Cockburnspath Tower

Image reproduced by kind permission of Mr Andrew Spratt, Custodian of Dirleton Castle, East Lothian. All images of the reconstruction remain copyright of Andrew Spratt and must not be reproduced without his permission.

Just below a viaduct of the A1 road to Berwick upon Tweed sits the broken keep and outer buildings of Cockburnspath Tower, perched above a deep rocky ravine, which must have presented a great obstacle to any would-be attackers. Likely this chasm was originally spanned by a wooden bridge, possibly close to the site of the present stone bridge. No doubt this could easily be policed by the castle garrison or for that matter simply dismantled during times of war with the invading English.


The present castle ruin dates from the late 15th/early 16th centuries, containing an oblong plan keep with two rectangular plan block houses (possibly with crowstepped gables). The larger building with storage vaults at basement level with a hall or barracks level above. While the smaller building almost a lean-to against the keep may have been a kitchen block with guard room. It is claimed that the 'Red' Douglases had 3,000 men stationed here in 1546 when feuding with the Homes over ownership of the Tower. This figure seems improbable since the castle site today is just so small. But perhaps, like so many other keeps of the period it was surrounded by a 'Barmkin' wall, with fortified ditch and an outer/adjoining 'castle-town' village. Which would have been able to accommodate so many troops.

Cockburnspath was held by several noble Scots families, the Dunbars, the Homes, the Sinclairs and the Douglases. However, because of the nature of these families (the Dunbars and Douglases in particular) it is difficult to say who legally held the castle for certain at times, because they stole lands and castles from each other on a regular basis. And despite the intervention of the Kings of Scots to settle these family feuds, they continued squabbling for centuries while also finding time to fight the 'Auld Enemy' (the English) at home and in France.


Originally Cockburnspath was held by the Dunbar family who raised a stone towerhouse here in the 14th century, likely surrounded by a wooden palisade with ditch for further protection. Its claimed that this tower was one of the 'seven war-steeds of Dunbar' (i.e. seven castles). This list of seven castles or 'war-steeds' is still very much open to debate. But likely included Cockburnspath, Hailes castle near East Linton, Byres near Haddington, Luffness beside Aberlady and Stoneypath near Garvald all in the Lothians, with Billie castle in the Borders and perhaps Dunbar castle itself. However, some historians claim the great coastal fortress of Dunbar castle, astride its five rock stacks, surrounded by the crashing waves of the North sea, as the principal family seat stood on its own separate from the 'seven war-steeds'. This being the case the possible missing seventh 'steed' may have been Fast castle near St Abbs. Though this tends to have a stronger association with the Home/Hume family since they greatly rebuilt Fast in 1521.


Anciently the Dunbars and Homes were kin both being known originally as Gospatrick. But re-named their surnames after their principal estates. The Dunbars after 'Dun' (tower or fort) on the rock 'bar' hence 'Dunbar'. Likewise the Homes or Humes as they were later known took their name from the land around Hume castle on the Merse in the Borders. Interestingly, because of this family connection the Dunbars and Homes held similar heraldic arms on their surcoats, shields and banners. The Dunbars a silver/white lion rampant on red with a flower border. While the Homes had a silver/white lion rampant on green.


By the late 14th century many of the Dunbar 'war-steeds' had passed to other vassal families initially by peaceful means. Hailes to the Hepburns through marriage, Byres to the Lyndsays, Luffness to the Bickertons and then to the Hepburns and Stoneypath to the Douglases of Dalkeith castle again through marriage. However in 1400 and 1401 Dunbar and Cockburnspath were seized respectively by the 'Black' Douglases and then by the 'Red' Douglas in 1434 and 1435,who also appears to have seized Billie castle around the same time.


Originally the Dunbars and Douglases fought unitedly against the English. At the first battle of Nisbet in 1355, for example Sir Patrick Dunbar supported William 1st Earl of Douglas's ambush of the garrison of Norham castle and the abortive raid on Berwick castle. Patrick then traveled abroad to France with William and his cousin Archibald 'the Grim' (later 3rd Earl of Douglas) to fight on behalf of the French King John II 'the Good' at the battle of Poitiers in 1356,against the invading English under 'the Black Prince'. Although the Scots-French army was defeated and King John captured, these three Scots knights returned home relatively rich men with French monies paid as mercenaries. William completed the great red curtain wall of Tantallon castle near North Berwick based on a French chateaux. Archibald, once he'd cleared the English out of Dumfries as Lord of Galloway, built his grim grey island keep of Threave to protect Dumfries and Galloway. While Patrick chose to use his money to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy lands where he died in 1357, leaving his son George to become Earl of March and inherit Dunbar castle.


