Once upon a time… When I was just 18 I was supposed to run off to Scotland, live in a castle with my best friend. We had it all planned. I had seen an advert in the back of a travel magazine – “Come live in the Highlands - $300. per month, room and board, in a room where queens have slept, our beautiful castle, a river full of fish, hill walking, massive gardens.” It included two photos, one of the castle with forest and mountains in the background, one of the river. It was to be a beautiful adventure, a rite of passage into adulthood. It did note that the castle had a ghost. We were undeterred. We had more of that brash teenage confidence than any skinny ghost, we might even be able to send it packing, the two of us. Then my friend’s father decided it was a very bad idea for her to run off to Scotland with me. She might meet a charming Scot in a kilt and all his plans for her marrying a good Greek boy who would keep her in line would be ruined. Of course he was right. I am sure if we had gone then, we would have had the time of our lives and met some lovely kilted locals, probably settled in Scotland, never to return to California and our respective families. It would have been grand, just what we both needed. Never mind, the castles back then (this is pre-castle tourism, pre-castle refurbed hotels) were probably moldy, cold, in somewhat of an original state. We would have both loved it. So, one month before we were set to leave, he bribed her. All expense paid luxury six-month tour around Greece, staying with her wealthy aunt: If you are going to Europe, you should first go to your home country (guilt), you can always go to Scotland next year (never going to happen), your aunt has a mansion, will buy you anything you want, jewels, houses, cars…(ach). The catch was, that I was definitely not invited. A bad influence on all his plans. She had uncovered an earlier plot to basically kidnap her, prior to her eighteenth birthday, where he could legally marry her off in Greece to the boy of his choosing. I was a staunch supporter of her independent choice – she was an American. She could get to an embassy and ask for help. Her father scrapped that plan in favor of a lure. Being of age, he could not force her to go, but he could coerce her into it. My friend being so much more of a material girl than I, caved. She traded her highland adventure for a pricey pair of shoes and the Greek Riviera. I knew that would be the beginning of the end of our friendship. She went to Greece, got indoctrinated, returned, married someone her father approved of and spent a major portion of her adult life trying to get past it. Turns out he was a bigamist. Already married in Egypt with kids (of course hid this from her) and was trying to lure her to Cairo, where she would be legally his property, second wife, and, if she ever made it to an Embassy could be anyone’s guess.
I couldn’t afford to go on my own, we had each saved just enough for our share and an emergency fund. Deeply disappointed, crushed actually, I started my active spiritual searching for a larger path and life and vowed that I would get to Scotland, someday, even if on my own…I started hiking in the Sierra’s, took classes at Esalen, bought a pair of wellies, learned to fish, dated other poets and moved away from the city for good. I was subconsciously in training for a future Highland life.
Turns out that most towns in Scotland can claim a castle in their midst – the once and future home of the overlords of the day, some crumbing, some rubble, others actually still occupied. So what do you do with a castle in your midst these days? Put up signs directing tourists through town and over to the fortress, citadel cum palace, or whatever is left of it. And if still occupied? How, exactly does one maintain a castle? Tourists.
April -October is castle season. Dukes, Barons, Lords, Lairds, Counts, (and all their female counterparts and families on the whole) open the gates and gardens and, usually, even a part of their house as a museum of sorts. They also give the option of renting the entire lot out for weddings and special occasions. The drawing room, the library, the formal dining room, etc. are on display. Culzean Castle, (granted, this is now a trust property – another option for being able to stay in your very big house) has even added eight rescued llamas and an exciting new playground, “Adventure Cove,” to lure more of the wee tourists to bring their families along. The Culzean Trust head forester explains that tragically, the Kennedy family once kept a menagerie of exotic animals such as bison and emus, a sort of early zoo – all gone now.
Aristocrats on a budget, have staked out a wing (usually on the west side of the castle – don’t exactly know why this is – but it is fairly consistent), and have modernized the interior – dropped the ceilings down to an energy efficient level, put in central heating for the apartments, built insulated walls within the walls (castles are dark and dank on the whole) – added lots of lighting, then decorated. This is the inner sanctum, the private apartments of the family, where they can have a little peace and grandeur when the coach loads of visitors and tour guides have left, when the grounds crew put away all their heavy equipment and head home. This also means they don’t have to heat the rest of it. That could be quite expensive now that manpower is fair wage only – no legions of staff to keep those multitudinous fireplaces going. Besides, back in the day there were frequent castle fires, due to unattended fireplaces or candlelit chandeliers, etc., difficult to insure that bit now. What do they get for all their castle owning troubles? Space, a continuum of family history, a sense of ownership, a private stroll through your very own pinetum, vast grounds and gardens – available from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., where after, should you own a castle, you are guaranteed to be over-run again. Castle dwelling definitely is not what it used to be. I rather like the idea that these days, the rabble, who used to be relegated to the less then glorious lodgings in the villages at the edges of the estate (miles away in fact), now come to the big house, not just to work, but to have a wee poke around. (To be fair, the villagers were protected and invited in if there was to be a war, castle attack imminent or soon to be under siege as the overlords needed manpower for soldiering, long term food handy and the village shepherds and the like to manage all that livestock.)
That being said, age, destruction and abandonment have not diminished the mystique of the castle. Case in point, the ruins of Dunnottar Castle, outside of Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire. This medieval castle is still entirely masculine (most are; some are not). It was no doubt utterly glorious in its day, and the ultimate fortress as well. Castles were made to impress as well as defend. Set between two burns, it is well placed, perched on a towering hill of stone that juts out of the North Sea, mostly separate from the coastal land mass. Defendable.
Dunnottar also has a resounding presence all its own and is therefore very relevant. Scores of the whitest of gulls nest on the walls now, and lyrically fly off edges to the wildflower field and water falls across the crag, then swing out over the endless blue of ocean that laps at the castle roots, diving in large numbers, as if from a sky scraper, straight down. The water is so clear you can see the bottom rocks and fish for nearly a mile off shore. This castle had been captured by my ancestor William Wallace. Later, as the home of the Keith’s, long-time supporters of the Stewarts, it was visited by Mary Queen of Scotts and her son, James the VI of Scotland/the Ist of England. Then for the same reason, (Jacobites and royals out, Protestants in) summarily looted and burnt down during the Protestant Reformation. Looking across the hill to Dunnottar’s remains, I feel as if I am dreaming – I can hear the castle heaving with gatherings, the horses coming down and across the mid-air bridge, the music. If there are any ghosts here, they would have to be of the mythic kind, larger than the castle walls and cliff edge, some monolithic God cousin to Neptune, the mighty God Dunnottar. There is something still very much alive within this medieval lens, these remaining walls, this rock cliff beneath my feet. Rounding the corner to go, I feel like I am leaving a lover on a lark and vow to return again.