Crichtoun! Though now thy miry court
But pens the lazy steer and sheep,
Thy turrets rude, and totter'd Keep,
Have been the Minstrel's loved resort.
-Marmion, Sir Walter Scott
The remarkable thing about Crichton Castle is its deceptive surroundings. Stark and lonely, the castle sits in a place devoid of habitation, as if forsaken by the whole world. Indeed, nothing has been built in this part of Scotland in over five hundred years. But yet Crichton is only mere minutes from the capitol city of Edinburgh.
Now a ruin, the castle is maintained for visitors by Historic Scotland. Today, June 10, it is closed. This is important to know in case my post inspires you to pop down the A68 and visit the castle for the afternoon. Not that many of us are able to do this, but wouldn't it be great to leave your office in a major urban center and in a few minutes be standing in the Great Hall where Jamie Hepburn watched his sister marry the Queen of Scots' brither?
'Tis so easy to get carried away.
The castle began like many others in the Scottish Borders as a simple peel tower. Overlooking the Tyne River valley, it had been built in the late fourteenth century by John de Crichton who, like his Norman ancestors, valued a fortified residence. Eventually this tower house became the central component to several expansions carried out by his descendants and survives today as one of the oldest examples built in Scotland. John's son became Lord High Chancellor and added the great hall to Crichton to reflect his family's growing power. But it was his acquisition of another castle, belonging to the murdered earl of Douglas, that forever linked the name of Bothwell to Crichton.
Eventually the castle, along with the earldom of
Bothwell, was given to the mighty Hepburn
family. It was under the tenure of the notorious and aforementioned fourth earl, James Hepburn, that Crichton saw its most tumultuous days. The castle was alternately sacked, given to a wife later divorced and finally forfeited to the Crown. The last earl of Bothwell, Jamie's nephew Francis, was a favorite of James VI and regained possession of Crichton. It was he who gave the castle its most distinctive feature, an Italianate courtyard with a faceted surface that he designed from his memory of travels abroad.
The Renaissance had penetrated even the most remote corner of the wild Scottish borders.
Crichton was a ruin by the time Scott's Marmion had been published to great acclaim in Regency England. The Age of Reason that inspired the neoclassical facelift of Crichton's courtyard had given way to the Age of Romanticism and its fascination with the crumbling and abandoned. Scott's words, brimming with longing and charged emotion, made Crichton into a mystic symbol of a vanished world. No wonder his readers later flocked to see the castle rendered in J. M. Turner's lovely watercolor.
Even Jane Austen had to acknowledge the breathless excitement over ruins that Scott's poetry might evoke. Her sensible heroine in Persuasion, Anne Elliott, cautiously debated the merits of Marmion with Captain Benwick, but privately hoped her companion might not confine himself solely to poetry and the danger it can pose to a melancholy heart.
It has been several years since I've visited Crichton. On approach, I was quite convinced the map had led me astray through pasture and hillside occupied by sheep and little else. But as Crichton Collegiate Church appeared, it seemed the destination must be close by, and it was. The car park was situated some distance away from the castle, necessitating a hike up a "terrace" of bracken and stinging nettle. But the view was well worth the journey. Nothing can compare to the sight of Crichton as it gazes sullenly across the valley towards Borthwick castle, which had the temerity to be restored and converted into a hotel.
At the entrance, a very nice man who was looking after things inspected our passes. He seemed glad of the company, having a jolly, informative manner completely at odds with Crichton's isolated and mournful demeanor. Remarkably, the fellow had just finished cleaning (!?!) the castle's pit prison which is at the top of a railed stairway. He proceeded to describe the variety of sticks, tourist pamphlets and bones (presumably animal and not human) that he had fished out of the deep, dark hole.
Of course every castle has a ghost and we were duly told of the apparition seen by visitors of a horse and rider riding up to Crichton and disappearing into its exterior wall where a former entrance once was before it had been bricked up. Others have mentioned an apparition sometimes seen in the ruined stable block some distance from the castle.
And one more thing: Crichton is a popular geo-cache location. I've been told that's because it is a muggle-free area. Go there and you will understand why.
Visit Angelyn at her blog http://www.angelynschmid.com/ for more forays into the Regency era and historic buildings throughout the United Kingdom.