Culross Abbey

I happened on Culross by chance, I was heading further along into Fife and I saw the sign. I am happy I chose to go for the detour because Culross Abbey is an interesting site. There’s a new church next to the old ruins, and the ruins are magnificent.

The day I had chosen was not the sunniest of possible ones (the grey cloud cover often comes through as endless sunlight in my pictures). Typically to Fife, there was some rain. These conditions made the site stand out as much as the random bits of masonry do everywhere — indeed, the state of deconstruction is possibly the most worthy thing to see here.

It brings to mind ‘Ruin’:

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age.

Culross Abbey

Bothwell Castle

Bothwell, ‘The most magnificent ruin in Scotland’, lies on a hill at a bend of the Clyde, overlooking the river. An imposing stronghold which has been the key to the region since its inception in 1242, this is a wonderful site to visit.

Firstly, I’d note that Bothwell at present is less than it was expected to be by at least some of its masters. Several buildings to the exterior of its present standing wall were never built, including another gatehouse. However, the groundwork for these is present and it’s quite interesting to see.

Nevertheless, of the buildings which are still standing both the exterior wall and the interior buildings are beautiful. The Great Hall is magnificently ornamented though the higher levels exist no more.

It is also one of the castles Edward I of England took when he attacked Scotland during succession disputes. As a powerful lowland stronghold, Bothwell therefore has changed hands many a time, even not noting the various Scottish families to have owned it: the Olifards, the Morays, the Douglases, before becoming a royal stronghold.

It feels to me as if the greatness of these generations is more perceptible here than in some other places. This castle reflects the centuries of history it has experienced, and it does so well. The mighty Bothwell…

Bothwell Castle

Doune Castle

Doune Castle is relatively close to both Edinburgh and Glasgow. As such, it is perhaps not the most famous castle in the Lowlands, but also not unknown. Fans of both Monty Python or the Outlander will recognise it even more, and for the Outlander people, I found this a lot more spectacular than Blackness Castle.

I am not familiar enough with Monty Python to comment on that side, but I will mention both Outlander and another series here. Firstly, however, the story of Doune. Another castle which was quite important in the 14th century; Albany or Menteith, Robert Stewart, was the lord of this castle and his ambition was boundless. As the audioguide in the castle (btw, a very nice addition though not quite the best thing in case we’re dealing with a rainy day) mentioned, however, we can consider him lucky for dying in 1420, a few years before King James I, in whose name he reigned, being restored to full power. Doune became a royal stronghold, and more than a hundred years later, the name of Mary Queen of Scots was associated with the top level apartments in the tower (though it isn’t even known whether she actually stayed here).

The Outlander bit is epic. Castle Leoch is the Doune Castle in Invernessshire. The kitchen from Doune is the kitchen in Leoch. Admittedly not all of the scenes were filmed here, but it’s close enough with the film-company making an exact replica of the set for the filming. Admittedly, with the audioguide introducing this aspect by bringing in the Outlander’s actor for Jaime, this could have been more iconic. I found him a bit lacklustre in most aspects with no real enthusiasm showing in his words.

What is mentioned in fewer places is the fact that Doune was also used for the pilot of the Game of Thrones. It’s not quite the same which made Winterfell in actual Episode 1, but there are definite similarities. It is a pity they didn’t show Doune more in those final scenes, but one can see the local features in what they created for the final set of Winterfell.

Doune Castle

Rothesay Castle

Rothesay on the Isle of Bute is a fairly small castle, indeed it could be considered mostly a keep. A few round towers surround the central area though regrettably these are in a pretty poor state. Also, at least right now the majority of the northern wall is undergoing reconstruction and it’s quite difficult to position oneself for a good view.

Another problem: seagulls. There were about a dozen score million of them. And they were very much in the way of trying to walk around the castle…

The history of this place is interesting with a lot of 12th/13th century struggles happening here. The Norwegians had it, the Norwegians lost Rothesay and Bute; Scots built a castle here, and before they were finished the Norwegians came back and conquered it. Apparently the walls at that point were so fresh that the Norwegians could dismantle them. They took the castle, killed some Scots, but had to retreat a short while later. King Hakon Hakonson came back before the end of his life and he took the place again, but the Scottish fleet along with some helpful weather defeated him. Hakon died on his way back to Norway (on the Orkneys), and Rothesay was Scottish forevermore. Owned by the Stewarts, it became a royal castle when they took up the kingly spectre and such it is now.

However, even with all that history the emotion Rothesay brings up is not one of a bloody struggle or of massive power. It feels cute to me, in a way most other castles, large or small, do not. I’d recommend taking a look, but there are better places to see.

