Lord William Soulis (d. 1320 or 1321) is remembered as a cruel Scottish landowner. History states he was the grandson of Nicholas de Soulis, one of the original 13 who claimed the Scottish crown. He was a descendent of an illegitimate daughter of Alexander II. He lived a privileged early life and that included service to England. He became “Lord William de Soules,” later on. He acquired the lands of Liddesdale, Westerkirk, Kirkandrews, Dumfriesshire, Gilmertoun, Nisbet, Longnewton, Caverton, Maxtoun and Mertoun.
Whatever his life was like in the early years, he became known as a ruthless tyrant in adulthood. He even earned the title of the “Scottish Gilles de Rais.” Legends abound of his barbarity and stories even suggest he surgically connected his servants with devices, akin to yokes, so they might move heavy objects like beasts of burden.
Lord Soulis was the one who drowned the “Cout of Keeldar,” a Northumberland warrior, also known to be an oppressive baron of Tyndale. Soulis’s men held him under the water with spears.
Soulis was said to be heavily into the black arts and used his craft against anyone who attempted to go against him. One thing is certain, Soulis was very close to Scotland’s crown. He likely wanted it himself. He became embroiled in a conspiracy against King Robert the Bruce. Various sources state he orchestrated it, while others implicate him as just an accomplice to get someone else crowned.
Regardless of what happened, his activity became the downfall of the Soulis family. They’d played such an integral role in the establishment of Scotland, up until that point, only to disappear from history.
Legend says that King Robert became so disgusted with the constant reports of Soulis’s butchery and cruelty. He said, “Boil him, if you please, but let me hear no more of him.”
Legend states they did just that. A group of 360 squires and knights came together to arrest Soulis. This is where history again waivers.
Rumors at the time said, due to his sorcery, Soulis was virtually invincible. Steel couldn’t cut him, cord and hemp were powerless to bind or hang him, and water wouldn’t drown him. A group came together and agreed to wrap him and lead and boil him alive. They tore pieces of lead from Bruce’s castle and boiled Soulis alive, at Nine-stane Rig [Nine Stone Circle].
The Black Parliament
Other accounts state Soulis was brought before King Robert, tried, and convicted of being a traitor. This variation states Soulis lost all property, but was confined to his castle at Dumfries for the rest of his life. This is most unusual because countless nobles were also implicated and convicted for being accomplices, and usually put to death. The carnage was to such an extent that the Parliament of 1320 became known as “The Black Parliament.” Soulis died in 1320 or 1321, so theories of simple confinement are questionable.
Soulis’s most famous castle is that of the Hermitage. Legend states, due to the iniquities held inside from Soulis’s life, the castle partially broke and sank into the ground upon his death. There was also a door to a mysterious chamber that only opened once every seven years, and by itself. No keys existed to this abode. This was believed to be the room where Soulis bargained with infernal forces. Soulis threw the key to the demon, over his left shoulder, as they dragged him off to be boiled alive.
The chamber turned out to be the dungeon of the castle. Soulis’s “familiar” was named Robin. It appeared as a man dressed in red. Soulis learned of the black arts from notable warlock Michael Scot.
We’ll probably never know the full story, but the legend remains as fascinating today as it was a hundred years ago. So, was Lord William Soulis really the oppressive tyrant of legend? Again, history does not provide clarity. In fact, a noble named Sir Rannulf de Soules, also of Liddel, was said to be murdered by his servants nearly a century before for his cruelty.
Poems and songs sprang up about Soulis and a few have withstood time. He’s one such example:
*”On a circle of stones, they placed the pot,
On a circle of stones, but barely nine,
They heated it red, and fiery hot,
Till the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.
“They rowed him up in a sheet of lead,
A sheet of lead for his funeral pall,
They plunged him into the cauldron red,
And melted him, lead, bones, and all.”
The Hermitage presents its own set of mysteries and questions. There isn’t actually a record of its construction. For centuries, it seemed like this castle just didn’t want an owner. Owners continually lost the property. Some died, some were embroiled in disgrace, and several were just murdered. In most cases, the castle went back into the crown.
Some records suppose the construction was built by Rannulph de Soulis, ancestor of William, in 1244. Other records theorize that Walter Comyn, Earl of Monteith, who built the castle in the early 1200s. This is debatable as the de Soulis family lived in that area from the time of King David I of Scotland, which means the Earl of Monteith would’ve created a castle on the de Soulis property. It’s unlikely. The castle was also said to be constructed by Nicholas de Soulis, another of William’s ancestors, in 1240.
Some obscure records state a family dwelling was on the land prior to the Hermitage. They lived in a place called Clintwood. An abbey was also said to have been founded and established there during the time of Prince Henry, in 1152 AD.
From established records, the Hermitage was given as one of the reasons King Henry III invaded Scotland in 1244.
John de Soulis, William’s father, was the guardian of Scotland for the English King from 1302 to 1304. The Hermitage was given to English knight Sir John Wake. Sir Wake died in 1300 and the crown again held ownership of the property, at much grief to his widow, Joan. Sadly, in 1306, she lost ownership of the property to William Soulis, but records state she was compensated for the loss. Sir John Wake was an illegitimate son of Robert Bruce.
Scandal and tragedy would follow the castle for centuries. In 1342, Sir William Douglas trapped Sir Alexander Ramsey, of Dalhousie, in part of the dungeon. He was still astride his steed. Both man and beast were starved to death in the chamber. Douglas was often called the “flower of chivalry,” but the name stemmed from his fighting prowess as a knight, not as a romantic title. The chamber was discovered in the Nineteenth Century, the bones and sword lay where they had since the crime occurred.
Mary Queen of Scots was also said to meet her “lover” at the Hermitage, after he’d been wounded. This is a romanticized version. Sir Walter Scott, an expert on the Hermitage, noted the claims of illicit trysting were an attempt to defame her. Scott noted the Queen was most likely desperate to find details on an attack against one of her most important Lieutenants. He’d been ambushed by a freebooter named Elliot of the Dark.
After the reign of James I, the Hermitage fell into disrepair. It eventually became a ruin. Again, Sir Scott brought about awareness to the need of preserving the castle for posterity.
In 1806, the Duke of Buccleuch was going through the rubbish that had built up in the dungeon. He found a massive and ornate metal key among the trash. By that time, it had rusted. It was believed to be the key Soulis threw.
Today, visitors are welcome to tour the castle from April 1 through September 30. It was eventually taken over by Historic Scotland. It’s also said to be haunted by Queen Mary’s ghost.
*Transactions of the Hawick Archaeological Society, Hawick Archaeological Society, The Society, 1863
Waverley Novels: Castle dangerous, Sir Walter Scott, S.H. Parker, 1834
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Sir Walter Scott, 1812
Wilson’s Tales of the borders, John Mackay, Wilson, 1884