Towns / Cities Visited: 127
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 8,194
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,185,332
We awoke refreshed from a sleep in the luxury of a king sized bed for the first time in a long time. Our morning only got better when we were greeted in the kitchen by our amazing AirBNB host, Raymond, wielding a spatula and cooking up a full Scottish breakfast for us, and the older couple staying in the other room, who just happened to be up this way looking to buy a house in the area. One delicious meal and a friendly conversation later, and we were in high spirits as we packed our things into our car, bid farewell, and trundled off down the road to continue our adventure once more.
We had planned today to simply be a travel day, as we made the long journey from Thrumster, down the east coast to Aberdeen, but as we still had our Explorer Pass, we decided to make a couple of stops at some of the heritage sites along the way, to break up the drive. Three hours in, and we were finally arriving in the town of Elgin. After a short walk we reached our destination; Elgin Cathedral. Now don’t go thinking this is just another typical old house of God, it is rather, one of the most hauntingly beautiful ruined churches we had come across thus far.
Elgin Cathedral was established in 1224, but the church fell victim to fire in 1270 and 1390, which resulted in the site being extended and enlarged during each subsequent rebuild. Surprisingly, the cathedral managed to be spared from the ravages of the Wars of Scottish Independence, but in 1560, after the reformation, the building was abandoned, and services were transferred to the parish church of St Giles. In 1567, the lead waterproofing was removed from the roof, and from then the decay began. A storm in 1637 caused a large portion of the roof to collapse, and in 1711 the central steeple and the connected walls gave way. The centuries have certainly taken its toll on this place, but thanks to conservation efforts which began in the 19th century, the two western towers, the chapter house, and what’s left of the nave and chancel are likely to remain for some time yet.
As you near the entrance, the remaining towers almost give the illusion of an, at the very least, partially complete building, however, as you walk through its doorless entrance you are delivered into the grass carpeted ruin that is the nave. We found ourselves to be alone in our adventure, which seemed less than surprising given the dreary weather and the fact this isn’t exactly one of the countries most popular sites. Still, we wandered around with our usual wonder at the beauty of places which predate the settlement of our home country by almost half a millennium.
At the far end, and off to the right, sit the crumbling remains of the ancient walls, and the somehow gravity defying stone windows, although they now sit glassless. Carefully preserved within the heart of the cathedral sit the capstones of those interred here back in its heyday, and beyond the border of the walls sit a tumble of churchyard graves. Time may not have been kind to those above ground, but at least those who rest below were left to do so in relative peace. Amongst all of these memorial stones, also sits the remains of an old Pictish cross slab, depicting falconry, which was found on the grounds of the parish church, but now rests safely here.
Deciding to escape the misty rain for a while, we ventured within the preserved western towers to be surprised by their extensive exhibition of medieval masonry. Many of the carved figures and decorations from the cathedral were placed inside the towers during the decay of the building, and as a result, they were spared from the elements and remain in incredible repair. From flora and fauna, to grotesques, coats of arms, and even a haunting green man figure, it was spellbinding to see the magic the hands of master masons bestowed upon this place. So often these pieces have been worn away by rain and wind, or are mounted too high up to be examined in detail, and it was wonderful to be able to appreciate them from so close. The towers also provide a stunning view down over the ruins, which help give scale to what was once one of the largest and most impressive churches in the country.
The restoration works also lead to the re-roofing of the chapter house, and thus, before we left, we made our way back outside and into its circular embrace. The fan vaulted ceiling is spectacular, and it allowed us a moment of sheltered calm to ponder the beauty of this place.
With the cathedral visited, we scurried back to the car and continued on, hoping to make it to one more site before closing time; Tolquhon Castle. An hour and a half of driving, including some rather hairy ventures down roads barely wide enough for one car, let alone two to pass, we managed to arrive at 4:30pm. By the skin of our teeth, we had managed to a make it in time to be allowed entrance by the rather bored looking receptionist who, if I’m honest, seemed surprised to see anyone making their way out to this rather obscure heritage site. Still she cheerfully let us through the visitor centre, and directed us outside towards the castle.
