How do you dig a Siege Tunnel?

If you’ve ever been to St Andrews you’ll know it’s not only the home of golf and site of Scotland’s oldest university but the town itself is steeped in history. Once a great centre of pilgrimage, the cathedral was left in ruins after the Scottish Reformation in 1560. Although I grew up in St Andrews the ruins were simply part of the backdrop of daily life. I was twelve years old before our history teacher, Miss Grubb, took us to visit what was left of the cathedral. 

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral


We also visited the castle where there is there is the most remarkable siege tunnel, dug in 1546 and the best surviving example of siege tunnelling in Europe from the era.

St Andrews Castle


You enter it from the side of the dry moat via a steep and uneven few steps. Almost immediately you’re bent double and for anyone who is at all claustrophobic a quick retreat is in order. 

Entrance to Siege Tunnel

Creeping down the central trench, at constant risk of scraping your back on the rough stone above, you come to a fork which leads to a dead end. You retreat and continue along the main tunnel, the sense of being squeezed growing ever greater until you can barely draw breath. Then suddenly the narrow passage ends. There’s a wall of rock before you and nowhere to go. Yet looking down you spy a narrow entrance. 

Dare you squash yourself throughand descend the metal ladder to find out what’s below? Down you tentatively go and the space opens out. 
The tunnel is a tale of two halves and this part is broad and high with steps leading to the sealed off entrance beneath a house in North Street. There’s also a grating visible, which my brother and his friends entertained themselves during school lunchbreaks by howling down from the street above, to terrify (or perhaps create atmosphere for) the tourists beneath. 

From the moment I first went down the siege tunnel at St Andrews Castle I was utterly entranced. And when I learned the men who had taken the castle early one morning by stealth, murdered its cardinal in revenge for the burning of a Protestant preacher, and held it against all comers for the next fourteen months called themselves ‘the castilians’ I felt a shiver of foreknowledge. What a perfect title for a book, I thought… I didn’t know then how very long it would take me to write it!

I did however always wonder what the point of tunnelling in was. Surely as soon as the besiegers popped their head up out of the tunnel it would likely be knocked off? When I came to do the research for The Castilians I finally understood.

The information is in the name – I have so far referred to this long underground passage as a siege tunnel and was confused as a schoolgirl why it was called the mine and counter mine.

It was never the intention of Mary Queen of Scots forces (we are in the period of regency and Mary is only 3 years old) to tunnel into the castle, capture the Protestants holding it and thus break the siege. The purpose of digging was to undermine the curtain wall, set explosives beneath it, bring it down and then storm the castle.

This is why, when you go down the tunnel/mine it’s a tale of two halves. The first part is low and narrow and clearly dug at great speed. Once you climb down the iron ladder into the second part it’s wide and high.

The besiegers began to dig in what was then known as Northgait, now North Street, at the back of a house, and hidden from those patrolling the castle walls. The aim was to dig secretly and deep until they gauged they were beneath the curtain wall. They’d then support the roof of the mine with wooden props, set explosives around the props, light fires and run fast as they could out the tunnel before it blew. The explosion would bring down part of the wall, the troops would charge and the castle would be re-taken. 

But…this is the great era of siege warfare and those who are holding the castle are well aware their besiegers will likely try to get them out by undermining the walls. One of the ways those inside the castle could ascertain if mining was happening was to set up bowls of water around the courtyard and see if the water was rippling – a sign of underground activity.

False Start


In the case of the siege of St Andrews Castle those within were fairly certain the besiegers were tunnelling in. The aim then was to counter mine out as fast as they could and intercept the mine before the besiegers got beneath the curtain wall. 

The challenge was to work out where the besiegers were actually digging if they were to intercept them and inside the castle there are a couple of very deep holes to be found – false starts. Eventually they found the right spot… here’s an exert from The Castilians

They hear sounds of alarm; it seems they are discovered. Any attempt to stay quiet is given up and they excavate as hard and fast as they can. Someone has fetched Richard Lee and he pushes past Will, directing them to attack the ground beneath, and not before them.

‘We must be quick,’ he hisses, ‘else they’ll have time to set explosives and blow us into eternity.’

Will shovels the rubble behind him to keep the area clear for the miners to work – there’s no time to scuttle back up the passageway with it now. A hole has appeared in the floor of the tunnel. Lee has a man shield the candles, whispering that he needs it dark to see if there’s torchlight shining through from below.

