I had dreamed of visiting Scotland my entire life. In fact, I have been known to tell strangers that I am certain to be 100% Scottish. After all, I could be since I have a light complexion, red hair and on a good day can speak with a Scottish brogue.
Last month with an imagination ready for anything I decided to visit Scotland in search of ghosts. I was visiting at a time when the fog is thick and the tourists are few. I had also been assured there really were ghosts everywhere – walking the countryside, lingering in old castles, lurking in the trees and moors, ghosts just loved Scotland. I secretly imagined that the ghosts would be peeking out from the impenetrable fog and welcoming me with open arms, and I couldn’t wait.
Not so. Unfortunately the ghosts were on holiday and were as scarce as the tourists. The Scots weren’t too keen on helping me find my eternal spirits either, but they did suggest an alternative, visit the old castles. If there were going to be any ghosts they would be found in old castles still haunted by lingering memories bespeaking clan feuds and sometimes, happier times.
The oldest (and my favorite) castle was on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands called Duntulm Castle. Just a ruin now, Duntulm was built by the Celts so long ago that locals could hardly even remember the history anymore. While some history can be found, the best part is walking among the ruins high on the cliffs above the ocean with the wind and rain pelting your face reminding you of the strength of Mother Nature.
However, my journey didn’t start in Skye, but actually in Glasgow. Glasgow is further south and not a part of the Highlands, however the city boasts a personality constantly changing and alluring visitors with culture, entertainment, and shopping.
In Glasgow you will find a number of historical sites, the Glasgow Cathedral being a highlight dating back to the thirteenth century. In fact, it is the only medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland to have survived the reformation in 1560. As for castles, before we headed north toward the highlands we stopped at Dumbarton Castle, impressively built on a volcanic rock overlooking the Firth of Clyde. This particular area was the center of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde from the fifth century until 1018.
In Stirling, we visited Stirling Castle, which some historians believe was King Arthur’s Camelot. Ghosts that are said to roam the castle include the lady in the pink silk gown, some believe to be Mary Queen of Scots and the standard Green Lady. Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood in this castle and her coronation took place within these walls in 1543. You can spend an entire afternoon climbing the winding stairs and peeking into the nooks and crannies in this castle. In fact, it gives one the best idea of how castles were indeed tiny villages back in the day with all the gossip, intrigue and scandal of any small town.
We took a detour to Castle Campbell 30 minutes outside Stirling at the head of a place called Dollar Glen. Slowly we made our way driving up a small, winding road and unswervingly into a dense fog from which the forbidding fifteenth-century fortress peeked a tower through every few minutes calling us onward. As we parked and walked amid the trees and over a small creek, it was suddenly quite easy to understand how fairies and ghosts and all the things that go bump in the night have been associated with this magical country. Inside, the fortress walls were as impressive as outside and the caretaker is full of stories so if you visit don’t be shy about asking him the history.
Our next stop was another must-see on the list – Doune Castle. As we arrived we were cold and alone, the only visitors in fact as we entered an immense well-trodden stronghold opening into a fourteenth century courtyard.
The most striking thing you will notice about the castles in Scotland is that you can become a part of the castle, climbing the old circular stairwells, touching the walls and feeling the cold wind blow through the old stone. If you’re really quiet and you arrive at the castle late in the afternoon you might be lucky enough to be the only one visiting. It is at this time that you can hear the forgotten sounds of the knights climbing to the battlements, the kitchens alive with a warm fire and a meal being prepared or the dancing in the main hall on a cold winter’s night.
Driving into Skye we experienced rainbows everywhere. In fact, at one castle we stopped at called Eilean Donan Castle I actually found the end of the rainbow, but no pot of gold. Eilean Donan is a popular tourist castle and it is also where “Highlander” was filmed. It’s a good stop on the way to the islands where, in addition to Duntulm Castle, we also visited the still-inhabited Dunvegan Castle, the historic stronghold of the Clan Macleod. In much earlier times a Macleod chief was married to a fairy woman and as proof of this alliance the fairy flag still hangs on the walls here. Legend of this fairy flag states that it pre-dates the crusades by 1000 years.
After leaving the Isle of Skye we headed south again toward Edinburgh. A few stops along the way included Huntingtower Castle just west of Perth on the road to Crief. The castle is said to be haunted by a female ghost who has been known to appear moments before a person’s death and also to cure sicknesses. The castle itself comprises two complete tower houses and the eastern tower has a painted ceiling with the obvious green man historically depicted.
In Edinburgh, we visited two castles just hours away from the city, my favorite in the area being Tantallon Castle. This stronghold was built in the 1300s and sits atop the cliffs of the Firth of Forth with three sides defended by sea cliffs. This was one of the largest and most impressive castles we visited while in Scotland, taking hours to climb and descend the eerie and very steep spiral stairs. One can only imagine trying to maneuver these steps – parts of the castle were five stories high – while running up or down trying to get to the main hall in the dress of that time period.
Hermitage Castle is an awesome, but eerie castle with a history of intrigue, murder and treason. In fact, the castle was built by a mason and was said to have been the home to an owner who practiced the art of black magic. The castle creeps out of the distance and suddenly is upon you as you drive down the tiny dirt road, it is only open to the public during the summer months.
We only spent a week discovering the old castles, picking and choosing which ones to visit as we drove along. Before us opened up a country that was alive with the dramatic landscapes of moors and mountains. No matter the castles you decide to explore you can be sure Scotland will stir your soul and call you to return again to be a part of the legend.
There is no other choice but BMI. The airline recently started flying from Las Vegas to Manchester, much easier than London’s Heathrow. You can also fly directly into Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Where to Stay:
Mar Hall offers breathtaking views and is a nineteenth century gothic mansion that was once an old hospital. The opportunity for ghosts exists, but none found there way to my room during the night.
Huntingtower Lodge is a four-star accommodation and the owners know how to cater to American tourists complete with all the extras. This is the “best” place to stay on your way to the highlands. The best part is each room offers a notebook PC with free broadband internet access.
Portree, Isle of Skye:
Cuillin Hills is an old hunting lodge turned hotel and the roaring log fire in the parlor just begs to welcome guests.
The Atholl Palace Hotel is the epitome of Scottish baronial splendor opened during the Victorian era, recent renovations cost millions, but was worth it.
Blue lights emitting shadows on the ancient trees create a haunting effect in the evening at the Prestonfield House, which is a reworked mansion dating back to 1687. The property sits on 20-acres of parkland home to highland cattle and peacocks.
Rita Cook lives in Los Angeles and is the editor of Premier Bride magazine. She also has a romance novel coming out this winter called “Angel’s Destiny”.
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