Hermitage Castle is a forbidding and oppressive place. Seen from the east or west the architecture seems utterly brutal: sheer walls relieved only by a blind arch. Radio Scotland once broadcast a feature in which Hermitage Castle was described as the embodiment of the phrase "sod off" in stone. It's a difficult description to better.
The unusual architecture, designed to allow wooden fighting platforms to run the length of the outside of the tops of the walls, is partly responsible for Hermitage Castle's remarkable atmosphere. So is the ballad writer Dr John Leyden, a friend of Sir Walter Scott. He elaborated on Hermitage's pretty unpleasant history, producing tales of myth and magic that have become confused with reality over the years since.
The setting also does the castle few favours. Its riverside location high in the valley of the Hermitage Water ought to be enchanting. But the bleak and open moorland that surrounds Hermitage Castle on its other three sides seems oppressive.
A wooden castle was first built on this spot by Nicholas de Soulis in 1242. Being so close to the border with England, Hermitage Castle played a key role in the Wars of Independence that started in 1296, and it changed hands a number of times over the following decades.
By 1320, the occupant was William de Soulis, a man so widely disliked that there are two quite separate stories told about his demise. In one of them he plotted against Robert the Bruce and was imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle, with Hermitage being forefeited to the Crown. In the other, based on a ballad written in the 1700s, William de Soulis was boiled alive in molten lead by locals after inflicting a reign of terror on the neighbourhood.
In 1338 the castle was captured by Sir William Douglas. He was an ambitious man who responded to the appointment by King David II of Alexander Ramsay as Sheriff of Teviotdale by imprisoning Ramsay in Heritage Castle and starving him to death. David II took the line of least resistance and appointed Sir William to the newly vacant post.
By 1371 the wooden Hermitage Castle was inherited by the first Earl of Douglas. He rebuilt it as a much stronger stone tower house. It was the third Earl of Douglas who from 1390 added four great stone towers to the corners of the castle, producing what you see today.
In 1492 James IV's doubts about the loyalty of the fifth Earl of Douglas led him to instruct that Hermitage Castle be exchanged for the less strategically sensitive Bothwell Castle, until then held by the first Earl of Bothwell.
The only hint of romance in Hermitage Castle's story came in October 1566, when it was held by James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. He was injured in a fight with border reivers. When news of this came to the ears of Mary Queen of Scots, visiting Jedburgh, 25 miles away, she dropped everything and rode with a small retinue to be by his side.
Still married at the time to Lord Darnley she could not be seen to stay at Hermitage with Bothwell so after two hours she returned the 25 miles to Jedburgh. En route she stumbled into a marsh and contracted a cold from which she nearly died.
Hermitage Castle fell into disuse in the early 1600s. Its fame as a gloomy and romantic ruin spread through the 1800s: Sir Walter Scott had himself painted with Hermitage in the background. This interest led the then owner, the fifth Duke of Buccleuch, to undertake extensive repairs which helped so much of the exterior wall to survive until the castle was placed in state care in 1930.
And if you do find yourself alone in Hermitage Castle with the wind whistling through the few openings in the walls, it's easy to understand why many visitors have reported unusual apparitions and happenings. You only have to look at this fascinating and intimidating castle to know that its very stones bear witness to events long forgotten: and perhaps best kept that way.