Will, Lee and the two miners huddled together in the cramped space nudge one another, there is a light. They enlarge the hole, cries from below growing loud, then fading. Lee kneels at the edge, and sticks his head through. Will can feel Lee’s body tense, ready to pull his head back. He is a brave man. They wait.

Lee lifts his head out and smiles. ‘It could not be more perfect.’

I still wonder at the amazing feat to dig, and dig so fast. There’s little reference to it in the papers of the time. The French ambassador to the English Court mentions the mine and counter-mine in his letters of November 1546, but by December it’s over and the attempt to break the siege has failed again…

St Andrews Castle


If you’re ever in St Andrews Castle, don’t forget to go down the mine and counter-mine. The entrance is not obvious to find, sited as it in the side of the dry moat. It’s one of the most atmospheric places you’ll ever visit. 

And in answer to the question, how do you dig a siege tunnel…by cunning, subterfuge, courage, determination and punishingly hard work.

The Castilians, the first in series of The Seton Chronicles is available as an ebook, print and audio book.

To purchase in UK click here

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Streets of St Andrews

A lovely reader writes asking if I can give more detail of the locations in my books. St Andrews, where The Castilians is set, is my home town so I had a very clear picture of the streets my characters would walk and even the destruction wrought by the siege, and after, for much of it is still visible. For instance here’s the remains of Blackfriars Chapel, damaged by the Castilians, along with Greyfriars, in April 1547.

Blackfriars Chapel with the old Madras College in the background

My old school sits behind it and I walked passed this ruin every morning without a second glance. There nothing left of Greyfriars except a street name and a row of gardens. No doubt, if the gardens were excavated, some remnants of the grey friars lives might be unearthed.

However it’s unlikely a great deal of the stones used to build Greyfriars would be left for it, along with the castle and cathedral, were systematically quarried for several hundred years, which explains why these ruins are really so very tidy, with no heaps of rubble in evidence.

The good citizens of the town used the stone to build and repair houses and to build the piers at the harbour, which were made from wood – and considerably longer – in the time of the Castilians. Below is the pier today and the hill Bethia would have toiled up when she came across the grim sight of George Wishart being burned at the stake.

Harbour Hill, which would not have had the high protective wall in 1546, nor the smooth path,

St Andrews is so named because some of the bones of the apostle Saint Andrew once rested here. It was a place of pilgrimage to rival Compostela from the 1100s, with pilgrims coming from as far away as Russia. A Certificate of Pilgrimage given to a pilgrim who was undertaking the journey as part of a penance because he had murdered a man (as well as making recompense to the man’s family), was found in France a few years ago and I used this as the background for Mainard being there, although for some reason decided I wanted my character to come from Flanders and not France. A fortuitous choice since research later uncovered Antwerp was the wealthiest city in Europe at the time.

Badges worn by pilgrims to St Andrews

Pilgrims travelled in groups for safety. They arrived by sea, often at Earlsferry and would walk the last twenty or so miles to St Andrews. The townsfolk were understandably fearful of pilgrims bringing the plague to their doors and they were held in quarantine, outwith the city boundaries, until they were pronounced safe to enter its gates

Pilgrim’s gate

Although the cathedral begun in 1160 and which took 120 years to finish, was surrounded by a high wall, the town itself never was. It did however have entry gates, one of which I used to pass under every day to go to school, again without paying it the slightest of attention

West Port

These ports or gates were all about controlling trade for the guilds; the good burghers of St Andrews wanted to make sure no one could make inroads into their living. You can see the gates on the map before which I’ve also annotated to show some of the streets and locations mentioned in The Castilians.

1580 Geddy Mp of St Andrews showing sites mentioned in The Castilians, reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

The town was extended and planned as the cathedral was built and the three streets fanning out from the cathedral, then known as Southgait, Mercatgait and Northgait were deliberately broad and straight for the many religious processions, including carrying the reliquary containing Saint Andrews bones along them presumably on 30th November each year (St Andrew’s day), and the performances of the mystery plays. When Mary of Guise arrived in Scotland she was met at St Andrews by her new husband, James V, and forty days of jousts, plays and street pageant followed, which must have caused huge excitement amongst the town’s inhabitants.

