[These images may be used without permission for any scholarly or educational purpose without prior permission as long as you credit the Hathitrust Digital Archive and the Duke University Library and link to the the Victorian Web in a web document or cite it in a print one — George P. Landow ]

Tantallon Castle, drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. Sadler. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by the Artist

The visitor of the old stronghold of the Douglases passes through the smooth flat corn-fields of the most highly-cultivated district of Scotland — East Lothian; and if the eye be somewhat wearied by the breadth and uniformity of the well-cleaned fields, and the uninteresting nature, in a picturesque sense, of their valuable produce, the broken line of rough brown rocks, with the sea dashing at their base, becomes all the more striking by the suddenness and strength of the contrast. A gentle intervening eminence hides the rock on which the ruins stand, and the stranger scarcely gains a glimpse of them until, after passing through a comfortable, well-stacked farm-yard, he stands at the edge of the outer moat. Then, indeed, the aspect of everything by which he is surrounded is changed. A rugged wildness characterises all the main objects within his view. The rocks, though not of great height, are of the darkest iron hue, and, consisting of tufa, are rugged and shapeless in their outline. Beneath them tosses the never-resting German Ocean; and appearing close by, (though, in reality, it is at a considerable distance,) that wondrous rock, the Bass, rises, in a white precipice, straight out of the waves, exhibiting a slanting and accessible descent to the shore only in one narrow stripe, where the mouldering remnants of the old fortification and state-prison, connected with so many historical incidents, may yet be traced by the eye. Far along the coast, towards the English border, headland after headland rears its rocky steep over the waves, their tops bearing the remains of a few ancient buildings of inferior note. Pre-eminent over the whole scene, however, are the huge ruins of the Castle of Tantallon —

Broad, massive, high, and stretching far,
And held impregnable in war,
On a projecting rock they rose,
And round three sides the ocean flows;
The fourth did battled walls enclose,
And double mound and fosse.

The vestiges of the two ditches are still very distinct. The interior, which is close to the principal part of the fortification, has been rendered steep by the scarping of the rock. There are still the remains of considerable works beyond the area of the oiiter ditch. The central edifice presents neither a square nor a semicircular, but what may be called a rounded front. It projects to a considerable distance forward from two extensive curtains of high wall, which stretch from it obliquely towards the sea. On this front edifice there is visible, high up, the remains of a coat of arms, the only vestige of ornament to be seen in any part of the huge gloomy pile, except a very slightly-perceptible moulding round the circular arch of the doorway beneath. On either side of this doorway are the remains of what might appear to be buttresses, connected probably with ihe machinery of the drawbridge of the inner moat, — forcibly recalling to mind that stirring incident in Marmion

On the carl's cheek the flush of rage
O'ercame the ashen hue of age:
Fierce he broke forth — 'And dar'st thou then
To beard the lion in his den —
The Douglas in his hall.
And hop'st thou thence unscathed to go?
No! — by Saint Bride of Bothwell, no!
Up drawbridge, grooms! — What ! warder, ho I
Let the portcullis fall!
Lord Marmion turn'd — well was his need! —
And dash'd the rowels in his steed,
Like arroow through the archway sprung —
The ponderous grate behind him rung;
To pass there was such scanty room.
The bars, descending, razed his plume.

The character of the building is in a great measure a mixture of round and square towers, not distinct, but running into each other. At the extremity of each of the long high curtains already mentioned, there is a tower, round in front, but forming itself into a square as it turns and unites itself with the buildings behind. When the rounded tower containing the doorway has been penetrated, it appears, towards the inner court, a square tower, with machicolations at the corners. The original form of the building appears to have been an irregular hexagon. The portions towards the sea have been almost entirely destroyed; and thus the broad inner yard, together with the sites of the buildings that had once stood at its further extremity, intervene between the parts of the Castle which still retain their ancient loftiness and the edge of the rock. The disposition of the ruins is thus not calculated to give them their full dignity from tbe sea; and the drawings which represent the precipice from the adjoining headlands generally comprise only the end or edge of the front row of buildings, and give the impression of an edifice of narrow dimensions. It is after having passed through the long arched passage penetrating this building, that, looking up to the great height and breadth of the mass which formed the front of the interior courtyard, one feels impressed with the power and resources of the family who could make their dwelling-place a fortress at once so strong and extensive.

Sir Walter Scott says that Tantallon “is believed to have belonged in more ancient times to the Earls of Fife, the descendants of Macduff, and was certainly in the possession of Isabel, the last countess of that renowned line, and was comprehended in the settlement which she made of her honours and estates upon Robert Stewart, Earl of Mentelth, whom she recognised by that deed as her lawful and nearest heir in the year 1371” (Chronicles of Scotland Dalzell's Edition, 338). (Provincial Antiquities, Works, II, 162). It became one of the fortresses of the son of this Earl, the celebrated Eegent Murdoch, Duke of Albany. In connexion with the sweeping arrest of the Regent, his relatives and followers, in the year 1424, it is generally stated that his wife was committed prisoner to Tantallon (Tytler's History, III, 222), and so sudden must have been her transition from being mistress of the castle to being a prisoner within its walls, that It would appear as if she had been residing there at the time, and had been at once, as the most convenient method of custody, transferred from the hall to the dungeon. Alexander, Lord of the Isles, on making his submission to James I. in 1429, was imprisoned in Tantallon Castle, under the charge of Angus, the king's nephew (Tytler's History, III, 252). and it is probable that it is about this period that the territory was conferred on the house of Douglas. On the fall of the head of that family in the reign of James II., this possession fell to the younger branch of Angus, which, appealing to inherit all the power and vigour of the parent stem. Increased in influence, until in its turn it overshadowed and endangered the throne. When James V., a youth about fifteen years old, escaped from the compulsory tutelage of the Earl of Angus, a sort of war was raised against that nobleman, and steps were taken to reduce his strongholds. The operations against Tantallon show its strength as a fortress against the artillery of that early period, although its position commanded from all the neighbourlng fields, would have made it ludicrous to hold out Such a place before cannon in the present, or even in the last century. An army of twelve thousand men, with a train of artillery, commenced the attack on the 14th December 1528. "So," says Pitscottie,

