Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

The beacons watching over the Border and Borderlands of Scotland

When in 1296 Edward I of England crossed the Scottish border, it marked the beginning of a conflict which was to endure for some 300 years. As late as 1543 Henry VIII would style himself ‘King of Scotland’ and refer to the Scots as rebels – this is the background to the narration.

Hollows is surprised but has managed to 'fire' its beacon – as a lone Scot makes a late run for it! *

Scotland was vulnerable to English invasion and, with its capital, Edinburgh a short two days march from Berwick, an ‘early warning’ system of ‘fire beacons’ was established.

These beacons were positioned on heights or castles in such a manner that each could communicate with the other and provide notice of impending danger.

TOP: Hollows Tower with corbelled beacon stance at top of the crow-stepped gable
BOTTOM: Repentance Tower with beacon stance on roof apex **

An act of 1455 required ‘bales’ (hay or tar barrels) at Hume Castle to be ‘fired’ if an incursion was suspected. If certain, two bales were to be fired and, if the English were in ‘great number’, four bales. The signal would be picked up by Eggerhope Castle which in turn fired its bales to Soutra and so on to Edinburgh Castle:

So that all be warned and come to the defence of the realm

A similar system was required for the border counties where cross border raiding – albeit on a smaller scale – was endemic. Armed parties from both sides would regularly lift live stock at night and set fire to buildings before fleeing home in the morning. In the 1570s both nations passed laws in an attempt to contain it:

In England

Everie man that hath a castle or a tower of stone shall upon everie fray raised in the night, give waning to the countries bye fire in the tops of the castle or tower.

In Scotland

The Beacon in the Firepan to be keeped and never faill burning, so song as the Englishmen remain in Scotland; and with ane Bell to on the Head of he Firepan, which shall ring whenever the Fray is, and whosoever bydes fra the Fray as long as the Bell rings shall be used as Traitors

In Scotland beacon stances are still to be found on the towers of Hollows, Repentance, Hoddom, and Elshieshields, all in Dumfries and perhaps the stance of an iron beacon at Barns, Peebles.

LEFT: Hoddom Castle with corbelled beacon platform with firepan placed upon it (at flagpole) **
RIGHT: Barns Tower – walk wall removed but iron beacon stance preserved inside

Repentance Tower stands on the summit of a small hill, about half a mile from Hoddom, and commands an extensive view on all sides. In 1579 its owner, Lord Herries, wrote to King James VI concerning it:

The wache toure callit Repentance, mon be mendid of the diffaceing the Engliche army maid of it and the greit bell and the fyir pan put on it and ane trew man for the keeping of the continual wache thairupoun
Elshieshields Tower with two SCA members standing inside the beacon stance – not a chimney!

Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle. *Thanks to © Pete Armstrong for his splendid illustration of Hollows Tower. ** Photographs of Repentance and Hoddom courtesy of Scottish Castles Association member John Pringle.

Added: 04 Mar 2022 Updated: 04 Jul 2022
Related articles (20)
Our corporate members...

Visit our Skills and Trades Section