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Two miles east of North Berwick is a rocky headland surrounded by cliffs offering stunning views north to the sea-bird colony on Bass Rock. Anywhere else, Bass Rock would dominate the attention, but here it takes second place to the remarkable curtain wall of Tantallon Castle, built on a spectacular site which could have been the oigin of the legend of King Arthur's Camelot.
A visit by Oliver Cromwell's army in 1651 has ensured that Tantallon Castle is but a shadow of its former self. But what remains is dramatic and impressive, offering considerable scope for exploration and plenty of opportunity for sufferers of vertigo to check whether they've overcome it yet. Stairs allow access to the walkway running most of the length of the curtain wall and to the top of the Mid Tower.
In its heyday Tantallon Castle's main structure comprised a 12ft thick curtain wall built right across the headland, protected by a deep ditch cut through the rock in front and by the natural cliffs on the remaining three sides.
At the north-west end of the wall was the large circular Douglas Tower, offering 6 storeys of accommodation for the Douglas family who held sway here through most of the castle's life. Very little of it was left standing by Cromwell's artillery.
At the south-east end of the curtain wall was the East Tower, originally five storeys high but again largely destroyed in 1651. Not quite centrally placed was the Mid Tower, also five storeys in height and the best preserved of the towers (though covered in scaffolding in the images on this page).
Behind the protection of the curtain wall was the close with, on its north side, the remains of the hall block. Here, too, is the castle well, while at the end of the headland is a sea gate designed to allow the castle to be supplied from the sea in times of trouble.
In front of the curtain wall and the main ditch is the outer ward. Today this is empty except for the dovecot, but during the castle's active life it would have been home to all the service buildings and accommodation necessary to allow the castle to function. The outer ward, in turn, is defended by an outer ditch, and, beyond it, a later addition of an artillery ravelin.
Today you approach from the small visitor centre along a path that takes you past the outer ditch to the outer gate, protected by a traverse wall beyond. It is easy to see why the English Ambassador, based at Tantallon in November 1543, wrote to Henry VIII: "Temptallon is of such strength as I nede not feare the malice of myne enymeys..."
Tantallon's origins date back to the ennoblement of William, the First Earl of Douglas in 1358. A later split within the family of the Douglas Earls of Angus left Tantallon under the control of the "Red Douglases", sporadically in conflict with the "Black Douglas" side of the family. And when their ambition grew too rampant or their relations with England too close, they also found themselves repeatedly in conflict with the Scottish Crown.
In 1491 Tantallon castle was besieged by James IV in reprisal for an agreement by the Fifth Earl of Angus to betray him to Henry VII of England. Little damage was done and relations were later repaired. In 1528 the castle was besieged again, this time by James V, seeking revenge on his stepfather, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus: but again the royal forces were outmatched by the castle's defences. The following year James V acquired the castle by negotiation and set to work on improving its defences still further to withstand the artillery of the day.
The Douglas family regained the castle in 1543, and again sought to betray Scotland to England, allowing it to be used as a base by Henry VIII's ambassador during his "Rough Wooing" of Mary Queen of Scots (see our Historical Timeline).
In 1650 Cromwell's forces were busily conquering Scotland when Tantallon Castle was occupied by a small group of moss-troopers: bandits or guerrillas depending on your point of view. They set to work attacking Cromwell's lines of communication across south east Scotland and were said to be more effective than all the regular troops opposing Cromwell across Scotland combined.
Retaliation followed in 1651 and a force of 3000, including much of Cromwell's artillery in Scotland, was eventually needed to root out a garrison of fewer than 100 holding the castle. Tantallon was left in much the condition you find it in today. Tantallon Castle passed into the care of the State in 1924, and is now looked after by Historic Scotland.