Fatlips Castle as it stood in 1857
Fatlips Castle, a 16th century pele tower of rectangular stone was founded by the Turnbulls of Barnhill. The castle sits in Roxburghshire atop the Minto Crags 2 miles northeast of the village of Denholm and 1 mile east of the village of Minto.
The entrance to the tower leads to a vaulted basement with a spiral stair in one corner giving access to the other two stories and a garret. A round caphouse found at the garret leads to a corbelled parapet. Magnificant views of the Borders and Ruberslaw can be seen from the parapet. The tower is 8.15 meters from north to south and 9.83 meters from east to west.
Fatlips was acquired by Sir Gilbert Elliot in 1705, whose family became the Earl of Minto. The castle was extensively restored in 1857 by Sir Robert Lorimer. The interior was further renovated in 1897-1898. It was used as a shooting lodge and private museum until about 1960. Since that time until very recently, the building was in ruins, worsening each year. It was to the point that there was not much roof at all left and the door was cemented closed to prevent people from entering and being injured.
How Fatlips got its name has several theories. One is that the Turnbulls had a child with Down Syndrome, and he lived in the castle away from others. Another goes back to a supernatural being known as Fatlips, named so by a disturbed woman who lived in castle shadows during the day and wandered about at night. When asked how she survived and found food, she said that the spirit Fatlips provided it.
The Turnbull Clan Association (TCA) has been granted official arms by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, Edinburgh, Scotland. This is indeed a milestone for TCA. While in the past only a few Turnbull individuals have been granted official arms, this is the first time that Turnbull Clan itself has been recognized with its own Arms.
Perhaps the most common acceptance today for the name is said to have come from the male members of the Turnbull household greeting house guests. It is suggested that they were more forward than what was accepted for the times, with the gentlemen kissing the ladies upon entering the castle.
Fatlips Castle, being a significant part of Turnbull history, has long been a destination point for Turnbulls of the Borders and visiting Turnbulls. It has been a dream that the castle be restored and saved from destruction. Many years ago, Gemma (honorary Turnbull) Barnard set about informing people of Fatlips peril and to bring awareness of its need for restoration. Gemma’s love for the castle stems from her childhood. Growing up in the Bedrule area, she used to climb the crags to the castle frequently, where she could play and look out across the beautiful Borders. It hurt to see how each year, Fatlips fell into more disrepair.
Fatlips Castle was the stronghold of the noted Border Reiver, Turnbull of Barnhill. The tower of “Mantoncrake”or “Mynto Crag” was burnt in Hertford’s raid on the Scottish Borders in 1545. Following the Turnbulls, the tower has been owned by Sir Gilbert Elliot who’s descendants became Earls of Minto and own the property to this day.
The rectangular tower is 56 feet (17m) tall, 26 feet 9 inches (8.15 m) from north to south, and 32 feet 3 inches (9.83 m) from east to west. When the interior was complete it comprised four storeys plus an attic surrounded by a parapet walk.
From inside the caphouse with new roof and walls.
A number of possible origins for the name “Fatlips Castle” applied to the Minto Crags Borders peel (pele) tower. We have heard the following and favor none above the others.
There was once a goat nicknamed Fatlips on the dunion which warned of the approaching English by bleating loudly.
A local Elliot recounted to us that in the early 18th century the family had a child with Down syndrome who lived out of sight in the tower. The servants who cared for the child used the name Fatlips Castle. This seems improbable as the Elliot family themselves would surely not have used the name Fatlips which appears on their mid-18th century documents.
It is said that one of the pleasures of a visit to Fatlips used to be that “every gentleman, by indefeasible privilege, kisses one of the ladies on entering the ruin.”(Chambers, Robert (1828). The Picture of Scotland I. William Tait. p. 328n.)
Fatlips is the name given to a legendary spirit dwelling in Dryburgh Abbey in Berwickshire, Scotland by a hermit woman who took up residence in the ruins of the abbey. She claimed that Fatlips stamped the moisture away from the ground where she slept with his heavy iron boots. This gave rise to the notion that Fatlips lived in medieval ruins.
Another theory is Fatlips Castle got it’s name because its owner, the Earl of Minto, liked to kiss his female guests without their consent. It was built by the Turnbulls of Barnhills, notorious Border reivers, and burned during the War of the Rough Wooing in 1545, is a Scottish Borders icon perched atop Minto Crags looking out over Teviotdale, past Denholm and Bedrule, onto the famed Ruberslaw mountain, and beyond, towards the English border. This Borders Tower has been known through the centuries as Mantoncrake Castle, Catslick Castle, Minto Castle, and most affectionately as Fatlips Castle. The reason for the name Fatlips remains a mystery with a number of amusing proposed origins.
Fatlips Castle dominates the skyline from its vantage point on Minto Craigs, near Denholm, and its battered walls are again the focus of attention from those worried fort its future.
The magnificent view from Fatlips of the Teviotdale Valley.
For years there have been calls for the crumbling property, on the Minto estates, to be restored to its former glory.
This photo of the west gable of the tower, is taken from the shelter of the stair doorway leading into the 1st floor Hall, and shows the 2nd floor, where the laird’s bedroom would have been, and the garret room within the parapet walkway, with the vestiges of its pine wall paneling. Both of the upper two levels have fireplaces in the west gable.
