painting by Andrew Spratt
Almost one mile west of the Border town of Peebles, on a high ridge above a loop in the river Tweed, stands the peaceful looking L-plan keep of Neidpath castle (originally called Jedderfield) held by the Earls of Wemyss and March. The castle site dates back to the late13th century when a tower was raised here by the Fraser family, in their role as sheriffs of Tweeddale. The Frasers were originally Norman importees invited into Scotland by King David I (1124-1153) of Scots to maintain order in the region through their well known ruthless Norman efficiency.
Today the Frasers are thought of as an ancient 'Highland' Clan. But like several other Highland Clans of note ie the Hays of Slains, the Gordons of Huntly and the Keiths of Dunnottar, they all had their roots in the Lowlands, then migrated north through marriage, deceit and violence. Inheriting and seizing lands in the Highlands, eventually establishing themselves as 'Highlanders'.
The present semi-intact tower of Neidpath has no vestiges of the original Fraser castle. But likely the 14th century work of the Hay family of Yester is directly ontop of the original Fraser site. The most famous Neidpath Fraser was Sir Simon who, during the siege of Caerlaverock castle in 1300,stole horses and armour from King Edward I (1272-1307) of England, while actually in his service. Simon then joined William Wallace in rebellion and defeated the English army three times on the same day at Roslin. In retaliation the Fraser lands of Neidpath were burnt by the English.
Sadly though Wallace was eventually betrayed, captured and horrifically executed for treason by King Edward. Sir Simon like so many other Scots 'rebels' returned to King Edward's 'peace' and was forgiven. He then served as a soldier in France on behalf of Edward. But on his return to Scotland he again rebelled this time with King Robert the Bruce. After the defeat of the Scots at the battle of Methven in 1307 Sir Simon was captured and taken in chains to London. Where he was tortured then executed in the same manner as Wallace. Being castrated, disembowelled having his entrails burnt before him while still alive, then hung drawn, quartered and decapitated. With his head placed on a stake above London bridge beside the rotting skull of William Wallace. Given King Edward's accolade the 'Hammer of the Scots' and the manner in which his Royal wrath was vented on Sir Simon. Its unlikely that he treated the Fraser tower at Neidpath any better and this goes some way to explain why there are no traceable remains today.
The Hay family (also of Norman descent) inherited the estate of Neidpath through marriage to Sir Simon's only daughter around 1312 and probably built the L-plan keep in the early 14th century. The late 17th century re-working of the upper battlements of Neidpath are very misleading and give a false 'folly like' appearance. Originally the battlements probably had simple bartizans (roofless turrets). Also the main enrty to the castle was within the re-entrant angle between the two towers of the L-plan facing the Tweed. Reached by way of a detachable/collapsible wooden staircase, adding to the castle's inaccessibility during times of siege. And not by the present modern entry at courtyard level. Although this may be part of an earlier postern gateway. But because of the jumbled late 17th century re-workings this is difficult to ascertain.
The ornate courtyard gateway wall and outer buildings are also of a late 17th century period but contain fabric from earlier 16th century Hay buildings. Also pre-dating even these was probably a wooden palisade to protect the cluster of wood n' wattle construction buildings that appeared beside such great keeps in the 14th century. But as time progressed this would have been replaced by a stone Barmkin wall in the 16th century with cannon loops for small arms fire to add to the courtyard's defenses.
The lowland Hays resided at Neidpath as their chief residence until 1357 when they obtained the East Lothian estate of Yester through marriage, building a courtyard castle astride the ruins of the famous subterreanal 'Goblin Hall'. Yester castle then became their principal seat, with Neidpath retained as a second home in their role as Sheriffs of Peebles.
