Monday 24 May 2010

Castles in the Air

I love castles; I love the stimulus they give to my imagination. I should say that it is ruined castles that I prefer, places that inspire my somewhat gothic romantic vision, the same vision as that inspired the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich! If there is a castle anywhere in the vicinity of where I am staying I will visit, the more remote the better, the lonelier the better, the darker its history the better.

Castles were once functional buildings, symbols, sometimes, of forms of oppression and colonial rule, like the great Edwardian fortresses of North Wales. But for me they are just wonderful residues of a past that has gone forever. All flesh may be grass but all castles are stone; stones that carry memory, that carry the ghosts of time.

A fellow blogger has caused me to reflect in particular on some of the castles that I have discovered in my travels to Scotland, from the far south to the distant north. Some of these places are not widely known outside Scotland, perhaps even inside Scotland. There is the wonderful Smailholm Tower, much loved by Sir Walter Scott, a southern tower house that recalls the days of the Border Reivers. There is the great costal fortress of Tantallon, once the home of the Red Douglas earls of Angus, besieged there by the King of Scotland himself in the late fifteenth century.

Also in East Lothian is the splendid castle of Dirleton, situated in a pretty village that seems more redolent of the shires of southern England than Scotland. But my favourite in the south is Caerlaverock Castle, found on the opposite side of the country, in the south-west not far from the English border

There is something so wonderful about this triangulated structure, a perfect example of the military architecture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, functional and beautiful at one and the same time, its overall charm added to by a moat that actually contains water! In 1300 it was besieged by Edward I in person, the occasion for a rather fanciful French poem. There are some interesting seventeenth century alterations, when the owner, the second earl of Nithsdale, attempted to create a modern interior within the Medieval walls. But it all came to nothing with the onset of the Civil Wars.

In the north I have several favourites. Castle Stalker on the coast of Argyll is impossibly romantic, as indeed is Kilchurn Castle on the northern shores of Loch Awe. Largely a fifteenth century structure, it was originally the home of the Campbells of Bredalbane. Owing to its strategic position it was later used by government forces during the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

Going further east, by way of Urquhart Castle, another Loch-side stronghold, I turn towards Aberdeenshire, to the shield-shaped Kildrummy Castle, a great Medieval structure, once the fortress home of the earls of Mar. From there it’s on to the coast south of Stonehaven to the ruins of Dunnottar Castle, perhaps the most evocative of all, a place whose towers glower like those of Tantallon further south directly on to the North Sea. Standing on a natural defensive promontory, there have been strongholds here for centuries before the stone structure finally appeared. Rebuilt many times, it was finally placed in the care of the Keith family, the Earl Marshals of Scotland, forfeited for their part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. In modern times it featured as a ghostly Elsinore in the Mel Gibson movie version of Hamlet.

My thoughts by night are often filled
With visions false as fair:
For in the past alone I build
My castles in the air.

I dwell not now on what may be:
Night shadows o'er the scene:
But still my fancy wanders free
Through that which might have been.


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  3. I am reminded of one of my favourite scientific phenomena - That of the Superior Mirage. Check this out:

    But the deeds of those who disbelieve are like a mirage in a desert. Which the thirsty person imagines to be water, when he comes up to it he finds it to be nothing and finds Allah near him Who pays him his account in full and Allah is swift in reckoning.

    (The Holy Quran. Al Noor [The Light]. 40).

    David Dimbleby visits the town of Dunwich and speaks of the scientific phenomena of Fata Morgana in a clip I posted here: For more information and instances of this spectacular occurence see Marina Warner's 'Fata Morgana; or Castles in the Air' in Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century (Oxford University Press, 2006). It is the most thorough study.

    Also the poem 'Lightenings: viii' by Seamus Heaney. As in Dunwich, bells can also be heard rising from the sunken cathedral of Ys, subject of 'La Cath├ędrale engloutie' by the famous composer Debussy.

  4. very nice post and i like how you wrote it...

  5. Rehan, many thanks. That's a beautiful passage.

    Marcoz, well, it was you who inspired me. :-)