A stone’s throw east of Edinburgh lies the ruins of Tantallon Castle, overlooking the North Sea from North Berwick. This formidable castle attraction was home to the mighty Red Douglases, besieged by the forces of the Crown, and met its end at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s troops. But hidden with the stonework lies a castle with fascinating secrets to discover…
If you’re touring Edinburgh & the East Lothian for its abundance of historical attractions or want to know the unmissable sights in North Berwick, then a trip to Tantallon Castle should be on the top of your to-do list. We’ll be covering the history of Tantallon Castle, how to get there & details to know, and the top things to do while you’re there.
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History of Tantallon Castle
Tantallon Castle dates back several centuries, although the time the castle was built remains lost to the annals of history. In its early history, Tantallon Castle was claimed by William Douglas when they returned from France to Scotland. William murdered his grandfather, claiming the title of head of Clan Douglas and Earl of Douglas.
To match William Douglas’ new title, Tantallon Castle was expanded upon and rebuilt to reflect a majority of the ruins that you can see today. Although the castle follows a curtain wall style, which later became less favoured for a tower house, its design became synonymous with the power of Clan Douglas.
Rise of The Red Douglas Family
In 1389, the Douglas family became separated into two distinct sub-families — Black Douglas & Red Douglas. Tantallon Castle was inherited by the illegitimate son of William Douglas’ sister-in-law and mistress, who became the Red Douglas’ while Archibald the Grim travelled to Threave Castle and became the Black Douglas’.
Although an illegitimate son, George Douglas married the daughter of King Robert III of Scotland and permanently allied themselves with the Royal House of Stewart. Nearly 100 years later, in 1482, the Red Douglas family rebelled against the Royal House and instead chose to extend a hand to Henry VIII of English against James IV of Scotland. On 11 October 1491, Tantallon Castle was besieged by James IV with a variety of guns, crossbows, and culverins.
By the early 16th century, the Red Douglas family and Earls of Angus were back in the good graces of the Scottish monarch. Archibald Douglas even married Margaret Tudor, widow of James IV and regent to James V. But their previous allegiance to England sparked once more, and they unsuccessfully attempted to take James V to the King of England.
This sparked a civil war, which was also a failure. But not without tenacity, Angus returned and, with the support of England, staged a coup against James V and named himself Chancellor. James V escaped and laid siege to Tantallon Castle, eventually leading to Tantallon Castle in his hands and Angus fleeing to England.
16th Century ’til Today
Throughout the 16th century, Tantallon Castle had many renovations completed by Mary, Queen of Guise, which included fortifications, a brew house, and various fine furnishings and armaments. During the 17th century, after peace, Tantallon Castle saw military actions during the Bishop’s War in 1639. The Covenanters captured Tantallon Castle while William was in Edinburgh.
Then, in 1650, Oliver Cromwell’s troops bombarded the castle in a siege and managed to breach Douglas Tower. It was after this siege that Tantallon Castle was ruined, and the structure still needs to be repaired or renovated.
The ruins withstood the weathering of time, and eventually, the castle passed Historic Environment Scotland as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
How to Get There & Details to Know
North Berwick, East Lothian, is a sprawling landscape along the eastern coastline of Scotland. It has many fantastic attractions, including the Scottish Seabird Centre, the National Museum of Flight, Dirleton Castle and Gardens, and many more.
If you plan to visit Tantallon Castle for yourself, here are some of the details you should know before you go.
Tantallon Castle is open throughout the year except on major holidays, although the opening times for visitor access vary depending on when throughout the year you arrive. During the summer months of April – September, Tantallon Castle is open daily between 9:30 – 17:30, last entry at 17:00. Between October – March, Tantallon is available between 10:00 – 16:00, previous entry at 15:30.
Entry costs for Tantallon Castle are as follows: £7.50 per Adult ticket, £4.50 per Child ticket, and £6 per concession ticket, with various options for family packages too. Access restrictions can be placed depending on inclement weather, so check in before you arrive.
How to Get There by Car
Travelling to Tantallon Castle from the capital city of Edinburgh is remarkably easy. From the bustling metropolis, take the A1 east until you reach East Linton. From there, take the earliest exit from the A1 to A198 north west. You should begin to see signs directing you to Tantallon Castle as you reach the northern coast of East Lothian.
The journey should take about an hour’s drive and is easy to fit into a day of sightseeing around North Berwick and its attractions.
How to Get There by Transit
Reaching Tantallon Castle by public transport is also easy, although it will take slightly longer than travelling by car. The most direct route will have you catch a bus from Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s House to North Berwick. From there, you can grab a bus to Dunbar from Glenburn Road.
Tantallon Castle is only a 10-minute walk from this stop, with spectacular views of the Scottish coastline.
Attractions at Tantallon Castle
From the rigid coastline of North Berwick and surrounding East Lothians, you’ll see the towering curtain wall and central tower of Tantallon Castle come into view. Once you gain access and talk over the bridge that spans the outer ditch of Tantallon Castle, here are some fascinating attractions you need to watch.
Walk along the Edge of Bass Rock
The once mighty Tantallon Castle sits on a rocky outcropping that allowed it to be a defensible fortress during the dramatic stories of Scottish history. From the Rough Wooing, James IV’s siege, and various civil wars. You can walk along the edge of this bass rock and enjoy beautiful views out to the North Sea and beyond.
From the bass rock close, you can also see where the sea gate once was, which the powerful Red Douglas dynasty may have used to fish or escape.
See the Castle’s Interior
Tantallon Castle has many hidden gems that budding historians and visitors will love to find, from the expansive remains of the castle’s great hall to the grim pit prison and gun room. Walking along the castle walls, take advantage of these stellar attractions.
The inner court of Tantallon Castle lets visitors access the remains of the prominent great hall. The great hall once held magnificent banquets and hosted Scottish monarchs for the Douglas family. The private chambers were likely not far from the grand entrance but were ultimately destroyed when Oliver Cromwell’s forces attacked the castle.
The great hall sits between the east tower and west tower and is close to the main gate of Tantallon Castle.
Prison and Gun Room
During the Rough Wooing and the 17th century, Tantallon Castle was used as a particularly grim pit prison to hold some of Scotland’s royals and war prisoners. You can find the jail at the bottom storey of the four storeys high tower, and it connects to the great hall.
The gun room of Tantallon Castle likely was where the armaments of Tantallon Castle were held, with various guns and weaponry probably held and used to defend the castle from would-be assaults.
North Berwick is famed for its wide variety of bird species, especially at sights like the Scottish Seabird Centre. But if you take the time to ascend Tantallon’s towers, you will be granted picturesque views of the Scottish countryside and a chance to see birdlife along the coastline.
You can watch gannets plunge into the ocean, kittiwakes, razorbills, and even puffins perched on the rocks. If you’re a nature lover, visiting Tantallon Castle is one of many reasons to add this castle to your to-do list.