Border Strongholds

Hermitage Castle 

Location.  5 miles NE of Newcastleton on the B6399.

Map ref: 79 349596.

The Wickedest Place on the Border

To gain the reputation of being the wickedest place in the Border, that region with such a history of lawlessness, is quite an achievement. But so the Hermitage is often described.

It has been said that the sheer cumulative weight of all the sins perpetrated there has caused the whole structure to sink six feet into the ground. No doubt it is still sinking!

Many of the sins committed within its walls are associated with the de Soulis family who came over from France with William the Conqueror. Many were, but not all.

Lord William de Soulis was the arch villain of them all. He is said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for acquiring skills in the arts of devilry and black magic. 

After a life of barbarity and evil it was widely believed by his long-suffering country folk that he died a fitting death.. He was taken to a nearby high point, goes the story, and placed in a large cauldron, wrapped in lead sheet, and boiled to death. That was, alas, wishful thinking. In fact he died a prisoner in Dumbarton Castle. 



It was here at Hermitage that the young Cowt of Kielder was forcibly held under the waters of the Hermitage Burn until he died.

It was at Hermitage that Sir William Douglas, knight of Liddesdale, starved his former friend, Sir Alexander Ramsay, to death in the dungeons of the castle.

Mary, Queen of Scots, made a memorable journey from Jedburgh to Hermitage to visit the bedside of Bothwell who had been injured in a confrontation with Little Jock Elliot. Immediately afterwards she returned to Jedburgh in appalling weather. She caught a chill and nearly died. Later, she wished she had. Some miserable years afterwards she declared:” Would that I had died at Jed!”

Grim and defiant, Hermitage still stands in friendless isolation. No trees or bushes grow nearby, no flowers deck its borders. No ivy clings to its walls. It seems that even the plants refuse to forgive or forget.


A vast eerie fortress at the heart of many of the bloodiest events in the history of the Borders and the scene of many a death by drowning, burning. starvation and, of course, by the sword. Many dreadful deeds were perpetrated here, and hanging over the site is a sense of hidden menace and oppressive evil.

From Hermitage south along the valley of Hermitage Water to Newcastleton and beyond can be seen remnants of many old peles and castles.

This is largely Elliot country but the castle has been, at times, associated with the De Soulis family and with the Douglas, Dacre, Hepburn 
and Scott clans. The Armstrong occupied it from time to time when it was not in use by the others.

At nearby Dinlabyre stood the castle of Clitwood but only traces remain.

In the vicinity of Hermitage have been found the remains of buildings indicating that once a sizeable township was located here.

There were five districts here: Wheel, Hermitage, Dinla-byre, Ettleton and Chapelknowe.

Hermitage is perhaps the loneliest and most impressive fortress in the whole of the Borders and should not be missed. You will see something of the great wastes of Tarras Moss. 
Newcastleton is worth visiting, and afterwards go on to Canonbie and Langholm.
Near the end of the 15th century when reiving was at its height, one sixth of the whole of the Scottish Border military force was stationed at Hermitage.

There were more than one Lord de Soulis. There were all apparently wicked, but the last one was the worst

Go to De Soulis. He has earned a section for himself.

                                       Brothers in Arms

The Soulis family were not the only ones responsible for all the evil perpetrated within the walls of Hermitage Castle. It was at Hermitage that Sir William Douglas, knight of Liddesdale, barbarously starved his former friend and colleague to death in the dungeons of the castle.

Both men had been brothers in arms in numerous campaigns, and were regarded as the two most brilliant and valiant knights in King David’s court.

Sir Alexander Ramsay earned the reputation of being a great leader, a wily tactician and a fearless fighter. He  was honoured for his many military campaigns including many daring guerrilla raids against the English.

Possession of the strong fortress of Roxburgh was bitterly contested by England and Scotland and for long periods it was in the hands of the English much to the distress of Scotland. This stronghold, being near the Border was of prime importance to both sides.

In a night attack, in 1342, Ramsay stormed the stronghold and, although stoutly repulsed by a substantial English force, he succeeded in taking it.

For the great service Sir Alexander Ramsay had rendered by its capture, he was rewarded by being appointed governor of the castle, by King David. He was also awarded the position of Sheriff of Teviotdale, a post based at Hermitage Castle, which had been previously held by Sir William Douglas, the Knight of Liddesdale.

When the news reached Douglas of Ramsay’s appointed by the young King as Sheriff of Teviotdale he was furious and he directed his wrath not at the King who made the appointment, but at Ramsay himself.

Deeply offended, Douglas vowed vengeance against the new
Sheriff, the man who had been his friend and companion in arms for so long.

One day as Ramsay was carrying out his official duties holding court in the church at Hawick, Douglas burst in. Ramsay rose to greet his old friend and comrade, but instead of a friendly handshake he was seized by Douglas’ men and taken away to Hermitage Castle in Liddesdale.

There he was hurled into a lower dungeon and was given neither food nor water and left there to die an agonizing death.

It is said that this brave knight prolonged his life for seventeen days by eating the remains of grains of corn which had filtered through from the store above.

Ramsay’s cruel death excited widespread indignation and sorrow among all classes of his contemporaries.

King David was appalled when he was told of the dreadful crime but his authority was so weak that he was unable to take any action against Douglas.

What caused the so-called Flower of Chivalry to act so has been a great puzzle many.

Some four hundred years later a mason employed to make repairs within the castle came upon a vault about eight feet square, in which were found some human bones,  along with remnants of a saddle, some pieces of cloth, and an ancient sword together with other assorted accoutrements.  These relics in all probability had belonged the gallant but unfortunate Alexander Ramsay.

Later the King assigned to Douglas the office of Sheriff of
Teviotdale the office which Ramsay had held.

After such appalling behaviour Douglas’ name was abhorred by Scots everywhere, and not long after he was ambushed by his own nephew and slain. So ended the lives of two of the brightest hopes for Scotland’s fight for freedom.

This is one of the stories from the book: Hermitage Castle, the Wickedest Place on the Border by Tom Armstrong. This book may be purchased from this website. Click HERE.