Town / Cities Visited: 128
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 12,740
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,198,072
Our morning was frustrating to say the least, thanks to what was meant to be a quick trip to the post office to send some things home. The first post office Google directed us to was not able to accept any packages over one kilogram, which left us having to walk to another post office directed to us by the first, but of which Google seemingly had no knowledge of. Here we were soon to discover that, stupidly, one of our packages was over two kilos, and would literally cost more to send than two seperate packages of less than that weight, so we set it aside and decided to sort it out at a later point when we had time. Also, thanks to the strict postal laws of Australia, we learned that a couple of the gifts we had bought for people were not able to be posted, most noticeably a couple of bracelet charms I had bought for my best friend’s 30th, because they were worth more than £20. Apparently sending nice gifts of a reasonable amount is asking too much. Posting ‘expensive’ jewellery is forbidden to prevent money laundering according to the helpful gentleman behind the counter, and if you lie on the content declaration, you run the risk of the package being destroyed if checked at import control. Thats all well and good, and I’m all for crime prevention, but if I’m honest I can scarcely think of any half decent jewellery worth less than AUD$40, and I doubt anyone it setting up a crime syndicate trading anything worth that little. Besides there are plenty of other expensive items you could launder money through that aren’t banned. To cut a long story short we posted a couple of things, and sorted out the other package weights and contents in the following days before posting them from Edinburgh.
Moving right along. Today would see us travel from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, but we had one site we wished to visit along the way; Dunnottar Castle. Now I know what you’re thinking, surely we must be sick of seeing castles by now. You will of course find that you are wrong, and you underestimate our love for them. Today’s was of special interest to us due mainly to its striking location, but as we arrived after our rather tiresome morning, we paused briefly at the food truck near the car park to grab a bite to eat. We have had our fair share of tourist food, and questionable food truck fare, but I can honestly say that we were more than pleasantly surprised by the quality of the fish and chips which were made to order by the solo gentleman manning the truck. Kudos to you, sir.
Satiated, we continued towards our destination. For those of you who have never been to this stunning site, it is its perch atop a rocky headland that makes it so magical. This isolated seat of power is connected to the mainland by a small strip of beach which must be reached by descending a steep set of stairs, then re-ascending up an equally steep set on the headland. As you make the treacherous and exhausting journey, it becomes obvious why this location was chosen. Even without its strong stone walls and fortified gatehouse tucked in a fold in the heads, its beyond difficult to reach, especially without detection from the high vantage point of the guards.
Like so many other castles in this country, this one also sits in ruins, but thats not to say it’s not without a lively past. If history is of little to no interest to you, I’d suggest skipping the next three paragraphs, but let me just say that this place has quite the story to tell. The early history of the site is a little hazy to say the least, with no clear evidence of when buildings were first constructed here, however it is thought that there may have been a church her all the way back to the 5th century. There are tales of attacks by Pictish kings, and even claims that William Wallace took Dunnottar from the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence, and imprisoned 4000 English soldiers in the chapel, before burning them alive. This castle has played a part in many religious and political conflicts, and although some are unconfirmed, some are most certainly marked in the annals of history. Particularly, the conflict between the Royalists and the Covenanters, a group of Presbyterians who opposed the Episcopal church and the changes being put in place by Charles I in the mid 17th century. A faction of the Covenanters, known as the Whigs, later found themselves prisoners at Dunnottar after refusing to take an oath of alliance to the new King James VII and acknowledge his authority in spiritual matters; however, I will get into that further later on. How many of the bloody stories of the past and their gruesome details are true remains a mystery, but given the many wars that have befallen this country, its fair to say that a large amount of blood has likely soaked the grounds here.
Thats not to say all of the sites history is violent and damaging. In fact, given the strategic and secure location of the castle, it was used as a place to hide the Honours of Scotland, that being the crown, sword, and sceptre, while Oliver Cromwell was going about his task of invading and attacking most of Britain. Thanks to this intelligent decision, and the bravery of the small garrison here who held out against Cromwell’s forces for eight months, the honours survived, and as a result now stand as the oldest surviving crown jewels in the British Isles.
