The Spookiest Castle you’ve never heard about

It was a particularly gloomy evening as we made our way towards Dufftown in Leah’s yellow corsa. The bright colours of the car contrasted with the dull greys of the sky above Speyside as we navigated the wet roads.

This was a perfect example of a cheaper and shortened version of a good old road trip. One which had started in nearby Keith and would preferably end up somewhere within a 15 mile radius. Still an enjoyable adventure, but one which lacked the mileage of a Route 66 trip or the Scottish equalivent, the North Coast 500.

My fellow traveller wanted to see another castle, inspired by our visit to the dramatic Slains Castle during the previous week. Stopping in Dufftown, a small village surrounded by hills and several whisky distilleries, we had a look to see which historic sites were within our reach.

It didn’t take long for Leah’s beady eyes to spot Auchindoun Castle, an innocuous place name found on Google Maps. The digital generation’s version of a reliable coffee marked AA road atlas.

I recognised the name and swore I’d visited the site when passing down the nearby Cabrach road (A941) in years gone by. This undulating and winding road takes the traveller through a pretty barren and desolate landscape, linking Dufftown with Rhynie. It’s a road I know well from childhood visits to the Moray Coast when travelling over the hills from Deeside.

From the clock tower in Dufftown’s small square, it took us little over five minutes to reach the castle. The only hurdle along the way being a deeply eroded and steep track up onto the hillside from the road. I imagine this would be likely impassable in the wintery conditions which will often grace this area in the colder months.

A corsa or similar make of car isn’t likely an ideal vehicle for this track, but thankfully the makeshift road doesn’t last too long. Parking is supplied for visitors on your right when you reach the top of the short hill.

On this occasion no other visitors were apparently brave enough to visit the eerie ruin at 7.30 on a Thursday evening and we found the car park empty. Walking past fields of cows we first sighted the castle’s highest tower, peaking above the nearby trees.

Leaving the corsa there was a 10 minute stroll to the castle itself. This involved traversing a grassy and slippy path through a sheep field. If visiting its especially important to close every gate which you pass through. The local farmer will probably not take kindly to one of his woolly friends going for a jaunt in search of greener grass.

There are seemingly two or three entrances to the ruin, with a larger one on the North facing side of the castle. From this side there are good views down to the River Fiddich and beyond, although care should be taken not to fall into what remains of the moat.

The 15th century fortification was most likely built by Thomas Cochrane, an ally and architect of King James III. Cochrane received the Earldom of Mar in 1479 as reward for his hard work, but the castle was more infamously owned by Sir Adam Gordon.

The Gordons likely occupied the castle from the mid 1500s onwards and Sir Adam wasn’t a man you’d want to come up against. In 1571 he launched an awful attack on the nearby Corgarff Castle, burning 29 of its occupants to death following a feud with the Forbes of Towie. Corgarff was heavily affiliated with the Mackintosh clan and this slight overreaction didn’t go down too well with them.

Diplomacy was obviously quite sparse back then and Auchindoun Castle faced a similar fate when William Mackintosh took it upon himself to seek revenge. He taking it upon himself to burn the Gordon owned castle down several years later.

Some historical accounts suggest Mackintosh was later beheaded at Auchindoun for this crime. This being one of numerous harrowing unlisted incidents at the spooky site, which unsurprisingly played host to even more brutal clan warfare.

In its heyday the castle would have stood at three stories high, but the site has actually sat derelict for almost three centuries. The Oglivy family left the site in the 1720s before materials were removed en masse from the tower house to construct a house for William Duff of Braco.

Despite the distint lack of human activity at Auchindoun in recent years, there’s something which sends a chill down the spine when standing inside the ruin’s ancient walls. As a cynic of ghost related spirituality there is something about the castle which I just couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Maybe the low light helped create this atmosphere of mystic . Whatever the case, I won’t be returning at night anytime soon, but would highly recommend a visit to this rather atmospheric remote (and free!) castle.

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Dracula

In the midst of an overcast Scottish summer there are wonderful days where this country is literally shown in it’s best light. I think us Scots quite often deliberately forget about these days, feigning for some average conversation starter about how the weather is always rubbish.

Thursday was definitely one of those days, the type you dream about while out in a sleet storm in the darkest depths of a diet failing January.

Waking to wall to wall sunshine in Leah’s new Aberdeen flat, I knew the opportunity of getting out into the Shire was too good to miss. Though Cruden Bay maybe wouldn’t have such an adventurous or large hobbit population.

We set out in the Mitsubishi for Ellon at around lunchtime in search of some fish and chips by the seaside. My morning had involved a dehydrated run in the 21c heat. Maybe not the best running conditions for a Scotsman with poor temperature control.

