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Elphinstone Tower

Tower House (Medieval)

Site Name Elphinstone Tower

Classification Tower House (Medieval)

Alternative Name(s) Elphinstone Castle

Canmore ID 53340

Site Number NT36NE 2

NGR NT 3903 6980

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council East Lothian
  • Parish Tranent
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District East Lothian
  • Former County East Lothian

Archaeology Notes

NT36NE 2 3903 6980.

(NT 3903 6980) Elphinstone Tower (NR)

OS 6" map (1968)

Elphinstone Tower is a 15th century rectangular tower of three main storeys beneath the wall-head, which terminates in a 16th century parapet walk, while the roof is modern. It measures 50 1/2' E-W by 35', with 8' thick walls, and is 57' from ground to parapet. It is unusual for the large number of mural chambers, passages and stairways which honeycomb its walls. Having been long occupied, the tower is not in a good condition, and it is being affected by mining subsidence.

The lands of Elphinstone were held by the family which took their name from the 13th century onwards, and presumably some portion of their fortalice is incorporated in the present tower. In the 15th century the heiress of the main line married Sir Gilbert Johnstone, who completed the building as it now stands.

RCAHMS 1924, visited 1915; N Tranter 1962

Elphinstone Tower has been partially demolished. The N wall, with one doorway intact, remains to a height of 4.0m while the S wall has completely disappeared.

Visited by OS (BS) 22 October 1975.

Elphinstone Tower was damaged by subsidence and finally demolished in 1955.

C McWilliam 1978.

Architecture Notes


15th century. Oblong plan. Numerous mural chambers. Unoccupied - in bad repair.

Demolished 1955.


Field Visit (30 August 1915)

This house (fig.17 [SC 1126997]) is situated two miles south of Tranent on the southern and lower of the two ridges running northwards from the heights of Soutra to the shores of the Firth. It consequently commands an extensive prospect, bounded on the north by the higher ridge, on the east by. Traprain and North Berwick Law, and south and west by the Lowther and Pentland Hills. It is a 15th century tower oblong on plan (fig. 164) and contains three main storeys beneath the wall-head, which terminates in a parapet walk with rudimentary corner rounds, all borne on moulded corbels with moulded interspaces of late 16th century design. The walls are of coursed ashlar with long and short quoins. At ground level a basement course with a splayed set-off returns and is stopped on either side of the entrance doorway, which is set in the north wall a little above the ground. This doorway has a segmental head and is giblet checked to receive an outer timber door, which opened outwards, and an inner grate of iron opening inwardly. The windows have splayed jambs and lintels and have been heavily barred and stanchioned. At the north-east angle can be traced the outline of a much later building, which communicated with the lower floors of the tower.

The tower measures 57 feet from ground to parapet, 35 feet from north to south and 50 ½ feet from east to west. The walls, averaging 8 feet in thickness, contain an unusual number of the intramural stairs and chambers which are so common a feature in 15th century tower plans. The entrance opens into a lobby within the thickness of the wall, through which the basement is entered and from which ascends, on the east, the main staircase; while a lesser staircase on the west leads to a small chamber ceiled with a segmental vault of stone and provided with a latrine in its south-west angle, a cupboard or lamp recess in the east wall, and a small window to the west. These staircases are straight and are both contained within the thickness of the lateral wall. The basement is a single chamber oblong on plan with an inward projection at the north-west angle. It is 34 feet long and 18 ½ feet wide and is lit by two small windows with stepped breasts in the south wall. In the north-west angle is an intramural chamber unlit and unventilated, ceiled with a segmental stone vault. Its disposition would suggest its use as a prison, but it has none of the usual provision for ventilation and sanitation. The ceiling has been patched, and in these renewals are fragments of 17th century glass flagons. Another intramural chamber in the north wall, beneath the main staircase, has at one time been turned into a communication between a later outbuilding and the tower but is now built up; the entrance to it is also giblet checked.

