Tantallon Castle-A Formidable Fortress

Tantallon Castle in a word: Badass.

Seriously. Mr. C and I didn’t realize just how imposing a structure Tantallon was until we had parked the car and made the walk toward the castle grounds. The closer we got, the more Tantallon grew. And grew. And grew! By the time we had reached the building, it’s safe to say we were both quite dumbfounded by the formidable fortress staring back at us.

Tantallon Castle in Scotland.
That little black line is me standing in front of Tantallon Castle’s Mid Tower and massive curtain wall. The ruined tower on the left is the Douglas Tower. Originally seven stories high, it served as the earl’s private residence. The East Tower sits to the far right and served as lodging for household staff and guests.
Castle signage.
Tantallon Castle and a doocot.
Though a large, open space today, the area in front of the castle would have been a place of much activity. There would have been all manner of structures essential to life in the castle, such as bakehouses, brewhouses, workshops, and stables.

Tantallon Castle has been a part of the dramatic seaside landscape in North Berwick, Scotland, for some 660+ years. Construction began in the 1350s after William Douglas – one of the wealthiest and most powerful (power-hungry?) men in Scotland – reclaimed his inheritance from his father, cementing his place among the distinguished Scots of the day. William’s newfound status quickly earned him the respect of King David II, who bestowed upon him the title “Earl of Douglas’ in 1358. Upon William’s death in 1384, his son James assumed his father’s role, becoming the 2nd Earl of Douglas.

Tantallon Castle and the Firth of Forth.
An exposed upper walkway at Tantallon Castle and Bass Rock to the right.
Bass Rock is to the right.
Bass Rock with a white lighthouse perched on the side.
Mighty Bass Rock

If you would like to read more about Bass Rock, I wrote about it here.

A bay along the Firth of Forth.

…Tantallon vast,

Broad, massive, high and stretching far,

And held impregnable in war;

On a projection rock it rose,

And round three sides the ocean flows,

The fourth did battled walls enclose.

(from Marmion, by Sir Walter Scott)

James was killed at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. Because he had no direct heir and because the family tree had gotten a bit mottled by…hmm, let’s just say “affairs of the heart,” a political agreement was made to split the castle and its lands. The ‘Earl of Douglas’ title and most of the lands were passed to James’ illegitimate son Archibald the Black, whereas William’s illegitimate son George, 1st Earl of Angus, retained Tantallon. Archibald’s side is called the “Black Douglases,” and George’s the “Red Douglases.” Not surprisingly, there was frequent tension between the two sides. The Red Douglases (a.k.a. the Earls of Angus) retained the castle for the next three hundred years.

Multiple exposed floors and fireplaces at Tantallon Castle in Scotland.
Multiple floors of windows at Tantallon Castle.
The entrance to a spiral castle staircase.
Interior castle ruins.
A castle window with stone seating.
Castle prison.
Basement prison.
Tantallon Castle ruins.

Tantallon Castle was besieged with little effect twice during the fifteenth century, first by James IV in retaliation against “Archibald’s [the 5th Earl of Angus] treasonous negotiations with England’s Henry VII” (Historic Scotland). The second attack came in 1528 when James V sought revenge against the stepfather he hated (Archibald, the 6th Earl of Angus). Though the siege lasted for twenty days, the castle sustained little damage. Following the exile of the 6th Earl, James took possession of the castle and set forth with improvements to its defenses.

Green basalt castle stonework.
James V improved Tantallon Castle’s fortification by building with green basalt rather than red sandstone.
Tantallon Castle and a modern bridge to the entrance.
The Mid Tower which contains the castle gatehouse. The entry was originally large enough for carts to pass through, but it was later altered for better defense. The keeper of the castle likely resided on the tower’s top floor.

After James V died in 1542, the 6th Earl of Angus (the hated stepfather) returned to Scotland from exile. No stranger to treasonous acts, he “sought to betray Scotland to England, allowing Tantallon to be used as a base and a treasury by Henry VIII’s ambassador, Sir Ralph Sadler, during the “Rough Wooing” of Mary Queen of Scots” (Undiscovered Scotland). Archibald died at Tantallon in 1556, but because the next successor was only two years old, the castle temporarily fell under the control of the Scottish Crown. By the time the young boy (also an Archibald) grew up, he was also exiled for treason! He was eventually allowed to return but died shortly after that. Tantallon’s use as a noble residence finally came to an end in 1608 when William, the 10th Earl, was exiled for his Catholic faith. Is your head spinning? Scottish history is not for the faint of heart!

Tantallon Castle ruins set against the Firth of Forth.
Tantallon Castle ruins.
The inner close where much of the castle’s daily activities would have taken place.
Tantallon Castle ruins.
Signage posted at Tantallon Castle.
The Inner Close as it would have looked.

The last significant event to take place at Tantallon was in 1650 when our ol’ friend Ollie Cromwell (sarcasm) invaded Scotland. Cromwell laid siege to the castle to remove the Covenanter ‘moss troopers’ (that is, a band of raiders) who had been occupying Tantallon as a base to carry out their attacks. The castle suffered tremendous damage. From then on, the castle continued to fall into decay, and according to Historic Scotland, “by the 1820s, it was little more than a picturesque ruin.” The castle went into State care in 1924 and today is under the care of Historic Environment Scotland.

A doocot from the 1600s in a green field.
The doocot (or dovecot) where pigeons were kept for meat. The building dates to the 1600s.
A white and gray gannet perched on the side of a cliff.
Green Scottish countryside and a stone wall.
View of the beautiful Scottish countryside as seen from the castle.

I think Historic Scotland does a fantastic job of preserving and promoting these historic structures. Kudos to them!

My goodness, friends, I think I could literally sit here and attach pictures to this post for the next hour! We took so many. Tantallon is definitely up there on my list of favorites. I’m telling you, you really need to see this one. Because it’s badass! 🙂

Well, I suppose I better sign off for today. I hope you enjoyed learning a little about this history behind this impressive castle, and hopefully, I didn’t make it too dry for you. That is always the challenge with historical information.

This will probably be the last article I write before I GO TO SCOTLAND!!! Holy smokes, I can’t believe the day is almost here. I cannot wait to see what I come back with for you.

As always, thank you for visiting!


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