And with a raincoat and some carry-on bags, so begins a new adventure over President’s Day weekend. James, Steve, and I flew out to Aberdeen, Scotland on Friday night and filled our first day with a van tour in search of three local castles. The town, as well as the winter weather, in northeastern Scotland is completely gray and dreary. Mica in the granite, though, makes the buildings sparkle in the summer sun and for this Aberdeen is poetically known as “The Silver City Beside the Sea.” We started out along the coast of the North Sea (on the wrong side of the road, of course), only a few miles across from Norway.
Our guide was full of not only history but many, many stories and I’ll attempt to condense the day into the most interesting highlights. He hails from a family of fishermen, appropriately named Fisher, and told us that traditionally fishermen here do not learn to swim. It’s thought to be less cruel to be overcome by the cold North Sea in the event of a mishap than to try to struggle against it.
Our first stop was to the ruins of Dunnottar Castle in Stonehaven, near where William Wallace infamously burned a church full of English soldiers. The fishing town of Stonehaven celebrates New Year’s Eve with a procession of pagan origins called the Fireball Festival. People swing baskets of fire on long chains and ultimately throw them into the sea. Due to extremely high winds we were only able to see the outside of the castle, which was fortunate because I think we or the castle might have blown away! The ruins sit atop a large tuft of land right on the sea next to a waterfall, so between the rush of water and raucous gusts of wind it was difficult to hear anything here.
Back in the van we were able to warm up with a “wee dram” of cask strength single malt Scotch whiskey. Then we were off and made our next quick stop for pictures at the bridge over the Falls of Feugh. We not only saw our first rainbow of the day but also our first glimpse of slushy snow. The bridge over the wide, rushing waterfall had many engraved locks (particularly new Valentine’s Day-inspired locks) along the netted wall. A drop of a sweet ginger liqueur and a drive through the town of Banchory led us to our second castle of the day, Crathes (Cră-thus) Castle.
A crass, witty castle tour guide led us on a fantastic and equally story-filled hour or so long group tour of this 16th century castle. Among the most interesting features was the horn of Leys, a hunting horn gifted from King Robert the Bruce to the Burnett family that owned the castle following the Battle of Bannockburn, a rare and famous Scottish victory against the English. In addition, we saw three rooms painted with colorful figures on the ceilings and inspirational or informative texts on the ceiling beams. The guide explained that the painted ceilings are typical of northern European countries, with which Scotland has historically had more contact and more in common with than the rest of the European continent. This distinction, he claimed, makes it more similar to Scandinavian and other northern European countries than England, whose trade has been more with France and the remaining EU countries. The ceiling in the guest room consisted of many historical heroes intended to inspire guests both before and after they slept.
Probably most intriguing were the ghost stories surrounding the castle. The Green Lady is the most frequently observed spirit, sometimes even felt and heard. Legend has it that she is the ghost of an unmarried, pregnant servant who mysteriously disappeared and was rumored to have been murdered. The bones of a woman and child were eventually found under the hearthstone of a nursery room fireplace, and the Green Lady is sometimes sensed by visitors in this room. The guide had us feel around the room for an area that felt colder than the rest, and sure enough, an odd cold spot in the room is where most people have experienced this apparition. The ghost of a young boy has also been seen by visitors near both entrances to a servant’s staircase, one end of which is now closed off and serves as a vacuum closet.
After a short lunch on the castle grounds, we drove off for the final destination of Drum Castle. Originally constructed in the 12th century and added to and renovated over time, this castle like many others in Scotland is currently often used as a wedding venue. The castle’s main tower is currently temporarily undergoing repairs. Off to the side, we were able to see the Irwin family’s chapel, cemetery, and pet cemetery (including a pet that lived to be 149 years old – we assume a turtle, but the gravestone doesn’t say!).
The tour concluded with a few more tastes of drinks and Scottish shortbread in the tour van: a twelve-year-old local whiskey, heather cream (whiskey, cream, and chocolate), and a Bowmore whiskey. Like most west coast island whiskeys, Bowmore is made with barley smoked with peat, giving it an unusual smoked meat smell and taste.
I feel like I left a lot of little stories out of this, but I’ll try to fill in the gaps in the next few posts. Tomorrow: Loch Ness!