Monday, September 23, 2013

The Allure of Ferniehirst, in celebration of the anthology Castles, Customs and Kings

from Humphrey family site

Ferniehirst Castle is my Pemberley, my Manderley, perhaps my House of Usher. It is more than a landmark, but an icon of the Scottish identity. Going there is a secret dream.  And while I may never make it quite that far, I have  made the trip in spirit many times.

My  journey began when I was researching my second novel, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, the adventures of Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange. Thomas Ker of Ferniehirst was Kirkcaldy's son-in-law, a ferocious border reiver whose  stronghold  Ferniehirst Castle was located  two miles south of the village of Jedburgh on the banks of the Jed Water in an area of the Scottish Middle March extending so far southward that it nearly reaches England's  Northumberland National Forest.  At the time of Kirkcaldy's exploits in the Douglas Wars and his subsequent execution, Ker, his wife Janet Kirkcaldy and their several children were living in Edinburgh Castle.  The family fortress of Ferniehirst had been destroyed by Elizabeth Tudor for the sins of its owners in giving haven to the rebellious earls Northumberland and Westmoreland and their families.  Thomas Ker had personally rescued the Countess of Northumberland from the Grahams, a ruthless and powerful band of Liddesdale reivers who first offered haven to the fugitive couple but then sold the earl to the Scottish regent Morton who subsequently delivered Northumberland to Elizabeth to gain her favor. Thomas Ker and his wife had hidden the Westmorelands at Ferniehirst until they could arrange the earl's escape to the Spanish Netherlands. In doing do, Ker was not behaving as a Scot: He was behaving as a Border Reiver, adhering to an age old  custom of reivers on both sides of the Border to offer safe haven to political fugitives. 

The behavior of Thomas Ker was but one of many bold acts by lairds of Ferniehirst that brought destruction to the mighty fortress, and yet Ferniehirst stands today, still owned by indirect descendants of D'and Ker's and his brother John.  It is presently occupied  by Lord Ralph Ker, younger brother of the chief of the clan.  The current branch of the family has added modern conveniences, a personal apartment and public amenities. However,  much of its present structure dates back to 1598 to restorations performed by Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst ( Lord Jedburgh, after 1622). Sir Andrew Ker's enterprise figures prominently in my Midwife's Secret trilogy.  Sir Andrew Ker had scarcely repaired the damages done in 1570 by Elizabeth's soldiers when he sided with the Fifth Earl of Bothwell, Wild Frank Stewart in a series of assaults against the king, the most egregious of which caught the king sitting on the royal privy hole at Holyrood Palace. For that transgression, a less than stoic James VI personally supervised the destruction when Scottish artillery leveled Ferniehirst to little more than a rock pile. And yet again, Sir Andrew restored it to its current glory.

and Janet Kirkcaldy {{PD-Art}}
Thomas Ker of Ferniehirst
interior panel in Queen Mary's House, Jedburgh ((PD-Art))

At the time when Thomas Ker and his wife Janet Kirkcaldy lived at Ferniehirst,  its closest link to civilization was the nearby village of Jedburgh where the Kers also owned the legendary manor  later dubbed Queen Mary's House.  Marie Stuart stayed there during the Assizes of 1566 after a suspicious fire damaged her lodgings at the Split Eagle Inn.  While at the Ker house, she nearly died of an illness of undetermined nature. The episode that nearly took her life is sometimes blamed on poison (perhaps the handiwork of Elizabeth's spymaster Walsingham)  and at other times attributed to a chronic illness exacerbated by the misdeeds of her  hated consort Henry Stuart, best known in  history as Lord Darnley.  Others blamed her collapse on her foolhardy madcap round trip ride from Jedburgh to the Hepburn estate called the Hermitage at the adjournment of the Assizes. She and her advisers traveled to meet with her loyal commander Lord James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who was debilitated by injuries received in hand-to-hand combat with the notorious Reiver Jack Elliot, better known as Jock a' the Walk.The taxing 60 mile day trip is often treated by her detractors as if it were a lover tryst, but with a full escort including much of her Privy Council, it was more likely to receive the earl's report of the condition of the Borders in the event he did not survive his wounds.  While the queen likely visited Ferniehirst at some time during her six years of personal rule, there is no record of it, and thus, Queen Mary's House is the architectural standout marking her visit to the Borders on the Middle Marches. 

