Okay, okay. I know I am known for my bad puns, and Mary says its a “Grandpa thing”, but what else could the title of today’s blog be? I mean, we’re paying a visit to the castle that helped inspire Bram Stoker to write his Gothic Horror novel, Dracula. Come on.
Our day (Saturday September 15th) started with breakfast at the Palace Hotel in Peterhead, where I reverted to having a traditional Scottish breakfast, while Mary opted for porridge. Two things stand out about this morning’s breakfast. The first is that the background music in the dining room was all 1950’s country. We’re talking Hank Williams Sr, Patsy Cline, Faron Young, Marty Robbins, really traditional stuff. I like country music both old and new, while Mary likes (tolerates) some of the more modern country artists. But the old stuff drives her crazy. She kept wondering why on earth we were listening to 1950’s country in a Scottish fishing town. Can’t say I blame her.
The second thing we’ll remember from this morning’s breakfast is an anecdote the waitress told us in relation to the weather. She said she moved to Aberdeen from Australia when she was nine, and the first summer she lived in Scotland, it rained, and rained, and rained. She asked her dad if Scotland actually had summer, and her dad replied “remember that sunny Tuesday, two weeks ago? That was summer”. It seems that the Scots are resigned to their weather, with mostly good humour, and as another person told us “trust me, nobody comes to Scotland for the weather”.
Despite this talk about the weather, it was actually a pretty nice morning in Peterhead as we set off to visit Slains Castle, a backtrack of about 8 miles south on the North Sea coastline. A little bit overcast with a light wind, but no rain in the immediate forecast.
As I’ve already alluded to, Slains Castle and the rocky North Sea coast that it overlooks, served as the inspiration for Dracula’s Castle in Bram Stoker’s epic 1897 novel. I was really looking forward to it, but also didn’t know what to expect. It lies in a state of ruin, is not guarded, and unless you know of it’s existence, there are no signs or markers to alert travelers to the area. We left the main highway, and turned onto an unmarked secondary road. I could see the outline of the castle, roughly 2 miles in the distance. The closer we got, it was clear that there was virtually no-one else around. Mary steered us into a small unpaved parking area overlooking the sea, and this is what we saw as we emerged from the car.
Slains Castle consists of ruins that overlook the North Sea from a spectacular cliff-top site. The core of the castle is a 16th century tower house, but extensive reconstruction has been carried out a number of times, lastly in 1837. At one time it had three extensive gardens, but it is now a roofless ruin, the roof having been removed in 1925 to avoid taxes. There are discussions underway to restore the castle, but for today, we had the place to ourselves. Yessss.
Before exploring the ruins, we walked to the edge of the cliffs, and you can see that there were various outcroppings that were imploring me to climb down, all the better to get a look at the front of the castle.
Scrambling about 30 feet down a grassy knoll, I was now able to look back up at the castle. It was easy to let my imagination loose as I pictured a stormy night with thunder and lightning illuminating the castle from behind. Here’s the view looking up from the cliffs below.
As I took a few moments to look out over the seas and examine the castle from different vantage points, I noticed that Mary had found a peaceful hill-top spot for her Tai chi practice. I watched fascinated as she went through the moves that form part of her daily routine. Seeing her in this setting is something I will never forget.
I scrambled back up the hill, and leaving Mary to continue her practice, I set off to the explore the passages and broken remains of the castle. There are no signs warning of any danger, but I could see pretty quickly that I’d have to watch my step, especially given the frequent gusts of wind blowing in from the sea. You can see from the picture below that there are no guard-rails, no barriers over any of the windows, and that the spiral staircase just falls off into empty space where floors had once been.
I picked my way cautiously through the ruins, pausing to take in the views of the sea from different angles, and again let my imagination take over as I wandered from one room to another.
I must have spent half an hour exploring, and since I could see that Mary was content to practice on her cliff-side perch, I kept going further and further into the castle ruins. It was far bigger than it first seemed, and the pictures below are taken from the far end of the “complex”.
