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Tantallon Castle

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Tantallon Castle, an ancient ruin on the coast of North Berwick parish, Haddingtonshire, 3 miles E of the town. It stands, fronting the Bass, on a lofty precipitous rock, whose base is washed on three sides by the sea; and on the SW side, where alone it is accessible, it was defended by two ditches of extraordinary depth, and by very massive towers. The entrance was over a drawbridge, through a strong, deep stone gateway. The castle itself, in its outer structure, is still comparatively entire, but wholly unroofed and in a state of desolation. Its interior is a maze of broken stair-cases, ruined chambers, and deep, dismal subterraneous dungeons. So strong was the castle in position, and so skilful in construction, that previous to the invention of gunpowder, it was regarded as impregnable, insomuch that to `ding doun Tantallon' was thought the same kind of feat as to `mak a brig to the Bass.' Sir Walter Scott, in Marmion, thus finely describes its former condition:-

' Tantallon vast,
Broad, massive, high, and stretching far,
And held impregnable in war.
On a projecting rock it rose,
And round three sides the ocean flows,
The fourth did battled walls enclose,
And double mound and fosse;
By narrow drawbridge, outworks strong,
Through studded gates, an entrance long,
To the main court they cross.
It was a wide and stately square.
Around were lodgings fit and fair,
And towers of various form,
Which on the coast projected far,
And broke its lines quadrangular;
Here was square keep. there turret high,
Or pinnacle that sought the sky,
Whence oft the warder could descry,
The gathering ocean-storm.'

The date of the castle and the circumstances of its erection are unknown. It comes into notice with the rising fortunes of the family of Douglas, who obtained the barony of North Berwick about the year 1371, and whose bloody heart crumbles on the stone shield above the entrance. In 1479, 24 years after the Douglas forfeiture, Archibald, fifth Earl of Angus-the well-known `Bell-the-cat'-received a grant of it from James III.; and he afterwards so figured in connection with it as to have furnished subjects for some of Scott's most graphic delineations. The next Earl of Angus, after he had married the queen-mother of James V., and lost influence over the person and councils of that young monarch, shut himself up in Tantallon, and defied for a time the whole hostile force of the kingdom. The monarch went in person to reduce it, sat down before it in September 1528, and borrowed from the castle of Dunbar, to aid him in his operations, two great cannons, called `Thrawn-mouth'd Meg and her Marrow,' also `two great bocards and two moyons, two double falcons and four quarter-falcons,' for the safe redelivery of which to their owner, the Duke of Albany, three lords were left in pledge at Dunbar. Yet, in spite of his great preparations and formidable efforts, James was compelled to raise the siege; and he afterwards obtained possession of it only by Angus' fleeing to England, and by a compromise with Simon Panango, the governor. After James V.'s death, the Earl obtained leave to return from his exile; in 1543 he was restored to his possessions, and began to make Tantallon stronger than before; and here he died in 1556. In 1639, the Covenanters, provoked at its lord, the Marquis of Douglas, making a stand in it for kingcraft and prelacy, at length 'dang doun Tantallon,' and even garrisoned it against the King. About the beginning of the 18th century, Sir Hew Dalrymple, president of the Court of Session, bought the castle, along with the circumjacent barony, from the Duke of Douglas, dismantled it, and gave it up to decay. On 26 Aug. 1878 the Queen, Prince Leopold, and the Princess Beatrice drove over from Broxmouth to Tantallon, which some have claimed as the birthplace of Gawin Douglas (1474-1522), the poetbishop of Dunkeld.—Ord. Sur., sh. 41, 1857. - See vol. iv. of Billings' Baronial Antiquities (1852) and the works cited under the Bass.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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