Just off the B1361
road through the East Lothian village of Prestonpans, within the bounds of the
ancient Preston village, sits the surprisingly intact and unusual remains of the
L-plan keep of Preston Tower raised by the Hamilton family in the 1450's. The
name Preston means 'Priest town' since originally the land was owned by the
monks of Newbattle Abbey in Dalkeith. Preston Tower seems a lone, minor keep.
However, it is but one in a chain of some ten Hamilton strongholds running from
Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran in the west over to Innerwick Castle near
Dunbar in the east.
The tower is
surprisingly intact considering it was burnt on three occasions. First in 1544
by the English during the wars of the 'Rough Wooing' where by use of castle
burning they hoped to force the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots
(1542-1567) to the English Prince Edward. Secondly, it was burnt by Oliver
Cromwell in 1650 during his systematic destruction of Lothian castles after his
victory over the Scots at the battle of Dunbar.
Finally, the tower was accidentally set ablaze in 1663. Preston has also
survived the ravages of stone robbers who in the 1700's viewed such monuments as
ready made quarries. Perhaps its proximity to the alternative Hamilton residence
of the white-washed, crow-stepped, gabled Hamilton House built 1626 saved the
tower from such robbers.
Certainly the buildings outer enclosing barmkin wall is
missing, though this may have been removed by the Hamiltons themselves
cannibalising parts for use in the construction of the nearby Lectern doocot
which dates from the mid-1600's,after Cromwell's sacking of the tower.
The tower's unusual
appearance is due to the fact that a two storey L-plan addition was built on top
of the upper battlements in 1626 with Renaissance windows bearing the initials
SIDKH for Sir John and Dame Katherine Hamilton. This gives the structure a
bizarre folly like appearance.
recorded ancestor of the Hamiltons was Gilbert, the father of 'Walter Fitz
Gilbert Hameldone', the English paid governor of Bothwell Castle near Glasgow.
In 1314 he shrewdly allowed defeated English knights to flee to his castle after
the battle of Bannockburn, then promptly surrendered the castle and its
fugitives to King Robert (1306-1329) the Bruce's forces. The Scottish King then
traded these knights for his wife, daughter and other Scots nobles, held captive
since the fall of Kildrummy Castle in Grampian in 1306. The King rewarded 'Hameldone'
with a grant to the lands of Cadzow.
the reign of King James II of Scots (1437-1460),the 'Black' Douglases revolted
with their allies, the Hamiltons, burning castles throughout the kingdom. In
reply the king destroyed several Douglas castles including Hamilton of Cadzow's
Strathaven Castle near Glasgow. However, when the King's army besieged the key
Douglas castle of Abercorn near Linlithgow, and the King himself was about to be
encircled by an even larger Douglas/Hamilton army, the Hamiltons refused to
attack and switched sides. The 'Black' Douglas with his forces split, retreated
south and was later driven into exile by his kin the 'Red ' Douglas of Tantallon
castle near North Berwick, who like the Hamiltons had joined forces with the
Preston Tower was
built around this time by the Hamiltons who like their rivals the 'Red'
Douglases rose to prominence on the ashes of the 'Black' Douglas castles and
estates seized by King James then gifted to more 'loyal' Lords. In fact the
Hamilton stronghold of Craignethan was built on the site of the ancient 'Black'
Douglas towerhouse destroyed by the King. The 'haughty Hamiltons' rose to become
Earls of Arran in 1503. But taken that the 1st Earl of Arran had nineteen
children, only three of whom were legitimate, and that the names James and John
were repeatedly used,it becomes confused as to who was descended from whom.
Branches of the family were Dukes of Abercorn, others Earls of Haddington who
were from the ancient line of the Hamiltons of Innerwick, kinsmen of the
Hamiltons of Preston Tower.
The entrance to
Preston Tower had a unique double defensive feature. Directly above the doorway
was a wooden lean-to hoarding, its outline can still be traced today. From here
items could be dropped and if the hoarding itself was damaged it was simply
unbolted and dropped to block the entrance and then the second defensive
overhang at battlement level was used. Anything could be used, from boiling oil
and boulders, to incendiary pig carcasses packed with goosegrease which exploded
on impact-a kind of medieval napalm. Even something as basic as sand could be
superheated until white hot and then dropped on besiegers. It didn't kill the
knights but got into their helmets and chain mail joints thus distracting them
to either fall off their siege ladders or attempt to pull off their burning
helmets leaving their heads vunerable to attack.
medieval defences proved useless against the assault in 1544. The entry, the
hoarding and battlements were all battered from beyond arms length bt the Earl
of Hertford's mercenary hakbutters (riflemen). Gunpowder and cannon had
dispensed with the immediate need for hand to hand combat with castle garrisons.
Targets could be softened up first before infantry engagements were required.
Also, the days of knights and chivalry were over. Soldiers were motivated by
money and valued their lives above honour, so rather than a headlong dash up
siege ladders, such minor keeps as Preston were simply bombarded while brushwood
and greased faggots were piled around its walls and set ablaze to smoke out the
In 1545 the
Hamiltons and 'Red' Douglases set aside their differences to join forces and
defeat an invading Engilsh army led by Sir Ralph Evers at the battle of Ancrum
moor near Melrose. Evers was then skinned and his skin used to make purses for
the Scots men-at-arms. In 1547 Innerwick castle near Dunbar was attacked by the
re-invading English. While one force attacked Thornton Castle, a Home
stronghold, directly across the ravine from Innerwick. A separate English unit
of hakbutters besieged Innerwick itself. The Master of Hamilton and eight other
gentlemen barricaded the doors and defended from the battlements. Part of the
castle was set ablaze and the hakbutters entered by storm, killing eight of the
defenders on the spot; the ninth jumped from the castle battlements falling some
60 to 70ft into the ravine and river below. The English commander conducting the
siege of Innerwick was so impressed by this feat of daring that he called for
the man's life to be spared. However, he was shot dead in the water by the other
English force attacking Thornton Castle.
The English army
then marched to the battle of Pinkie where they routed the Scot army including
the forces of the Hamiltons and 'Red' Douglases by combined use of land and ship
based bombardment. Preston Tower appears to have been left a burnt out shell
while the wars of the 'Rough Wooing' continued to rage on. Eventually, after
Cromwell's assault in 1650 and the accidental fire of 1663 Preston Tower was
abandoned by the Hamiltons but unlike other Lothian castles it did not fall into
any real decay and has remained reasonably intact.
Andrew Spratt Nov