Saturday, April 26, 2014

Playing Scottish Chess

Dashing lords, ladies in waiting, knights in armor, hot and cold running servants: what else could you expect from castles? Actually, none of these. There are castles that are trimmed out in the finery that was Scotland in antiquity, but most are ruins or partial ruins. In general, castles were built in defensible areas for the protection of the royalty and those who worked for them. This means that they are on top of hills and/or surrounded by water, cliffs or at the very least vast stretches of flat, clear land. The only moat we saw was in Fort George and it couldn’t be flooded unless the tide was at its highest.

Venturing out to Dunvegan Castle meant experiencing the wind, rain and cold that is supposed
Dunvegan Castle
to be typical of the Isle of Skye. The castle has been continuously occupied since the 13th century, so wandering through these rooms provides a great glimpse into the past. The family heritage is obvious in the art collection that includes paintings, ceramics, jewelry and household furnishings. There are also several acres of formal gardens, which in mid-April were not quite ready for visitors. However, the daffodils, growing everywhere like weeds, and the gorse (another weedy hedge) were beautiful. From the castle you can see the Loch Dunvegan, which opens into the Sea of the Hebrides; on the day we visited it was a slate grey churning froth that discouraged anyone from getting on any sort of boat.

Thatched Huts
Before and after the construction of castles, people on the Isle of Skye lived in cottages. The Skye Museum of Island Life is a great example of these dwellings. These are the antithesis of living in a castle, although castles aren’t much warmer. Although the sun was beginning to shine, the wind chill drove us inside as much as possible. These cottages held examples of fabrics, tools, household materials, and machinery that were typical of the 18th century. One of the comments on the guest book was obviously from a child. He/she wrote, ‘I liked everything except the fake people were kind of scary.’ On a hill above the cottages is a cemetery in which Flora MacDonald, who risked her life to save ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is buried. She was an exceptional woman who took risks throughout her life, immigrating to the United States but eventually returning to Skye in the 1780s.

Urquhart Castle
Urquhart Castle, near Inverness, was repeatedly sacked and rebuilt until 1692 when it was blown up to keep the Jacobites from using it. One of the interesting facts about Urquhart Castle is that there were no Urquharts ever living there. Urquhart is a region of Scotland for which the castle is named. What’s left of the castle is absolutely stunning because of its location. From the top of a rise you can not only see the remaining tower, but Loch Ness. There are still plenty of castle parts left to crawl around on, including the main gate, dungeon, grain drying area, tower house, dovecot, chapel, stable or blacksmith area, great hall and a kitchen. You can also see the privy used by the guards in the gate house. After climbing around for a while and wandering down to Loch Ness, we were sure we spotted something in the water following one of the tour boats. Alas, we have no pictures of Nessie; perhaps we should have used a different map.

Visitors aren’t allowed to wander freely inside Inverness Castle simply because it is now the
Inverness Castle
site of the High Court, council offices, and Sheriff’s Court of the shire. However, the exterior is spectacular, particularly at sunset and at dawn. The grounds are open to the public and my favorite part, the slope from the castle down to the water is easily visible with its thick covering of daffodils. The River Ness runs through Inverness and provides a pleasant walking area in front of the castle, through the city then down to the Loch. Along the way are public and private gardens, places to eat, and a few shops. This whole area seems to be much less frenetic than many of the other tourist stops in Scotland.

The most extensive castle we visited was Edinburgh Castle. Built in the 900s, this castle has housed royalty for hundreds of years. Mary Queen of Scots bore her son in this castle and was, to all intents and purposes, imprisoned here. There are three military museums with an
St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
assortment of interesting armaments, uniforms and historic information; each is small but is packed full of information. The National War Memorial puts into perspective the sacrifices Scotland families have made for peace around the world. The Prisons of War show how conditions for prisoners have changed over the years, one set of sleeping conditions reminding me quite acutely of some of the field trips I’ve taken. The Crown Jewels exhibition was interesting in that it showed how the ornaments were made, how the monarchs were crowned, and how the jewels were hidden in times of crisis. The Stone of Destiny, important to Scottish history, is also in this exhibit. As we climbed up and down towers, scrambling over old walls, battlements and other tourists, we stumbled on to a group of people showing raptors to the visitors. These birds of prey have been used for hunting since the middle ages and are now being protected since their numbers are decreasing. One of the treats, other than the views of Edinburgh from the ramparts, was eating in the tea room; great food, quiet atmosphere, and good service. We planned to be there about three hours but stayed all day.

While most of the castles in Scotland housed nobility, St. Andrews Castle was the residence of
St. Andrews Castle
some very powerful churchmen.  The first castle was probably built on this site in the 1200s, but as with most castles, fell and was rebuilt many times over the years. Beneath the castle are a mine and a countermine that were dug to escape the siege in 1546. This was the time of the Protestant Reformation and anything that remotely appeared to be Catholic was ripped from church structures and destroyed. This castle is also the site of a ‘bottle dungeon’ into which prisoners were dropped. It gave me the willies just to look down through the grating. However, the grounds are beautiful particularly with a
bagpiper playing nearby. The castle faces the North Sea, with nothing to stop the Arctic wind but a few low walls. Even on a day when the temperature is in the mid-50s, there were people playing in the water at the foot of the castle walls where the inhabitants from ages past went down to bathe, catch a boat or sit in the sun.

Listed under ‘things I wish I’d known about before I went to Scotland’ is the Explorer Pass. This pass pays for itself if you visit four of the 78 historic attractions listed. We’d have made a concerted effort to see more castles (although one of my fellow travelers shudders to think about one more castle) and known about some sites that are not shown in guide books.

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