Castle of the Week 88 – Tantallon Castle

We are going to explore the historic castle of Tantallon in Scotland. Tantallon is majestically situated on the edge of sheer cliffs that plunge straight into the sea, from which Bass Rock can be seen. Striking in its unique geographical position, it was a formidable stronghold.

A showcase of 14th century defense, Tantallon retains a 12ft thick curtain wall that reaches a height of 50ft. It protects an inner courtyard behind it with an approximate area of 70m X 44m, which contains the well that is 106 feet deep! There are also foundations for a sea gate so the castle could be supplied by sea.

The castle is separated from the mainland by a 20ft ditch dug through the rocky headland. Earthen defense works form the outer ward which contains a small stone gatehouse, and a 17th century dovecot. This area would have been where all the castle buildings and services kept the castle functioning. Beyond the outer ward, a ravelin (triangular artillery earthwork) was constructed.

Three towers graced the curtain wall with the middle tower bearing the entrance to the castle, and the best preserved. This 42 foot square tower contained four storeys of residential rooms. The central tower also housed the drawbridge, the portcullis, gate and three sets of doors and machicolations to prevent entry to the castle. In the 1400s a barbican was added to the front. Visitors today can walk along the top of the curtain wall and visit the top of the mid tower. The south-eastern end of the curtain wall holds the remains of the East tower, and the other end holds the remains of the Douglas tower.

The Douglas tower, at the northwestern end, was a structure that was 6 storeys high and provided housing for the Douglas family. It contained luxurious living quarters. The north side also housed apartments which you can see outlined in the map of the castle.

A brief summary of the castle history:

Tantallon’s history is a rocky one, starting with William Douglas who became the First Earl of Douglas in 1358. He murdered his godfather and uncle, Lord Liddesdale, who had betrayed Scotland by making a treaty with the English. This secured his place as head of the Douglas line. His sons would carry the Douglases into division; with his illegitimate son George, came the rise of the Red Douglases who became the Earls of Angus. His son James was given the title of Earl of Douglas and through his bloodline came the Black Douglas line.

Constant strife between the families and the crown caused numerous battles and Tantallon passed between English and Scottish ownership depending on the results. In 1491 the Fifth Earl of Angus made an agreement to betray James IV to Henry VII of England. James IV retaliated by besieging the castle; damage was minimal and peace was restored.

In 1528 Tantallon was besieged by James V with two large cannons and 20,000 men. The castle was equipped with its own artillery and held the enemy off for twenty days. It was acquired by James V a year later by negotiations. He strengthened the defenses to fend off artillery attacks.

The Douglas family took control of Tantallon when James V died and, in 1543, the English were offered the use of the castle. By 1558 it was no longer inhabited. In 1611, after the death of the 10th Earl, William, his son, the Marquis of Douglas, somewhat restored Tantallon.

In 1639 the castle was taken by Covenanters and, during Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland in 1651, it was attacked by General Monck. Tantallon withstood twelve days of cannon bombardment with a force of fewer than 100 before it surrendered. The castle suffered heavy damage and would never be restored again. Scotland lost one of its mightiest castles as it fell into ruin.

Modern day Tantallon is cared for by Historic Scotland and has a visitors’ center. It can be visited all year round.

Write-up courtesy of Lady Arcola.
Aerial photo and gate photo are used by permission and are courtesy of Mot’s European Castle Page
Other pictures and maps are used with permission and are courtesy of Burgenwelt.