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Craig Douglas, Yarrow. (The Crag of Douglas) NT 29082 24969.
The Border ballads are reckoned to be the finest collection of early folk-lore in the world. Most ballads are difficult to fix in time and place; like party political broadcasts, they may contain elements of truth but with embellishments.
The ballad of The Douglas Tragedy is one which can be safely placed at the Douglas Burn, east of St Mary’s Loch and in time between 1321 when Sir James Douglas was given the lands of Ettrick Forest for his support of Robert the Bruce, to 1455 when James II took it back again because the Douglas family were getting too powerful.
The ballad tells of eloping lovers, seven pursuing brothers all killed by the would-be husband who himself was wounded to death etc. Great stuff and amply told in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. I have never been able to get documentary evidence to ascertain that this was an actual happening or whether it was a minstrel’s tale that grew in the telling. There is so great a similarity between The Douglas Tragedy and The Dowie Dens of Yarrow that I suspect that they may have a common ancestry; and there again both may be total fiction.
What is certain is that the Douglas family had an important holding at the Craig of Douglas near where the Douglas Burn falls into the Yarrow. This was captured and burned by James II in 1450 and the lands of Ettrick Forest reverted to the Crown in 1455after a hundred and thirty years in Douglas hands.
Sir Walter Scott claimed that the small 16th century peel tower at Blackhouse was the centre of Douglas power in Ettrick Forest and the scene of the Douglas Tragedy. This was refuted by Craig Brown as being too small and two centuries too late to have been so.
In fact, both had overlooked a sculpted rocky mound about 300m north of Craig Douglas farm which stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. This was not a simple peel tower but a substantial structure on a good defensible site.
The Craig of Douglas from the South East.
It is even more impressive when viewed from above despite being partly covered with bracken.
Both APs by Richard Strathie’s drone.
I first noticed this interesting bump about forty-five years ago when going to erect some fencing further up the Douglas Burn. A closer look showed that it was a rocky mound c 10m in height with a flat top c 30m by 10m. There are traces of wall foundations on the flat and a made road from the low ground curled its way round the mound to the top. This was enough to convince me that a building once stood on this site and romantic fancy told me that it had to be the Douglas castle and therefore the site of The Douglas Tragedy.
This belief lasted for forty-five years until I took Richard Strathie up Yarrow to get photographic evidence of the site because it is unrecorded except for two sentences in Selkirkshire Book One. I also took up divining rods to reveal what the camera couldn’t.
The APs showed a much more elaborate wall system than I had realised while the divining rods told me that the walls were over 1m thick , showing my early guess that it had been a wooden structure was unlikely. When combined, they show that this structure is unlikely to have been a castle.
In the sketch below, the main central part ‘A’ is approximately 24m long by 8 m to 10m across and has entrances from north and south. The central area is split up into four compartments which could be the wall-bases of buildings or simply walls. No 1 is likely to have been a courtyard and Nos 2, 3 and 4 structures.
‘B’ is on the same level as ‘A’ and would have been a walkway round the main enclosure.
‘C’ is an enclosed area at a lower level. ‘R’ is the continuous road around the enclosure.
Rough Sketch and probable divisions on the top of the Mound.
Having decided that this is not a castle but is medieval, what is it?
Having gone through all possibilities, my best guess is that it is a hunting lodge dating from the time when the nobility of the country had the privilege of hunting in the extensive Ettrick Forest. It stands conveniently beside the medieval road from Peebles to the Yarrow in the heart of The Forest. In the vicinity there are a number of platforms which would house the huntsmen or servants – what more could be desired?
This site is worth a professional look.
11 July 2016. Walter Elliot.