Some 25 miles east
of Edinburgh is the small coastal town of North Berwick. Beside the sea shore
sits a ridge known locally as 'Castle Hill', which conceals in it's grassy mound
the almost non-existent remains of the little known North Berwick castle. The
castle was held by three noble families, the MacDuffs, the Stewarts and the
Lauders. The first 13th century 'Castle' was a wooden motte and bailey built by
the MacDuffs Thanes of Fife, who's principal seat was MacDuff 's castle on the
Fife coast. In 1304 King Edward I of England stayed at Macduff's castle in Fife
then held by Michael Wemyss a MacDuff descendant. By 1306 Michael sided with
King Robert the Bruce (1306-1329) resulting in MacDuff's castle being attacked
by the Earl of Pembroke. Which goes some way to explain the illegal occupation
of North Berwick castle by Pembroke's troops around the same time. By 1312 the
local church pledged support to King Edward II of England (1307-1327), probably
induced by the English presence on 'Castle Hill' .
In 1314 King Robert
the Bruce defeated King Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn near Stirling
castle. Edward fled down the coast passed Edinburgh and on towards Dunbar
pursued by James the 'Black' Douglas. The English garrison at North Berwick, on
hearing of their King's flight and the approach of the 'Black ' Douglas,
their posts; "they gave up this castle and retired to the castle of
Dunbar", as Lord Dunbar was still in league with the English and ships could
safely dock here to evacuate Edward and his men to 'South Berwick' (Berwick on
Tweed), which was still in English hands since the massacre of the entire Scots
population in 1296. Because Dunbar was too strong for Douglas to besiege, he
probably slighted North Berwick, as like the Bruce he had a policy of destroying
castles in the Lowlands to prevent them from being used by the English as
stepping stones for re-invasion.
During the reign of
King Robert II of Scots (1371-1390) the Stewart Earls of Fife held the Barony of
North Berwick with it's 'Castle'. In 1373 North Berwick was granted a charter as
a Royal Burgh since it was the key ferry port to and from Fife. In the late 14th
century a stone tower with barmkin was raised on the site by the Lauder
family, who also constructed a keep on the Bass Rock island some three miles east
of North Berwick in the Firth of Forth.
For some unrecorded reason the 'Castle
Hill' appears to have been abandoned in favour of the more secure Bass Rock
castle some time before the 1420's and may have been used as a quarry by the
Lauders, who by 1426 had added 'a curtain wall and a landing stage' to their Bass
castle. Also their manor house of Tyninghame was reconstructed around this
time, so little remained of the 'Castle' when the site and lands around were
given to the church in 1435. The Lauders were originally Constables of Tantallon
castle, a great coastal fortress perched on the cliffs east of North
Berwick. The principal seat of the 'Red' Douglas family.
However in 1406 the Lauders came
into conflict with their Douglas masters over the ownership of
may explain the sudden disappearance of 'Castle Hill'. The background to this
conflict is complex.
In 1388 James 2nd
Earl of Douglas was killed at the battle of Otterburn. His title should then
have passed to his young half brother George the 'Red' Douglas of Tantallon.
However the title was seized by Archibald the 'Grim' Douglas (an illegitimate
son of the 'Black' Douglas). There was even an attempt to seize Tantallon by the
Stewart faction through the 2nd Earl's brother-in-law Malcom Drummond. But the
Lauders with the young 'Red' Douglas's mother and her kin the Sinclairs of
Herdmanston refused Drummond entry by show of force. They along with the
Lyndsays of Byres also blocked any Stewart claim to Tantallon. Though the
Stewarts held the nearby Barony of North Berwick the castle of Tantallon was
originally built by William 1st Earl of Douglas around 1360 and was therefore a
In 1389, Drummond's
failure to become keeper of Tantallon, resulted in him seeking English help in
pursuing his own land claims to the Douglas estates. However, as he led his
English army into Scotland, he was ambushed by Archibald the 'Grim' 3rd Earl of
Douglas. With his forces destroyed, Drummond is thought to have fled to France as
his body was never recovered from the battlefield. The 'Red' Douglas then became
1st Earl of Angus, when his mother resigned her title to give him the status
required to hold Tantallon in his own right. The Stewarts then agreed to his
continued occupation of Tantallon.
dealings were not only confined to the nobility but extended to the Royal
Stewart household. In 1402 Prince David was 'arrested' by his Uncle the Duke of
Albany and his brother-in-law Archibald 4th Earl of Douglas to keep the peace.
But as the Prince was 'long guarded' at Falkland castle he died of starvation.