A house similar to Bethia’s home on Southgait

The end of Southgait closest to the cathedral was where the wealthy merchants lived and I chose a house from the era to be Bethia’s. Increasingly wooden houses were being replaced by stone although shopkeepers often had a wooden extension to the front of their house with a hatch that could be raised to create a counter to sell from – like Elspeth’s family.

Many of the town’s poorer folk made their living from fishing. They’d been moved away from the harbour when the cathedral was built and resided in an area known as fishertoun, off Northgait. The outside stone stairs are a familiar sight in St Andrews still.

Fishwives baiting the lines, picture courtesy of Wiki commons

In Northgait was St Salvator’s the university chapel, where the then wooden tower atop was knocked down to create a flat base and cannon were hauled up for the bombardment which finally ended the siege. Northgait was also where the the siege tunnel was begun, and the entrance is below a house there still.

St Salvators, with the stone steeple which replaced the destroyed wooden one

The Smart History team at St Andrews University have created some wonderful and carefully researched video models to show what the town would have looked like in the 1550s.

Click here to watch this reconstruction from 1559

This video reconstruction of Holy Trinity as it may have appeared in 1559 is based on research into historical images and written records (including property documents) undertaken by Dr Bess Rhodes, Peryn Westerhof Nyman, and Chelsea Reutcke. The digital reconstruction was created by Sarah Kennedy.visual world.

St Rule’s Tower, built in 1120 is the oldest part of the cathedral complex. Climbing to the top gives a panoramic view of St Andrews, which I used to do so regularly at school lunch time. Unfortunately I never savoured the view since I was scared of heights and would crawl around the top rather than look over the, then, very low parapet.

St Rule’s Tower

The castle ruins sits tucked away in a corner now, but once would have been as central to the town as the cathedral. To reach the harbour from the castle is a slippery walk over reefs, at low tide only, which both Bethia and Will had to undertake on separate occasions.

Here also are the cliffs Bethia had to climb down to escape from the rubble strewn castle.

The destruction of the cathedral began at the Reformation in 1560 when crowds looted and wreaked havoc. They smashed all the stained glass windows in every church, toppled any saints from their pedestals, melted down gold plate and from then on St Andrews, which had been Scotland’s ecclesiastical centre, as well as home to the country’s first university, fell into decline. Rubbish piled high in the streets and people had to climb over it to access their front doors. The town became so rundown, there was even a proposal the university be re-sited in Perth.

Cathedral Ruins

Eventually St Andrews was re-purposed as the home of golf as well as an ancient university town. Golf was actually banned by James II in 1457 because he felt young men were playing it rather than practising their archery. The Bow Butts, a lane named for the place of archery practice, is found near the West Sands and at the side of the first tee of the Old Course.

James IV however was a keen golfer and re-instated the game fifty years later.

If you haven’t already read The Castilians it gives much more of the story of the town and the siege of 1546.

It can be bought from:

Amazon US here

Amazon UK here

The Castilians by VEH Masters

Caitchpule

A reader writes to ask what is a caitchpule — and I realise I have made an assumption. In The Castilians I mention King James V’s fondness for the game of caitch, which he regularly played at Falkland Palace. Growing up nearby I was always aware of the famous tennis court at the Palace, and so I wrote as though readers would understand what I was talking about when I mentioned the words ‘caitchpule’ and ‘Falkland Palace’ in the same sentence.

Ooops!

 What I didn’t know, before I wrote the novel, was that real tennis was called caitch and the tennis court a caitchpule. The game is the precursor to lawn tennis played at Wimbledon since the the 1800s.

Real Tennis Court – the Caitchpule

Real tennis is more like squash in that it uses the walls surrounding the enclosed court and the sloping roof above the viewing gallery, to bounce the ball off.  Lawn tennis, although played differently, copied the same scoring system as real tennis.

Viewing Gallery at Falkland Palace

James’s uncle, King Henry VIII of England, was also a keen tennis player in his youth.  There was a caitchpule in St Andrews, so it’s entirely possible my characters in The Castilians may have played the game – at least those with the wealth and leisure to do so.

Real tennis is still played at Falkland Palace by local residents, who would most certainly not have been permitted anywhere near the caitchpule in the 1500s.

Falkland Palace