In Border Places

Smailholm Tower: Scott’s Legacy

Smailholm Tower, Lady Hill, Sir Walter Scott's Legacy

Smailholm Tower is one of Scotland’s most iconic castles, nestled in the beautiful countryside of the Scottish Borders region. It is a fascinating and unique example of Scottish architecture and has played a significant role in Scottish history throughout the centuries. Let’s explore the history of Smailholm Tower, its architectural features, and its important place in Scottish history.

The Origins of Smailholm Tower

The origins of Smailholm Tower date back to the 15th century. It was built as a defensive structure to protect the border between Scotland and England from raiders and invaders. The tower was strategically positioned on a rocky outcrop for maximum defence and visibility.

The tower was built during a time of great conflict between Scotland and England. The two countries were often at war, and the Scottish Borders was a particularly volatile area. Smailholm Tower was one of many fortifications built during this time to protect northeast Scotland from English invasion.

The Pringle Family and Early Ownership

Smailholm Tower was owned by the Pringle family for over 300 years, from the mid-15th century until the late 18th century. The family was one of the most prominent in the Scottish Borders, and their influence can still be seen in the castle and surrounding area today. The Pringle family made several changes to the tower and expanded its defensive features over the years.

The Pringle family was known for their military prowess, and they played a significant role in the defence of the Scottish Borders. They were often called upon to lead the local militia and were instrumental in repelling English invasions.

Over the years, the Pringle family made many changes to the tower to make it more defensible. They added a drawbridge, a moat, and additional walls to protect the west of the tower from attack. They also built a barracks and stables to house soldiers and horses.

scottish border smailholm tower

The Tower’s Strategic Importance

Smailholm Tower was an essential strategic point during the turbulent history of the Scottish Borders. It saw many conflicts and battles, as it was located on the main route between Scotland and England. The tower played a crucial role in defending Scotland from English invasion and was also used as a base for Scottish raids into England.

The tower was strategically located on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. From the top of the tower, defenders could see for miles in all directions and could spot approaching armies long before they reached the tower.

The tower was also strategically located near several important trade routes. This made it an important centre of commerce, and many merchants and traders passed through the area on their way northwest, to and from Scotland.

Today, Smailholm Tower is a popular tourist attraction and is open to the public. Visitors can explore the tower and learn about its rich history, as well as enjoy the stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Architectural Features of Smailholm Tower

One of the fascinating things about Smailholm Tower is its unique design. It is a classic example of a Scottish tower house, with its tall, narrow structure and thick stone walls. The tower also features many defensive elements, such as gun loops and arrow slits.

The Tower’s Unique Design

The design of Smailholm Tower is unique because of its thick walls and narrow windows. The tower was built to withstand heavy attacks, and its design made it almost impregnable to siege warfare. The walls of the tower are over 6 feet thick at the base, and the tower stands 45 feet tall. The narrow windows were designed to make it difficult for attackers to enter the tower, and the spiral staircase allowed defenders to move quickly from one level to another. The tower also features a vaulted basement which was used for storage.

One of the most interesting features of the tower is its location. It stands on a rocky outcrop, which made it even more difficult for attackers to breach its defences. The tower also had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, which allowed defenders to spot approaching enemies from a distance.

Defensive Elements and Adaptations

Over the years, the tower was adapted and expanded to meet the changing needs of its owners. Additional defensive features were added, such as a barmkin (a protective wall surrounding the tower) and a drawbridge. The stone barmkin wall was designed to keep attackers at a safe distance from the tower, while the drawbridge allowed defenders to control who could enter the tower.

During the 16th century, the tower was equipped with firearms. Gun loops were added to the tower, which allowed defenders to fire their weapons at attackers while remaining protected behind the thick walls. The tower also had a caphouse, which was a small room at the top floor of the tower that was used to store gunpowder.