It took all but 25 minutes to reach the market town where we found a one way system implemented in the name of social distancing. Passing the Tolbooth pub, we found the Bridge Street chippy closed, perhaps a sign of the lasting impact of Cornonavirus on small businesses.

I had last visited the Tolbooth in March, sharing pints with my Dad and Grandad as we watched Scotland overcome Italy in the Six Nations. This must have been amongst the last days of recent normality for most in this country. Although a Scottish away victory was pretty abnormal.

And so we tried nearby Cruden Bay for some greasy, salty, heart stopping battered cod. Having visited the coastal village several times with both grandparents as a child, the village was smaller than I remembered.

With no chippy in sight, we eventually settled for a chicken sandwich and an ice cream from the newsagents. I happily gobbled on my Feast after my trademark poor attempt at parking.

Our destination by foot was Slains Castle, a 16th century ruin 3/4 miles north of Cruden Bay. Not the old church transformed into a dimly lit watering hole on Belmont Street in Aberdeen.

Emerging from a pathway surrounded by woods and into the piercing sunlight we had our first sighting of Slains Castle.

Often referred to as New Slains Castle due to the Old Slains castle which formerly existed south of Cruden Bay, this one was built in 1597. It was lived in by the Errol family until the early 20th century, this surname being a namesake for the nearby primary school.

The castle itself sits impressively upon some sheer cliffs, almost jutting out into the North Sea. Even on a windless Thursday afternoon it is easy to imagine this spot on a dark and stormy night with slight fear and intrigue. The sound of the waves mercilessly pounding the rocks below in the pitch darkness.

Wondering around the roof less ruins it’s not difficult to understand where Bram Stoker’s apparent inspiration for a setting of Dracula came from. During an 1890s visit to the North-East, the Irishmen apparently imagined the vampire taking flight from the castle’s dramatic surroundings, perhaps sailing to the location from the far off Transylvania.

Our stay was far less dramatic as we enjoyed our chicken sandwiches in peace, before carefully strolling around the building’s remains. At one point it would have housed 14 bedrooms, although I didn’t quite trust the structural integrity of the building to venture upstairs.

The inherent lack of any roof makes Slains Castle look more weathered than it perhaps would have otherwise. Though apparently the roof was removed for economical reasons, the second owners of the castle being unable to pay their taxes in the 1920s.

In one room facing the North Sea is a huge gap where a window would have once been. Not daring to go to close I admired the view, trying to consider just how far it really was to Norway and how long it would have taken the Vikings to get to Scotland’s shores.

On the other side of the castle there are also impressive views, with a patchwork of fields giving way to the distant humble beginnings of the Grampian Mountains. With grandparents in Ellon and formerly in Newburgh, this is a scene I grew accustomed to in my childhood. Bennachie and its distinctive shape being the standout feature in a landscape of farms and wind turbines.

It was therefore with a bittersweet feeling that we wondered back to the faithful Mitibushi and travelled back into the Granite City. It’s no secret that I love this part of the world, Aberdeenshire that is.

It’s no surprise then that I’d highly recommend a trip to Slains Castle. From Aberdeen it takes less than 30 minutes to reach by car and if travelling on public transport there are usually buses to Cruden Bay on an hourly basis.

And if you do find yourself at the precarious yet impressive ruin, do mind the drop and don’t expect to sight Dracula. I hear he holidays around these parts at Christmas time and isn’t the sociable type. Though maybe the prospect of a potentially hard Brexit has put him off from visiting this winter.

Disclaimer: I’ve never actually read Dracula, but its definitely on my reading list now!

 

 

 

An Irish Guinness Please

With a sense of intrepidation, I climbed the narrow steps leading to the small Aer Lingus flight which would be taking my Dad and I to Dublin. I’d describe it as smaller than a small plane. The mini bus of planes if you like.

Boarding the propeller plane, I rembered I’d previously convinced myself that it’s important to feel at least a little nervous about flying. It’s almost as if I feel I’ll be tempting fate if I fly with stonewall confidence. A confidence that this miraculous and almost non-sensical invention with all its intricate moving parts will actually work.

The take-off was most likely textbook and I still found myself worrying, becoming increasingly nervous as the prop launched itself into the skies above Aberdeen at an astonishing rate. It was a beautiful winter morning and we got a good view of the Granite City as we turned to go inland.

Carefully combining an uncomfortable nap with unnecessary worrying about normal inflight sounds meant the journey  went quickly and it wasn’t long before we were lining up with the runway at Dublin International. While we descended, a flat calm Irish Sea glistened in the sunshine below and the pilot was able to make a smoother than smooth landing.

