Of all the thousands of castles scattered throughout the British Isles, for me the coastal ones are the most impressive. And there’s nothing quite like a ruin to add to the atmosphere. Unlike the quiet scrutiny observed when visiting stately homes and palaces that are well-preserved and occupied as residences, a ruin is for imagining, exploring, and unleashing the inner-child. Indeed, the unreserved enthusiasm of my three-year-old nephew was infectious, and without hesitation we crossed the moat, passed through the thick walls of the narrow gatehouse and keep, and emerged out into the bailey.
Here the scene is breath-taking. The castle is built on the very edge of the cliff, which provides the most spectacular backdrop for the lofty stone towers and the ruined curtain walls on either side of what is now a wide lawn that slopes down towards the precipice. There, the Firth of Forth stretches endlessly ahead, though the eyes are drawn to the great Bass Rock which dominates the near-horizon, white in colour due to the thousands of gannets that nest there.
In the bailey, the great well would have provided fresh water to the inhabitants of the castle, but now it offers the chance for the young (and not so young!) to appreciate their echoed yells of ‘hel-lo!’. A number of rooms in various states of preservation open off a hallway to the north of the bailey, and peering through the window openings down to the rocky beach below it’s easy to imagine the castle’s inhabitants looking upon this almost unchanged landscape, particularly during the isolation and relatively inactivity of the winter months. Tucked at the end of the corridor is a subterranean room that acted as a dungeon, and it remains an solitary space, with its protection from the raging wind being its only saving grace.
Through the great flanking towers, we tread the stone steps, up and up, round and round, first emerging on one level, then ascending to the next, until the summit is reached, and the view is panoramic, not just across the sea but to the countryside to the west, and I find myself scanning the distance for signs of an advancing army, or picturing the tenants and peasants tilling the land below. The view takes on new levels here; the immensity of the castle, the romanticism of the ruins, and the unrivalled views across East Lothian. Having taken it all in, with a clarity afforded by a sunny day and an invigoration imposed by the brisk wind, I descended.
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For more information about Tantallon Castle, including its history and visitor information, visit its website
For a history of Tantallon Castle, see Historical Writings’ article