Rothesay Castle

Castle Campbell

Castle Campbell sounded like an interesting name to me when I first heard it. I mean, the choice of the name of a clan for the castle makes it sound mighty. After having been there, I know it’s the King who named it for his faithful servants (more or less faithful, of course, given we’re in the medieval period here) (who allowed it to be named for his…) who owned it for a long long time after which a Glaswegian businessman re-built it and marketed it as a good hunting grounds in the Victorian times.

Have to say, I pretty much agree with all of those points. Castle Campbell makes for spectacular scenery from every direction, and with several approaches to choose from, one can easily be spoiled. Admittedly, if parked at the lower car park (the way I went) and walking though the Glen Dollar, it’s difficult to see out of the valley. Or, at least, I found it difficult but I also ended up looking in a very wrong direction for the castle so that would explain it.

The way past the upper car park, however, leads to these views here:

Castle Campbell in the Glen Dollar
Castle Campbell in the Glen Dollar

These are probably the better overviews of the fortification though I did not try going to any of the local peaks which would allow for an even more comprehensive view. Even so though, the approach to this fort creates the sense of magic that I would hope the Campbells wanted to achieve with their ‘Lowland’ centre. It is definitely impressive enough.

However, that’s not worth missing the glen. The walk through there is more amazing than anything. For me, it had a definite Blue Mountains-y vibe to it. The fact a light drizzle was going on helped create that atmosphere. I parked in the lower car park, walked through the glen and climbed up to the castle, and then came down the paved way via the upper car park. This allowed for less rigorous stairs, but also experiencing all of the view.

The castle itself was also good though of course not as spectacular inside as the bigger ones. With a basic keep, a gatehouse, and a few tiered gardens, however, the inside look is as good as the outside even if it makes for less photographic scenes. The great hall, for one, looked interesting in many ways though the surfacing they’d put down had turned it into a massive lake by the point I visited. That’s probably not the case for the majority of time though.

The keeps were good fun to climb around as well, as one would expect. The top of the keep which made for good views of the surrounding had a few sides which were difficult to go to, and as the other crenellations/walls don’t survive, some bits of the neighbourhood were quite difficult to survey.

Overall, a beautiful but quiet place, this is well worth visiting, especially if you like both castles and nature.

 

Abdication of Justin II

One of the strengths of Mr Gibbon (Chapter 45) is his propensity to draw up images from the very moment the original events happened. The abdication of Justin II is exactly one such event.

What makes it so wonderful for me to hear the lamentation of the abdicating monarch is his realisation of all he could have done better in his responsibilities for the people. Hence, the speech with which he greets his successor, Tiberius, is colourful in both wisdom and elegance.

This, I feel, is one of the moments where one realises how fully absolute power corrupts. Justin failed to avoid it and he fell into darkness. He, however, also realised the full extent of the troubles with the people swinging behind a new person, and he managed to extricate himself from that situation. For all that he has experienced, he does not wish Tiberius to go down the same route…

“You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honour them, and from them you will derive honour. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, [and he pointed to his ministers,] who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendour of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.”

Tantallon Castle

Tantallon is one of the places which I feel looks more spectacular on pictures than in person. This, however, is not because the place is bad, but because I don’t think a good position to appreciate it all remains. The front walls are strong and people can still climb them, but if there ever was one to the rear (slight doubts), that would have been a better place to look out from (for me). Or, the gatehouse through which one enters these days…

The skill by which the Scottish lairds built and maintained castles must be appreciated. And, Tantallon is definitely one of these places. The wish that a man must have had, saying “I shall have my castle here”, and then building it. Now, this statement makes it all sound inhospitable which it actually is not. It’s just difficult: very easy to cut off from the landward side, but also problematic to access by the sea due to the cliffs it stands on. From the point of view of the construction-work, this must have been a right pain.

Tantallon is poetic in the best sense with a slightly ruined façade visible as one approaches. The external gatehouse, however, is in tatters with one getting the barest of ideas what entering through it could have looked like. Also, the rear (seaward) wall has disappeared, and only the barest of ideas tells us what the castle in its entirety looked like.

Overall, though, perfect! What makes it stand out even more is the wonderful seascape (where I have to add that, Bass Rock feels like Ailsa Craig picked up and thrust to the other side of Scotland).

The other things that bring these Scottish gems to life is the history itself. A story to go with Tantallon, for example, recounts the tale of the Civil War, how a group of thirty (I believe) mounted bandits essentially put up a better fight than the rest of Scotland put together. General Monck is who fixed the situation as Tantallon could not stand against his artillery. There are other Scottish associations as well, typically having to do with imprisoning kings and such things. Poor James who could never trust his regents to actually be reasonable. The stories, some might say, are lots of fun. For others, the below will do:

View from Tantallon Castle

Dunstanburgh Castle

Moving southwards on the coast, there’s Dunstanburgh. Or, rather, what was Dunstanburgh. With the castle being so closely tied to the fate of its lords, the fact that the Lord, Thomas of Lancaster, earned royal displeasure by killing Piers Gaveston, did not help Dunstanburgh rise through the times. Thomas was often on the wrong side of any argument after that, and it was not long before he died. It is not even known whether the Earl ever made it to his castle.

