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 ruins 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.

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Robert on June 10, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    Enjoyed the photos. When I planned a visit to the Scott country in 1984 I didn’t put the Hermitage on the itinerary – I wish I had now. There is no mention of visiting Abbotsford on this trip. I suppose you’ve been there many times before, Himadri. I remember seeing that fried Mars Bar on, I think, a Rick Stein programme.

    Reply

    • Hello Robert, I have been to Abbotsford before, as you surmise, but i haven’t read any of Scott’s novels: I bought myself “Old Mortality” in Melrose – i felt i ought to read at least one of his novels just out of curiosity, to try to discover why he was rated so highly for so long.

      As for the deep-fried Mars bar – I am under doctors’ orders not to come within 10 yards of one. Were it otherwise, I’d certainly have tried it! (To those who are wondering what this is about, Robert is referring to the pictures i put up on my Facebook page, one of which features out teenage daughter trying out this piece of Scottish haute cuisine!)

      Reply

  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on June 10, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Wow! Thanks for sharing these photos Himadri. Places like this really stir my imagination as well as my interest in history.

    The sense of dread while knowing that the place is not really haunted is something that I can relate to. There are several places that set it off in me. I would guess that there are somethings hardwired into are minds that set these feelings off. It helps to explain why such legends are so easily perpetuated.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, it’s one of those great mysteries, isn’t it? Why do certain places make us feel the way we do? It’s completely irrational, and yet – there it is!

      My wife loves visiting ruined medieval castles, and I have, over the years, developed quite a taste for it myself. Hermitage seems t me one of the most remarkable we’ve seen.

      Reply

  3. Posted by alan on June 11, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Good photos with excellent colour.
    Stories can have this effect on me, but no place has had this effect that I can recall, and I have camped overnight on plenty of blasted heaths when backpacking. Usually I find a sense of peace in such places, and I’ve thought that this was probably due to the lack of people. My Grandfather’s words on this subject stay with me: “it’s the living that you’ve got to worry about.”.
    I recall camping overnight one place on a trip with a friend of mine who later reported to me that on on visiting a petrol station the following day to get some fuel for the petrol stove and mentioning where we had stayed, got the reply “That place gives me the creeps”. I can’t see why it had that effect, but here is a picture of the location in all its unremarkable glory.
    I suppose that someone could write a fiction about why the supposed engineering project that it was meant to serve was never completed and I guess I might find that atmospheric. However, as for the thing itself, I just see a quiet location.

    Reply

  4. Yes, indeed, viewed rationally, it’s the living we should fear most – but, for better or worse, we aren’t wholly rational beings. Going to a place such as Hermitage brings home to me how irrational some of my reactions can be. But irrational or not, I wouldn’t fancy being there after dark.

    In that picture you provide a link to, it seems that, as at Hermitage, the very bareness of the landscape somehow contributes to a sense of horror. But then again, densely forested landscapes can also inspire fear. Of course, different peopel are affected in different ways, but i seem to remember your telling me once that you found Glencoe a pretty creepy place,

    Reply

  5. Posted by Ingeborg on June 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Many years ago I regularly walked a lonely, rural mile after dark. There was one stretch where I used to feel extremely uneasy. One very cold, winter’s night that stretch was white with frost. No frost anywhere else. Does this mean that we are simply reacting to a colder area? I should add that I never felt uneasy there again. I thought that I had an adequate explanation,

    I am Erika’s sister.

    I have given you my e-mail address as requested but it is not accessible.

    Reply

    • Hello Ingeborg, and welcome to this site. (I have no idea why WordPress ask for e-mail addresses, by the way!)

      regarding your experience, I suppose that it is entirely possible that local variations in temperature may lead to a certain stretch being frosty, but the surrounding area clear; and it may well be, as you say, that you used to feel uneasy on this stretch precisely because this stretch tended to be colder than the surrounding area, and that you picked this up unconsciously. But of course, I don’t know – I’m only guessing: I try in these matters to grasp for some rational explanation, and if I can’t come upon one, I say to myself that there must be some rational explanation that i haven’t been able to think of. The alternative is to give way to the irrational, and I’d prefer not to do that.

