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Byres Castle's Orchard Towerhouse

 

 

 

To the north west of the East Lothian medieval market town of Haddington, within the bounds of Byres farm stands an unusual two storey ruined towerhouse. It’s original shape is straight forward to reconstruct a simple oblong tower, crow stepped gables, lean-to staircase on one side and a gallery on the other.

It’s function however is somewhat of a puzzle. It is not a dovecot or brew-house, some even suggest it was stone beehive. Even the late great historian, novelist and artist Nigel Tranter who introduced me to this ruin was at a loss to it’s actual purpose. It appears to be a watchtower within an orchard with storage area in the bottom storey and has no military function. This orchard tower was within the lower barmkin walls of the Lyndsay stronghold of Byres castle. The actual castle sat on a raised hill now sadly a ploughed field with interesting lumps and mounds, but no stonework to speak of.

Anciently, Byres was held by the Dunbar family of the coastal fortress of Dunbar Castle. Byres is said by some to have been one of the “seven warsteeds of Dunbar.” There is still much debate as to which seven castles made up the “warsteeds”. But a possible list would include obviously *Dunbar Castle, Byres Castle, Luffness Castle near Aberlady, Hailes Castle near East Linton, Stoneypath Tower near Garvald all in East Lothian; then Coldbrandspath (Cockburnspath) Tower and Billie Castle near Chirnside in the Borders. (*There is the possibility that Dunbar Castle itself was not regarded as a “warsteed” since it was the family seat. This being the case then Fast Castle near St Abbs may have been the missing seventh “warsteed”.)

By the late 1300’s these “warsteeds” had passed to other Dunbar vassal families by peaceful and violent means. Byres to the Lyndsays, Luffness to the Bickertons then to the Hepburns, Hailes to the Hepburns through marriage. Likewise Stoneypath to the Douglases of Dalkeith through marriage. While Dunbar Castle, Coldbrandspath and Billie were forceably seized by by the feuding ‘Red’ and ‘Black’ Douglas factions after 1400.

In 1378, Squire Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie castle with only 50 men seized Berwick Castle from the English by scaling the walls at night. The Scots made such a noise that the confused and surprised castle garrison thinking a large Scots army was attacking abandoned their posts and fled to the town of Berwick. However the tables were quickly turned when the English garrison called on the Earl of Northumberland with a huge army to besiege Berwick Castle. Ramsay called on the help of his two Uncles Archibald ‘the Grim’ Black Douglas and Lord Lyndsay of Byres Castle. However these two Lords were only able to muster an army of 500 men at Haddington and marched on Berwick.

As Douglas and Lyndsay’s army approached Berwick scouts reported the English army encircled around the castle numbered 10,000 with archers, siege engines, heavy horse and ships blockading the river. There was no avenue for their nephew Ramsay to escape. Any attempt at a diversion would be suicidal. As Douglas and Lyndsay reluctantly withdrew towards Melrose, perhaps to gather more support, they were pursued and attacked by some o the English heavy horse led by Thomas De Musgrave. Fortunately for Douglas and Lyndsay they were aided in their victory by the arrival of Archibald’s cousin, William, 1st Earl of Douglas of Tantallon Castle, George Dunbar of Dunbar Castle and his vassals the Gordons. Despite this surprise victory and the capture/ransom possiblities of Thomas De Musgrave, Berwick fell back into the hands of the English and all the Scots garrison executed apart from Ramsay who was held for ransom.

During the wars of the “Rough Wooing” from 1544 to 1549, where by use of castle sacking and burning the English hoped to force the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1567/87) to the English Prince Edward, Byres Castle may have been slighted in 1548 while the invading English built a huge earth and timber fortress at Haddington. So elements of the castle could have been dragged away for building materials. However Byres’ orchard tower escaped this destruction and remains an intriguing ruin.

 

Andrew Spratt

2001 AD

 

 

 

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