Map of the Marches. Note the southerly incursion of the Scottish Middle March
When I first encountered Ferniehirst, I could not even spell it without a spell check, let alone place it on the map.  The house in Jedburgh was featured in my debut novel The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, but until I began writing The Other Daughter, I  had overlooked the fortress that Anthony Kerr, author of Ferniehirst Castle, Scotland's Frontier Stronghold, find so significant that he remarks that if Scotland truly is a nation, Ferniehirst Castle deserves  a large portion of the credit. Says  Kerr in his ultimate chapter of his hard to find wonderful book: 
 "If Scotland still exists as a nation in her own right — and there are those who would deny it, though they seldom last very long here — it is largely because of this house and those who lived in it and defended it."  Kerr's remarks seem a bit overdone, but those who study Ferniehirst may find this less an exaggeration than suspected at first reading.  In the mid-15th century the keep on the east bank of the Jed was regarded as Scotland's Gate, the obstacle in the path of English invaders seeking to infiltrate Scotland through the Middle Marches to plunder Edinburgh. Long before the birth of Marie Stuart in 1542, the castle had an illustrious history, defended and lost to the English in 1523 in spite of its champion D'and Ker, and recaptured in 1548 by D'and's son John Ker.  After the Ker victory, the Kers and most other Scots in the neighborhood played a stylized  version of football with severed English heads.  John Ker was the father of Sir Thomas Ker, Queen Marie Stuart's faithful champion, one of the few Midland and Borders  aristocrats who remained loyal to her even at the time of her brother Moray's rebellion known as The Chase About Raids. 
When the direct male line of Ferniehirst Kers died out in the mid-17th century,  title to Ferniehirst passed to John's brother's descendants, the Ancram Kers, several of them who have been Earls of Lothian. Here is what poets had to say about the clan:

Scottish poet James Hogg (1770-1835) wrote, in The Raid of the Kerrs:

But the Kerrs were aye the deadliest foes
That e’er to Englishmen were known
For they were all bred left handed men
And fence [defence] against them there was none

and Walter Laidlaw wrote, in The Reprisal:

So well the Kerrs their left-hands ply
The dead and dying round them lie.

There is a tale that several years after King James VI became King James I of England, he sent an Englishman to Scotland to see how the Scots were doing in his absence. Before he traveled South  after Elizabeth Tudor's death in early1603, he had dubbed Sir Andrew Ker's cousin and rival Robert Ker of Cessford the first baron of Roxburgh and named Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst as Sheriff of Jedburgh. Both had served the king in the administration of the Borders but were also notorious warlords in the own right. It was joked that the Kers were wardens and bailies who rode out to catch themselves the day after they rode as reivers.  Roxburgh had originally traveled to London with the king in 1603, but returned for long periods after his father died in 1606. At any rate, when the Englishman  met with King James after his visit to Scotland , he cautioned the king that his agents Cessford and Ferniehirst were not nice people.  Being a Scot, James had not shared the tender sensibilities of his envoy. Later he made Ker of Ferniehirst Baron of Jedburgh and elevated the rival Roxburgh's barony to an earldom.

Here is a very brief sampling of  enticing facts about Ferniehirst Castle:
  1. The staircase in the keep was designed counter-clockwise so that left-handed (kerry-fisted) defenders had the advantage in a sword fight or when wielding their favored Jethart axe.   There is a similar staircase in the Jedburgh residence known as  'Queen Mary's house.'
  2. The feuding Cessford and Ferniehirst branches of the Ker family often settled their differences through arranged marriages. This did not end the intriguing. For example, when Thomas Ker died while warded in Aberdeen and his son Sir Andrew Ker was still in exile, Lady Cessford sought to claim Ferniehirst to the Cessfords. After all, she had been born there.  Although the lands were reinstated to Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst, Lady Cessford continued plotting.
  3. Unlike Lethington Tower which passed from the Maitlands to descendants of the Lennox Stuarts and renamed Lennoxlove, and much later sold to the Duke of Hamilton,Ferniehirst is one of very few inhabited castles that still maintains a continuity of ownership to the original owners. It still serves as a residence for a clan member: Lord Ralph Kerr lives there part of the year and maintains apartments there. 
  4. Ferniehirst is believed by some to be haunted by an apparition known as The Green Woman, who is said to appear as a jade colored wraith. However, most  reports date to the period of the 20th century when Ferniehirst was a youth hostile and are believed to have their origin in spirits from River Spey and occasional hallucinogens. 

Ferniehirst Castle from South West elevation
(from Anthony Kerr's Ferniehirst Castle, Scotland's Frontier Stronghold)
And thus, in the course of my research, the fortress Ferniehirst emerged from the mists above the Jed Water as the ancestral home of the Ferniehirst branch of the Kers, the left-handed border reivers who had given sanctuary to the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland during the Northern Rebellion and who unlike the Cessford Kers, consistently carried the banner of the beleaguered queen. They were also rather good at bullying and livestock rustling. To make the Kers of Ferniehirst  an example to other reivers on both sides of the border after the Northern Rebellion,  Elizabeth Tudor sent her commander Surrey to level the castle, leaving little but a rocky ruin. Yet, no sooner was it rebuilt when it was leveled again, this time by King James VI.  During this period of the castle's history  Ferniehirst became more than just another architectural landmark in my quest to uncover the nuisances of the life and times of Marie Stuart and her son James VI.  At that point, the fate of the fortress is directly linked to the politics and intrigues of the Kerry-fisted knight Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst and his strange relationship with the king's nemesis Francis Stewart, Fifth Earl of Bothwell, whose mother was Lady Jean Hepburn, herself a Borderer.  Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst appears both as a hero and an erstwhile villain in my novels, and his story is inextricably bound to his castle. Andrew Ker, knighted by the Queen of Scots when he was a wee child, personifies the transformation of a Scotland that was largely medieval into an early modern state and yet, beyond-- a Scotland that has never quite surrendered its national identity, and regardless of the outcome of the pending Referendum, hopefully never will. 
I hope that you enjoyed this brief visit to Ferniehirst. It figures prominently in my current work in progress: 1603, the Midwife's Revenge.  But my fascination with Ferniehirst Castle is not likely to end with the final segment of the The Midwife's Secret trilogy. Perhaps I shall venture beyond the Queen of Scots Suite and attempt a time jump novel of mixed genre quite predictably called The Green Woman. In any event I will be posting a blog at the EHFA site this winter regarding the history of Ferniehirst Castle and the left-handed Kers.

