Sir James Douglas captured Roxburgh Castle on the 19th of February, 1314.
Crawling about on his hands and knees was something that Sir James Douglas hadn’t been used to since he was a bairn at Douglas Castle. He was still a child, aged around five or six, at the time his father was Keeper of the Castle of Berwick. But, by 1314, the year of Bannockburn, Sir James Douglas was a grown man and had come to be known as the ‘Black Douglas’ and was the first to take that epithet. By then, nobody expected him to crawl around on his hands and knees, least of all, the English invaders occupying Roxburgh Castle. Sir James earned his dark sobriquet from his enemies, while his friends recognised him as Jamie and his biographers as the ‘Good Sir James’. He wasn’t good in the sense that he observed too many niceties when it came to fighting the English aggressors. Where the occupying English forces were concerned, chivalry and all such courtesies were put to one side. The same held true for what might otherwise have been religious observances.
Thus it was, that on Fastern’s Eve, Shrove Tuesday night, in 1314, Sir James Douglas and his not so merry men, stealthily approached and attacked Roxburgh Castle. The taking of Roxburgh was part of an unorthodox campaign by Robert the Bruce to capture a line of English held castles throughout Scotland. A feature of the Bruce’s tactics was the use of stealth and surprise, begun at St Johnstoun of Perth in January of 1313. Here, The Bruce himself had led a successful attack, launched at night. In full armour, he had waded through the moat surrounding St Johnstoun, sword in one hand, ladder held tight in the other. He and his men had managed to get over the walls before the slumbering garrison knew what had hit them and, by sunrise, Perth was in Scottish hands. Shortly afterwards, Linlithgow was also taken. On that occasion, they had used a hay cart, which had been jammed against a portcullis gate to prevent it from lowering.
Inspired by The Bruce’s success, The Douglas determined to use his wits to take Roxburgh in similarly effective style. Whilst planning, he got Sim of the Leadhouse, a crafty and skilful man it seems, to make some scaling ladders. Those were made from hempen ropes with wooden steps. Sim also devised and had made grappling hooks of iron to catch on the battlements. Outfitted in such a manner, the men were prepared to affix their spears to the hooks in order to reach up the walls. With the ladders then dangling down and held securely by their less sprightly comrades, the plan was then for a number of Douglas’ men to mount the assault, up the ladders and over the wall. All very well, but the real cunning plan came in answer to the question, “how to approach the walls unobserved?”
In fact, what Douglas and his three score men, not ten more and not ten less, did was to have covered their armour with heavy black cloaks and, crawling on all fours, proceeded in a disorderly manner in the direction of the castle. They were pretending to be black cattle, grazing quietly around the castle perimeter. Now, that isn’t as daft as it sounds, because cattle in those days were substantially smaller than those we recognise today. Indeed, until the mid-twentieth century, cattle in Scotland remained exceedingly small. It appears the ‘cow-men’ were spotted by a member of the garrison, but were mistaken for the cattle they were impersonating. One Borders story suggests that a guard was heard to say that the oxen had been left out carelessly and were likely to be driven off by The Douglas. Another Borders story tells of a woman cradling her baby on the battlements singing “hush ye, hush ye, the Black Douglas will no get ye,” when suddenly the Black Douglas appeared on the battlement beside her. The former is likely to be true, whilst the latter is the stuff of myth and legend, which has been repeated so many times in so many different guises, it can’t be believed. In any event, the men reached the wall, shed their disguises and scaled the walls.
According to several accounts, Leadhouse was one of the first to climb the wall, only to be attacked by a guard. However, he managed to silence this man, whom he “stekit upwar with ane knyff.” Then, climbing onto the wall, he threw the body down to his comrades, encouraging them to speed their climb behind him. Leadhouse held the wall until the others came up beside him, killing at least one more himself. The Douglas’ men, having thus dealt with the guards, seized the courtyard and opened the gatehouse to allow the remaining men ‘grazing’ nearby to throw off their cloaks and enter the castle. Moving quickly into the tower, they came upon the garrison in the hall, dancing and singing as was the custom on Fastern’s Eve prior to Lent. The Scots poured in, crying aloud, “A Douglas! A Douglas!” and caught off guard, the English occupiers were not able to put up much of a defence. Douglas’s men slew many of them, quickly gaining the upper hand. The Warden or Governor, Sir Gylmyne (Gillemin or William) de Fiennes, a knight of Gascony, ran off to the great tower with some others and hastily closed the gate.
The Governor stoutly defended the tower against Douglas’ men. Despite their having rained shower after shower of arrows in upon him, the Gascon was able to hold out stubbornly until the next day. However, he got his comeuppance for his mocking defiance from the battlements as in one attack, he received an arrow in the side of his face, which passed through both of his cheeks and left him gripping the shaft of the arrow between his teeth. Not being too fond of chewing on Arrowmint, he then yielded the tower on condition that Douglas escorted him to the Border, unharmed. That demand from Sir Gylmyne stemmed from his fear of reprisals from the natives of the Kelso area, because of his ill treatment of that local population. Sadly for de Fiennes, however, he lived but a short time thereafter, due to the wound in his face.
Afterwards, the Scots ‘slighted’ their castle as per the policy of Robert the Bruce, which meant that the fortifications were demolished; razed to the ground. Roxburgh suffered a similar fate to those other castles that the Scots had succeeded in retaking. In case the English should seek to lord it over the land through occupying such strongholds, Bruce chose to deny them to the enemy. By the summer of 1314, the only castle of any real consequence still in English hands was Stirling – that was, until Bannockburn. Incidentally, the capture of Roxburgh in 1314 was an inspiration for ‘The Three Perils of Man’ by the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg.