Castle are great, aren’t they?
Not a particularly profound statement, I know, but going to visit a castle still gives me a child-like thrill. I think this is because they are as much places of the imagination as a historical or heritage site. So many castles, particularly the medieval ones (as opposed to your 17th-century and later castellated Big Hoose) are so empty or ruinous that to get any sense of how it truly was in its day requires some creativity from the visitor. This is excellent, particularly if you want to use the castle for inspiration for your writing, but it’s also a bit of a problem.
Living in Scotland, I often forget just how many castles there are to see. Within an hour’s drive of my flat there are at least twelve, all very different from one another. There are your stereotypical cutrain-walled monsters with huge towers, the common Scottish tower-house type, with later, renaissance-inspired additions, and there are small but characterful castles with odd features you won’t find anywhere else - caponier, anyone? Some are on hilltops, looming over the surrounding countryside, some on cliff-girt crags or surrounded by woodland.
One of my favourites is called Newark Castle, just outside the town of Port Glasgow on the banks of the Clyde. It is not in the most engaging of situations, sitting - literally - in the shadow of a shipyard, while on the other side is a somewhat unpreposessing park. The castle itself is more of a fortified house these days, the latest iteration in a line of different dwellings on that site. Anyone visiting it would be forgiven some low expectations, but Newark turns out be a splendid place. Like all the best castles it is full of stairwells and tucked-away rooms, massive fireplaces and unexpected views. The warden who looks after it was delightful, though it helped that no one else was there. I spent a very satisyfing hour or two, wandering the rooms, imagining the place in its heyday, and just enjoying the vibes.
A lot of the castles in Scotland now sell themselves through their connection to films and TV. Outlander looms large - at Doune Castle and Blackness Castle particularly. At Doune they have Outlander-inspired costumes you can dress up in and have your photo taken, while the same castle also makes a big deal out of its Monty Python connection. You can see why film-makers love them. These are dark, brooding places of grim stonework and lofty walls, the perfect backdrop for epic dramas (or sublimely idiotic dialogues about swallows).
But here’s the thing. The way these castles look now is, by and large, nothing like they looked when they were functioning places of defence and governance. The guidebooks make this very clear, but the way the castles are used in media reflects more the way they are now than the way they were then. I was really struck when I discovered that Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire - another brooder on top of a hill with panoramic views all round - was not the grey block you see today but was actually harled in white, not some gloomy stone lump but a glowing beacon on a hill. The interiors are the same. The popular image of a medieval interior is lots of bare stone and draftiness - that is, after all, what we’re presented with when we visit. It’s clear, though, that this is nothing like the actuality. Most of these rooms - from great halls to bed-chambers - were hung with tapestries and textiles, had brightly-painted woodwork and plastered walls. The higher up in society you were, the more you could afford to keep out the cold, but everyone still sought comfort, still sought warmth.
This is where the imagination thing is both a delight and a challenge. Don’t go to a Scottish castle expecting to see how life was lived in the 12th century because you won’t. You’ll see some fragments of it, some hints and allusions to it, but what remains is, well, remains. To truly connect with these castles we need to see with our imaginations, to populate each space with light and noise and smells. We need to reimagine the colour.