BOOK GIVEAWAY:  My own attraction to Ferniehirst Castle developed while I was writing the second novel in the Midwife's Secret trilogy, The Other Daughter, which is also the fourth book in my Queen of Scots Suite.To celebrate the castle's colorful past, I am giving away a copy of that book--The Other Daughter: Midwife's Secret II. A US winner may choose either  a kindle ebook or a trade-paperback. The world-wide offering is in the form of a Kindle book.  To enter, leave a comment at this post with your name, email address and which format you prefer. Winner will be selected at a random drawing on October 1st, announced on this blog site and personally notified by email.

NOTE  This post is part of a Castle Blog Hop in celebration of the second anniversary of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and Facebook page, and to mark the launch  of the wonderful book: Castles,Customs,and Kings edited by Debra Brown and M.m. Bennets, both of them authors, editors and reviewers.  Ms.Brown hosts the English Historical Fiction Authors Facebook site and blog. Each day there is a fresh post authored by one of many noteworthy talents writing in the genre.  The topic of each post is  selected by the author, making this a comprehensive tool for one who wishes to explore what is being offered by both traditional and independent authors. Its short segments make it ideal for a professional office waiting room or a history teacher's book shelf. I joined the group too late for this year, but hope to make the cut in 2014. The book is available in trade paperback at Amazon.  I am proud to be associated with its contributors and producers.Check out the Goodreads review  at the product page on amazon at:

  1. Gillian Bagwell - 

  1. Maria Grace - Castles 101

  1. Susanna Calkins - Winchester Palace

  1. Helena Schrader

  1. Grace Elliot - Carisbrooke Castle

  1. Linda Root

  1. Katherine Pym

  1. Katherine Ashe - Kenilworth Castle

  1. Deborah Swift - Sizergh Castle

  1. Teresa Bohannon - Cardiff and Caerphilly Ancient Welsh Castles

  1. Scott Higginbotham - Rhodes Castle

  1. Maggi Andersen

  1. Lauren Gilbert

  1. J.A. Beard - Porchester Castle

  1. Prue Batten

  1. Sandra Byrd - Hever Castle

  1. Elizabeth Ashworth - Hornby or Pontefract

  1. Debra Brown - Castello di Amorosa

  1. Nancy Bilyeau - Stafford Castle

  1. Peter St. John - Evacuation



  1. Linda, you bring a depth of knowledge to all your writings. Thank you for being one stepping stone in this hop!

  2. Fascinating post, Linda! I definitely see the House of Usher here.

  3. Thank you so much for the wonderful information about Ferniehirst Castle!
    Susan Heim
    smhparent at hotmail dot com

  4. I would love a copy of the 2nd installment in the Midwife's Trilogy!! Thanks also for the info on Ferniehirst! I am gaining such wonderful info on castles I have never thought to visit - so thanks.
    I would love a paperback copy. I am in the US. mosthappyreader (at) gmail (dot) com

  5. Such interesting stuff, especially since Im working on a YA that takes place (in part) in this time and place. Love the counter clockwise stairs! If I win, I'm a US reader, and love old school paperbacks.

  6. How refreshing to learn something completely new! Thank you!

  7. How refreshing to learn something completely new! Thank you!

  8. Never did visit this castle while living in Scotland. We used to love driving around Scotland at the weekends and just stopping off at places.
    (Kindle edition please)

    meikleblog at gmail dot com

  9. You have to admire a family who design their staircases with fighting in mind!
    Grace x

  10. I love the bit about the counterclockwise staircase to favour left-handed fighters. I live in Canada, so I guess I am limited to a kindle version.

  11. Hi Linda, I live near Fernihurst, which for a time was open to the public 2 days a week, but sadly isn't any longer. But my older son when at primary school won a prize in a writing competition and the prize was presented at Fernihurst by Nigel Tranter.

    As I come under worldwide then of course the kindle.

  12. And the winner is Shannon Leigh.