Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Cowdenknowes - a house with a history

Examining Cowdenknowes reveals the Victorian mansion, left, 1574 work centre and the 'vestibule' tower to the right

The mansion of Cowdenknowes stands on the banks of the River Leader about two miles distant from Earlston in Berwickshire. An eventful history is suggested by an ancient rhyme:

Vengeance Vengeance! When and Where?
Upon the house of Cowdenknowes, Now and Ever Mair!
Plan of Cowdenknowes - 1574 layout. Tower to right forms vestibule to Victorian extension

'Coudenknollis' is recorded in 1493 of which the sole remainder is the base of a detached tower. The early castle would appear to have been of the 'courtyard' type with high walls flanked by square towers. When it was destroyed is uncertain but probably during the War of the Rough Wooing (1544-1551) but it was obviously still habitable in October 1566 when the 24-year-old Mary Queen of Scots spent several days there en route to her ill-fated visit to Jedburgh where she almost died of a mystery illness.

It is recorded that on the 1st of February 1546 John Carr of Wark Castle sent a party to 'fire and blow up Cowdenknowes' with powder but the attempt failed. Its owner, Sir John Home, was one of the local lairds harassing the English at every turn. He died in 1573 and was succeeded by his son James who immediately began to rebuild. Warden of the East Marches, he was responsible for the security of the area's borders with England.

He incorporated what remained from the old castle but what arose was not a defensive castle but an elegant Renaissance mansion. This is surprising in that as late as 1570 the Earl of Sussex had blown up Branxholme Castle with gunpowder but Home evidently felt that by now the situation had settled.

It is interesting that Home was appointed Warden by Regent Morton whose contemporary castle of Drochil , though grander, had much in common with Cowdenknowes.

This castle is now incorporated into a Victorian mansion of 1883 which makes interpretation difficult. Sir James' work was a vaulted oblong range fronted by modest towers. Detached, and now forming the present entrance, was a tall, thinly walled square tower but how this related to the rest is unclear. Above the river and flanking a ravine, stand the ruins of the old tower but this was not incorporated in the new work.

LEFT: 1883 link to Victorian range slapped through original tower
RIGHT: Vaulted interior of 'vestibule' tower

The quality of the work at Cowdenknowes is admirable with string courses and mouldings of excellent quality but Sir James still found it prudent to retain gun loops, albeit of a highly ornamental kind.


The entrance is flanked by a gun loop. On its lintel are carved the initials S-I-H-V-K-H for Sir James Home and Kathleen Home (V=U for the Latin uxorem, which translates into English as wife) with the date 1574. A corbel table set high bears the legend:

Feir God : Flee From Synne.
And Mak For Ye Lyfe Everlasting

Mention is made regarding the ruined tower which has not one, but two pit prisons, each entered by a hatch. This is because the land falls steeply to the river leaving room only for two small chambers.

LEFT: The lintel carving above the entrance shows S-I-H-V-K-H 1574
RIGHT: The 'old tower' above the Leader Water with double pit prisons

Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle.

Added: 29 Nov 2019 Updated: 27 Dec 2019
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