Fast Castle is located on an eponymous promontory overlooking the North Sea in Berwickshire, Scottish Borders. It lies 4 miles (6.4 km) north west of the village of Coldingham, and just outside of the St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve. The castle fortress consisted of a curtain wall with towers, with the keep at the northern extremity of the promontory. The castle could only be reached by a drawbridge over a narrow ravine, protected by a barbican. Little remains today of the keep or the courtyard walls except foundations, and a section of the north-east wall. The layout of the castle is very similar to that of Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire, though Fast Castle is on a smaller scale. Access to the sea was via a pulley system with basket. There is a cave at the foot of the cliffs, which, it has been suggested, could once have acted as an access to the interior of the castle by its inhabitants.
It is unclear when the first structure appeared on the site, but its defensible position must have made it attractive to even the earliest inhabitants of the area. There is evidence of Iron Age habitation here, and it was centrally positioned in the British kingdom of Bryneich, and its Anglo-Saxon successor state of Bernicia.
Fast Castle is first recorded in 1333. In 1346 the site was occupied by an English garrison and was used as a base to pillage the surrounding countryside. In 1410, a force led by Patrick Dunbar, second son of the 10th Earl of Dunbar and March seized the castle and imprisoned the governor, Thomas Holden. Its new Scots governor William Haliburton was also able to seize Wark Castle, Northumberland, in 1419.
The castle fell into the hands of the Home family (pronounced “Hume”), and in 1503 they hosted Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, at Fast Castle en route to her marriage to James IV. Following the Scots’ defeat and the death of James IV at the battle of Flodden in 1513, in which numerous Homes were killed, a power struggle ensued between the Regent Albany and various other nobles including Alexander Home, 3rd Lord Home, Chamberlain of Scotland. Fast Castle was destroyed in the chaos in 1515, and Alexander Home was executed in 1516 and his land forfeit.
The castle was rebuilt by 1522, when the Home estates were restored to Alexander’s brother George Home, 4th Lord Home. During the “Rough Wooing” of Scotland by Henry VIII, the castle was captured again by the English in 1547, but was back in Scottish hands by the time of Mary, Queen of Scots’ stay here in 1566. The recapture of Fast Castle from the English is said to have been instigated by Madge Gordon, a Coldingham widow. Again back in the ownership of the Homes, the English ambassador Nicholas Throckmorton stayed at the castle with the 5th Lord Home on 11 July 1567, where he was “intretyed very well, according to the state of the place, which is fitter to lodge prisoners than folks at liberty, as yt is very little so yt is very stronge.”
The castle passed to Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig through his mother, a widow of Lord Home. It was briefly recaptured by the English in 1570. Fast castle was well armed: some of the guns were taken to Berwick on Tweed during the English intervention against the supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1570s. These cannon included two brass merlins and four falcons.
Sir Robert Logan was a notorious dissolute and “ne'er do well” who was implicated in the Gowrie conspiracy to kidnap the young King James VI. In 1594, Logan contracted with the famed mathematician (and supposed wizard) John Napier to search Fast Castle for treasure. He was to “…do his utmost diligence to search and seek out, and by all craft and ingine to find out the same, and by the grace of God either find out the same, or make it sure that no such thing has been there.” For this, he was to be awarded a third of any treasure found. There is no record of any discovery he may have made. Logan died in 1606, and his estates forfeited in 1609, his corpse having been exhumed and put on trial. The castle was by now ruinous. It passed briefly to the Douglas family, then back to the Earls of Dunbar, then the family of Arnot, back to the Homes and finally to the Hall family.
Legend has it that Fast Castle was originally known as Fause (False) Castle, because of the lights that were hung there to mislead ships passing nearby. Shipmasters would see the lights while traveling in the darkness, and think that they had reached a safe harbor, only to find that they had been guided on to the rocks where local wrecking parties waited to plunder this ships.
The last image seen here is a painting of Fast Castle by Rev John Thomson. Fast Castle, was generally taken to be the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s imaginary castle of Wolf’s Crag in the novel The Bride of Lammermoor.