Since King Robert III of Scots (1390-1406) was a sick, weak willed man his
brother Albany escaped punishment for this crime and continued to plot the
King's overthrow and the murder of young Prince James (later King James I of
1406,Sir David Fleming with Robert Lauder and a 'strond band' of the 'leading
men of Lothian' accompanied by Prince James as a symbol of Royal authority
marched on Tantallon castle. It appeared King Robert or rather his lackeys were
re-asserting the Stewart claim to Tantallon made and abandoned in 1388. As plots
were afoot to kill the Prince, Tantallon was an ideal coastal stronghold to hide him until he could be shipped to France. The Sinclairs of Herdmanston acting
as protectors of young William the 'Red' Douglas 2nd Earl of Angus refused the
Royal party entry. The violent verbal barrage between the gatekeeper and Fleming
exploded into actual violence which 'shocked' the Royal army into a quick flight
to Robert Lauder's North Berwick castle. Expecting an assault by the Tantallon
garrison the Prince was rowed out to the even safer Bass Rock castle to await a
ship to France. Fleming and the Royal escort appeared trapped. To the east was Tantallon, to the south Herdmanston castle and Byres castle both held by
garrisons loyal to the 'Red' Douglas faction. To the west was Dirleton castle
held by the Halyburtons whoses loyalties were doubtful. Beyond that lay
Edinburgh castle held by Archibald Douglas's brother James the 'Gross' Douglas
who as an ally of the Duke of Albany wanted Prince James dead so Albany could
haste, the Royal army raced passed Dirleton, flying the Royal banner implying the
Prince was present. The army was shadowed by the Halyburtons and the Sinclairs
who had already sent riders to Edinburgh castle which drew out the 'Black'
Douglas army from there. After a lengthy pursuit, the Royal force was 'overtaken'
at the battle of Long Hermiston Moor and after 'a terrible fight' routed with
their leader David Fleming killed.
No doubt the rebel
army was sent by the Duke of Albany as Prince James was the only stumbling block
to his goal of seizing the Scots throne. The rebel army marched on 'Castle Hill'
to check the location of the Prince, though there is no written record of a siege
of North Berwick or of the Bass castle as the rebels were unwilling, or unable,
assault the Bass, which was said to be a 'fortress'. It may have been the case
that the 'Red' Douglases sacked 'Castle Hill' because the Lauders had betrayed
their trust. Later Prince James boarded a ship the 'Maryenknecht',to France but
was intercepted off Flamborough Head by the English and held captive for 18
years. On hearing of his son's plight, heartbroken King Robert died. His brother
Albany then took control of the Kingdom as 'Governor'.
Eventually, in 1424
Prince James, now King James I of Scots, returned to Scotland. In that same year
the 4th Earl of Douglas, ally of the Stewarts of Albany, was killed in France at
the battle of Verneuil. In the confused aftermath of his death King James moved
quickly, sending Robert Lauder to seize Edinburgh castle from the 'Black'
Douglases. Then, when the time was right, the Duke of Albany was arrested, taken
from his home of Doune castle near Stirling to St Andrews castle for a mock
trial then down to Caerlaverock castle in Dumfries by the new 5th Earl of
Douglas, who unlike his predecessor was in subjection to his King. Albany's son
Walter was taken to the Bass castle by the Lauders, his wife the Duchess of
Albany was imprisoned in Tantallon castle's dungeon by the 'Red' Douglas and his
father-in-law, the Earl of Lennox, was held at Edinburgh castle, also by the
The stage was set
for James's revenge. The Duke of Albany, his son and his father-in-law were all
reunited at Stirling castle, then beheaded. Bizarrely the three heads were taken
first to the Bass castle, then the Lauders shipped them to Tantallon castle where
the 'Red' Douglas in turn threw the heads into the dungeon beside the Duchess in
an effort to drive her insane. No one knows what pain and grief she must have
experienced as she peered in the half-light to identify the head of her
husband, then her son, then her father in turn. Likely the King was present to
hear her despairing cries. Soon after the 'Red' Douglas took pity on the Duchess
and moved her to a more comfortable chamber, where at his insistence she signed
an acknowledgement to say what the King had done was just as the Stewarts of
Albany were rebels. This kept the King happy as he moved on to seize Albany
to confine the Duchess within the bounds of his castle for her own safety, since
King James was such a volatile character and, given his later treatment of the
MacDonalds and the Dunbars, could turn on the Duchess at any time if she were
left unprotected. Ironically the Duchess outlived the King, who was murdered by
rebel Lords at Perth. She then re-asserted herself as Duchess of
Albany, reclaiming most of her stolen lands.
Today in North
Berwick only the name 'Castle Hill' hints at where King James I as a boy sought
sanctuary from the Stewarts of Albany in 1406 which led to such bloody reprisals
when he became an adult.