Dunnottar Castle, or what remains of it today, was built in the 15th and 16th centuries, and was expanded and added to in the following centuries, leaving the usual jumble of architectural styles. Like most castles in this corner of the world, it changed hands many times between nobles until Earl Marischal, the sites owner in 1716, fled to mainland Europe after the defeat of the Jacobite Rising; a fight in which he aligned himself with the losing side. The lands were thus forfeit to the crown, and in 1720 Dunnottar Castle was purchased by York Buildings Company, who took it upon themselves to dismantle much of the stonework. It was repurchased by the Earl in 1761, who sold it five years later. From here, it was bought and sold multiple times, despite never being repaired or rebuilt, until it eventually came into the possession of Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount of Cowdray, in 1925, after which point he and his wife embarked on a series of repairs. The castle remains in the hands of the Pearson family, and thanks to their work, and the sites scheduled monument listing, the ruins are prevented from crumbling further.
Now that you have a brief overview of the long and tumultuous history of Dunnottar, allow me to continue. Heaving somewhat from our impromptu step aerobics session trying to make it to the front gate, we stepped through, purchasing our tickets, grabbing a map, and beginning our well earned exploration. Like so many ruined sites which have been abandoned to the will of nature for so long, Dunnottar is a heady mix of medieval masonry and opportunistic plant-life. As you duck into the forgotten cellars, prison, and apartments of the Benholm Lodgings (one of the later additions to the castle) you are surrounded, more often than not, by a jumble of wilful weeds reaching our for you from the mortar. Likewise, the walls bear a solid covering of almost supernaturally vibrant green moss; or as I like to think of it, nature’s wallpaper; which makes modern ‘living walls’ look even more kitsch than they already are. As per usual, Mother Nature has used a damp hand in this shadowed area to erode the forceful hand of man, and reclaim space that has always rightfully been hers.
As you make your way up and up, passed the old tunnels, and towards the tower house, you pass the overgrown cave known as the Lion’s Den. It turns out this is not just a namesake but was, in fact, where the Earl of Marischal kept his pet lion. It is to be said though, that the lion’s residence was short-lived, not because this is very clearly not the right climate for a lion, nor because they should not be kept in small caves, but because its constant roaring (I’d say read that as howling in distress) kept the Countess awake.
The tower, which is slightly less ruined than its surroundings, offers a spectacular view over the headland, including a sightline to the war memorial in the adjacent head, which is designed to appear like columned Roman ruins of old. This end of Dunnottar also provides a small museum with a few displays, including a couple of pipes, musket balls, and cannonballs found during excavations, and a small model of how the site may have appeared before its deconstruction.
Eventually, you find yourself reaching the main plateau, upon which the majority of the ruins sit. Wandering around here is the usual mix of roofless rooms, fireplaces, and windows which function almost as picture frames to the stunning views beyond. A small 17th century style garden has also been reconstructed and provides a quiet place to sit, but the usual light misting of rain left us moving on without a break.
It is not hard to spot the other standard additions of medieval self contained castles, although a little signage helps, from the blacksmith with its towering chimney remains, to the bakehouse and kitchens with their numerous ovens, to the cistern which now presents more as a fishpond than at a historic water source.
The only restored roofs sit atop the Silver House, and the dining room, which has been refurbished to give a sense of its possibly past glory. The old apartments of the Earl and the Countess are made obvious by their spaciousness, the addition of their coats of arms over the fireplace, and a rather striking old stone clock face. The chapel, which constitutes the oldest part of the castle, dating from the 13th century, remains uncovered but can be recognised by the small holy water font built into the far wall, and the niches for holy idols which now sit bare.