      But.for all that, i do know that, for whatever reason, there are certain places that do inspire a completely irrational sense of terror.And to say that it is all in the mind – as it no doubt is – is not to the sense of terror in any way. And i also know that while I claim to be sceptical, i do enjoy hearig about peoples’ experiences – or apparent experiences – with the weird and the uncanny. No, I really do not believe in the supernatural: but the subject arouses my interest all the same, and I ca’t help wondering how rational I really am!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  6. Posted by Erika W. on June 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    Reading your blog as usual although I haven’t commented in a while I’m pleased that my sister is reading you also. Much to my surprise, because I am oblivious to “influences”, I have had one such experience. This was at the remains of Airth House in Airth, Scotland. It was destroyed by fire and the estate is pretty much abandoned except for the remarkable folly, shaped like a pineapple, which is owned by the Landmark Trust and in which we were staying with two other friends. The whole week i was there I grew sadder and sadder. Once I woke up weeping and a day spent away in Stirling was an enormous relief. The private, abandoned family graveyard was simply dreadful and when I turned to speak to my female friend tears were running down her face.

    Even now, years later, I can’t look at the photographs we took without a shiver. The four of us never talked about AIrth in the years to follow except that the other husband once said, quite out of the blue, “A place I’d never want to visit again is Airth”

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, first of all – it’s good to see you here: I was wondering where you were, but, obviously, did not want to harry you!

      I have, as you can see, slowed down a bit: quite apart from the pressures of work, the children (well – they’re teenagers now) are sitting heir school exams now, and helping them with their mathematics, science, etc is, naturally. of higher priority than working on my blog! I have a long list of subjects on which I want to write blog posts – the problem is finding the time & energy to get round to it!

      But I did enjoy our holidays in the Scottish Borders last week, despite the rather unnerving experience of Hermitage Castle. But it’s back to the office again now, I fear!

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  7. Posted by Erika W. on June 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    I have just discovered that there is a youtube video of the ruin and remembered that it was called Dunmore Park although all the villagers living nearby called it Airth House. It is startling how a place less than 200 years old could look exactly like a medieval ruin. (We were there for golfing, bird watching and the delight of the folly itself)

    Reply

    • I have never visited Dunmore Park, nor have heard of it till now (although I did grow up in the Scottish Lowlands). I take it this is the youtube clip to which you refer. (There are a couple more video clips of the place if you do a search on youtube on “Dunmore Park”.) It is indeed a curious tale you relate – and obviously, you were not the only one affected. It is particularly strange that the emotion that affected you and your friends was that of sadness. What was it that the mind picked up, I wonder, to evoke so strong a reaction? I am afraid I’m well out of my depth here!

      Reply

  8. Posted by alan on June 12, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    I was tempted to say that we stumbled across the footprints of a gigantic hound, but that would be messing…

    Reply

  9. Posted by Ingeborg on June 13, 2012 at 10:38 am

    You say that you are interested in these experiences, so I shall continue. I tend to think that most of them are projections of self. They seem to decrease with age. I have had many; some sublime, some terrifying. I gave you the one with the rational explanation, now I’ll give you the major one of my life; no rational explanation.

    I was walking on the North Downs over 50 years ago with a friend. He was walking up a path ahead of me. Suddenly I could not continue, I had hit a wall of terror, utter terror. I could step back and all was well; try to go forward and I hit the wall again. My friend had continued on and then he stopped at a tree. At that moment I could walk forward again. My friend turned and said ‘Did you feel it go?’

    This was not due to the place as we were returning on a path we had already walked.

    Reply

    • Thank you for sharing that. I have heard a similar story from one of my friends, but have never – thankfully – experienced anything like that myself. All I felt at Hermitage was really no more than a sense of unease, and nothing like what you describe. Of course, a glib response would be to say “it’s all in the mind”, but the question is surely why the mind behaves in such a manner. I don’t have the faintest idea myself, but it does seem to me that the human mind is something that we’ll never come close to understanding fully.

