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Tantallon Castle

On the Firth of Forth, 20 Miles East of Edinburgh

Click here for pictures of Tantallon Castle.

... 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.

Marmion, Sir Walter Scott

While Caerlaverock is everyone's idea of a medieval castle, Tantallon is an aberration, a markedly unique structure designed for the terrain it protected and the era in which it was built. But while Caerlaverock seems alive, if not thriving, Tantallon is dead, like the skeletal remains of some long deceased monster, slain with great difficulty and violence.

Tantallon sits on a bluff on the edge of the North Sea, overlooking a flat expanse of farmland. Behind the castle, to the north, sits Bass Rock at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. Tantallon consists of two walls: the main (southern) curtain wall that rises some 5 or 6 stories. and a shorter western wall. Attack from either side was impossible; the bluff cuts away from the eastern and western edges of the curtain wall at 45 degree angles. To bombard the fortress from that side, an attacker would have to lay a cannon on another bluff a mile or two to the southeast and even then the angle would be obscured.

The caretaker's booth near the paved parking lot obscures the view of the fortress. Just beyond the booth is a large earthen entrenchment, possibly defensive in nature but probably created by one of the castle's attackers. From behind this entrenchment only the top of Tantallon can be seen, giving one a sense of protection from the beast beyond. The walk to the castle took me northeast past the remains of an earthen ravelin (triangular gun platform) and then past the outer ditch, a large gash used to defend the castle against siege engines. A stone structure appeared ahead with a low stone wall to the left and a natural cut in the bluff to the right. This structure was a cannon site and low tower, allowing the castle's defenders to fire directly at attackers making for the outer gate. Seizing this would have been difficult for though the site lay away from the castle proper, the low stone wall served to channel an attack directly towards the structure's guns. This site lies right on the edge of the bluff, and so cannot be attacked from the south or east. A flanking attack from the north could clear out this bastion, but not without exposing the attackers to cannon and arquebus fire from the castle itself. The aforementioned ravelin could be taken, but at the expense of being fired upon by both the gun site and the castle.

The outer gate at right angles to the gun site took me into the yard in front of the castle and afforded me my first good look at Tantallon. The castle's main wall to right and left of the main gate is an almost featureless curtain of red orange stone, ending in a ruined tower at either end. The main gate cuts through the blunt ruin of an outer barbican (protected gateway), and into a fore tower added after the siege of King James V of Scotland in 1528. In fact, the fore tower was completed in 1556 and was designed for cannon against cannon, with rounded corners, gun holes, and a large gun platform on top. The fore tower was built against the wall's original mid tower; inside are windows that were blocked when the later tower was completed. Stone ramparts still exist on the top of the curtain wall, but any wood that had been used to top the wall has long since disappeared.

The wall's most notable feature, though, is its pockmarked appearance. The siege of the castle during the English Civil War (in 1651) had done most of the damage. A group of irregular cavalry, known as "moss troopers" had captured the castle and were raiding Oliver Cromwell's supply lines. Cromwell sent General Monk to attack the castle with between 2000 and 3000 men. The moss troopers numbered 91 men, with 15 or 16 guns and about 120 small arms. Monk burned the hamlet of Castleton and chased the troopers into the castle. Although many of Monk's cannon balls had not penetrated the wall or fore tower, the two end towers were reduced to rubble and the outer barbican was breached. Sir James Balfour's narrative of the events states the following:

Capitane Alexander Setton defendit the same gallantly; bot after that the enimeyes canon had oppind a werey large breache, and filled the dray ditche with the wall, he entered it by storme. The Capitane and thesse few men [which] were with him, betooke themselves to [the] tower, and resolued to sell their lives at als good a rait as they could, if that quarter should [be] denayed them; bot the enimey seinng them stand gallantly to it, preferrid them quarters, which they excepted.

A deep ditch is the castle's last line of defense and is crossed today by a wooden bridge. Once inside, you can see the full extent of the damage. The gate house has gaping holes in each of the floors, allowing a view through the stone ceiling and up through the remains of the mid tower. The rooms in the western wall are now open to the sky as the roof and much of the outer walls of this section have been destroyed. This wing was once filled with spacious halls and held James V's personal chambers. Today the splendor of the main hall can easily be imagined in spite of the missing ceiling and partial wall. A terrible rip runs from a third of the way up the mid tower to the top, as though it had been made of cardboard and some child had torn it while trying to get at something in the bottom.

The day I visited the castle was warm and sunny, with a frequent mist hanging on the surrounding countryside. The castle's spacious courtyard (known as a close) was bright and airy, and would have been very pleasant in the summer months. It is also completely exposed to the North Sea, ending as it does at the edge of the bluff. Winter storms would have been particularly harsh, exposing anyone caught in the open courtyard, and it would have been downright hazardous to anyone patrolling the ramparts high on the castle's wall. A sea gate, never completed, sits at the north edge of the bluffs, and steps lead down to the sea on the eastern edge, but no railing protects an unwary visitor from a steep fall, especially when visited at low tide.

Although built in a time when cannon were known and taken into account during the design, it was cannon that would bring about the castle's end. Large stone stairs of intricate construction lead up through the main wall. At some junctions I could see rooms in the main wall — many of which had been intended as quarters for nobility --that had been filled with rock and debris by James V after his siege to give the wall added protection against cannon fire. In the end, the lone ravelin in the outer ward could not protect the flanking towers from enemy fire, and the castle's position on the bluff made a proper defensive network impossible. The ravelin acted as a forward artillery position, keeping the enemy's guns at a safe distance. Monk's men, instead of attacking the forward wall, attacked the side towers. The location, on the edge of the bluff, that gave Tantallon its strength for so long became its greatest weakness in an era of artillery.

The outer ward is bare today except for one 17th century storage building, but in the castle's heyday it would have been crowded with structures of economic importance to the castle. The ward was an eerie blank space on the day I visited as mist rolled in from the south as I looked down from the top of the wall.

The view from the top of the walls is magnificent, extending far out over the countryside. The stairs throughout the castle are completely safe, if a bit worn, but would have been difficult to traverse in even the partial armour of a mere man-at-arms. The ramparts are mostly intact, though a steel rail protects tourists from falling off the (now) bare northern side. While I was up there, the sun went behind a cloud and the mist rolled up, and for just one minute I could imagine what it would be like to be a soldier walking a constant beat along the exposed wall with the king of Scotland dining not a hundred metres away. As in Caerlaverock, life would have been relatively comfortable for the nobility (perhaps even more comfortable than in Caerlaverock) but the life of the average serf or soldier would not have been particularly easy. This was hammered home when I toured the dungeon underneath the western tower. It was little more than a pit where miscreants were thrown and left to rot. Nearby was the castle's main toilet facility, no more than a hole that emptied onto the edge of the bluff.

Leaving the castle, I could "see" the approaching battering rams and siege cannon and could "hear" the sounds of a long and bloody siege. The castle is brooding and desolate in a manner far out stripping its setting or historical importance. Perhaps this is because of the ease at which it prompts the imagination, sitting as it does along the barren edge of the North Sea.