Drochil Castle drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Drawn by Robert William Billings and engraved by [J. Jeffrey?]. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Commentary by the Artist

THERE are few more remote and secluded glens in the Border highlands than that in which these vast ruins of an unfinished fortalice' stand. Leaving Peebles, we pass the lank tower of Nidpath on its abrupt rock, celebrated both in poetry and romantic history, and where the Tweed forks into two pretty equal streams, take the more northerly, which is termed the Lyne. The first object of interest on the route is the parish church of Lyne, a tiny but pure specimen of pointed Gothic — the next is the scarped declivity of an old hill-fort called a Roman camp; and on penetrating a little farther into the solitudes of the glen, the brown and broken ruins of the palace fortress are seen rising in a broad mass above the trees. It is always stated that the building was never finished, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to discover anything that might not be a feature of such a work, had it been completed, and fallen afterwards to ruin.

It consists of two square blocks of building with a cleft between, which bears marks of having been vaulted over-the imposts of the lower arches, however, alone remaining. There are two round towers, at extreme angles of the double square, each with a thin curve or semi-turret, uniting it with the square mass. These round towers terminate square, and in a rather peculiar manner. In general, in such changes, the wall-plate of the square coincides with, if it do not project over, the circumference of the circle, so that the angles are graduated down to it by corbels. But here the square department is incised, so that the angles only reach the circumference of the circular. The chambers within are all square, except the vaults. There is very little decoration throughout the whole of this gloomy edifice; but the effect of the vast broken mass standing in the lonely glen, among the surrounding mountains, is grand and solemn. One of the scanty marks of the ornamental chisel is a triangular stone, with the remains of blazoning, in which a fetlock is distinctly visible. The crest of the Earls of Morton is “A wild boar, proper, striking between two clefts of an oak-tree, a chain and lock holding them together.”

It is taken for granted by the few writers who have mentioned this ruin, that it was erected by the Regent Morton; and Pennicuik, in his description of Tweeddale, tells us that, “ Upon the front of the south entry of this castle was J E О M, James Earl of Mortoun, in raised letters, with the fetterlock as Warden of the Borders.” We are not aware of any contemporary authority for this account of the origin of the edifice, and it is not mentioned by the family historian Hume of Godscroft, who gives a pretty full memoir of the Regent. Pennicuik`s substantial statement, followed by others, is,

The Nether Drochil hath been designed more for a palace than castle of defence, and is of mighty bulk; founded, and more than half built, but never finished, by the then great and powerful regent, James Douglas, Earl of Mortoun. . . . This mighty Earl, for the pleasure of the place, and salubrity of the air, designed here a noble recess and retirement from worldly business; but was prevented by his unfortunate and inexorable death three years after, Anno 1581.

The blood-stained history of this statesman is too well known to readers of Scottish history to need repetition. In the hour of his greatest power, influence, and wealth, his imprudent greed had eaten out the foundation of all his influence, and turned outwitted and pillaged supporters into deadly enemies. All that was necessary was to find a ground of difference of opinion, about the project to ally Queen Mary with her son in the government. “Morton,” says the quaint and sagacious family historian,

was too old a cat to draw such a straw before him, or to propound anything tending that way : wherefore their best was to make him away, that so the plot might goe on. And much more good effect would Colne of that one stroke. Hee was rich. Hee had fair lands and houses, a fair reward of all their pains and travell. And no question his friends that should take his part might be involved and insnared with him-especially, the Earl of Angus could hardly in this case of his uncle so behave himself but occasion might be found against him, which would be a faire bootie. [Godscroft's House of Douglas, р. 137.]

His ruin turning out to be so promising a speculation, the regent resigned his power. Had he not outlived the courage and practical sagacity of his earlier days, he would have felt that his safety lay in fighting his post, since he had to deal with opponents who, like himself, trusted to the mortuí non mordant. His policy appears to have been to erect a safety-retreat for himself among the mountains, near the strongholds of his still powerful kinsmen. His knowledge of his family history would teach him the uses of such a refuge. More than once, in the tragic history of his house, had the critical moment passed over while the fugitive was safe in 1113 unapproachable fortalice. Presuming the legend of the building of Drochil, however, to be well founded, his enemies were more active than his builders. А second time he submitted to his fate, instead of seeking such refuge as he might have found. “Не had forgotten,” says Godscroft, “the old maxim of his predecessors, ‘that it was better to hear the lark sing than the mouse cheep,’ and their proverb ‘loose and living,’” and surrendered himself on the first summons.

R. W. B.

[These images may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose without prior permission as long as you credit the Hathitrust Digital Archive and the University of California library and link to the the Victorian Web in a web document or cite it in a print one — George P. Landow ]


The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland illustrated by Robert William Billings, architect, in four volumes.. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Son, 1852. Hathitrust Digital Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 10 October 2018.

Last modified 11 October 2018