Mary, Queen of Scots, employed trickery to flee. Oliver Cromwell needed an army to force an entrance. But today, historic Borthwick operates as a guest house, and visitors can come and go as they please.
Such a narrow window; such an immense decision. When Mary, Queen of Scots, donned her pageboy disguise and jumped out the window of Borthwick Castle, she leapt for a freedom that eluded her for the rest of her troubled life.
At Borthwick on 11th June, 1567, a thousand Scottish nobles cornered the newly-wed Mary and her third husband, the dubious James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. They demanded Bothwell’s head and Mary’s renunciation of the Earl and his influence.
Bothwell, a suspect in the murder of Queen Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, just a few months before, fled the castle’s sheltering 110-foot towers and the asylum offered by the 6th Lord Borthwick, leaving his wife and queen behind. After Bothwell slipped through the cordon, the nobles withdrew in deference to their sovereign. Mary then made a decision that forever altered her life and realm. Exchanging her royal gown for the shirt and breeches of a pageboy, she left the stoneclad sanctuary of Borthwick–where she had so often danced in the reception room and dined in the Great Hall–to follow her husband and ultimately face the uncertain winds of political fortune alone.
No wonder these ancient stones, first set in 1430, can seem so solemn, so melancholy. Sunlight still lances through the narrow Gothic window of Mary’s escape, but it is a thin, watery light. Can these insensate stones know that after the Queen’s short and futile reunion with Bothwell she never knew true freedom again?
But today, with a blaze in the vast, canopied fireplace, and candles on the gleaming length of table, the castle’s Great Hall provides modern travellers with a glimpse of its impressive past. The heat rolling out of the fireplace, the candlelight glinting off the armour, and footsteps echoing against the vaulted stone ceiling amaze visitors today no less than they did Alexander Nisbet, a 17th-century heraldic chronicler, who noted: ‘It is so large and high that a man on horseback could turn a spear in it with all the ease imaginable.’
Indeed, loyal spear-wielding knights were necessary when the first Lord Borthwick built his magnificent fortress home on a wind-raked knoll just 12 miles south of Edinburgh. His stone seat of honour, a sedile, remains carved into the wall of the Great Hall, beneath the Borthwick coat of arms. From this stony vantage point he could see every entrance into the castle, and quickly escape via his own private staircase if his loyalists failed to repulse the attacks that came with alarming regularity.
Even though the strangers passing through his portals today are decidedly friendlier than their 15th-century counterparts, the original Lord Borthwick would nonetheless recognize his stately home and fortress. Borthwick’s sheer immensity, designed to intimidate, continues to do so to this day. You pass through twin 110-foot towers as you enter the gate from a tiny country road. But what you see now represents less than half the original structure. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell besieged the castle, destroying three of its towers. Artillery damage, raw and clawing, still mars the keep’s back wall.
Since then, the castle has been treated with more respect. Helen Bailey, who leased the castle from the Borthwick family, brought it up to its current genteel standards and lovingly and authentically restored their ancestral home before handing it on to the present owners.
Certainly, Borthwicks through the centuries have worked to maintain their family seat. In 1813, a tree grew through the 20-foot-tall Great Hall fireplace, wedging out the massive stones. The Borthwicks restored the chimney breast and, almost a century later, in 1903, renewed the Hall’s woodwork.
In the early 1970s, electricity and central heating were added and workers cut into the 13-foot-thick stone walls to create bathrooms. Massive Edwardian furnishings, including a good number of four-poster beds, suit the scale and feel of the stone-walled rooms and add a luxurious touch.
For guests, though, one of the best features of a stay at the castle is a tour, after a lavish five-course dinner, through the castle’s public rooms and bedrooms, including the Queen’s bedchamber and the Red Room, decorated with red paint and red flocked wallpaper.
The Red Room has spooked so many people that the owners called in an Edinburgh priest to exorcise its lingering spirits. Legend says that a young servant girl bore an illegitimate Borthwick son in the room. Mother and baby, potential threats to the title, were quickly put to the sword. In other era, the Borthwick family chancellor used this room, and the niches for his safes remain in the stone wall to this day. According to gossip, the Borthwicks discovered their chancellor was embezzling money from the family coffers. Eschewing the nicety of a performance review, they intercepted the chancellor on his way home from Edinburgh one evening and cancelled his contract by burning him to death.
The ghosts of the young servant girl and the fired chancellor still wander the stony spiral staircases of Borthwick, some people say, and even the most stalwart visitors admit to feeling invisible presences in the Great Hall.
Indeed, a pinch of suspense is all a part of a Borthwick stay. How can you become part of such an unbroken chain of history, if only for a night, without being open to the full sweep of its amazing past?
One such episode was the dramatic confrontation on 18th November, 1650, when Cromwell ordered Lord Borthwick to give up the castle, informing him: ‘that if you please to walk away with your company, and deliver to the House to such as I shall send to receive it, you shall have liberty to carry off your arms and goods, and such other necessaries as you have.
‘You have harboured such parties in your house as have basely and inhumanely murdered our men: if you necessitate me to bend my cannon against you, you may expect what I doubt you will not be pleased with.’
Borthwick initially resisted, but Cromwell’s cannon quickly demonstrated that the castle walls were not the impregnable form of defence they had once been, and Borthwick quickly came to terms, exchanging his castle for the lives of its defenders. Cromwell’s letter hangs today, 300 defiant years later, in the Great Hall.
Reminders of the cruel realities of medieval life at Borthwick await visitors as well. The small stone cells of the dungeon honeycomb the basement, and the iron manacles that have become part of Borthwick folklore are displayed upstairs.
The jailers often gave prisoners a choice: starve to death in the dungeon or try to leap for freedom. Those who chose the athletic option were led to the top of one of the five-storey towers, and told that if they could leap the 12 feet across to the other tower, they would be freed. The Borthwicks had just two conditions: the prisoner had to start from a standing position, and his hands had to be manacled behind his back.
‘Did anyone ever make it?’ a guest asks one of the staff hopefully.
He stares back in amazement. ‘I shouldn’t think so.’
But Borthwick did have one famous escapee, perhaps the most famous in Scottish history. A full-length portrait of her, in royal regalia, hangs next to her pageboy’s window, along with the coda to the tale: a copy of her arrest warrant, signed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.