Hundreds of years ago in the borderlands between Scotland and England it was necessary to have a strong house as warfare was endemic. This is the first of what will be an occasional series revealing the dramatic stories behind the war wounds still visible on our Scottish castles today.
Whitton Tower, near the village of Morebattle in Roxburgh, is typical of the smaller border towers. Strongly-built with the local sandstone, its walls are five feet thick and it is vaulted at both basement and upper floor. When first constructed it would have been surrounded by a barmkin wall. Today, it presents a pitiful appearance with its ruined walls rising above farm buildings.
Whitton Tower comes to notice in 1523 when the Earl of Surrey, on the orders of Henry VIII of England, led a chevauchée into Scotland. His force included a train of ‘one very good culverin*, one demi-culverin, four lizards and four falcons’.
These the Earl deployed at Cessford Castle which, with its 14 feet-thick walls, proved to be a hard nut to crack. Its barmkin was ‘mured with earth’ which simply absorbed his cannon shot. The prolonged shooting caused his guns’ carriages to break. Surrey then ordered his men to scale the barmkin by aid of ladders only to see them cut down by the ‘iron guns’ of the defenders within. Next he tried to force entry by a ramming the walls with gunpowder but the canny Scots fired the powder before it could be set and the unfortunate pioneers were ‘grievously burned.’
At the same time a party was detached to ‘pass to Whitton beyond the hill and cast it down’. This was accomplished. It is unlikely that it was defended as the occupants would have made themselves scarce once aware of the invaders’ approach.
Whitton was rebuilt – but not for long. In 1545 the Earl of Hertford, fresh from his sacking of Edinburgh, looted and burned the country with impunity. He dispatched to Henry VIII lists of towns, villages, abbeys, mills, hospitals, castles and towers he had destroyed for the king to gloat over. Whitton was one of those noted as ‘cast down’ but the occupants must have once again fled as there is no mention of an assault. Resistance would have been futile in the circumstances.
However, not all gave up quite so easily for those at the neighbouring tower of Mowhaugh were of sterner stuff and paid the penalty. The English, encountering resistance, simply undermined the walls ‘the occupants perishing inside.’ A grass-covered mound marks the site today.
Hertford returned the following year, this time with an army 16,000 strong, and destroyed what was left of Whitton and anything else that lay in his path. It may be of comfort to some to learn that after Henry’s death Hertford was beheaded for treason against his son Edward VI.
Small towers like Whitton were never intended to resist an army – this was reserved for fortresses like Dunbar and Edinburgh, neither of which the English could take. They were instead ‘strong houses’ to keep their occupants secure during endemic low-level border warfare.
Cessford Castle did eventually capitulate, but on terms (allowed to leave with all their possessions). Surrey confessed to Cardinal Wolsey with some relief that if the defence had been continued there was no way he could have taken it! He reckoned that it was the third strongest castle in Scotland after Dunbar and Fast.
Hertford also captured Cessford Castle and fired it, but its size precluded ‘casting down’ and it was re-paired and occupied until the 17th century. Lately it has been put in a good order by Roxburghe Estates .
Whitton Tower was rebuilt and occupied until the 17th century since when it has been allowed to ruin.
* a culverin was a long-barrelled, long-distance artillery piece of light shot and high velocity usually mounted upon a gun carriage
Article by SCA member Brian McGarrigle.