I don’t know what came over me this morning, but being alone while wandering through the ruins, I felt a child-like exhilaration that I haven’t experienced in years. It was as if I was 12 years old again, and had just discovered a magical place that no-one else knew about. My visit to Slains Castle will hold a special place in my memory, long after this trip is over.
I hated to leave, but it was time for us to move on. Our next destination was the town of Fraserburgh, a 35 minute drive that would take us to the northeast tip of the Aberdeenshire coast. Our main reason for targeting Fraserburgh was that it is home to the Scottish Lighthouse Museum, and Mary and I love lighthouses. We have visited virtually every lighthouse on the Pacific Coast of the United States and B.C, as well as a significant number on the Atlantic Coast of Canada and the USA. I can’t explain our fascination with them. I just know we really like visiting them.
The Scottish Lighthouse Museum is built around the original Kinnaird Head Lighthouse which dates back to 1787, making it the oldest standing lighthouse on the Scottish mainland. The first lighthouse was simply a giant lamp, positioned on the roof of a small castle. In 1824, Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson, engineered new foundations, walls and a spiral staircase through the heart of the castle, preserving the original castle structure around it.
Incidentally, the Stevenson family, Robert, three of his sons, and later two grandsons, were all engineers who played pivotal roles in the design and construction of more than 90 lighthouses in Scotland, between the years 1811 and 1937. There is a rather substantial tribute to the family inside the museum.
The original lighthouse remained active until 1991, when a new automatic lighthouse (below) was established beside it.
In 2012, the old Kinnaird Head Lighthouse was re-lit for two special occasions. On June 2nd, it was exhibited in celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Secondly, the light was turned on again on December 1st of that year in celebration of the 225th anniversary of Kinnaird Head Lighthouse.
The Museum was opened on November 20th, 1995, by H.R.H. Princess Margaret, and it was a very interesting place to visit. There were displays and examples of every type of lens that had been used in Scottish lighthouses over the years. There was also a rather novel collection of keys that had belonged to various keepers during the years that the lighthouses were manned.
I’ve included the next picture purely for the fun of it, as both Mary and I instantly saw something Star Wars-related in the lens that she is standing in front of. Can you see it too?
Another item that really caught our attention was the exhibit of the Hoxa Head Lighthouse (Mary is standing in the doorway below). Hoxa Head overlooked Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands until 1996, before the entire lighthouse was dismantled and shipped to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, where it was reassembled.
Before leaving the museum, one of the guides mentioned to us that “the Wine Tower” a building adjacent to the lighthouse, and normally closed to the public, was available for a tour today. (note: during the month of September, buildings throughout Scotland normally closed to the public have been open for tours as part of Doors Open Days 2018). It’s not something we would have gone out of our way to see, but since we were there, we joined the small tour group and braved the winds that had picked up considerably since our arrival about 90 minutes earlier.
According to the guide, there is no satisfactory explanation of why this building exists or what it was used for. Historians agree that it dates back to the 1500’s, and it was built by the Frasers, who lived in the castle that once stood on these grounds. It is a three-story building with walls that are five feet thick, and it is only accessible via a staircase leading to the third floor. It does boast a remarkable series of seemingly unrelated and finely carved pendants that hang from the ceiling. This has led to speculation that there may have been some religious significance to the building, perhaps a chapel, but this theory is in dispute. An interesting side-trip for us nonetheless.
As were heading back to the car, we were buffeted by strong winds, but I stopped to take the picture below, because my eyes were drawn to the colour of the water in contrast with the sky above, and the green grass below. I love this picture because every time I look at it, I can still smell the sea air.
From Fraserburgh, we now turned west and our next goal was Inverness, some two hours away. We knew we were not going to get there before the shops and attractions started to shut down for the day (at 5). We also knew that Saturday night accommodations were going to be harder to come by in Inverness, not to mention a little more expensive. So, I picked out Elgin as a halfway point, some 90 minutes west, and plugged the coordinates into Sid (our GPS).
You might notice from the map above, that our route was going to take us through Banff. This is just one of a growing number of familiar town and city names which has made Mary and I realize the impact that Scottish immigrants had on the establishment of new settlements in their new homeland – Canada.
