Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Castle Warfare Part II: Slaughter at Ferniehirst Castle

In the last years of his reign, King Henry VIII of England tried to force the marriage of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, to his young son, the future Edward VI. When diplomacy failed, he launched a pitiless war that became known as the Rough Wooing .

For safety Mary was hurried to France and betrothed to the young dauphin François.

Ferniehirst Castle
Ferniehirst Castle

There was now no reason for the war to continue but the English refused to abandon hostilities and instead garrisoned large parts of southern Scotland.

Hans Holbein, the Younger Around 1497-1543 - Portrait of Henry VIII of England - Google Art Project
Henry VIII of England

Henri II of France intervened on the Scots behalf and dispatched a strong force which landed at Leith and immediately set about expelling the English from the country.

The English garrison at Ferniehirst Castle by Jedburgh was soon brought to their attention by the Scots. One of the French officers, Jean de Beaugué*, an eye witness, recorded what came next:

"Two hundred Arquebusiers took the road that leads to Ferniehirst and when within an arrow shot of the castle discovered 25 English arquebusiers advantageously posted to dispute the passage but gave way upon our first attack. We drove them before us to the gate of the base court when 10, unable to to run, were wounded or felled to the ground, for the most part by handy blows. Yet the foremost found means to shut the gates and we to view their walls on all sides.

We wanted ladders and sent off in haste and ere long were provided with some long poles instead of ladders. Officers and gentlemen caught hold of the wall with their hands and feet and with the help of their servants and the poles got at last to the top of it, notwithstanding the stones that were thrown down and the arrows that were shot at them; however backed by the soldiers they won the outermost parts of the castle and forced the enemy to retire into a large four-square tower, which was in the midst of the court. Our arquebusiers ranked themselves round this tower, so that not one of those who were within durst so much as peep out.

The English thus pinned up and reduced to the last extremity,
lost courage and began to talk of surrendering

This done, some of our men sheltered themselves from the enemy’s fire by means of some tables that were at hand and, in a short time, cut a hole in the wall large enough to let a man in. All this was so happily performed that except a captain who received a shot in his left hand, which pierced it through, not one was wounded.

The English thus pinned up and reduced to the last extremity, lost courage and began to talk of surrendering; accordingly the commandant came out at the hole that our men had made and offered to give up the castle upon the condition of having his own and his soldiers lives secured.

To this he was answered ‘that servants are not to stand on terms to their masters’. Upon this he was allowed to re-enter the tower and our men set about the widening of the breach with new vigour.

Henri II of France Limoges
Henri II of France Limoges

Things were in this posture when the Scots, who had followed, forced open the gate of the base court and joined us. The English captain saw this and, doubted not of his fate should he chance to fall into the hands of the Scots, again slipped out of the hole and yielded himself to our commanders who would have used him as a soldier and led him out of the press but a Scotsman, eying in the person of this tyrant, the ravisher of his wife and daughters and unable to contain is resentment came up ere anybody could discover his meaning and at one blow struck off the wretch's head, so neatly, that if fell full four paces from the body. Some Scots washed their hands in his blood with as many demonstrations of joy as if they had stormed the City of London.

In the meantime others of the Scots tried their skill and contended who amongst them had the art to cut off the arm or leg of an English prisoner with greatest facility and when thus they made away with such as had fallen into their own hands they bought others from the French giving frankly whatever was asked for the pleasure of revenge. I remember they purchased one of the prisoners from myself for a horse; they tied him neck and heels, laid him down in a plain field, run upon him with lances, killed him; cut his body to pieces and carried the divided parcel on the sharp end of their spears.

I cannot much commend the Scots for this usage; we had not the same reasons to delight in doing ill to our enemy; but the truth is, the English had tyrannised over that part of Scotland in the most barbarous manner and I do not find that it was an injustice to repay them, as the saying is, in their own coin."

Ferniehirst above
Ferniehirst Castle from above

Ferniehirst Castle's reincarntions

Ferniehirst Castle had been constructed in 1490 but its history for the next 100 years was one of attack, destruction and rebuilding. In 1523 it was ‘thrown down’ by the English only to be rebuilt and in turn damaged by the French in 1549. In 1570 it was once more attacked by the English and almost totally destroyed only to be rebuilt and occupied until 1593 when James VI of Scotland ordered it to be demolished once again. This was carried out but the vaulted cellars survived to be incorporated into the new build of 1598 – the castle we see today. This should give pause for thought for those who regard border history as ‘romantic’.

Alterations continued to be made up and until last century when it was acquired by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association – the writer spent many a happy time there! Now it is back in private ownership and open on certain days to the public.


The war continued until the English sued for peace in their war with France at Boulogne.

The French agreed on the condition that their allies, the Scots, were included. This was accepted with reluctance.

The Treaty of Boulogne, March 1550, brought the conflict to an end and obliged both France and England to remove their forces from Scotland. The Scots had ‘won’ but at a terrible cost.

Peace was short-lived and it was only after the Treaty of Leith in 1560 that hostilities ended but still 120 French soldiers were allowed to garrison Dunbar Castle and Inchkeith Fort. It was not until 1562 that, finally, the French galleys sailed home.

* The History of the Campagnes 1548 and 1549 by Monsieur Beagué, French Gentleman, Paris 1556

Article by SCA member Brian McGarrigle.

Added: 04 Sep 2016 Updated: 28 Mar 2018
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