the whole Scots army and all their garrisons.
General Monk personally took charge of a force numbering around 3000 men and marched off to attack Tantallon, but not before laying waste the village of Castleton ande another hamlet a few miles further on.
The bombardment that Monk’s forces put up lasted for 10 whole days, great cannons barked as battering pieces were brought forward in preparation for the final thrust.
One of the survivors, Alexander Seaton, recollected that the army had opened a huge breach in the curtain wall and entered it by sheer force of numbers. The defenders, totalling 91 officers and men, pulled back to one of the towers and resolved to sell themnsleves at the dearest price they could, if quarter should be denied them. The enemy, seeing that they were standing gallantly, gave them quarter, which they accepted.
Monk’s artillery bombardment is plain to see: the ruined state of the masonry scarp wall and the shattered stumps of both terminal towers at the inner curtain wall are certainly attributed to this murderous attack.
After the 1651 siege, Tantallon Castle was rendered obsolete and incapable of being developed further as a fortress. Far from being a huige success, Tantallon was shown to be extremely vulnerable to cannon fire and from then on, its days as a stronghold were over.
In the ensuing years, the 11th Earl of Angus was created Marquis of Douglas. He eventually left for Bothwell and Douglas Casles, both in the safe area of Lanarkshire. Tantallon was allowed to fall into decay and could not even be saved for use as a baronial residence.
It was bought by Sir Hew Dalrymple, Lord of hte Court of SEssion, who made no effort to stop it decaying further. HOwever, Sir Walter Hamilton Dalrymple did much to save it and since 1924 the castle was taken over by the State and the whole setup has been thoroughly overhauled.
Many relics have been found during recent archaeological digs: keys, buckles, tags, brass chains, foreign jetons (mostly from Nuremberg) coins and fragments of pottery. A selection of these can be seen in the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

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