      Reply

  10. Posted by Austin on April 5, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    You may call me insensitive but after visiting dozens of castles, battlefields and places of historical note( someone died), very few caused any sort of “feeling”. The two occasions where I was affected both involved an external stimulus. The first time was at the Battle of Culloden site. At the site you can use a headset with gps, this means that your commentry is lined to where you are on the field. At one point you are invitd to turn round and share the view that would have greeted the Govt troops, as you turn to see a slight rise directly ahead of you and a line of flags in the distance, the soudtrack echoes a distance clamour…..all good stuff.
    The other time I was affected was when visiting “La Mola” in Mahon. The guide was doing a fantastic job o taking round a mixed tour group of Spanish and English speaking tourists. He would alternate at each stop speaking first to one group then in turn the other. I also noted that he was fastidious about wearing a hat when out of doors, except once. We were all standing at the bottom of a slope just outside another underground gallery and the guide was on this occasion speaking first to the Spanish. He had no hat on. I noticed the absence of the hat before I noted his hushed tones and the fact that he was outlined on the wall behind him with an enlarged rounded human shape. We were standing at the place of execution, the shape was made by bullets shot into the wall by soldiers unwilling to kill. My point is that yes I felt something for the fallen, but entirely due to the skills of the modern storyteller. Whedn. You next go and see a castle, imagine I as it really was, whitewashed with lime toa bright cream colour. Google Stirling Castle Great Hall the outside was repainted a few years ago just to addressing his point. Before you visit any medieval site you should read “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England” by Ian Mortimer

    Reply

  11. Posted by Austin on April 5, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Sorry about typing toward end, I really don’t like typing on a touchscreen

    Reply

    • I’m not too good at touchscreen typing myself, although I’m reduced to one now!

      I hadn’t previously considered myself susceptible to these things, but I guess I must be. It’s nothing to do with knwledge of terrible events: I have been at the battlefield of Flodden, where there had been a veritable bloodbath, and all I saw wasa calm & peaceful landscape. The site of Marble Arch in London is where they used to have public executions (this was Tyburn) including the grotesque hanging, drawing & quartering, and I didn’t feel a thing. But, quite inexplicably, I did feel very uneasy at Hermitage, for reasons I can’t explain. Others have felt the same way. But it’s only fair to say that my wife & family, who were with me, didn’t feel a thing!

      Reply

  12. Posted by Austin on April 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Have you been to any of the Iron Ring castles of Edward1?

    Reply

    • My better half loves medieval castles, especially the ones picturesquely in ruins, so we have visited quite a few in our time. There’s hardly a major ruined medieval castle in Britain we haven’t visited! The Welsh ones, built by Edward I, are certainly very spectacular: Harlech Castle is a particular favourite of ours.

      Our daughter likes Doune Castle, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed there. Fetchez la vache!

      Reply

  13. Posted by claire bevington on September 6, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Thats the exact feeling I had in the pit dungeon at tantallon castle in north berwick. I visited on a glorious sunny hot summers day and the views and location are just stunning. I wandered around and as it got later people were leaving so I was nearly alone just beforr 4pm. As I stood at the top of the stairs looking down into the pit prison I had an overwhelming sense of being a very unwelcome guest. There was some sort of presence down there but despite this I went down inside it where the feeling was there and I was also being watched. Looked around abit but I really didnt want to stand still in there. I went into some of the better known haunted castles on the borders and in Northumberland and felt absolutely nothing. Thankyou for this though we are going back in October and I think will be paying hermiatage castle a visit!

    Reply

    • Hello Claire, and welcome.
      The Scottish castles do tend to be very austere and gloomy, don’t they? I have been to Tantallon,and I can understand what you experienced there. There’s another castle on the other side of Edinburgh called (appropriately) Blackness Castle whish is also very atmospheric.

      I am not suggesting the actual existence of the supernatural, but I do find it curious, and frankly inexplicable, how teh atmosphere of certain places affects our minds.

      Hermitage Castle is well worth a visit. Indeed, the whole Border country is very beautiful If youare around those parts, I’m sure you’ll be seeing those beautiful ruined abbeys of Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Melose.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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