Despite its many defensive features, the tower was eventually abandoned in the 18th century. Today, the tower is a popular tourist attraction, and visitors can climb to the top of the tower to enjoy the stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Smailholm Tower’s Role in Scottish History

Smailholm Tower has indeed played a significant role in Scottish history, particularly from the 15th century onward when it was first constructed. Its position and fortifications made it a vital stronghold during periods of conflict, helping to protect the Scottish Borders. While it wasn’t directly involved in the Wars of Scottish Independence due to its later construction date, its historical significance extends beyond these events. The tower also witnessed considerable changes during the Reformation and has been a part of the nation’s story through centuries of peace and turmoil alike. However, there is much more to the tower’s history that often goes unexplored, from its construction and architectural features to the lives of those who lived and worked within its walls.

smailholm tower window

The Reformation and Beyond

During the 16th century, the Reformation created significant changes throughout Scotland. Smailholm Tower became a factor in these changes, as it was often used as a hiding place for Catholic priests who were being persecuted for their beliefs.

One of the most famous priests to seek refuge at Smailholm Tower was Father John Ogilvie, a Jesuit missionary who was eventually captured, tortured, and executed for his Catholic faith. His story is a testament to the tower’s importance as a safe haven for those who dared to defy the religious and political authorities of the time.

By the 17th century, the tower’s importance as a defensive stronghold had diminished, and it was subsequently used as a farmstead. However, the tower’s rich history continued to captivate the imaginations of poets and artists, who were drawn to its rugged beauty and storied past.

Today, Smailholm Tower stands as a testament to the resilience and determination of the Scottish people. It is a reminder of the struggles and sacrifices that were made in the name of freedom and independence and a symbol of the enduring spirit of Scotland.

Famous Residents and Visitors

Over the years, Smailholm Tower has been home to several prominent families and has welcomed many famous visitors. The tower, situated in the Scottish Borders, has a rich history that has attracted many notable figures throughout the centuries.

Sir Walter Scott and Smailholm Tower

One of the most famous visitors to Smailholm Tower was the Scottish poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott. Scott was born in the nearby town of Selkirk and spent much of his childhood in the Borders. He was fascinated by the history and folklore of the region and often visited Smailholm Tower for inspiration. The tower features in several of Scott’s works, including “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” and “The Black Dwarf.”

Scott’s connection to Smailholm Tower runs deep. As a child, he would often visit the tower with his grandfather, who would tell him stories of the tower’s past. These stories would later inspire Scott’s writing, and he would go on to become one of the most celebrated writers of his time.

Scott’s love for Smailholm Tower is evident in his writing. In “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” he describes the tower as “a stark and lonely tower, whose top is plighted to the midnight hour.” The tower’s rugged beauty and rich history continue to inspire writers and artists to this day.

Preservation and Restoration Efforts

Smailholm Tower, an iconic testament to Scottish history and architecture, has been subject to several preservation and restoration efforts to uphold its structural integrity and historical value.

The Tower’s Decline and Rebirth

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Smailholm Tower endured periods of neglect that resulted in the structure’s decay. The harsh Scottish weather accelerated this decline, causing the tower’s walls to deteriorate and the roof to collapse.

However, in the early 20th century, with the rising awareness of heritage preservation in Scotland, the necessary steps were taken to rescue and restore the tower. While it’s difficult to identify the exact organization involved without specific historical records, organizations like Historic Environment Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland often play significant roles in preserving historical sites like Smailholm Tower. The restoration process involved reinforcing the crumbling walls, replacing the damaged roof, and carefully preserving unique architectural elements like the spiral staircase and narrow windows.

Smailholm Tower Today

A Historic Site Today, Smailholm Tower is a cherished symbol of Scotland’s rich past and the architectural prowess of its medieval builders. Open to the public, the tower is a popular tourist destination, allowing visitors to explore its unique features and immerse themselves in its captivating history.

The tower’s historical role as a border stronghold, defending against English invasions, and providing sanctuary to local communities during times of war and conflict, further adds to its appeal.

Over the centuries, Smailholm Tower has provided inspiration for artists and writers alike. Notably, it ignited the creativity of Sir Walter Scott, one of Scotland’s most distinguished writers, who referenced the tower in his collection of songs, “The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.”

Today, Smailholm Tower is more than just a historic site. It is a living testament to Scotland’s rich cultural heritage and a source of pride for the Scottish people. It is a must-see destination for anyone interested in Scottish history and architecture.

Photo by Keith Proven:

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