Now comes news from David Black, chairman of the Borders branch of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, that the organization is concerned about the state of the buildings, and has even had informal discussions with the National Trust about the issue.
“The tower is deteriorating and there is a lot of public concern about that.” Mr. Black told the “Southern”.
“Fatlips is one of the most important buildings in the Borders and it is clearly under threat.
“It can’t be allowed to crumble away – it is of great landscape value.
“Our stand is that we want to encourage a positive use for it, and feel an effort must be made to ensure the building is saved and used.”
When contacted by the “Southern” for an update on the situation with Fatlips Castle, the Earl of Minto, whose family trust oversees the property, explained he was unable to comment fully because such matters were now the responsibility of his son, Lord Melgumd, who was currently abroad.
However, Lord Minto did claim his son had taken measures in the recent past to help safeguard the imposing building.
“I know for a fact he has taken some measures to help preserve it for the future, and this was all carried out in accordance with Historic Scotland.” Said Lord Minto.
The photo above is of the west gable of the tower, is taken from the shelter of the stair doorway leading into the 1st floor Hall, and shows the 2nd floor, where the laird’s bedroom would have been, and the garret room within the parapet walkway, with the vestiges of its pine wall paneling. Both of the upper two levels have fireplaces in the west gable.
From a distance, Fatlips Castle stands sentinel over the River Teviot as it has done for centuries, but closer inspection reveals signs of serious degeneration. Pictures by Gordon Lockie
Representatives of Scottish Borders Council planning and development department last had discussions with Lord Melgumd about 18 months ago.
“Our main contact with the estate has really been with the view of ensuring access to the towers by members of the public is denied on safety grounds,” explained SBC conservation officer, Mark Douglas.
“Currently, I am not aware of any active proposals for the restoration of the tower.”
The 16th century structure was first restored in 1857 and then renovated in 1897 – 98 by Sir Robert Lorimer, as a shooting box and private museum.
Three stories high, it has a vaulted basement and a parapet walk, and its curious name is said to stem from the noted Borders freebooter, Turnbull of Barnhill.
In olden days the lands of Minto were owned by the infamous reiving family, the Turnbulls, who also built the 16thcentury core of the now demolished Minto House, the center of an architectural furore some years ago.
In days gone by it was also written that one of the pleasures of a visit to Fatlips used to be that “every gentleman, by indefeasible privilege, kisses one of the ladies on entering the ruin” (Chambers).
Sadly, in recent years it has been rather less romantic attention, proving an attraction for vandals.
Previously, it seems that interest from potential restorers has not found much favor with the owners.
Fatlips passed into the ownership of the Elliott family – and subsequently the Earls of Minto – when it was obtained by Sir Gilbert Elliott in 1705.
Mr. Black says he can remember visiting the tower as a child, when it was used as a museum, and thinks it was used up until the early 1960s.
“An ideal use would be for an organization like the Landmark Trust to take it over. The Landmark Trust acquires buildings of historic and architectural significance.
“It has taken over some weird and wonderful buildings, restored and repaired them, and has then been terrifically successful in renting them out.
“Something like that would be an ideal way of preserving it.
“The Borders badly needs a symbol to regenerate hope – something representing the spirit of the Borders for the millennium – and what could be better than a Borders tower”
The 2nd and garret floor levels of Fatlips Tower. The fireplace was in what would have been the laird’s bedroom, above the Hall. The opening to the right with its stone seats, now out of the reach of vandals, contains a north opening window.
These towers had different methods of supporting the successive floor levels. In some, the walls narrowed at each floor level and the resulting ledge supported the floor joists. Here, corbel stones supported a wooden beam that ran along the wall, which in turn supported the joists – and if the precarious state of that one remaining garret floor joist doesn’t persuade you not to go in there, nothing will!
The door on the left opens off the stairwell into this, the castle’s Hall. The window looks out of the south side of the tower, across Teviotdale. The Hall is unusually well provided with windows, having one in each wall – perhaps an improvement made by Sir Robert Lorimer. The window openings of early stone castles were usually little bigger than the size of the window itself, and as a result, did not let much light in through what was usually a very thick wall. It was subsequently found that by building a larger recess, much more light could be obtained through the same size window. The provision of stone window seats was a further innovation. All the windows in this tower are provided with seats, which I am sure is not original.
There is evidence of an older fort nearby, possibly from the Bronze Age. Little is known of that fort or how the site was likely used during the Roman occupation. The site was used by the Turnbull Border Reivers from the mid 1300s through the 1600s. In 1375, Walter Turnbull received a charter for the barony of Minto from King David II, son of Robert the Bruce. Walter’s son, “Out with the sword”, John Turnbull, built the first of the second millennium towers atop Minto Crags towards the end of the 1300s. That tower, which provided a distant view towards England, used bonfires to signal the occupants of Bedrule Castle, across the River Teviot to the south, of impending danger.
Fatlips Castle was was destroyed in 1545 by Lord Hertford (Edward Seymour) sent by England’s King Henry VIII who was pursuing Mary Queen of Scots’ betrothal to his son Edward VI. The tower was restored in 1857 by Sir Gilbert Elliot and the interior was renovated by the architect Sir Robert Lorimer in 1898 as a shooting lodge and private Elliot museum. The building fell into grave disrepair during the latter part of the 1900s. In 2013 the exterior was restored, as shown in the photograph below.