Hermitage Castle has a long and colourful history, the castle was a bastion of power in the ‘debatable land’: land that was exchanged between English and Scottish hands during the border wars and skirmishes. The castle is steeped in folklore and legend, and there have been reports of varied strange phenomena in recent years.
The castle stands in an area which was the key to the control over Liddesdale and the border area during the Scottish and English wars. The first castle on the site was a timber affair, built most probably by Nicholas De Soulis in the 1240’s. From what evidence exists it is assumed that the castle was a motte and bailey construction, one of the most common at the time. The castle stayed in De Soulis hands until around 1320, when William De Soulis was accused of conspiring to kill the King of Scotland Robert the Bruce. The castle and lands were taken in forfeit.
From 1332 the castle was in the hands of the English Sir Ralph De Neville, until it was besieged in 1338 by William Douglas, the knight of Liddesdale, who claimed the castle for his own. William was responsible for starving to death a local sheriff in the castle because he thought the role should have been his own. The King seems to have agreed with him and after the murder and gave him the job.
In 1353 William was killed in revenge after he defected to the English side. The next owner of the castle was Hugh De Dacre, who rebuilt the whole of the castle in stone, of which the ground floor and courtyard can still be seen today. From Dacre’s hand’s the castle passed on to the Douglases who continued to build and refortify the castle in those turbulent times.
During the late 1400’s the 5th Earl sided with the English, he was ordered to exchange castles for a less strategically important one, and the castle passed into the hands of the Earl’s of Bothwell, who could be better trusted not to defect to the English side.
In the 1560’s the castle was briefly visited by Mary Queen of Scots, while James Hepburn her third husband was there. She did not stay for long, and her return journey to Jedburgh was nearly the end of her. The castle became less important strategically from the 1600’s, and by the 18th century the castle had become a romantic ruin. The castle was rebuilt in the late 1800’s mainly because of the interest generated by Sir Walter Scot and his contemporaries who wrote about the castle’s legends.
Folklore and Legends
The castle has attracted legend and folklore throughout its history, before the castle was built the area may have been the retreat of a holy man or a group of holy men as the name suggests. The most famous piece of folklore concerns a character known as Bad Lord Soulis who owned the castle in the past. In local legend he was a practitioner in black magic and responsible for the disappearance of local children. To help him in his nefarious dealings he had an assistant familiar called Robin Redcap who has some similarities to the Red Caps who haunt the border regions.
Robin Redcap promised Soulis that he would not be harmed by forged steel or ever be bound by rope. Eventually the people rebelled against him and went to the king, who agreed he could be disposed of. They took him up to Nine Stane Rigg, a stone circle crowning a nearby hill top, wrapped him in lead and boiled him in a brass cauldron:
The Boiling of Bad Lord Soulis
On a circle of stone they placed the pot,
On a circle of stones but barely nine,
They heated it up red and fiery hot,
Till the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.
They rolled him up in a sheet of lead,
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall,
They plunged him in the cauldron red.
and melted him lead bones and all.
In other stories he is killed by Thomas of Ercildoune or True Thomas, who binds him with ropes of sand and also boils him in lead. In other tales the Devil gave him the power to call him by banging on an iron chest. The Red Cap is still said to guard treasure somewhere around Hermitage, and the cries of Lord Soulis’ victims are said to be heard from within the castle.
Another tradition is attached to a small mound which lies next to the ruined chapel about a quarter of a mile to the Northwest of the castle. It is supposed to be the grave of a giant called the Cout o’ Keilder, who terrorised the area, and wore magical chainmail which was impervious to blows. He was finally defeated and killed by drowning him in a deep pool of water in the river known as the drowning pool. The drowning pool is situated very close to the grave. The giant may have been associated with an early sheriff from the 13th century.
Ghosts of the Castle
The castle has more than its fair share of ghosts and mysterious happenings, the whole of the castle seems to extrude an oppressive atmosphere, remnants of troubled times.
It is said that the screams of the victims of Lord Soulis can be heard and the oppressive atmosphere is sometimes blamed on his roaming spirit. One visitor complained of being pushed by an unseen force while near the drowning pool by the chapel.
During our visit the castle was undergoing repairs to its structure, a workman had reported seeing a figure at one of the upper windows while the castle was apparently empty. It is not possible to access the upper windows as there are no floor at higher levels. The custodian also told of several mysterious happenings and a number of strange visitors who seem attracted to the castles dark reputation.