December 2023
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Discovering the Scottish Borders: “Peel towers”…

Recently, I came across a very interesting article published by Holly Kirkwood in  the magazine Country Life. In this article Holly Kirkwood draws our attention to the so-called “peel-towers”, a type of construction typical of the Scottish Borders. “There are more than 100 peel towers in various states of repair and ruin scattered the breadth of the Borders“, she writes. Given the number of fortified towers figuring on ancient maps, a lot of them must have completely disappeared while other ones have been integrated into castles.

What exactly is a “peel tower” ?


Dryhope Tower Scottish Borders – Tom Parnell – Wikimedia Commons

If you’re travelling in the Scottish Borders you are likely to come across an old solitary tower standing in the middle of the hills adding a touch of mystery to the beautiful Scottish landscape. I’ve learned that a number of these constructions were called “peel towers” or “peles”*, the name “peles” designating at first the wooden fence that often surrounded them in the Middle Ages and later the whole building. I’ve also learned the term “barmkin” designating a stone enclosure where livestock were herded in times of danger. One must remember that the area was anything but peaceful in the olden times.

Peel towers were built from the 13th to the start of the 17th Century in the English and Scottish ‘Marches’, to protect the families who sheltered inside with their stock from the devastating raids which plagued both sides of the Border for hundreds of years. They also served as watch towers where signal fires could be lit at the top of the towers to warn of approaching danger. Indeed, by an Act of Parliament passed in 1455, each of these towers was required to have an iron basket on its summit and a smoke or fire signal, for day or night use, ready at hand.
Peel towers were built from the 13th to the start of the 17th Century in the English and Scottish ‘Marches’, to protect the families
who sheltered inside with their stock from the devastating raids which plagued both sides of the Border for hundreds of years.

*Pele is derived from “pel” an Old French word for a stake. In early times many fortifications were constructed from wooden stakes or “piles”. These fortified enclosures were called “peles” but the term later acquired a wide range of meaning and was used for a tower or almost any defensible structure.
(…) A typical pele-tower was almost square on plan and rose to three or four storeys with walls up to ten feet thick. There was generally a barmkin or enclosed courtyard with outbuildings within this. (…)

(Pete Armstrong – Pele Tower – Reivers)

I’m all the more interested in these Peel Towers because they are situated in the very heart of the country of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd” (1770-1835), two of the greatest Scottish writers. Both of them drew much of their inspiration from the historical and cultural heritage of their native country and “peel-towers” are part of this heritage.

We didn’t know that it was a “peel tower” when we first visited  Smailholm Tower. In fact we did NOT visit it  for it was closed when we arrived there. It is an impressive building and from atop the tower one must have a vast panoramic view of the environment, up to the Eildon Hills so dear to Sir Walter Scott…

Smailholm Tower from the north-west

And still I thought that shattered tower
The mightiest work of human power,
And marvelled as the aged hind
With some strange tale bewitched my mind.

(Sir Walter Scott – Introduction to the Third Canto of Marmion)

Walter Baxter, the author of the above picture writes: “This 15th century rectangular tower, set in a barmkin wall, sits on a rocky outcrop on Lady Hill. It houses an exhibition of tapestries and costume dolls relating to Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. The tower is in the care of Historic Scotland and is open all year.

Sir Walter Scott was deeply attached to Smailholm Tower which was situated very close to Sandy Knowe, his grandfather’s farm,  and after being a favourite playground for the young boy it became a major source of inspiration for him. Indeed, commemorative ceremonies took place there for the 250th birthday anniversary of Sir Walter.

The tower provided inspiration to Sir Walter Scott, who visited his paternal grandfather here when still a boy. Scott spent considerable time at the tower during his youth, reportedly for the benefit of his health. Smailholm provides the setting for Scott’s ballad The Eve of St John, and also appears in Marmion.

Smailholm Tower 1834 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Purchased 1988

As a result of Scott’s poetry, his uncle restored the tower, making it safe, around 1800. Turner visited Smailholm with Scott in the author’s later years; his sketch of the tower was included in Scott’s Poetical Works. Turner’s journey with Scott traced scenes from Marmion, and not long after this, the pioneer of photography Fox Talbot repeated Turner’s itinerary, publishing what is considered to be the first photographic travelogue or tourist coffee-table book, Sun Pictures in Scotland* in homage to both Scott and Turner.

(From Wikipedia)


*A few years ago, Iain & Margaret published a very interesting post on Scotiana about the first Scottish photographers entitled “Painting with Sunlight: Hill & Adamson Edinburgh’s Pioneers in Photography”. After reading it I bought Sun Pictures in Scotland. It’s a fascinating colour sepia book.