In 1396,George Dunbar, Earl of March's daughter Elizabeth was married to Prince David. However, Archibald 'the Grim' 3rd Earl of Douglas secretly suggested to the weak-willed King Robert III of Scots (1390-1406) that this marriage should be abandoned in favour of his daughter Marjory. To this end, the King totally out of character, massed an army at Haddington with 'Black' Douglas support and besieged Dunbar castle, "in connection with the irregular marriage of his son and a daughter of the Earl of March". The King also invoked the wrath of the church, claiming the marriage had gone ahead before the permission of Pope Benedict XIII had officially been given. The siege dragged on into February 1397 when George Dunbar obtained a safe-conduct order from King Richard II of England (1377-1399) for himself and one hundred of his household (likely evacuating by sea) to travel and reside in England for six months. On the 10th of March, the Pope dissolved the marriage ending the King's assault on Dunbar castle. Surprisingly, Dunbar returned to his castle bearing the King no ill-will since he was under the misconception that when enough time had passed and the Pope gave his blessing, Prince David would officially re-marry his daughter.


Dunbar seemed to be totally oblivious to Archibald's scheme. In 1399, Richard II was replaced as King of England by the usurper, Henry IV (1399-1413) with the aid of the Percy family of Northumberland. Since the truce between the Scots and the English had been arranged during Richard's reign, there was doubt as to the validity of such a treaty. So Dunbar sent his sons with Archibald's son, also Archibald, Master of Douglas (later 4th Earl of Douglas) to storm and burn Lord Grey's Wark castle. King Henry demanded those responsible for the attack on Wark should be brought to justice or else he would invade Scotland. Prince David acting in his father's name refused to debate the truce and insulted Henry by addressing the reply to the Duke of Lancaster, Henry's original title, refusing to recognize his Kingship. Consequently, Henry sent orders to muster an army at York, calling in reserve forces which, once assembled, he would personally lead into Scotland. In 1400,George Dunbar became aware of Prince David's proposed marriage to Archibald's daughter. Angered by this insult to his daughter, Dunbar challenged the King to "keep his agreement with him, or he would arrange for something unheard of and unusual to be done in the kingdom."


The marriage went ahead despite Dunbar's threats and, to add insult to injury, Prince David made the Master of Douglas lifetime keeper of Edinburgh castle, effectively turning it into a 'Black' Douglas stronghold within striking distance of Dunbar's Lothian lands and his principal seat, Dunbar castle itself. Dunbar met with his vassalmen, including the Hepburns and Lauders, divulging his plans to switch allegiance from King Robert to King Henry IV of England. He commanded them to return to their respective castles and prepare for war, in case King Robert's forces attacked. George Dunbar then left his castle defended by his nephew Maitland of Lethington (Lennoxlove tower) while he and one hundred of his men traveled to England to offer his services as soldiers, including the use of his castles as staging posts for any planned invasion of Scotland.


 'Hotspur' Percy was about to take Dunbar up on his offer when news came that Dunbar castle had been attacked by the Master of Douglas, a cting in King Robert's name. To save bloodshed, Maitland had thrown open the gates and surrendered on reasonable terms, since Dunbar's family were courteously allowed time to pack up their belongings and leave with a protective escort. Cockburnspath and Billie were still in Dunbar's hands unlike Hailes castle and Markle castle as their keepers, the Hepburns had sided with the Douglases. In reply, King Henry with Dunbar and 'Hotspur' invaded Scotland besieging Edinburgh castle which was defended by Archibald 'the Grim' and his son-in-law Prince David, Duke of Rothesay. The siege proved ineffective and Henry declined David's offer of ten or twenty of their best men to fight to the death to settle the outcome of the siege, since Henry had superior numbers and time on his side. Though his camp was heckled by the Master of Douglas and the Ramsays of Dalhousie castle near Bonnyrigg.


At Dunbar's insistence, Henry sent a task force to besiege Dalhousie, but both sieges of Edinburgh and Dalhousie were suddenly abandoned when reports came that Owen Glendower, the self style Prince of Wales had revolted against his English over Lords and was attacking Caerphilly castle. Henry and his entire army marched quickly south to Wales to prevent Owen's rebellion from gaining support and to save Caerphilly, a key symbol of English domination over the Welsh. In 1401,Dunbar and 'Hotspur' with 2,000 men made a lighting raid on the Lothians burning down Markle castle and village along with the villages of Traprain and Hailes. The castle of Hailes proved too strong stoutly defended by the Hepburns who, as ex-Dunbar vassals, recognized Lord Dunbar would give them no quarter, making their resistance all the more determined. Today, the ruin of Hailes castle seems a weak site, however, originally the present small Traprain burn was dammed back flooding the castle ditches on three sides before cascading down on the River Tyne which protected the north side, turning the castle into a small island surrounded by water. Dunbar and 'Hotspur' made two unsuccessful assaults on the castle before making camp for the night, planning to attack again at first light. In the darkness, disguising his small numbers, Archibald 4th Earl of Douglas with an 'armed force' from Edinburgh castle threw the English camp into total confusion.


