Tantallon Castle, East Lothian – Clan Douglas
Sitting on a rocky headland overlooking the North Sea, Tantallon Castle is a former stronghold of the infamous ‘Red Douglas’ family.
Originally built during the 14th century, the castle gives stunning views across the Firth of Forth as it looks out upon the famous ‘Bass Rock’. It was given to the Douglases in the 1350s as Sir James Douglas returned to Scotland to claim his inheritance as chief of the clan. James would murder his godfather, Sir William Douglas of Liddlesdale, to gain the title of Earl of Douglas, creating a split in the family, and would then build the current castle as a show of strength before the Douglases split into two rival factions, the ‘red’ and ‘black’ Douglases, at the end of the 14th century.
Following, this split, the castle would come under the control of George Douglas, the progenitor of the ‘Red Douglases’, and the family would ally themselves closely with the Stewart monarchs of Scotland. It is for this reason that the castle was often used as a holding place for enemies of the crown, as Alexander, Lord of the Isles, was held there in 1429. The 3rd Earl of Angus would then make Tantallon his permanent home and used it as a base for raids on his family rivals, the ‘Balck Douglases’, during the 15th century.
The family would also turn against the crown in 1482 as they allied with Henry VII of England, this would lead to the besiegement of the castle by James IV, however, Angus would submit to avoid his precious castle being destroyed before it suffered extensive damage, and by 1493 he had returned to the position of Chancellor of Scotland under the King.
Peace at Tantallon would not last long though as following the marriage of Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, to James IV’s widow, Margaret Tudor, the couple would try to take her infant son, James V to England. This would spark a dramatic response from the Scottish nobility, with John Stewart, Duke of Albany, seizing Tantallon until Angus made his peace in 1514. Angus’ attempts to ally with England would continue further down the line and he staged a virtual coup d’etat in 1525, taking custody of the young King once again until he escaped in 1528. In the aftermath of this incident, Tantallon would once again be besieged by the crown, this time for 20 days, again without success. It would finally be taken by the crown when Angus retreated to England before he returned for one final time in 1542, again trying to betray the crown, as he allowed Sir Ralph Sadler, English ambassador to Scotland, to reside at Tantallon. The castle would therefore be untouched during the ‘War of the Rough Wooing’, as English forces bypassed it in respect of Angus’ strong sympathies towards them. He would finally change his allegiances after being imprisoned at Blackness Castle in 1544 and the gunners at Tantallon would be rewarded as they fired on English ships in the Firth of Forth in 1548.
Following Angus’ death in 1557, the castle would enjoy a rare period of peace as it changed hands multiple times without bloodshed. This would change in 1650 as it was used as a base by a small group of Royalists during the Scottish invasion of Oliver Cromwell. Despite numbering only 91 men, the group held out against the 3,000 men of Cromwell for 12 days before a breach in the castle wall was made.
This would be the last time the castle would see any active military action and it would eventually fall into disrepair, never being fully restored after the siege. It did play a role in one more conflict, however, as it was used for RAF radar training in the weeks leading up to the 1944 D-Day invasion of France. It is now open as a visitor attraction and is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.