Arriving in the Irish capital I was struck by how much larger Dublin is than I thought it would be. Stepping of the bus in the city centre, I was greeted by the sights and sounds of O’Connell Street. A seemingly less miserable version of Aberdeen’s Union Street if you will.

From there we strolled down the street to the rather peculiar Spire. An 120 metre steel monument which towers over the surrounding buildings. Alongside its slightly absurd location and shape, it is unusual that there are little to no information boards at the base of the structure.

A quick Wikipedia search reveals it is also referred to as the Monument of Life or the An Tur Salais in Gaelic. I thought it resembled the top of Thunderbird One, but that’s probably just my left of field imagination. Judgements on its aesthetics aside, standing at the bottom of the Spire and looking up certainly made me feel rather dizzy.

It being a Sunday morning, I was slightly disappointed to not see the inside of the renowned General Post Office. Remaining as the Irish Postal Service’s headquarters, it is known for the significant role it played in the Easter Rising of 1916. To this day bullet holes remain in its impressive, but weathered columns.

Wondering away from the city’s main drag and we came across the grounds of Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College. From there was decided an open bus tour was in order, forgetting to account for the cold breeze which would accompany this activity on an already chilly January day.

Managing about halfway around the bus tour, the old man and myself both simultaneously succumbed to the cold and hopped off when the bus returned to near the city centre. It was insightful yet delivered in a downbeat and slightly dutiful fashion. Though I’m quick to admit I would find it near impossible to juggle dozens of historic accuracies while attempting to navigate Dublin’s busy streets with a bus.

From the driver’s commentary I learned that around three million litres of Guinness are produced at the 64 acre brewery in the city. On several occasions we travelled past the famous black gates associated with the dark stout.

The bus also took us through the vast Phoenix Park which is home to Viceregal Lodge. This grande building set off Chesterfield Avenue being the Irish President’s house.

Passing the large brewery again, I was reminded of the only time I’d tried Guinness previously. It was at a summer test at Murrayfield on a warm Edinburgh day. The drink was presented in a plastic cup and was overpriced and warm.

However, following the tour we decided to warm up in a sports bar which was showing European Champions Cup rugby action. A half-pint later and I’d changed my mind about Guinness.

My girlfriend suggested I’m a changed man when I broke this news to her later that day, though the more realistic theory is that Guinness does really taste better in Ireland. It was also refreshing to see the rugby given priority over the football. This would be a rare occurrence in Scotland.

After enjoying Dublin’s fair city where I’m not at liberty to describe whether the girls are pretty, we set off into the countryside on the bus. Our destination was the midsts of County Wicklow and into Baltinglass.

Travelling through darkness for the best part of two hours, we were eventually dropped off in the small town where we’d be staying for the next couple of days.

The next morning we arose to a hard frost, wrapping off before driving into the Wicklow mountains to find the roads slick with ice. Experiencing some hairy moments on slippy roads, we arrived at the Glendalough Visitor Centre and the starting point of our planned walk shaken but not stirred.

Walking along the Upper Lake we made our way uphill and out of the cooling shade at the floor of the valley. For around 125 years the Glendalough valley was home to the a lead mine and this is indicated by the old ruins of a miner’s village. I can imagine this would be quite a haunting spot at night and this is furthered by the old graveyard we passed at the beginning of the hike.

Lunch at the head of the valley was followed by an often stomach churning walk alongside a ridge with steep drops to one side. This trail on the southern side of the lake amazingly encompasses around 600 railways sleepers ending in steep steps when it eventually descends to the valley floor.

Following this stunning walk we made our way to Dublin again, taking the coastal route to hopefully avoid anymore sketchy roads. The seaside town of Bray provided a pleasant place for us to stop-off for a hot drink. Although it was surprising to see ice creams being consumed in temperatures little over 5c.

We didn’t spend long in Dublin this time and experienced the city’s rush hour. This proved equally insightful as witnessed countless risky manoeuvres and several kamikaze cyclists on their commute home. I’m glad I wasn’t driving or worse, cycling.

Soon our last day on the Emerald Isle came around and I awoke this time to discover a thick mist blanketing the surrounding landscape. We had a relatively quiet day, travelling to nearby Carlow, a larger town of around 24,000 residents.

A brief tour of the town was carried out in less than ideal weather and if pushed I’d compare it to an Irish Inverurie. A place where your Grandmother likes to go shopping, but not somewhere that might be at the top of your destination list.

Poorly grounded judgements aside and the next day was our cue to travel back to sunny Scotland. Surviving the plane journey again through distracting myself from thinking about the physics of flight, I was pleased I’d visited Eire proper and pledged to return.

I had only visited a small part of this island nation, but would like to see more of the country in the summer when it will surely be warmer. Three days well spent.