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Tantallon Castle: Dramatic Coastal Fortress

When you think of Scotland, do you imagine steep, dramatic cliffs, crashing waves, a rocky coastline, and romantic castle ruins? If so, then you're in luck, because this week's article encompasses all that and more. In this post, we continue our ongoing castle series and explore Tantallon Castle. Of course, there is an incredible amount of history surrounding Tantallon, but that information is detailed quite nicely in the Historic Scotland guidebook. For this article, I will focus on some interesting aspects of the Castle and historical tidbits.

Tantallon Castle is located about an hour's drive from Edinburgh, just outside the town of North Berwick. Getting to the Castle is a large part of the fun as you must take an incredibly scenic route just to get there. We've been a few times, and always enjoy taking our time, soaking in the stunning views of the sea and coastline. It is strategically located high on a cliff and, scores high in the ‘dramatic’ and ‘grand’ categories. All of the pictures in this article are from are most recent visit in September.

Castle on the Bluff

Everything leading up to Tantallon is dramatic- even the walk from the car park- as the complex is quite massive. After you purchase your tickets in the Historic Scotland gift shop, you must snake your way through fascinating dune-like structures situated among the various trenches. You eventually come to the Curtain Wall which is still rather imposing and consists of iconic, Scottish red sandstone (as are the rest of the ruins). This is one of my favourite types of stone as the colours are exquisite in the sunlight and have varying hues that change depending on the day, temperature, and time of year.

Even in their decaying state, the three towers looming out of the Curtain Wall are impressive. To enter the Castle, you must go through the Mid-Tower- walking over an imposing trench via a modern wooden bridge. Proceeding to the back of the Mid-Tower, you get an immediate sense of its height as there is a massive cavern-like space right before you exit to the Inner Close behind the Castle.

The inner close looks like a large, open courtyard, but looks can be deceiving. Historic Scotland does an excellent job at helping the visitor to envisage just how very different the space looked back in its prime. On their information board, they illustrate how it would have “been filled with buildings of stone and timber” and was once where the “rhythm” of daily castle life took place.

Looking out over the cliff edge, it's amazing to think how the castle inhabitants once lifted supplies from the harbour up to the inner close courtyard. Looming large in the horizon is Bass Rock, a site that is hard to describe as words don't seem to do justice to its enormous size (‘rock’ obviously being a bit misleading). It might look like a white rock in the pictures below, but that’s just because it’s covered in the world's largest colony of Northern gannets. It would be quite exciting to have the opportunity to explore it. This time of year, it is much greyer in colour as the birds have migrated to warmer climates for the winter. The history of life on the Rock goes back quite far into the past; a hermit monk once lived there in the 700s, and there are Castle and Chapel ruins dating from about the 1400s and 1500s respectively. If all of this sounds like something of interest to you, check out our article on Inchcolm Island and Abbey as it has echoes of Tantallon's history.

Connections to Mary

As I've said many times before, what would a place be in Scotland if it couldn't lay claim to a visit from Mary, Queen of Scots? She visited in 1566, but there are interesting connections that go back even further. Tantallon Castle once acted as the base for Henry the VIII’s ambassador during the Rough Wooing. That was the period of time when Henry tried to force a marriage between his son, Edward, and Mary, who was an infant at the time. Fortunately, despite his best efforts, Henry was not successful (more on Mary here).

As is the case for many historic sites throughout Scotland, Tantallon faced its final defeat by Oliver Cromwell when he invaded Scotland in the early 1650s. His forces wreaked havoc and devastation throughout Tantallon, and this last siege ended it’s time as a fortress.

New Life Through Tourism

Despite being in a state of ruin, Tantallon Castle has been a tourist attraction for centuries. It has inspired some famous visitors such as Alexander Nasmyth (the man whose design was used for St. Bernard’s Well) who painted, A View of Tantallon Castle with the Bass Rock. Our blog friends, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson were also moved by the beauty of the Castle. Queen Victoria famously visited Tantallon as she was quite taken with historic ruins throughout Scotland. Visitors now come from all over the world to see this spectacular castle, and if you are planning a visit, make sure to check out the Historic Scotland website for important visitor information.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief but dramatic journey to Tantallon Castle. If you’re still looking to get more of your castle ‘fix’, why not peruse our other articles on Dirleton, Craigmillar, Doune, and Drumlanrig. There are hundreds of castles throughout this great land, so you can be assured that there will be many more explorations in store as we continue to expand the blog.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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