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The Scottish Castles Association
Preserving the Past for the Future

The Siege of Abercorn Castle 1455 - part II

The rebellion of James, 9th Earl of Douglas was in its second year when James II, King of Scotland, appeared before the Douglas castle of Abercorn in 1455. He brought with him the full panoply of war including a ‘grat bombard’ that had served him well at Hatton Castle two years before but he was to find that Abercorn was a harder nut to crack.

Abercorn castle
The site of Abercorn Castle in the grounds of Hopetoun House, South Queensferry

The word ‘Abercorn’ is derived from the Cambric ‘the mound by the river mouth’ which describes the site exactly. The castle lies on the south bank of the Forth above Queensferry in wooded parklands with views to Blackness Castle and across the river to Fife – it would be hard to find a better or more stately location for a castle.

However, this would not have been on the King’s mind as he surveyed the site. The ground fell sharply away on all sides except for one making it difficult even to approach, never mind attack. James was forced to make camp facing the castle’s strongest defences – it was going to be a long siege.

Douglas was in England seeking the help of Henry VI when he heard that the King was at Abercorn. Henry VI had offered money but no men so Douglas quickly returned to Scotland and summoned his forces to meet him at Douglas Castle with provisions for 20 days. His intention was to march to Abercorn and offer battle.

Alarmed at this development, James took ship for St Andrews leaving the siege in the hands of the Earls of Orkney and Angus. Here he raised his standard and ordered his subjects to meet him at Stirling from where they marched to attack Douglas whom they found camped on route to Abercorn. Douglas assembled his men but seeing how powerful the royal army was many of his supporters deserted and joined the King instead!

Douglas had no choice but to flee to the borders where he and his brothers set about raising a fresh army.

James II of Scotland 130
James II

James had withdrawn 6,000 men from Abercorn to fight Douglas but as winter was approaching he abandoned the siege to await spring.

In easter week, 1455, James reappeared before the castle and began anew. James now had a French gunner in his employ who obviously knew his work and how to lay ‘the gret gun the quhilk a francheman schot right wele’ and so pleased was the king with his efforts that he wrote to the French king, Charles VII, relating how Abercorn’s towers had collapsed under its fire. The ‘francheman’ was rewarded by a payment from the Treasurer’s accounts.

However, the gunner, Allan Pantour – 'the most ingenious man in Scotland' – was killed by one of his own cannons ‘through misgoverning of himself’.

While the King was thus engaged at Abercorn, Douglas had taken to the field but this time his luck ran out. At Arkinholm, near Langholm, he met with a royal force under Angus and Lord Hamilton and heavily defeated with resulting slaughter. One of his brothers, the Earl of Moray, was killed in battle and his head sent to the king at Abercorn, another taken and executed while a third was taken but managed to escape. Douglas fled to England and placed himself under the protection of Henry VI.

The siege at Abercorn was reaching its conclusion. It was now May and after four weeks of continuous bombardment James ordered a general assault. The castle was stormed, carried and the garrison taken prisoner. There could be no mercy for those who had defied the King – they were hung forthwith from the castle walls though some of the ‘inferiors’ were dismissed.

Few particulars are preserved of what Abercorn Castle looked like. Shattered by artillery it was ‘altogether raised’ the exact site was lost until re-discovered by excavation in 1963. It may be found today in the grounds of Hopetoun House the site marked by a grassy mound and three stately Lebanese cedars.

To be continued...

The Earl of Douglas had one last card to play - look out for the next article in our series to find out whether it was a winning one.

Read the first in our series 'The siege of Hatton Castle' by clicking here.

Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle.

Date posted: 15 Dec 2017Last updated: 15 Dec 2017