Dirleton and Tantallon Castles

Scotland is teeming with castles and those few days between Christmas and new year and some additional free time as we were off work presented us with the perfect opportunity to return back to these two. Dirleton castle and Tantallon castle are kind of either side of the lovely little town of North Berwick (a place I love visiting) so just a short trip from Edinburgh by car and both easily doable in one day.

First castle of the day was Dirleton and with the oldest parts dating back to the 13th century it has quite a history. The first people to take residence here were members of the Norman de Vaux family. They had settled in England following the Norman Conquest and were amongst a group of Anglo-Norman knights invited to Scotland and granted land by King David I of Scotland. John de Vaux subsequently began construction of the now ruined castle around 1240. When the Scottish Wars of Independence broke out in 1296 the castle, which lay on the route between Edinburgh and the English border changed hands several times and was also heavily damaged during this time. In the 14th century the castle passed into the Haliburton family when John Haliburton married the heiress from the de Vaux family around 1350. In the subsequent years generations of the Haliburton family carried out extensive work to the castle, heightening towers and also building a new gatehouse.

In 1515 the eldest daughter of the last Haliburton of Dirleton married William Ruthven, 2nd Lord Ruthven and the castle and Lordship passed into their family. The 3rd Lord Ruthven, Patrick Ruthven had an interesting life, he was one of the leaders of the group who murdered David Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary Queen of Scots in 1566 at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. He eventually fled to England and on his death the castle passed to his son William who was created Earl of Gowrie in 1581. He too was an interesting man, leading a plot in 1582 to seize the 16 year old King James VI and subsequently ruling in the King's name whilst James was held captive. Ruthven was executed in 1584 at Stirling castle.

The castle has links as well with Oliver Cromwell, whose army invaded Scotland in 1650. They defeated the Scots Royalists at Dunbar and as a result he gained control of southern Scotland and in turn captured Dirleton castle from a group of Royalist supporters. Although briefly then used as a field hospital the castle was eventually left to decay.

A visit to the castle begins with a walk through the extensive surrounding gardens which were first laid out in the 16th century. Lord Gowrie, who I mentioned earlier, is thought to have laid out much of the original gardens and planted numerous trees but they've undergone many changes since then. Within the gardens too is a 16th century doocot or pigeon house. It contains about 1000 nesting boxes for the pigeons, you can see these in the second photo below. The pigeons were an important source of food for the castle inhabitants.


Looking up Inside the doocot

Exploring the ruins and enjoying the views from the top are, of course, a must do. Inside you can see what is left of kitchens, the great hall, the prison, chapel and the very atmospheric vaulted basement below. Here you'll find the remains of ovens and a well and you have to agree that it does have a little spookiness about it too.

After exploring Dirleton it was on to castle number two of the day, Tantallon castle. Just a short drive from Dirleton castle, Tantallon, although semi ruined as well, is undoubtedly more imposing than its near neighbour, standing as it does on the edge of cliffs overlooking the sea and towards Bass Rock, one of the many islands in the Firth of Forth. The castle was built in the mid 14th century by William Douglas, 1st Earl of Douglas. The house of Douglas later split into two branches, the Black and the Red Douglases, Tantallon passed to the red side and for approximately the next 300 years was home to their family.

Tantallon castle and Bass Rock

Tantallon castle's doocot

Just like Dirleton castle, Tantallon also has links to Oliver Cromwell. When he invaded and took control of the south of Scotland he also found himself under attack from a group of Royalists based at Tantallon. Whilst only a very small group Cromwell retaliated by sending between 2000 to 3000 troops. They laid siege to this castle as well and after twelve days breached the Douglas tower and took control here too. After this Tantallon was left in ruins and was never repaired or inhabited again.

If you are visiting, after walking across the windswept approach to the castle and passed this castle's doocot entering through the gatehouse it is still incredibly impressive despite it being a ruin. You also then get a true idea of just how huge it must have been in its prime. Just like Dirleton castle you can explore the lower levels of what is left of the building as well as climb up to the battlements (and keep going higher and higher) for some fantastic views out to sea and back towards North Berwick. Climbing those battlements also gives you the opportunity to appreciate the sheer scale of the Douglas tower which was originally six storeys high.

Both castles make great day trips from Edinburgh and are great for exploring. There is a small entrance fee to both, unless you have Historic Scotland membership where they are then free to enter. Of the two I have to say that Tantallon castle is probably my favourite simply because of its scale, being such an impressive looking building and one that also gives fantastic views out to sea. Both though are well worth a visit and as I said above easily doable in one day. You could even stop for lunch in North Berwick too. 

What other castles in Scotland do I need to visit?


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