Archive for June 10th, 2012

A visit to Hermitage Castle

Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a Hermitage.

Some fifteen or so miles south of the town of Hawick, just a few miles on the Scottish side of the border, broods the sinister ruin of Hermitage Castle. All around is the most desolate landscape imaginable – bleak, bare moorland. I had always wondered what Shakespeare had meant by a blasted heath, and I am still not entirely sure, but whatever he may have meant, this heath was blasted.

The day we visited it, a cover of grey rainclouds screened out the sun. Somehow, I cannot imagine the sun ever shining on this dismal place. The building itself is as harsh and grim as the isolated surroundings – a rectangular, uninviting block.

Like many castles around the borders of Scotland and England, this castle has had a bloody and violent past. But no other castle I have visited makes so powerful an impression of terror. It seems like something glimpsed in a vaguely remembered nightmare. Yes, I know, this sounds fanciful, but I am not the only one who has been struck in this manner:  Sir Walter Scott writes about it:

The castle … unable to support the load of iniquity which had long been accumulating within its walls, is supposed to have partly sunk beneath the ground; and its ruins are still regarded by the peasants with peculiar aversion and horror.

And I spoke, some days after our visit here, to an employee of Historic Scotland who had previously worked at the ticket office of Hermitage Castle: Historic Scotland, he told me, does not like to publicise stories of the supernatural relating to the various sites that they own and look after, but many people have felt some sort of presence at Hermitage, and teams of researchers into psychic phenomena have visited that place to conduct various experiments. I ventured that the intense atmosphere of Hermitage Castle is likely to make the mind more susceptible to present fears and horrible imaginings; he agreed, but added that when he had to lock up at the end of the day, as darkness was descending, he could not, for some reason, lock up and get into his car quickly enough. I could believe that easily enough.

For my rational comment did rather bypass a fundamental question: yes, it is indeed true that an oppressive atmosphere could render the mind more susceptible to fantasy; but what creates that oppressive air in the first place? That I do not know. Of course, as a rational person – as I like to think I am – I am not for one moment suggesting that the place is haunted: but I cannot explain the sense of dread that I know I felt there.

Of course, there are many stories about the place. Some of them are even true. It is certainly true that there was a foul and airless dungeon, lacking air, light or sanitation, and that people had been starved to death there: but medieval dungeons never were pleasant places, and dungeons boasting similar stories may be found in many castles throughout the British Isles. And there is also the story of Sir William de Soulis, who owned the castle during the reign of Robert the Bruce: he is reputed to have been a practitioner of the black arts who kidnapped and then murdered little children in his unspeakable rites, until, one day, the local populace stormed the castle, captured him, and threw him into a cauldron of boiling water. Great story, but, sadly, complete nonsense. No doubt Sir William may have dabbled in alchemy – as many did in medieval days – but there were no sadistic rituals, no slaughtered children: instead, he was charged by Robert the Bruce with treason, imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle, and there, rather mundanely, he died a natural death. I mean, he wasn’t even beheaded, or anything like that. But the story of the black arts and the slaughtered children persists, and has the merit at least of deserving to be true.

That this story is but a myth does not detract from the impression made by the place. Inside the castle was just as nightmarish as the outside. The roof is now no more: it is open to the skies. But even so, it feels claustrophobic inside; it feels as if those ruined, moss-clad walls of dark stone were, somehow, threatening to close in on one. Is it too fanciful to imagine that the very stones seemed to resent my presence? Yes, of course it is. But fanciful or not, that is how I felt, and, as I sit now in my own room back home, typing into my PC with a civilised dram of malt whisky within easy reach, I cannot account for what I had felt when I was there just a few days ago.