The name Hirbottle was first recorded in the thirteenth century, but it is thought that it derives from the Ango-Saxon here-botl which means ‘army building’ and might refer to an earlier, pre-Norman structue on the site.
Harbottle Castle occupies a good defensive site on a plateau like ridge. It is bounded on its western and southern sides by a steep sided and deep moat and on the north and east sides it is defended by naturally steep, riverside slopes. It towers over the major medieval highway into Scotland - Clennell Street, thus making it a point of strategic as well as tactical importance.
The castle consists of three main elements:
- The Motte or castle mound
- The East Bailey or enclosed courtyard
- The West Bailey or enclosed courtyard
All are bounded by the outer curtain wall of the castle. The Motte is dominated by a stone Keep or Tower of various periods of construction, while the Bailey area is kidney shaped and divided into two by a wall running north/south that originally terminated in a tower at its northern end. At the southern end of this wall is a gateway-initially excavated in the 1930s by Newcastle architect and building historian Herbert Honeyman. There was an outer gate house at main eastern entrance in the eastern bailey.