East Lothian Courier

A leap from a castle

- Tim Porteus is a registered storytelle­r with the Scottish Storytelli­ng Centre. He lives in Prestonpan­s and each week writes for the Courier. Contact Tim: timporteus@hotmail.com


THINK the setting of this castle surpasses Yester for its atmosphere,” my friend commented, as we finally left the vicinity of Innerwick Castle. Maybe he was right. We had needed a walk, and the snell northerly wind meant our original idea of a stroll along a beach felt less appealing. Then to my joy, I discovered my friend hadn’t yet visited Thornton Glen, a Scottish Wildlife Trust nature reserve. So we set off for the adventure.

I have written of this place before, and of Innerwick Castle, which sits precarious­ly on the edge of a rocky promontory within the glen. But this was the first time I’d come in winter. I did miss the lushness of the wood in summer but, despite the mostly bare trees, we discovered that nature still had its show, with the kids quickly spotting snowdrops.

As we walked along the higher path above the glen, the absence of the wood’s canopy meant the burn was visible and more audible, its echoing sound soothing our mood as it tumbled through the steep-sided glen towards the sea.

The glen is close to the old Great North Road, now called the A1, and because of this, Innerwick Castle and nearby Thornton Castle guarded the approach to the north when armies invaded from the south. So grim history hangs here.

I had promised the kids I’d tell them the story of the lad who leapt from the battlement­s of Innerwick Castle down into the glen in the hope he’d save his life. It was a brutal time, later called the Rough Wooing.

Today, Innerwick Castle is very ruined and much care is needed. The walls are crumbling and in parts potentiall­y dangerous. But in 1547, it was a stout fortress, rebuilt from previous attacks in the 1400s. Its position, perched on the edge of a rocky cliff, takes the breath away. My friend had a point, its setting is spectacula­r.

I don’t know for sure how far the drop from the castle to the burn is, it must be at least 70 feet, probably more. It’s almost a sheer fall to the rocky river below.

After a picnic lunch, I kept my promise and told the story of the lad who took this leap

from the battlement­s of the castle down into the glen. Why did he do such a foolish thing, and did he survive?

The story was told by a chronicler called William Patten, who accompanie­d the English army in 1547. He tells in his account that Innerwick Castle was being held by only nine men against a far superior English force. Perhaps they had hoped for reinforcem­ents, perhaps they believed the castle to be impregnabl­e. Possibly they were just brave, defending their nation against an army intent on slaughter, rape and destructio­n.

The English managed to enter the castle and set fire to it. The smoke billowed upwards and it became a turkey shoot for the English hackbutter­s. Of the nine defenders, eight were shot and killed. One lad was left, in a hopeless situation.

The only way to escape the smoke and the deadly fire from below was to jump. I tried to imagine the moment such a decision would be made. Surely nobody could survive such a leap. But to stay in the castle was sure death so he had no choice. He took the decision to jump.

Perhaps he thought to himself that at least this way he would cheat his enemy of another kill. Maybe it was just pure survival instinct, with no aforethoug­ht. I can’t imagine what must have gone through his mind during those seconds he plummeted to near-certain death.

And what exhilarati­on he must have felt when he picked himself up, looked skywards to the castle towering on the rocks above him, and realised he was not only alive but also bodily intact.

The English soldiers must have been impressed by this feat and I suspect they believed he’d earned his life. But he was taking no chances and began to make his escape along the glen.

A shot rang out and the young lad fell face down, and for a moment, the burn turned red. No Hollywood happy ending to this story, I’m afraid. His deed and death were recorded but he is nameless in history.

The story always haunts me when I enter this beautiful glen. Although nameless, he was a mother’s son.

After I’d told this tale, the kids wondered if his ghost perhaps haunts the glen and the castle. If he does, what could we say to him? Are things any better than they were during his time? Tyrants and war still curse our world, inflicting untold suffering, although thankfully not now in our beautiful corner. But that doesn’t make me feel better, just a guiltridde­n sense of luck.

As we left, the sound of the kids laughing and playing filled the air. I lingered a while, with my thoughts and a view of the castle. The ruins are now being reclaimed by nature and the glen has long resounded to birdsong rather than gunfire.

The setting spoke to me of a universal truth: that peace and beauty can exist after war.

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Innerwick Castle

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