The Scottish Borders is a land rich in legend, myth and all too real history. Some seventeen miles from where we live, in the valley of the Yarrow River, stands the gaunt shell of Newark Castle. Here, one of the most awful chapters of Borders history took place, ostensibly in the name of God.
Newark Castle is a large, strong tower which was built by the Douglas family in the 15th century. Sir James Douglas, whom the English dubbed The Black Douglas due to his success at fighting the invading army of England’s Edward I, fought with King Robert at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Folk in the north of England would recite the little poem
Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye. Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye. The Black Douglas shall not get ye.
to children, as a soothing lullaby! Good Sir James, as the Scots called him, would take his comrade King Robert’s heart to the Holy Land in crusade, a promise made and almost fully kept after the sovereign’s death. Douglas was killed in battle, but the heart was saved and returned to Scotland. It lies buried in a lead casket at Melrose Abbey, not too far from Newark.
The Douglas family would become too powerful for the Scottish royal house of Stewart, almost eclipsing the royal family in power and prestige. In 1440, the 16 year old William, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother, were invited to a feast in Edinburgh Castle, in the presence of the ten year old puppet-ruler King James II. All was well until a black bull’s head was carried into the Great Hall. A bull’s head was a potent symbol of death and this was placed before the Earl. The two young men were then dragged into the courtyard and after a mock trial, beheaded for treason. The event would live on in infamy as The Black Dinner, and inspired George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones’ ‘Red Wedding’.
A short rhyme commemorates the event:
Edinburgh castle, toun, and tower,
God grant ye sink for sin;
And that even for the black-dinner,
Earl Douglas gat therin.’
The Douglas power was extinguished for a while. Newark Castle was taken in the name of the King and became a royal hunting lodge, surrounded by the dense Ettrick Forrest. The arms of King James III and his Queen, Margaret of Denmark, were emblazoned in stone above the entrance.
The almost continual wars with England in the 1500s saw many churches, towns and castles in the south burned and Newark was one of these, but it was restored again.
Worse was to follow, though, during the brutal Wars of the Three Kingdoms. In 1645, a Great Plague year, a horrible travesty of justice would take place. As the civil wars in Scotland and England and the Irish Wars played out, around 100 Royalist soldiers, their wives and children were captured and held in the castle’s courtyard in the aftermath of the battle of Philiphaugh (although some say as many as 400 in total). There, they had faced the Army of the Covenanters, under the command of David Leslie**, a professional solider for hire, who had previously served the Swedish Empire and the Tsar of Russia.
(Left)David Leslie. (Right) Marquis of Montrose
The Covenanters were Scottish Presbyterians, galvanised into a movement following the disastrous attempts of King Charles I to impose perceived Anglican forms of worship on the Church of Scotland. This, less than a century after the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, was a catastrophe from which King Charles would never recover. Although born a Scot, in the royal Palace of Dunfermline in Fife, Charles was very much a King of England who continually failed to understand the religious or political landscape in Scotland. From riots in the streets, to fully-fledged armed conflicts with the Royalist forces of the king, the Covenanters were fully embroiled in civil war in Scotland.
At Philiphaugh, on the banks of the Yarrow, the two sides met in the early morning mist. Some 4,000 Covenanters faced a Royalist force of half that size, under the leadership of the poet-soldier, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. Montrose’s hopes would end at Philiphaugh, although he himself would live to tell the tale, for a short time, at least.
The defeated Royalist troops and their camp followers – often the wives and children of the soldiers, in addition to merchants, laundry workers and the like – were shot, executed by the Covenanter Army where they stood, in cold blood. The Covenanters perhaps paused, briefly, before committing this terrible act, but they were, after all, an army convinced of their righteousness and Godliness. It no doubt helped that many of the prisoners were Irish and, or Catholic. Leslie would order a strikingly similar massacre at Dunaverty Castle, Argyll, in 1647.
A mass grave was seemingly discovered in the early 1800s in a field near Newark named Slain Men’s Lea, which seems to have become the victims’ final resting place.
On the anniversary of this dreadful deed, September 13, the cries of the victims are said to echo still. Their terrifies screams, echoing through the gaunt ruin.
Newark was damaged further during the war years that followed, but restored again for Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch – apparently the last inhabitant. On her death, the Castle was stripped of its finery and abandoned. The new mansion of Bowhill, nearby, a more comfortable and modern residence. Slowly, Newark fell into ruin, although still stands more or less complete to the wallhead.
Sadly, Newark seems to be open very rarely. Perhaps, the echoes of the past are louder inside than out! It is a remarkable building, with a fascinating story. Maybe one day, more can be made of it and public access allowed. But perhaps a place to avoid in mid-September.
**Changing sides, like many nobles, Leslie was ennobled by the restored King Charles II, as the first Lord Newark. This new title was named after the Leslie family’s Newark Castle in Fife, not this one! However, was a title that also – however inadvertently – recalled a massacre a sly judgement from the new King?