History of Borthwick Castle

Stay behind castle walls that protected Mary Queen of Scots and were attacked by Oliver Cromwell

Borthwick Castle is one of the finest and best preserved 15th century keeps in Scotland. An imposing fortress composed of a massive double tower, surrounded by an embattled wall, it is much admired for the beauty of its proportions as well as the solidity of its masonry.

It is the culmination of a rich 600 year history, which starts with its creator, Sir William de Borthwick, and continues through some of the most dramatic episodes in Scotland's past. The castle sits on a knoll - the 'Mote of Lochwart' - at the centre of a small but well cultivated valley, positioned to guard the road south to the Borders from Edinburgh.

1430: In the Beginning

The castle was built in 1430 by Sir William de Borthwick, who was one of the nobles who volunteered as a substitute hostage for the ransom of James I of Scotland in 1425. Borthwick was given a special licence by King James I to build 'a castle or fortalice, to surround the same with walls and ditches, and to defend it with gates of brass or iron; and also, to place upon the summit defensive ornaments, by which is meant battlements and turrets.'

Having purchased the lands from Sir William Hay of Yester, Sir William de Borthwick built the tower to an impressive scale: 74 feet in length, 68 in breadth, and in height, from the area to the battlements, 90 feet. A contemporary source describes 'a great and strong tower within and without, and of great height, the wall thereof being above 15 feet in thickness towards the foundation.'

The walls are of hewn stone, and the knoll on which the castle is situated, is surrounded by a courtyard, enclosed and fortified by a strong outer wall. The Middleton Burn joins to form Gore Water - a tributary of the South Esk - surrounding the castle and contributing to its romantic appearance. The entrance from the outer court to the keep would have been by a stone ramp, linked with the gate of the tower by a drawbridge - a means of interior defence peculiar to castles of the 15th century. The battlements of Borthwick Castle also command some of the most beautiful views in the area.

The interior of Borthwick Castle has seen little structural alteration over the years. The Great Hall is on the first storey and is 40 feet long, with a music gallery perched above and a lofty roof. The roof and walls would once have been adorned with colourful paintings and motifs, with inscriptions including 'ye tempil of honour' and 'ye tempil of religion'. There are three sets of spiral stone stairs, giving access to the Keep's separate storeys, including a small room that is believed to have been the bedchamber of its most famous resident...Mary Queen of Scots.

1567: Mary Queen of Scots

"June 11th, 1567. The Lordis came suddenly to Borthwick; Bothwell fled to Dunbar, and the Lordis retyred to Edinbrough. She followed Bothwell to Dunbar, disguised."

This extract from a letter addressed to the Archbishop of Glasgow describes the anxious moment in which Mary Queen of Scots fled from Borthwick, dressed it is believed as a page. She and Lord Bothwell had fled here from Holyrood in Edinburgh, after the murder of Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, with Bothwell himself the chief suspect. On 11th June, a number of Scottish barons including Morton, Mar, Hume, and Lindsay, alongside a 1000-strong army on horseback, surrounded Borthwick Castle.

Bothwell had advance warning and had time to ride off with a few attendants and, while Mary waited, the insurgent nobles rode to Edinburgh to build their support. When Mary got word that the provost and citizens of Edinburgh did not oppose them, she immediately resolved on flight. Assuming the disguise of a page, Mary mounted her horse, and pursuing a by-path through the glen east of the present farm of Aflieck-hill, she arrived at Black Castle, where she was met by Bothwell.

1650: Cromwell's Attack

One of Borthwick Castle's most striking features is a large gouge in the stonework of the east wall.

Many historians believe that in 1650, as Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces marched through Scotland en route to Edinburgh, the 10th Lord Borthwick was instructed to leave his castle. He initially refused and the resulting damage from Cromwell's cannon can be seen to this day. Lord Borthwick then left, avoiding the destruction of the castle. As a result of this, no member of the Borthwick family inhabited the castle until 1810, when J. Borthwick of Crookston bought it back.