Posted by: mdmusingsie | August 5, 2011

Castle Hunting

Off on one of my favorite activities – castle hunting.  The “wee” map provided by the rental car company wasn’t very detailed, but armed with that and some Google maps directions from the hotel, I set out on my journey.

I can just hear the GPS lovers clucking their tongues, thinking I should have opted for the new fangled device, but as I will demonstrate, the road less traveled can be much more entertaining and isn’t accompanied by an incessantly annoying voice constantly chirping “recalculating” (although it might be more entertaining in a Scottish accent).

On my way to Bothwell Castle I spied a sign for Craignethon Castle, only a 3 mile detour off my route.  Not one to miss a castle if I can help it, I veered off course.  It was a wise choice as the castle was lovely (I particularly liked the tunnel), even if it is partially ruined, large parts of it pulled down by the English since the Hamilton’s had been supporters of Mary Queen of Scots.

The woman at the castle was very friendly, informative, and helpful, arming me with a 7 out of 14 day all you can eat (so to speak) pass into all the castles and properties run by Historic Scotland.  I suspect I can consume a lot of castles in that time.

Then on to Bothwell Castle, another partial ruin, this one pulled down by the Scots to keep the English from getting their hands on it (again).  Another helpful guide gave me the story of the castle before sending me off to explore.  Up and down more narrow, winding stairways made me wonder how these people managed every day.  They really must have been much smaller people, or at least had smaller feet (mine are quite average by modern standards, and I find it difficult).  I can’t imagine navigating the circular stairwells in a medieval gown, either.   The gentleman at the entrance also provided helpful directions to my next stop, back towards Edinburgh.

Though I debated visiting Cairnpapple, as there were more castles to see on the west coast where I generally don’t spend much time in Scotland, I went with my gut and headed east.  This site isn’t a castle, but a prehistoric ring fort, dating back to the 4th millennium BC.  It sits high atop a hill, a few miles outside of Bathgate where I had to stop and ask directions since there were no signs.  Now, a GPS might have got me there safely, but it would not have been as entertaining as watching two local estate agents debate (briefly) the best way to get there, eventually agreeing on a very easy route that did eventually lead to proper signage.

Up a number of stairs and then up further through a cow pasture, dodging cow pies, I arrived at the amazing site, which has the most commanding 360 views of the area.  I don’t know what process they go through to hire the people who are at these sites, but they must really love what they do as they are always willing to part with loads of interesting information, if you only ask.

The site was a henge or ring fort (sometimes called a fairy fort) long before the cairn was added.  An outer bank stands between the ditch and the central henge that had been lined with 24 posts, which must have been from some old growth timber as the exposed post holes are 2-3 foot across.  Sometime during the bronze age (1,000-2,000 years later) the cairn was built and several other burial places established inside the center of the fort.

Although no one knows the original intention of the henge/fort, I felt a sense of peace and happiness there.  When I spoke to the woman overseeing the sight, I told her how I felt and that it would be a great place to go after a particularly bad day of work.  She informed me that many people, in fact, do make that pilgrimage.  She sees them as she is closing up the site, coming up in their business attire to savor some of the tranquility this special place has to offer.  It must have originally been a site of celebration and happiness, which the sorrow of the crypts could not erase.  The powerful essence within the land remains, and like Ballyalban in Ireland, they are the most wonderful places to visit, leaving you with a smile on your face and a warmth in your heart that lasts long after you’ve departed.

Trying to get in as much as possible, I headed back west to try and take in a few castles on that coast.  The motorway got me a good portion of the way, but the backroads are necessary to get to the best destinations.  A mere 20 mile journey can take up to an hour depending on how many wee towns you go through or how many tractors you end up behind.  I was only able to visit one more castle, Dundonald, near Kilmarnock, as things close at 5 pm.  It sits atop another hill (I’m certainly getting my exercise each day, including the 40+ stairs to my hotel room), and was associated with the Stewarts.

It was once a very impressive structure in the 1300’s, but much of it was destroyed, leaving only the tower house, with its amazing stone roof.  An extension included a prison and an oubliette, for the really hard core criminals.  You can go down a steep ladder into the tiny chamber, but the guide said there were mostly only spiders down there, and neither I nor the couple from Cambridge that was there with me, decided to have a look.

I did drive by Dean Castle and Park, but the castle and visitor center were closed.  I wandered a little through the park and nature conservatory and saw many walkers, bicyclists, and families enjoying the beautiful green space.  Quite a few deer roamed a section of the area as well.  It would be a great spot to take a family for an outing or picnic.

On the way back, I stopped for dinner at Loudoun Inn.  It’s between two towns on the A71, essentially out in the middle of nowhere (although there is a large farm down the road a piece).  I thought it a fitting place for a weary traveler of the modern and ancient world to stop for a respite.  It was a good choice as the food was excellent – artfully presented and reasonably priced.

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