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Exploring Scotland – Hermitage Castle

February 14, 2014

Hermitage castle was coined “The guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain” by George MacDonald Fraser, and that description suits the structure very well.

It was erected in the 13th century on the heavily disputed borderlands between England and Scotland, and many battles were fought as it changed hands numerous times over the centuries. In 1603 the union of the crowns made the land and the castle no longer a source of dispute. Unfortunately, once it was no longer a required stronghold it fell into ruin. In 1930 the castle was left to the care of Historic Scotland.

I had wanted to see this castle myself for many years, because when I was a child I collected and read (almost exclusively) books about paranormal occurrences all over the world. Any source of literature on the topic that I could get my hands on, I devoured. It was a hobby and an obsession and largely due to folklore, Hermitage Castle gets mentioned in a lot of books.

As fate would have it, my husband is Scottish and I moved to Scotland in 2005. Then in 2011 we finally got around to visiting the castle with my sister when she came to visit.

In the last 8 years I have visited dozens of castles, ruins and tourist locations in Scotland however, there are only a small handful of places I’ve visited that really stand out and this is, without a doubt, one of them.

(Click any of the photos below to enlarge)

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We were very lucky that we set out on such a bright day to see the castle. See that patch of blue in all the grey clouds? That’s a nice day in Scotland!

We were also very lucky that we had the whole place to ourselves when we arrived. It’s not the easiest tourist location to get to and most people visiting Scotland will most likely be hanging around the cities or the highlands. for these reasons, combined with the fact that there isn’t a lot else around Hermitage Castle I suspect it’s not one of the most popular tourist attractions.

If you pop this castle into a search engine, you’ll notice an overwhelming theme regarding people playing up the evil and foreboding of the ruin and the location. All this spooky hype does get the castle visitors (like me), however I have to say that when we finally got there I was not prepared to be dumbfounded by the sheer beauty of it. I didn’t find it oppressive at all. It didn’t make me weary or fill me with unease. I found the experience awe inspiring.

The castle makes you feel very small as you approach and the angular, sterile presence of the structure against the curvy hills makes it all the more striking.

It almost looks like the fortress fell out of the sky because it just sits in the middle of nowhere, and as enormously impressive as it exists today in its decomposition, one can only imagine how marvelous it appeared in its prime!

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There is a small gravel parking space for you to leave your car. Then as you walk up to the castle there is a sort of trailer set up to be used as the payment point for entry as well as a toilet and a tiny gift shop.

Most gift shops in Scotland have the same exact tacky, impersonal merchandise. This is especially true for the gift shops run by Historic Scotland since they’re supplied by all of the same suppliers. The only thing that I really strongly recommend you make a point of buying is the official book for whichever historical site you’re visiting. These are full of well written information and beautiful photos relevant to the place you’re exploring and they’re a great resource to have as you go around the site. They are also the best possible keepsakes you can buy to remind you of your visit. I always buy these books yet, for some reason I didn’t buy one for this castle (or I’ve lost it) which is extremely frustrating but at the same time, a perfect excuse for going back.

After you’ve paid the fee you’re free to roam the castle and the grounds which also include a lovely walk along the water down to a small cemetery not far from the castle with a ruin of a chapel. The grounds are extremely well kept and though the grass is higher on the hills it is short and maintained anywhere that you need to walk.

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(click to enlarge)

There aren’t many large, detailed photos of the inside of the castle on the internet that I’ve been able to locate.

It seems that photographers are mainly hung up (understandably) on capturing the outside of the castle since the inside isn’t really that exciting by comparison for most people. Having said that, I thought the inside was spectacular. The photos I have included here were taken by my husband and they are a really great representation, in my opinion of what it’s like to actually be there.

The green moss coating the walls is so vibrant, it’s just gorgeous. Almost as if nature is covering the castle in a blanket and putting it to rest.

You can clearly see the stones jutting out where floors used to be and the holes where doors and windows once existed.

My imagination runs away with me.

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I understand that there are a lot of people who are incapable of seeing the beauty in this sort of neglected crumbling devastation but I just love it. There are stories impregnated in the ancient walls and every last stone of the stronghold still clings fast onto the history that the castle represents.

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There is a great 3 minute virtual tour of the castle on YouTube which you can watch HERE. I tried to insert the video into this post but wordpress is fighting me at the moment.Β It’s very well presented to give you a feel of what it’s like to approach, enter and explore this enormous structure.

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Now For A Glimpse Into The Supernatural Side Of Hermitage Castle

You can’t visit this castle without a brief overview of the three main supernatural stories which are associated with it in hundreds of publications.

The Evil Laird

In 1320, During the rein of Robert The Bruce the owner was William de Soules and he was not very popular with the locals for his cruel treatment of his servants. As far as folklore is concerned a story emerged many years after his actual death telling that William practiced the dark arts and abducted children to use their blood in his rituals. William had a familiar named Robin Red Cap who was so named for his cap soaked in blood. Robin Red Cap assured William that he would be impervious to harm however, the people did manage to rid themselves of the evil Laird when they rose up, wrapped William in lead and boiled him.

Folklore states that his spirit haunts the castle ruins and that Robin Red Cap still lives there. It is also said that the spirits of the murdered children still remain tied to the castle. It is important to note that the facts of William’s actual demise are far less exciting, in that he was captured for conspiring against Robert and imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle where he died under (maybe) mysterious circumstances.

Spiteful William Douglas

In 1338 Sir William Douglas starved his rival, Alexander Ramsey to death inside the castle out of pure jealousy regarding Alexander’s appointment to the position of Sheriff of Teviotdale by King David II. After Alexander’s death William was appointed to his position, so after murdering a man in cold blood he did get his way after all.

The pit prison where Alexander was possibly held is pictured above. Many castles in Scotland have pit prisons like this one. They are almost impossibly small and make your heart sink to look at. It is said that Alexander Ramsey’s ghost remains at the castle where he met with such a miserable end.

A Queen’s Love

The third spirit that is said to haunt the castle is Mary Queen Of Scots. You should be made aware at this point that she really gets around in the afterlife and also haunts every-single-other castle in Scotland. The tale that ties Mary to this castle (not a particularly strong one in my opinion) is that in 1566 she visited the castle, riding 25 miles through the night to spend 2 hours with her lover James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell who had been injured in a fight. In the same night she rode home again as it would be inappropriate for her to be seen staying with him, being a married woman.

During her ride back she fell into a bog and subsequently came down with a fever which kept her bed ridden for a week and nearly killed her.

Hermitage Castle Chapel And Cemetery

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A short distance from the castle you will find the ruin of a 13th or 14th century chapel. The grounds are immaculately kept and it’s really pleasant to wander down and have a look around.

In the photo above I’m walking inside the foundation of the small chapel.

Visiting this spot isn’t as stimulating as being inside the castle however it makes a great conclusion for your visit. It also gives you a fresh perspective seeing the castle and the grounds.

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(click to enlarge)

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Here is a fantastic perspective shot to show you how far away from the castle the chapel actually sits. And to give you an idea of how utterly isolated the place is surrounded by rolling green hills of grass.

My sister is standing near the corner of the chapel’s foundation.

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So this concludes my encounter with Hermitage Castle. I do plan to go back someday when my daughter is a bit older and we’ll see what she makes of it!

I hope that I have inspired you to incorporate it into your travel plans if you should ever organize a little holiday around the Scottish borders!

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