All of this said and done though, it is one of the darkest and least hospitable rooms which stirs the most curiosity and emotion in this place; Whigs vault. Now as I mentioned before, a number of the Whigs were imprisoned here in the 17th century, but let me now elaborate a little. In 1685 there was a short rebellion where the Whigs, a faction of the Presbyterians, refused to acknowledge the king as the supreme head of the church. With the prisons in Edinburgh at capacity, some of the imprisoned Whigs were moved to Dunnottar to make room for other offenders. Two hundred in total were marched north, of which 122 men and 45 women survived the journey. They were then thrown into this vault, in which they were kept for nine weeks, wallowing in their own mire as they were provided no means of sanitation, and they had to buy food and water from the guards. Twenty five men escaped from the vault, but of those, three fell to their death from the heads, and fifteen were recaptured and tortured. The remaining prisoners were eventually put on a ship to the West Indies, but given the sometimes questionable maritime navigation of the era they ended up in New England. Of those transported, seventy did not survive the trip. Like so many times in history, this is just one more example of the destruction and cruelty power and differing beliefs has had, and continues to have, upon us as a society.
With our visit complete, the rain continuing, and a long journey still ahead, we made our way back towards the car, but not without first wandering to the lookout back on the mainland which provides a truly picture perfect view of this hauntingly ruined place. A two hour drive and we were finally arriving in Edinburgh, but with Google’s third and final spectacular fail for the day, we found ourselves stuck in half an hours worth of gridlock after we missed our turn off. Eventually, we made it to our Airbnb, and we cobbled together a meal before chucking a load of washing on, and settling in for the night.
As my mind drifted back to the rippling golden grass on the cliffs edge, I couldn’t help but feel like the ghosts of those imprisoned here would not be out of place standing on this precipice, looking longingly out to sea. The image conjured in my mind’s eye of auburn locks and flowing dresses dancing on the brisk morning breeze seems somehow both calming and sombre. So vivid was this thought that I could almost here the sound of a bagpipe playing out some heart wrenchingly solemn tune. There have been so many lives stolen in the name of power and belief, that sometimes I wonder about our intelligence as a species.
Not only do you find conflict between those with different gods, but also amongst those who believe in the same God. For example, generally speaking, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe in the same God, however their disagreements come when looking at the interpretation the holy scriptures and the belief of whether or not Jesus was the son of God, or just another prophet. Religious groups have been fighting wars over who’s man written book is right for millennia. Even within Christianity itself they have disagreed so often, and split into different denominations so readily that ‘Are you a Christian?’ requires the follow up question of ‘Which church?’. Not only do you have the Catholics, the Protestants, and the Orthodox; each of these have their own seperate branches with differing practices. They all read the same book, and yet the differences in interpretation have meant that there is constant tension, and often, as seen with the Whigs vault, this has escalated to imprisonment, torture, and even murder. It’s like persecuting someone simply because they had the audacity to say that they believe Samwise Gamgee was the real hero in The Lord of the Rings.
Somehow Christians all agree that God preaches compassion and forgiveness, yet many seem only to portray these virtues in the company of those who hold identical beliefs. Religion is, and always has been, a method of holding and maintaining power over the masses, whilst simultaneously allowing those in charge to convince themselves that they are worthy and justified in their cruelty towards others. Mankind has been using religion to justify their evils since time immemorial, and yet we still seemed to be shocked when extremists commit heinous acts ‘in the name of God’. Martyrdom is a matter of opinion, and one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Furthermore, given that none of those preaching religion seem able to prove they are right until they reach the afterlife, it seems that religion and death will continue to be strange bedfellows. If, by some miracle, we manage to survive extinction by climate change, nuclear war, or a superbug, it seems likely that intolerance will be our downfall. Unless we start to live in peace alongside those we don’t necessarily agree with, we will continue to exist in a world full of hatred masqueraded as righteousness. To those sensible enough to practise tolerant and loving lives regardless of belief or lack thereof, I wish you good fortune, long life, and peaceful eternity, wherever that may be.