The Hepburns raced out from their castle to join in the slaughter which ensued. Somehow Dunbar and 'Hotspur' escaped with loss of camp and booty. Some of the remaining English fled to Cockburnspath tower but this was soon stormed, or more likely abandoned by the Dunbars as the flight continued to the very town walls of 'South Berwick' (Berwick upon Tweed) where one knight, Thomas Talbot, tried to make a stand against the pursuing Douglases, but was unhorsed and his banner taken as a trophy. In June 1402,the Hepburns, the Lauders, the Cockburns and the Halyburtons raided the north of England. On their return, they were engaged at the second battle of Nisbet by Dunbar and 'Hotspur'.


Because all of these families aside from the Halyburtons appear to have been ex-Dunbar vassals, it made the fighting all the more fierce with the Scots gaining the upper hand. Suddenly Dunbar's son arrived with reinforcements from Berwick castle, winning the day for the English. Dunbar then executed the Hepburn contingent despite their honorable surrender. Halyburton of Dirleton and his kin Halyburton of Dalcove were kept in such detestable conditions before being ransomed that they both died of "loosing of the bowels" on returning to their respective homes. Dunbar's treatment of the Lauders and Cockburns isn't recorded but likely they didn't fair any better. In September 1402, Archibald 4th Earl of Douglas led a large Scots army to sack Newcastle. (Archibald was later known as 'the loser' because of the amount of battles he lost, Homildon Hill in 1402 where he was wounded five times and lost an eye, Shrewsbury in 1403 where he lost a testicle and finally Verneuil, France in 1424 where he lost his life.) After looting and burning Newcastle, the Scots laden down with much booty marched homeward. However, at Homildon Hill near Wooler, their camp was attacked by Dunbar and 'Hotspur' with their expert Welsh archers, who completely routed the Scots army. Among the many hostages taken along with Archibald 'the loser' was George the 'Red' Douglas who like Halyburton was so ill-treated before being ransomed that he died of a plague contracted during his captivity.


In 1403,Dunbar even turned on his English ally 'Hotspur' helping King Henry rout the Percy rebels at the battle of Shrewsbury. But this action made him unpopular on both sides of the border. In 1408 Stewart, Duke of Albany acting as Governor of Scotland while King James I of Scots (1406-1437) was held captive in England, entered into negotiations with the exiled Dunbars because they had made several attempts to capture Cockburnspath tower in an effort to re-establish themselves in Scotland. Albany felt the time was right for the Dunbars to return to the Scots side, and George Dunbar was agreeable. So by 1409 a deal was struck where George Dunbar would give his Lordship of Annandale to Archibald 'the loser' in exchange for Dunbar castle, Cockburnspath and Billie. Archibald, held captive in England since 1403 and still awaiting ransom, through his brother James 'the Gross' Douglas agreed to this. The Dunbars return to the Scots side was dramatic with assaults on Roxburgh and Jedburgh castles and the capture of Fast castle from the English in 1410. In 1424,King James I returned to Scotland but had his own plans for the Albanys and Dunbars. In July 1433,the 'Red' Douglas met with Hepburn, Halyburton and Crichton at Luffness castle with the Kings blessing, to conspire the political overthrow of the Dunbars and the capture of their castles. In that same month though, because of skirmishes between 'Red' Douglas and Home forces, war broke out on the borders with England, momentarily distracting Douglas and Hepburn from their goal of destroying the Dunbars.


In 1434,King James declared George Dunbar,11th Earl of March's lands and castles forfeit, not only on the basis of the sins of the 10th Earl of March. But because they had been reinstated without his permission by the Dukes of Albany (whom James had executed for treason in 1425)and against the express wishes of his father King Robert III. George Dunbar was arrested by Crichton and held at Edinburgh castle, while the 'Red' Douglas and Hepburn seized Dunbar castle by royal command. George tried to appeal for the return of his lands by political means, but was offered the title Earl of Buchan as compensation, with token northern lands this title held. This was the final insult, Dunbar immediately sought military means calling on English support in seizing his castle by force. News of this plot reached the King, so Dunbar fled to England although his sons appear to have continued to hold Cockburnspath tower and Billie castle in their father's name.


