Medieval Castles – Interview with Bob Lawson, Curator of Ferniehirst Castle in Scotland

When writing a book about a 12-year-old medieval knight, sooner or later, you have to learn about castles. I’ve discovered some fascinating things about castles in my research, but unfortunately, castles are in short supply on this side of the pond. That’s why I’m so pleased to share a recent interview with author and castle expert Bob Lawson, curator of Ferniehirst Castle in Scotland.

I became interested in castles and castle design when writing my Sir Kaye novel, but of course the castles in my book are imaginary. Could you tell me a little about some of the real castles you have visited?
Caerlaverock CastleWell, here in Scotland we have Stirling and, of course, the famous Edinburgh Castle. Another example would be Caerlaverock Castle (pictured left), which is a massive, triangular-shaped fortress with a drawbridge and water filled moat built on the marshes near Dumfries. It was the seat of the powerful Maxwells, built to guard the western marches on the border between Scotland and England. In England many examples survive that resemble the Balfour Castle in your stories. Windsor and Durham are two of the great Norman fortresses in England, while the castles of Wales offer Harlech and Pembroke—to mention only two of some of the finest castles still standing.

The Knox castle was built on top of an old motte-and-bailey type castle. Have you visited any real castles that were built on top of a previous structure? What can you tell us about them?
Most of the great stone castles began as simple wooden motte-and-bailey towers. When David I began his Norman introductions into Scotland from England and from the French Cherbourg Peninsula during the 12th century, he granted lands to his trusted lords and barons. To defend their lands, these new landowners would construct wooden motte-and-bailey fortresses. (Note from Don: A motte-and-bailey fortress was a tall wooden fence built on top of a mound or hill—the motte. Around the bottom of the hill was a wide, deep ditch. Inside the fence was a tower, also called the keep. The bailey was the safe space inside the fence.) Of course as technology advanced, warfare and weaponry became more effective against these wooden structures, and so they were rebuilt using stone to strengthen their defenses. I expect most of the important castles in Scotland began life as wooden motte-and-baileys. The Normans—who were the great designers of stone castles—arrived here in Scotland at a later date than their 11th century campaign in 1066 to conquer England.

Are there any aspects of ancient castles and castle life that are still the same today in modern homes?
Yes, castles were always to a certain extent fortified dwelling houses with the emphasis on domestic life. Some had grand apartments designed for day to day living like those at Ferniehirst. These apartments include a garderobe or early toilet, guest bedrooms, kitchens, and pantries just as we have today. Kitchen and flower gardens were also popular in medieval times. What would life be like today without our gardens? Indeed, some of the plants we may see every day—both edible and decorative— were introduced by our medieval horticulturalists.

Of all the castles that you’ve visited, which one is your favorite and why?
I have to say Ferniehirst (pictured below right). It’s beautiful, romantic, and has a fascinating, colorful history. First built in 1470 by Sir Thomas Ker of Smailholm, it was Ferniehirst castleconstructed as a reivers lair right on the border between England and Scotland. The border lairds lived by riding into the English territory across the border and reiving (stealing) their goods and livestock—thus depriving any invading army of its food source. Of course much more than livestock would be stolen—the border lairds would also take people, who could be sold back to their own families! Ferniehirst was built on an important location right on the borderline so it quickly became a border fortress. Thomas’s son, Dand, who was a famous left-handed swordsman, strengthened the walls, developing the original tower into a compact but incredibly strong castle. When the English attacked the castle in 1523 it resulted in a fierce battle. The tower you see had been built deep within a dense wood, so it was a difficult task to bring guns through the trees, long bows were ineffectual, and the Scots were very good at hand-to-hand fighting. The Kers of Ferniehirst have truly inspired me as warriors, knights, and courtiers, so yes, I love my Ferniehirst best of all.

How did you become interested in ancient buildings?
I was born and brought up in the Medieval city of Durham (pictured below left) in the northeast of England. Who cannot be inspired by that wonderful place with its great cathedral and Norman castle high on a hill above its own natural moat, an ox bow bend of the beautiful River Wear? My mother also encouraged myself and my two brothers to take durham castlean interest. She was passionate about history and when we took family holidays we would visit medieval churches, castles, and abbeys rather than spend every day on the beach. We always talked about what we had seen. Mum was a wonderful lady and my inspiration. When I was only seven, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up my second choice was a history teacher. My first choice? An engine driver of course!

If you could build your own castle today, what would it be like? How similar or different would it be from ancient castles and why?
Probably the most gigantic bouncy castle ever. Perhaps in this computer age of virtual reality I could try out lots of complex designs to build the ultimate medieval style fortress, in an attempt to improve on the grand designs of our Norman conquerors who really were the experts.

Anything else you would like to share about castles?
Yes, if you are offered an opportunity to visit some of the great medieval fortresses of Europe, jump at the chance. It’s fascinating living history. From the kitchens with their huge fireplaces to the great halls where kings and princes feasted and plotted while jesters and musicians entertained, right there in that same space, all those centuries ago—it is as close as you will ever get to time travel and will inspire your imagination! Here in Scotland—especially along the border where I live—there are castles and towers at every turn. Some are the reiving towers of the border lairds. Others are the ruins of huge castles built by kings and princes like those at Kelso, once a great royal palace built by King David I and called Roxburgh. Unbelievably, only a few stones remain, but the stories will live forever.

Visit Bob Lawson’s website for more information about Ferniehirst, the Fortress in the Forest.