Preston Tower, home of the 'haughty Hamiltons'

Andrew Spratt contributes:

Just off the B1361 road through the East Lothian village of Prestonpans, within the bounds of the ancient Preston village, sits the surprisingly intact and unusual remains of the L-plan keep of Preston Tower raised by the Hamilton family in the 1450's. The name Preston means 'Priest town' since originally the land was owned by the monks of Newbattle Abbey in Dalkeith. Preston Tower seems a lone, minor keep. However, it is but one in a chain of some ten Hamilton strongholds running from Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran in the west over to Innerwick Castle near Dunbar in the east.

The tower is surprisingly intact considering it was burnt on three occasions. First in 1544 by the English during the wars of the 'Rough Wooing' where by use of castle burning they hoped to force the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1567) to the English Prince Edward. Secondly, it was burnt by Oliver Cromwell in 1650 during his systematic destruction of Lothian castles after his victory over the Scots at the battle of Dunbar. Finally, the tower was accidentally set ablaze in 1663.

Preston has also survived the ravages of stone robbers who in the 1700's viewed such monuments as ready made quarries. Perhaps its proximity to the alternative Hamilton residence of the white-washed, crow-stepped, gabled Hamilton House built 1626 saved the tower from such robbers. Certainly the buildings outer enclosing barmkin wall is missing, though this may have been removed by the Hamiltons themselves cannibalising parts for use in the construction of the nearby Lectern doocot which dates from the mid-1600's,after Cromwell's sacking of the tower.

The tower's unusual appearance is due to the fact that a two storey L-plan addition was built on top of the upper battlements in 1626 with Renaissance windows bearing the initials SIDKH for Sir John and Dame Katherine Hamilton. This gives the structure a bizarre folly like appearance.

The earliest recorded ancestor of the Hamiltons was Gilbert, the father of 'Walter Fitz Gilbert Hameldone', the English paid governor of Bothwell Castle near Glasgow. In 1314 he shrewdly allowed defeated English knights to flee to his castle after the battle of Bannockburn, then promptly surrendered the castle and its fugitives to King Robert (1306-1329) the Bruce's forces. The Scottish King then traded these knights for his wife, daughter and other Scots nobles, held captive since the fall of Kildrummy Castle in Grampian in 1306. The King rewarded 'Hameldone' with a grant to the lands of Cadzow.

In 1454/55,during the reign of King James II of Scots (1437-1460),the 'Black' Douglases revolted with their allies, the Hamiltons, burning castles throughout the kingdom. In reply the king destroyed several Douglas castles including Hamilton of Cadzow's Strathaven Castle near Glasgow. However, when the King's army besieged the key Douglas castle of Abercorn near Linlithgow, and the King himself was about to be encircled by an even larger Douglas/Hamilton army, the Hamiltons refused to attack and switched sides. The 'Black' Douglas with his forces split, retreated south and was later driven into exile by his kin the 'Red ' Douglas of Tantallon castle near North Berwick, who like the Hamiltons had joined forces with the King.

Preston Tower was built around this time by the Hamiltons who like their rivals the 'Red' Douglases rose to prominence on the ashes of the 'Black' Douglas castles and estates seized by King James then gifted to more 'loyal' Lords. In fact the Hamilton stronghold of Craignethan was built on the site of the ancient 'Black' Douglas towerhouse destroyed by the King. The 'haughty Hamiltons' rose to become Earls of Arran in 1503. But taken that the 1st Earl of Arran had nineteen children, only three of whom were legitimate, and that the names James and John were repeatedly used,it becomes confused as to who was descended from whom. Branches of the family were Dukes of Abercorn, others Earls of Haddington who were from the ancient line of the Hamiltons of Innerwick, kinsmen of the Hamiltons of Preston Tower.

The entrance to Preston Tower had a unique double defensive feature. Directly above the doorway was a wooden lean-to hoarding, its outline can still be traced today. From here items could be dropped and if the hoarding itself was damaged it was simply unbolted and dropped to block the entrance and then the second defensive overhang at battlement level was used. Anything could be used, from boiling oil and boulders, to incendiary pig carcasses packed with goosegrease which exploded on impact-a kind of medieval napalm. Even something as basic as sand could be superheated until white hot and then dropped on besiegers. It didn't kill the knights but got into their helmets and chain mail joints thus distracting them to either fall off their siege ladders or attempt to pull off their burning helmets leaving their heads vunerable to attack.

However, these medieval defences proved useless against the assault in 1544. The entry, the hoarding and battlements were all battered from beyond arms length bt the Earl of Hertford's mercenary hakbutters (riflemen). Gunpowder and cannon had dispensed with the immediate need for hand to hand combat with castle garrisons. Targets could be softened up first before infantry engagements were required. Also, the days of knights and chivalry were over. Soldiers were motivated by money and valued their lives above honour, so rather than a headlong dash up siege ladders, such minor keeps as Preston were simply bombarded while brushwood and greased faggots were piled around its walls and set ablaze to smoke out the garrison.

In 1545 the Hamiltons and 'Red' Douglases set aside their differences to join forces and defeat an invading Engilsh army led by Sir Ralph Evers at the battle of Ancrum moor near Melrose. Evers was then skinned and his skin used to make purses for the Scots men-at-arms. In 1547 Innerwick castle near Dunbar was attacked by the re-invading English. While one force attacked Thornton Castle, a Home stronghold, directly across the ravine from Innerwick. A separate English unit of hakbutters besieged Innerwick itself. The Master of Hamilton and eight other gentlemen barricaded the doors and defended from the battlements. Part of the castle was set ablaze and the hakbutters entered by storm, killing eight of the defenders on the spot; the ninth jumped from the castle battlements falling some 60 to 70ft into the ravine and river below. The English commander conducting the siege of Innerwick was so impressed by this feat of daring that he called for the man's life to be spared. However, he was shot dead in the water by the other English force attacking Thornton Castle.

The English army then marched to the battle of Pinkie where they routed the Scot army including the forces of the Hamiltons and 'Red' Douglases by combined use of land and ship based bombardment. Preston Tower appears to have been left a burnt out shell while the wars of the 'Rough Wooing' continued to rage on. Eventually, after Cromwell's assault in 1650 and the accidental fire of 1663 Preston Tower was abandoned by the Hamiltons but unlike other Lothian castles it did not fall into any real decay and has remained reasonably intact.




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