The basement is vaulted with a semicircular barrel-vault of stone and has been provided at the springing level, with a mezzanine floor, borne on joists resting on massive corbels projecting from the lateral walls. This upper floor is lit by windows in the gables and was entered from the main staircase. The first floor is occupied by the Hall, an apartment 29 ¼ feet long and 20 ¼ feet wide, ceiled with a lofty pointed barrel-vault. The fireplace in the centre of the west gable is filled in, but fractures in the infilling reveal that the jambs have a filleted shaft as an outer member, with an inner curvilinear moulding. The jambs terminate in moulded bell-shaped bases and capitals of the same form but reversed. The lintel was massive but is fractured and incomplete, and only the northern portion remains in situ; the other is lying in the embrasure of the northwest window. Above the lintel there has been a projecting cornice, but the mouldings have been cut flush with the wall. Above the fireplace five stones are inserted, one carved with a head, the others with one or more shields bearing arms. The southern shield bears three crescents within a double tressure flory-counter-flory for Seton; the second has three crescents for Edminstone; the third, a lion rampant within a double tressure florycounter-flory for Maitland; the fourth, a heart and on a chief three stars for Douglas; the fifth, on a chief three cushions or possibly mascles; the sixth, a saltire with three cushions on a chief for Johnston; the seventh, a chevron between three boars' heads, erased and tusked, for Elphinstone; and the eighth, a lion rampant. This heraldry seems to be purely decorative in significance.

In the south-western angle a vice leads from the Hall to the upper floors and to the parapet walk. In the south in-going of the fireplace a squint is formed to light the stair foot at dark.

The Hall is lit by four windows in the lateral walls two on either side of the chamber. The eastern windows have their sills at a considerable height above the floor level; the other windows have intramural chambers opening off the in-goings. The chamber opening from the south-west window has an edge roll and hollow moulding wrought on the jambs and lintel of the entrance. It has two windows in the south wall and has apparently been shelved, while in the ceiling are the outlets of two flues apparently from latrines above; a similar device is to be found in the contemporary castle of Borthwick, Midlothian. The corresponding window in the north wall has a small mural chamber opening off the east in-going, and a doorway in the west in-going leads to a vice, which ascends to a small private room placed over a similar apartment entered from the stair foot. The upper of these rooms had an access to the flue of the great fireplace, so contrived as to admit of the Hall being viewed while the spectator remained unseen.

The walls of the Hall have received a coating of plaster ‘on the hard’, and on this surface can be seen traces of decoration in red and black; a similar treatment may be noted at Borthwick. A kitchen and service room are placed within the east gable with a vice in the north-east angle leading to chambers, which are contrived above these but still below the level of the vault of the Hall. A vaulted gallery is placed on this upper levelover the main stair. On the second floor the space corresponding to the Hall is divided into two apartments, each with a fireplace in the gable. The intramural passages and chambers are repeated onthis floor also, while in the south wall are contiguous latrines, one for each apartment. The floor above has been borne on joists and is partially an attic. The roof is modern, but the parapet and walk, the latter having spouts in the shape of cannon to remove the surface water, date from the 16th century. The unusual breadth of the walk on the north is due to the thickness of the wall beneath. The structure is unusually complete but has settled badly on account of the neighbouring mines; despite the careful tying in and bracing, further settlement will lead to serious results.

HERALDIC PANEL. A 17th century heraldic panel is built into one of the exterior walls of the farmhouse adjoining the castle; it is executed in high relief and, being deeply undercut, is consequently badly weathered. At top there is a label incomplete, bearing an illegible motto, below which is the crest, apparently a demi-lion rampant, on a helm and mantling of ornate character that surmounts a shield parted per pale; dexter, a lion rampant, sinister, on a bend a star between two crescents (Scott of Buccleuch). The shield rests on the upper portion of an incomplete cartouche, on which is wrought a grotesque human head set between two scrolls.

HISTORICAL NOTE. The tower was probably erected in the 15th century, when Sir Gilbert Johnstone, son of Sir Adam of Johnstone, came into possession of the property by marriage with Agnes Elphinstone, the heiress (1). Andrew Johnstone of Elphinstone is on record in 1551 (2). The line ended with Sir James, third baron Elphinstone, who was alive in 1673, but had to part with the estates and whose fate is unknown (3).

RCAHMS 1924, visited 30 August 1915.

(1) Fraser's Annandale Family Book &c. i.,p. xvi.; (2) Johnstone MSS. p. 21; (3) Heraldry of the Johnstones, G. Harvey Johnstone, pp.30 -32 .

Partial Demolition (1955)

Elphinstone Tower was damaged by subsidence and finally demolished in 1955.

C McWilliam 1978.

Photographic Survey (August 1962)

Photographic survey by the Scottish National Buildings Record/Ministry of Works in August 1962.

Photographic Survey (June 1963)

Photographic survey by the Scottish National Buildings Record/Ministry of Works in June 1963.

Field Visit (22 October 1975)

Elphinstone Tower has been partially demolished. The N wall, with one doorway intact, remains to a height of 4.0m while the S wall has completely disappeared.

Visited by OS (BS) 22 October 1975.


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