Smailholm Tower from the road © 2007 Scotiana


Another one of my favourite books is The Country of Sir Walter Scott by Charles S. Olcott. In the first chapter entitled “The ‘making’ of Sir Walter” I came across a passage which makes us understand why Sir Walter Scott had come to be so attached to  Smailholm Tower and what influence the old tower played on its writing.

In the hilly country south of Edinburgh, standing alone on a high rock, is an old feudal tower called Smailholm. (..) the old tower really is important, marking the very beginning of Walter Scott’s career, the spot where he received his first poetic impulse. Here at the age of three years, he rolled about on the rocks with the sheep and lambs as if he were one of them. He had been brought to Sandy Knowe, the home of his grandfather, in an effort to save his life, for he had been a sickly child, and six brothers and sisters had died in infancy, so that his parents were naturally more than anxious. The life out of doors soon brought a marked improvement, and except for the lameness, which never left him, the boy became healthy and vigorous. He was attended by an old shepherd, known as the ‘cow-bailie,’ who had a great fund of Border stories, to which the lad listened eagerly.

A devoted aunt, Miss Janet Scott, who lived at the farm, often read to him stories of Bible heroes and of the great men of Scottish history. From a few volumes of miscellaneous poetry which the family chanced to own, she read some Scottish ballads which quickly seized upon his childish fancy. He was especially fond of historical tales, and under the shadow of the old tower he used to marshal the armies of Scotland and England, fighting their battles with mimic forces of pebbles and shells, and always ending the conflict with the complete rout of the English and the triumph of the Scottish arms.

A figure on display in Smailholm Tower -Wikipedia

“One of the many figures on display in the tower, illustrating either real people related to the building itself or those from the imagination of Sir Walter Scott. I think you’ll guess which category this falls into!”

The Castles of Scotland Martin Coventry 5th edition Goblinshead Prestongrange House 2015

The Castles of Scotland Martin Coventry 5th edition Goblinshead Prestongrange House 2015

It’s time to open Martin Coventry’s big volume The Castles of Scotland to know more about my selection of Scottish Borders”peele towers”. I’m sure to find in its beautifully illustrated pages precious information about them… it is my favourite reference book about castles…  a sixth edition of the book is due in 2023. I’m looking forward to get it! 😉 Mine is the 5th edition and I also have a very old edition which is much damaged and on which I can scribble at will 😉

Happy New Year. It has been a long time since adding anything to the blog though material has been added to the website on a regular basis. Much work (well, a humongous amount of work) has been done on adding and editing entries for the new (sixth) edition. More on this later but soon we hope to have online interactive maps for the whole of Scotland (though not sure when). The new edition will have more than 5,000 entries, 1,000 more than the last edition. Castles, towers and fortified houses, of course, but also stately homes, country houses, family lands and much else. And lots more illustrations and more detailed ownership until at least the middle of the 19th century (hideously complicated btw). We also have a backlog of stuff to add to the website, including fabby photos of castles in the north east, including Huntly, Tolquhon, Crathes, Fyvie and the spectacular Craigievar). It has been a very busy time. Anyway, more later… (Martin Coventry)

Kirkhope peel tower by Jonathan Oldenbuck on Wikipedia

Kirkhope Tower

Kirkhope Tower is a 16th-century tower house, rectangular in plan, of four storeys and a garret within a parapet. A rectangular bartizan crowns one corner, and a caphouse crowns another. There was a parapet walk on three sides of the tower. Kirkhope had a courtyard with ranges of buildings, some remains of which survive.

“Garret”, “bartizan”, “caphouse”… to me that’s architectural jargon which sometimes needs to be clarified. I’ve found this very useful Glossary of architecture published by Wikipedia.

The Dowie Dens o Yarrow (1860), by Joseph Noel Paton

Kirkhope was a property of the Scotts, but was burned by the Armstrongs for the English in 1543. This was the home – in his youth – of the famous Rorder reiver, ‘Auld Wat’, Walter Scott of Harden. (…) In 1576 Auld Wat had married Mary (or Marion) Scott of Dryhope, the ‘Flower of Yarrow’ who is associated with the Border ballad ‘The Dowie Dens (Holms) of Yarrow’. A very popular ballad, put into song.

(The Castles of Scotland – Martin Coventry)


Dryhope Tower

Dryhope Tower is another example of “peel tower” which seems to be associated with the “Flower of Yarrow”.

Overlooking St Mary’s Loch, [a lovely place!] Dryhope Tower is a ruined 16th-century tower house, formerly of three or four storeys. The walls are pierced by gunloops. The basement is vaulted, and a turnpike stair in one corner led up to the hall on the first floor, which was also vaulted. A courtyard, with a curtain wall, enclosed ranges of buildings.