The Hay family had two main branches of note, the Hays of Yester and Neidpath in the Lowlands. While in the Highlands were the more powerful Hays Earls of Erroll of Slains and Delgatie castles. Though like so many other Scottish families, there were many more sub-branches both legitimate and illegitimate, interlinked through marriage and vassaldom to other Clans. With reference to the Highland Hays they were tenuously allied militarily to the Gordons of Huntly castle and at times to the Keiths of Dunnottar. While the Lowland Hays were allied to the Douglases, originally through vassaldom to the 'Black' Douglas but then by marriage to the 'Red' Douglases. Who in turn routed the 'Black' Douglases on behalf of King James II (1437-1460) of Scots. This destruction of the 'Black' Douglases and their allies the Lyndsays, was also supported by the Gordons and Hays in the north and both families received rewards from the King for their loyal service.
However, in 1488 the Highland and Lowland Hays along with the Gordons and Keiths appear to have deserted King James III (1460-1488) of Scots prior to the battle of Sauchieburn near Stirling. Where he was killed by a rebel Scots army led by his son Prince James (later King James IV). In 1513 Baron Yester and the Hays of Erroll fell at the battle of Flodden along with King James IV (1488-1513) of Scots and many other nobles including the Douglases, Gordons and Keiths.
During the wars of the 'Rough Wooing' from 1544 to 1549,where by use of castle burning the English hoped to force the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) to the English Prince Edward (later King Edward VI of England 1547-1553) Neidpath appears to have escaped the wrath of the English while Yester was attacked in 1547 and 1548. In the first assault the castle was stoutly defended by the 4th Baron Yester and the English withdrew to join their main army at Fawside hill prior to the battle of Pinkie. During this battle the Scots were routed by combined use of land and ship based bombardment. Baron Yester while advancing with the 'Red' Douglas contingent was unhorsed and captured by the English spending four years in the Tower of London.
In the second assault in 1548 Yester was eventually taken by the English and local 'Assured Scots' (who favoured the marriage of Mary to Edward). The English then raised a fort at Haddington to "insult over and annoy the whole Kingdom". In desperation the Scots called on French military aid in evicting these unwanted hostile tenants at Haddington. The French agreed to this in exchange Mary was sent to France to marry Francis the Dauphin, heir to the French throne. So Mary could never marry the English Prince Edward, thus symbolically ending the 'Rough Wooing' wars. But the English continued to burn castles and villages throughout the Lothians and Borders regardless. Yester was again recaptured by the Scots but may have been left in ruins while the siege of Haddington continued.
After the end of the 'Rough Wooing' Yester appears to have been abandoned as a residence and was replaced by a new Yester tower close to the modern Adam's style Yester House. But this too appears to have suffered destruction and is untraceable today, likely due to the Hays association with Mary Queen of Scots. Sadly when Mary returned to Scotland after the death of Francis she was despised by are own Lords and people as a foreign whore. Consequently any who sided with Mary were later punished by the 'King's party' (James VI) having their castles and lands sacked.
The Hays were among Queen Mary's most loyal subjects and hospitably entertained her at Neidpath castle in 1563. They also fielded armies on her behalf at the battle of Carberry Hill in 1567 against the 'King's party' and at Langside in 1568. Prior to her exile in England where she was executed by Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) of England in 1587. Surprisingly, King James VI (1567-1603) of Scots and King James I (1603-1625) of England held a Privy Council at Neidpath in 1587. Wither the Hays were back in Royal favour at this point or not isn't clear. In 1646 Hay of Neidpath was created 1st Earl of Tweeddale by King Charles I (1625-1649) and commanded a Royal regiment for the King in the confused conflicts with Oliver Cromwell's Parliament forces.
In 1650 after the defeat of the Scots army by Oliver Cromwell at the battle of Dunbar, Neidpath was attacked and after a limited bombardment eventually surrendered. This may explain some of the damaged on the Tweed side of the Tower, though part of this fell down due to neglect in 1790. In the 1680's Neidpath was purchased by William Douglas, Duke of Queensberry for his second son, the Earl of March, from whom is descended the present Earl of Wemyss and March. In the late 17th and 18th centuries Neidpath was extensively rebuilt with 'modern' folly-like work. However, despite this it still stands as an impressive example of an L-plan Keep and a reminder of the Borders warlike past.