Eventually in 1435, an English army led by Sir Robert Ogle, the Governor of Berwick and the Percies marched north from Berwick castle with the objective of taking Dunbar castle from Douglas and Hepburn. Instead of waiting to withstand a siege Douglas and Hepburn with Ramsay of Dalhousie cunningly ambushed and defeated the English at the battle of Piperdean (1) just short of Cockburnspath tower. Though Alexander De Elphinstone was killed on the Scots side, the majority of the English were captured alive and the nobles ransomed. Likely Cockburnspath fell into the hands of the Douglas Hepburn forces around this time. During the reign of King James IV of Scots (1488-1513) Cockburnspath was among the lands assigned to his consort Margaret Tudor. By 1530,it was in the hands of the Home family under John Home, Abbot of Jedburgh. But later passed to Sir William Sinclair, who in turn sold it to Sir George Douglas, brother of Archibald,6th Earl of Angus around 1546.


During this confused, violent time from 1544 to 1549 the English used castle burning to try and force the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots to the English Prince Edward. Hence the days were known as the wars of the 'rough wooing'. So the 3,000 Douglas troops stationed at Cockburnspath in 1546 during their conflict with the Homes were likely there also to protect the tower against the invading English. In 1594, Cockburnspath was taken from the 'Red' Douglases by King James VI of Scots (1567-1603) and given to the Earl of Lennox. Possibly as a punishment for their involvement in the 'Treaty of the Spanish blanks'. Which resulted in the battle of Glenlivet in the north, where the pro-Catholic Lords Hay of Slains and Gordon of Huntly defeated the King's army and awaited the arrival of Spanish military forces to aid them in their rebellion. But this was not forthcoming because the Douglases failed to field an army during this rebellion their sins don't appear to have been as deep as the Hays and Gordons, who had their respective castles of Slains and Huntly slighted by the King. So eventually in 1602,Cockburnspath was returned to the Douglas's. But apparently as early as 1612 the tower was much disused and by the late 18th century it was dismantled for building material elsewhere in the district.



Additional comments by Laurie Pettitt

On September 2nd 1650, Oliver Cromwell wrote to Sir Arthur Hesilrige from Dunbar. He said that the Scots had occupied the 'Pass at Copperspith', making it impossible for Cromwell to retreat into England. The Pass was said to have been possible to hold by very few men against many. Being that the Tower guarded a bridge over the Pease gorge, this was the pass which Oliver mentioned.

There is also reference to 'The Tower at Coldingham in many State records. What other historians have missed is that the tower mentioned is Cockburnspath Tower.  In the Parish of Coldingham. This has led to the false assertion that Oliver reduced Coldingham Priory in 1648,andwhenthat was disproved, the year 1650 is substituted. If there had been any action at Coldingham Priory at either of those dates, it would have been mentioned by Cromwell, but in 1648,Cromwell had beaten the Scots, under Hamilton and was in the process of meeting with The Estates with a view to assisting them in mopping up the Engagers. The only action in the area was when some troops from the Bishopric of Durham raided into Scotland and were sent back to Durham with their Captain Cashiered. Also, in both 1648 and 1650, speed of movement had been essential and Oliver was not pulling great guns weighing 3tons which were said to have been used against the Priory at Coldingham.

Cockburnspath Tower is a shameful indictment of the Scottish disregard for Borders' history. It was part of the marriage settlement from King James the fourth (Perfidious Jim) to Margaret Tudor. It forced Cromwell to fight the Battle of Dunbar. In that, it influenced World History, just as the Battle of Dunbar also changed Scotland and England.

If you visit Dunbar, you will find a stumpy memorial to the Battle, but a visit to Doon Hill, overlooking the battle site reveals no signage to advertise this battle which left 3,000 Scotsmen dead on the field, 5,000 prisoners (Cromwell notes them a 'sick, injured or starving and like to die of their wounds) These 5,000,he released to the care of their fellow countrymen and the remaining (rough estimated) 5,000 prisoners marched to Durham.

Further to the assertion that Coldingham Priory was destroyed by Cromwell, one only has to look at pictures of the Priory drawn by Francis Grose in 1790. You will see that the bell tower is still standing. No srlf respecting gunner would have left the bell tower standing!

Francis Grose also drew Cockburnspath Tower. The block work leading to the bridge is identical today as that which he drew in 1790.

I speculate on the site at Cockburnspath being more ancient than the 1256 which is recorded.

The Post Road which ran from Ayton, via East Reston and onwards to Dunglass and Dunbar, is said to have been built by the Romans. The bridge at Cockburnspath Tower was part of the pistons road until the 1780s when the New Pease Bridge was built.

I believe it to be probable that the site is of far greater historical importance than people realise.

Source: Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell



1.  The battle of Piperdean is, I think , wrongly ascribed to the land south of Copath near Auldcambus. (Wikipedia also had this as the site) but it does not fit the description of the battle which more likely took place near Wark. There is a farm called Pressen which has a field called Piperdean and the farmer seemed well aware that this was the site of a battle There is a bastle house incorporated into the farm steading The farmer at Auldcambus had no knowledge of any battle.

Further details on this entry would be welcome.


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