The final dagger through the heart of Dunstanburgh was, of course, its destruction in the Wars of the Roses when Lord Warwick’s artillery decided that the castle’s masonry was of the previous century. As expected, it did not hold out.

What is clear, however, and what stood through the times, is that the king’s men in Bamburgh could see the defiance inherent in Dunstanburgh. Even now, when one stands facing north, the mighty keep at Bamburgh is clearly visible. When the great walls of Dunstanburgh were still intact the sight would have been similarly majestic from the other side. Majestic, I say, by which I mean the king’s men would always have known that their vigilance was required.

Dunstanburgh Castle

What is not noticeable from this photo is the fact that as one goes further along the coast (or the walls), the coastline develops into a massive sea-cliff. Thomas chose this position very very well. It is a pity it doesn’t survive better, but in a lot of ways, ruins can be more spectacular than the full thing.

The other bit worth mentioning here is the John of Gaunt gatehouse. John is well-known to readers of 14th century as the instigator of a massive raid into France in the Hundred Years’ War, and he came to own Dunstanburgh for a while in the late 14th century. He clearly also left his mark on the grounds though indeed I don’t know much about it.

What is also interesting but what I cannot really comment on is how the Edwardian fortification construction lessons from Wales were applied in the next set of castles. The plentiful placards on the site note that Harlech and Conwy resemble certain works on this site, and I imagine people who have visited both will have more to draw on. Maybe when I visit them, I’ll take another guess at comparing these…

Bamburgh Castle

I wish I could say I visited Bebbanburgh, but regrettably as yet we can still travel only in space and not in time. If we could… Until then, I visited Bamburgh.

Northumbria’s ancient seat of power had been in my list of places to see. Firstly, because I have taken an interest in early English history (5th to 9th centuries), and, secondly, because it has lately been popularised by the writings of Mr Bernard Cornwell. Indeed, it was the latter which built in me the enthusiasm for the former.

The present castle is of course not the one we would have seen in the 8th or 9th centuries, nor is our understanding of what those castles looked like particularly good. But, it is ever my principle than in experiencing the places people previously have experienced one can grasp an idea of what they may have thought.

However, one should also think about what Bamburgh symbolised for all of the years after then. It is steeped in history, like so many of the other local fortifications. Bamburgh rebelled against William II when the third Norman Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray thought he had found a better king than William. After the castle submitted, it became a property of the king, and the royal standard flew from the keep for centuries after then.

Indeed, the various stages of fortification would have added to the keep so that people all around the local area would unrecognisably see the power and authority of the king. And, he was powerful. But, power is always contested. More on this elsewhere (namely, when I’ll get to writing about Dunstanburgh)…

But back to Bamburgh: I found the complex environment of the dunes of the beach and the rock of the castle a very curious mix. The castle from the beach was striking, and the beach from the castle looked like an integral part of the landscape. The dunes seemed to comprise more of a landscape than the entirety of the landward countryside.

And though we shan’t know how exactly Bebbanburgh looked like, but if you’re as curious as I am to see what the people there could have made of it, go and take a look.

And, for a second, back to the Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. How would a lord of this castle behave? What would he think? Would he have looked in admiration onto the Holy Island and the monks there; the very same monks who turned Northumbria into a centre of the Christian culture? What would have been the limit of his aspirations?

Bamburgh Castle

Lindisfarne Priory

The Priory was close to the Castle. Apparently, it was out of use and being slowly dismantled by the time construction started on the castle, which is why it is in such a state of disrepair. Although, the one thing I noted was that the main object standing is a massive arch even though it had barely any support. The monks (and masons and assisting people) built those arches well, or rather, figured out clever geometry for the arches to support themselves well!

Though this priory carries very little in itself of the original 7th century centre of all Christian learning (or, well, most of it in the former Western Empire), I can sense why this place was chosen for the monastery.

Well, of course, let’s step back — firstly, one of the reasons was the proximity to the seat of the kings of Northumbria (Bernicia / Deira) across the water in Bebbanburgh. But, more than that, I think if St Aidan had to have chosen after coming wondering around Northumbria, the sheer beauty of the island would have made him want to make this place it. The beauty, but also the tranquillity. It must count as one of the more peaceful places I have experienced.

I think the present-day islanders follow the wish for peace, firstly, by still being secluded from the mainland by the tides, but also by preventing too many mainlanders coming across at any one time (same tides, limited accommodation, defined parking areas for outsiders, restricted access to some places, etc).

Lastly, I was particularly gifted in visiting the place during a day which was dry and sunny. I also heard that, similarly to every other region and county, Lindisfarne is meant to be the driest place in the British Isles (version Northumbria).

I’d like to go back.

Lindisfarne Priory