For the second time today, we, in complete isolation from other visitors, neared the remains of a crumbling ruin. Unlike Elgin Cathedral though, Torquhon is in much better repair than its counterpart. This castle was built between 1584 and 1589, by William Forbes, the 7th Laird of Tolquhon. Preston Tower, the oldest part of the castle was actually built in the early 15th century, possibly by Sir Henry Preston, or his son in law Sir William Forbes, the ancestor of the later William Forbes; and this tower became part of the extended castle. Despite its fortified appearance, it is actually not equipped for defence, but rather was built that way just for show. In truth, this place was simply the stately home of a wealthy man, and one which even played host to King James VI soon after its completion.
As you near the striking gate house you can see one of its most noteworthy additions, a few rather rare triple gun ports, but again its all just a facade and they never saw any actual military use. As you pass through the gate, you are delivered into the central courtyard, around which all of the accommodations of the castle are built. Despite almost all of the roofing here being long since gone, the walls remain largely in tact, and it is not hard to imagine how this place must have looked when filled with medieval Scottish aristocracy.
There are plenty of recognisable and beautiful features to discover as you explore, like the original floor of the banqueting hall, made up of an artfully constructed tessellation of geometric shapes. The well in the courtyard sits no longer filled with water, but rather a collection of wished upon coins, and one stray gumboot; the windows, although glassless, still look out over the lush green manicured lawns, and the dense woods beyond, which I can only imagine were often home to the flashy hunts of old; and the countless fireplaces speak of the warmth around which many a story and a drink would have been shared.
As we passed the ovens of the old kitchen, and the rather menacing hooks of the meat stores which would have held the bounty of the gentlemen’s hunts, my thoughts wandered to the many challenges the cooks of medieval times must have faced; from food preservation, to cooking with such variable heat sources. As we ventured back beyond the walls, and circled the outside of the castle though, we stumbled upon something quite unique, and a feature I had scarcely even considered; niches in the walls to house bee skeps (medieval woven bee hives). When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that the rich would wish to harbour bees to pollinate their food crops, its just something we had never spotted in any of the other heritage sites we’d visited.
The day was coming fast to an end, and with the site set to close soon, we made our way back to the car. A short drive saw us arriving in Aberdeen, and making our way through this university town full of students, recognisable by their penchant for buying pizza in Ugg boots, tracksuit pants, and hoodies. We were soon settling into our Airbnb and sitting down to a home cooked meal and a quiet night.
As I internally reviewed our day, I pondered once more the bee skep niches of Tolquhon. Sometimes I think we forget how important bees are to not only our existence, but also the survival of countless other species. As the top of the food chain mentally and technologically, we often see ourselves as more important than animals, and in doing so, often overlook our interconnectedness with them. We have lived symbiotically with these bumbly insects since time immemorial; a fact bolstered by the discovery of honey in the ancient pyramids of Egypt, and evidence discovered of apiculture traceable back some 9000 years. Not only do they provide an unspoilable food source, and one with many medicinal properties, they are also the soul pollinators of countless flowering fruits and vegetables. Without them, we would struggle catastrophically to farm enough food to sustain our populations. Politicians seem so concerned with young pople not being able to afford real estate because of avocado on toast, they seem to overlook the fact that by the time we can afford a house, the world may not even have avocados at all.
As it stands, we are being faced with the very real possibility that, due to the spread of disease, overuse of pesticides, and Colony Collapse Disorder, we may face a future with decimated numbers of bees, or none at all. A large contributor to the demise of the world’s bee population is the varroa mite, and its spread has already seen numbers dwindle in multiple continents. Despite the imminent threat of agricultural crisis, many choose to look the other way and ignore the issue. I am lucky enough to come from a country which, due to its strict quarantine and isolation from international land borders, has managed to stay free from this killer mite. Still, there are people who recklessly try and bring banned products in, regardless of the fact they may cause the collapse of one of the world’s last bastions of healthy bees. It may seem harmless to bring a small wooden trinket or a shell back from your holidays, but I beseech you to stop and think what you are putting at risk in the name of material ownership. Quarantine laws are in place for the same reason the first world is shouting down the increase in anti-vaccine sentiment; because it only takes one innocent or well meaning act to topple delicate ecosystems, and bring about biological chaos. As the world becomes more mobile, so do the diseases we carry, and it is our responsibility to consider and prevent this as our technologies advance. As the most intelligent species on Earth, we must be held accountable for the damage we knowingly cause. If we continue to standby actionless, we fully deserve the apocalyptic results we will incur. Mother Nature will do what she must to protect herself, even if that means the eradication of the human race.