the artaillie, with the canones and canoneris, war conveyed to Tantallon, and seidged the same the space of twentle dayes, bot cam no speid. Bot whidder the castle was so strong, or if the principall seidgeris war corrupted be the Earle of Angus' moyane, I cannot tell, but the king was constrained to pas home to Edinburgh, and left it without any hope of wining thairof, bot had both money, men, and hors lost at the persute thairof; and at his returning had ane noble captaine slaine be Archibald Douglas, callit David Falconer, att whose slauchter the king was heavilie displeassed. [Chronicles of Scotland, (Dalzell's Edition,) 338.]

Another chronicler says,

The Earl timself remained at Billie in the Merse, within the barony of Bunkle, not willing to shut himself up within the walls of any strength, having ever in his mouth this maxim, which he had received from his predecessors, that it was better to hear the lark sing than the mouse cheep. The Castle was well defended for certain days, none hurt within: many without were wounded with shot from the Castle,and some burnt and scalded with their own powder, which took fire unawares, and divers killed. [Hume of Godscroft's History of the House of Douglaas 338.]

The Court Yard of Tantallon Castle drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. Sadler. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

In the month of September preceding these warlike preparations, an act of attainder had passed against the Douglases, with a forfeiture of all their lands and houses, including Tantallon: how far such a formality operated against a great leader, with arms and followers, at that time, Pitscottle's narrative may testify. The proceedings against the Douglases were, however, in the end successful. Angus fled to England, and Pitscottle, in his continuation of the siege of Tantallon, says, "Casting all the moyane he might to obtelne the Castle of Tamtallon, knawing weill, if he had the Castle, thair wold be no place to the Earle nor his frelndis to resort till; thalrfoir he caused make moyane with the captaine thairof, called Simeon Penango, and promeised to give liim great giftis and revardis, both of landis and geir, with the kingis speciall favoures, and to remitt all byganes to his brother and neai- freindis thairof m lyk-maner, excepting the Douglases always" (Chronicles, p. 338). To these overtures the governor finally yielded; but Godscroft, on the recollection of the old men who were learned in tradition, gives a version of the capitulation more honourable to the retainers of the house of Douglas, who are represented as yielding at the desire of their master, whom the King of England recommended, on an understanding that he would be pardoned, to cease from resistance to the royal will. While in the king's possession, the fortifications appear, from several entries in the Treasurer's Accounts, to have been enlarged [Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, I, 298.]

The Court Yard of Tantallon Castle drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. Sadler. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

In 1542, after the calamitous affair of Solway Moss and the death of James V., the Douglases returned to Scotland — not in their old pride and power, as the accepted leaders of a free and warlike people, but by the favour of the English monarch, whose influence had been raised by the calamities of their country. Sir Kalph Sadler has preserved a curious notice of the faded lustre of the great house, in a visit to Tantallon, where he lived for some time, as a place of security, on account of the risk he incurred from the unpopularity of the negotiations he was sent to conduct, for the marriage of the young Prince Edward with the infant Mary Queen of Scots. He said that he found the old earl somewhat unwilling to let him see the bareness of the establishment, and he sent thither his servant, who informed him "that the house was cleanly unfurnished, both of bedding and all manner of household stuff", and none to be bought or hired, nor no manner of provision to be made thereof, nor any kind of victual nearer than this town, which is twenty miles off"." After residing for some time in this dreary abode, he says, "Though it be easily furnished, and slender lodging in it, yet, I assure you, it is of such strength as I must not fear the malice of mme enemies, and therefore do now think myself to be out of danger." It was perhaps the circumstance of an English ambassador having thus found refuge within the walls, that prompted Sir Walter Scott to connect with the spot the incidents of Marmlon's visit, so very different in their character. At the same time, it is not unlikely that some humorous associations connected with the visit of the fastidious and comfortable Englishman to the lone, dilapidated, sea-washed tower of the impoverished Scottish lord, may have first suggested to the same creative brain the sojourn of Haiston of Buclaw at Ravenscralg, the locality of which is placed on the rocky coast adjacent to Tantallon. At a subsequent period, Tantallon received another English ambassador. Sadler had come in the infancy of the young queen, when all were anticipating for her a glorious destiny, to propose a union in which wise men not unadvisedly foretold the closing of national feuds and jealousies, the saving of human life, and the prosperity of Britain. When the other ambassador came, the unhappy queen had passed through that long career of vicissitudes and horrors from which the diplomatic projects divulged in her childhood might have saved her, had they come to maturity; and the object of the mission was to remove her from the mortal scene of all her miseries, and to accomplish her death in the form least liable to make the event dangerous to those who felt it perilous to let her live. It was in 1572 that Killigrew, thus secretly instructed, came from England, and took up his first residence in Scotland with Morton, who lay ill at Tantallon (Tytler, VI, 380). In 1639, Tantallon was garrisoned by the Covenanters. In common with many other ancient fortresses, its historical career was closed by the cannon of Oliver Cromwell, who took it after a short siege. The estate on which it stands is now the property of Sir Hugh Dalrymple, Bart., of North Berwick.

R. W. B.


The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland illustrated by Robert William Billings, architect, in four volumes.. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Son, 1852. Hathitrust Digital Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 10 October 2018.

Last modified 7 October 2018