Before we got to Banff, we drove through countryside that reflects the time of year in which we are travelling – harvest season. The fields are speckled with rolls of hay, and there are wind turbines everywhere. Not just a few. Lots and lots of wind turbines. We even saw some offshore, and apparently they are on floats attached to the ocean floor.
As we continued westward, we passed through the small seacoast town of MacDuff. While there was nothing remarkable about it, it was photo-worthy to Mary and I, as it is very reflective of what we are seeing as we move further north in Scotland – small towns with all the homes and buildings clustered within a few blocks of the waterfront. Clearly reliant on a fishing-based economy too.
Moving on, we arrived at the Royal Burgh of Banff, and much to our surprise and amusement, we came upon the Banff Springs Hotel. Doesn’t quite look like its namesake does it?
Stopping to take the pictures above did afford me the opportunity to capture another great view of the North Sea coastline.
We pulled into the town of Elgin shortly after 3 and as usual we were mid-afternoon hungry. When a search for a tea-shop failed us, we opted for some “pub grub” at a local restaurant called the Granery. The food was okay but the noise was deafening inside because it was Saturday afternoon, and (of course) every TV set was tuned to a Football (socccer) match. Aberdeen (the local team of choice) were in the process of beating Motherwell, while the Liverpool-Spurs (Tottenham) match seemed to be garnering the most interest of the English league games that were in play.
The centre of Elgin features a pedestrian mall, something we have found in many towns during our trip, and much to our surprise, and Mary’s delight, we came upon a Walker’s Shortbread retail store – one of only three in the country. Walkers shortbreads are a particular favorite of Mary’s so we simply had to check it out. There were varieties of cookies, cakes, and tarts that neither of us had ever seen, as well as numerous commemorative/specialty packages.
Mary emerged with a package of shortbreads “for the road”, while I opted for a small cherry-laden fruitcake.
Looking at my notes, I determined we were just a few minutes from the ruins of Elgin Cathedral, and with roughly 40 minutes before closing still on the clock, we wandered over.
I have to say that we were totally “taken” by this particular medieval building. It was beautiful, and we marveled at how many of the details had survived, given that it dates back to 1270. It is also the second largest church ever built in Scotland, behind only St. Andrew’s Cathedral which we visited earlier this week.
While the building was damaged by fires on numerous occasions, it was enlarged and enriched by a succession of powerful bishops, who wanted to create a seat fitting their wealth and influence. The building was elaborately carved and adorned with stained glass and painted decoration, and a surprising amount has survived, albeit sometimes only in fragments.
In what was undoubtedly one of our favorite moments of the day, if not our trip to date, we finally heard the mournful sound of the bagpipes being played. We’ve frequently remarked to each other how surprised we’ve been at the lack of traditional Scottish music we’ve encountered, and that of course would include the bagpipes. On this occasion though, we came upon a piper who had participated in a pipe band event earlier in the day, and had stayed in full dress. He and his wife had brought visitors from Australia to see the ruins of Elgin Cathedral, and he had brought his pipes with him to accompany their walk through the grounds.
We spoke to him when he was finished and told him how much we’d enjoyed listening to him, and his wife jokingly replied “you can take him home with you if you like, I hear those darn things all the time”. A glance at my watch showed it was nearing 5 o’clock, and as Mary and I made our way to the gates, imagine our delight that the piper resumed his playing to escort us out of the ruins.
On one of our roadside stops earlier in the afternoon, I had reserved us a room at the Laichmoray Hotel.
Described as the premiere hotel in Elgin, we had the misfortune to arrive in the midst of a massive wedding celebration, and while we weren’t necessarily bothered by the event, it was nevertheless difficult to get much attention from the hotel staff as they were quite overwhelmed. Our room was small but clean, and we opted for a quiet night in. We did turn on the TV to catch some late evening news as we’ve been alerted to the fact that a major storm, “Storm Ali” is packing hurricane force winds, and on its way towards Central Scotland, Northern England, and Ireland. While we are somewhat north of where it is expected to hit hardest, it appears we are going to be impacted by heavy rain, and winds of up to 75 mph. A good night’s sleep is in order as we’re not sure what tomorrow will bring.