Tantallon Castle

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This is a superb setting above the cliffs on the Lothian coast surrounded by flat fertile farmland with superb views across to the Bass Rock. Getting out of the car, the first sound we heard were skylarks singing.

Built about 1350, it was one of the last medieval curtain wall castles to be built in Scotland as the fortified tower house was becoming more popular. It was fortress and residence of one of the most powerful Scottish families, the Red Douglas, Earls of Angus.

In 1528, James V escaped from Edinburgh Castle where he was being held as a virtual prisoner of the 6th Earl of Angus. The King issued a warrant for the arrest of the earl who retreated to Tantallon Castle. James besieged the castle for 20 days but was unable to take it. The royal army withdrew and the Earl of Angus fled the country leaving James to walk into the castle. In 1529, James strengthened the castle to resist cannon fire and also to hold cannons which could be used against attacking armies.

Towards the end of 1650, a group of 30 storm troopers based in the castle carried out a series of swift and brutal attacks on the lines of communication of Cromwell’s army as he attempted to conquer Scotland. These were well executed and did a lot of damage. In retaliation, Tantallon Castle was stormed in 1651 and ripped apart. It was never repaired or lived in again.

Set on a headland, dry ditches, earthworks and a massive curtain wall with towers cut off the promontory and enclose the outer and inner wards.

The outer gateway is the only entrance into the outer ward. In front of it is a deep ditch which has a masonry traverse wall and cannon holes in the surrounding wall to help protect from attack along the coast line.

There is nothing left of the service buildings in the outer ward apart from the 17thC ‘lectern’ style dove cote which has two chambers for nesting birds.

The red sandstone curtain wall with two towers and central gatehouse cuts off the promontory and inner ward. It was protected in front by another dry ditch. The gatehouse in front of the mid tower is covered in green sandstone, brought here from Kent, with narrow bands of red sandstone. This was part of the 1529 modifications as the green sandstone is softer than the red sandstone and would be better able to absorb the impact of heavy artillery.

The mid tower was protected by a drawbridge, portcullis and iron yetts at either end of the passage. Rooms on either side were used as guard houses. The Upper floor were the lodgings for the Constable of the castle.

The private quarters of the Earls of Angus were in the large circular Douglas Tower at the north west end of the curtain wall. This was originally seven storeys high and connected to the Great Hall on the north range. At the base of the tower was a pit prison.

Accommodation for guests and household was in the east tower.

The inner ward has a well. There is little left of the postern gate which gave access to the sea through a cleft in the rocks and allowed the castle to be supplied by sea in times of trouble. The bakehouse and additional private quarters by this have partly collapsed into the sea.

Only foundations of buildings of the northern range survive and these include brewhouse, 16thC kitchen with two fireplace, oven and slop drain. These had vaulted ceilings. Above them was the great hall, reached by a spiral staircase.

Steps inside the gatehouse lead through the walls to another guard room with a fireplace. The curtain wall had originally been built with chambers off the passageways. These were seen as points of weakness when James V reinforced the castle in 1529 and were filled with green stone rubble. One of these can still be seen.

A spiral staircase lead to the top of the curtain wall. The battlements were added in 1529. Handguns could be fired through the gaps (Crenels) while the raised sections (merlons) covered the men. James also installed heavy cannons on top of the towers in an attempt to keep attacking armies away from the walls.

There are excellent views from the inner ward along the coast line and across to the Bass Rock with its gannet colony. A telescope takes either 20p or 50p. Alternatively, bring your own binoculars.

There is a large car park off the A 198. A sign warns that it is a 400m walk to the ticket office with a small shop and there is a smaller car park outside that. From the ticket office there is probably a similar walk across the grass to the castle. There is level access to the inside of the castle and seats for those wanting to sit and enjoy the views. It is well worth while making the effort to get here.

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