Dryhope was a property of the Scotts, and was the home of Mary (or Marion) Scott, the Flower of Yarrow. The ballad the ‘Dowie Dens of Yarrow’ records, in several versions, the bloody events associated with her, when her suitor was waylaid and slain by her brothers with much carnage. In 1576 she married Walter Scott of  Harden, ‘Auld Wat’, a famous Border reiver (…)

(The Castles of Scotland – Martin Coventry)

Dryhope Tower Tom Parnell 2020 Wikimedia

An old tower rising on a hill, black-headed sheep and a rowan… I do love this picture! A typically Scottish landscape !!!

Scottish_Borders_-_Dryhope_Tower_-_20220831163431 GeoffPiltz

Fatlips Castle

A lovely tower which must have been a “castle” for its builder! 😉

(…) Fatlips was a property of the Turnbulls, who according to tradition had very full lips, hence the name. The family are belived to have been so unruly that James IV forced 200 of them to come before him with halters around their necks – he then hanged several for good measure.

(The Castles of Scotland – Martin Coventry)

Fatlips Castle by Mainlymazza – Wikimedia

Neidpath Castle

Nestling on the side of steep gorge overlooking a bend of the River Tweed, Neidpath Castle is an altered L-plan tower with rounded corners. The tower dates from the 14th century, but was substantially remodelled in the 16th century, with the alteration of the upper storeys. It was altered again in the late 17th century, when a wide stair was inserted and an additional storey created beneath the vault of the hall. A small courtyard, with ranges of buildings, was added in the 16th and 17th centuries.

(The Castles of Scotland – Martin Coventry)

Last but not least the castle, like many other Scottish castles, is said to be haunted !!! And Mr Coventry is second to none to tell a good ghost story!

Neidpath is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a young lass, the ‘Maid of Neidpath’, who was written about by Sir Walter Scott. The ghost is believed to be that of Jean Douglas, the youngest of the three daughters of Sir William Douglas, Earl of March. She was born in 1705, and fell in love with the son of the laird of Tushielaw, which was owned by the Scott family. Her father did not think her lover, although a man of property, was of high enough birth for an Earl’s daughter and forbad them to marry. The lad was sent away from the area, and the Earl hoped that Jean would forget him. Jean was devastated and her health deteriorated. Her lover eventually returned, but by then she had become so ill that he no longer recognised her. Wounded to the core by this final hurt, she died of a broken heart. Her ghost then began to haunt Neidpath, waiting for her lover to return for her in death as he had not in life.
Sightings of Jean’s ghost report that she is clad in a full-length brown frock with a large white collar.

(The Castles of Scotland – Martin Coventry)

A scene from Scott’s poem The Maid of Neidpath

The castle-arch, whose hollow tone
Returns each whisper spoken, 30
Could scarcely catch the feeble moan
Which told her heart was broken.

(Last verses of Scott’s poem “The Maid of Neidpath” -)

A very beautiful place!

We’re looking forward to go back to Scotland. We’ll certainly plan to spend a few days in the Scottish Borders, not only to discover the Southern Uplands but also to visit one or two of these “peel towers” AND the interior of Smailholm Tower, not forgetting to climb it up to get a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape from the top.

Cardoness Castle

Cardoness Castle by Elisa Rolle – Wikimedia

Another very interesting page with maps, pictures and illustrations, by Martin Coventry about this fortified stronghold which was not always a peaceful place… far from it. I let you discover its history on the author’s website.

Standing on a rocky mound above the Water of Fleet, Cardoness Castle is a late 15th-century rectangular tower of six storeys and formerly a garret within a flush parapet. The walls are up to 8 foot thick. Remains of (probably recreated) vaulted outbuildings survive in the ruined courtyard, which was once defended by a strong wall, although this is mostly gone.

The lands were held by the Cardoness family but, after most of them had reputedly drowned while out skating on a frozen loch, passed by marriage to the MacCullochs. This was in around 1450, and the MacCullochs built the castle.

They were an unruly and violent lot. (…)

There are stories of a curse which afflicted the owners of Cardoness Castle, leading each family to eventual ruin. And also of apparitions having been seen within the walls on at least five occasions, including that of a lady, reputedly seen in the hall. Another story is that a man was hanged in the area of the prison, and that his ghost also haunts the place.

(The Castles of Scotland – Martin Coventry)

Hmm!… not the kind of place you’d want to be locked up at night !

It’s time for me to put an end to this page though one could say much more about these “peele-towers” and still more about the history, the landscapes, the traditions and folktales of the Scottish Borders.

Bonne lecture! Á bientôt.



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