I spent a little time on the east coast of Scotland this year — my first visit to Aberdeen. It is a bustling city with the original structures all carved out of shimmering granite, but the new bits reminded me more of Calgary than anything else — filled with new construction and a booming oil economy. Many helicopters overhead, ferrying folks out to the rigs on the North Sea.
However the bits that held the most appeal for me, of course, were the places out of time. I stayed at the Aberdeen University student residence, which had this noble entranceway from the lane:
And my most serendipidous discovery came on the uni campus, too, when I got lost after a run and ended up going into the Zoology building to ask directions. I was greeted by the bones of a baleen whale, an enormous spider crab crawling up one wall and this fellow, who saw me well on my way…
Turns out the building houses a zoology exhibit that is free to all who care to peruse it, and as you can see it is well worth the visit.
My two favourite days were spent outside the city, however. The first was to the south, near a little village called Stonehaven.
I walked from the village to Dunnottar Castle, a lovely storied old place where William Wallace chased an English regiment into a church and then burnt the place to the ground. [They did get their own back, sadly for the Braveheart, whose head was the first to adorn the parapets of another castle — the Tower of London — just a few years later…].
Dunnottar, perched precariously on the sea cliffs, was a delight from its portcullis to its mammoth kitchens.
I wandered the stone ruin for a couple of hours, hanging out in the Thief’s Hole and the room where 167 Covenanters were held captive and tortured for not being keen on Episcopalianism, and then on to the poshly refurbished Marischal’s Suite where many a monarch — including Mary Queen of Scots — was entertained. With its blood-thirsty history, Dunnottar was a huge highlight for me.
Speaking of bloodthirsty histories …
I spent another day away from Aberdeen — my last day in Scotland, as a matter of fact, at a castle whose imagined history is a great deal more bloodthirsty than is its actual. Slains Castle lies a kilometre or so away from the tiny seaside village of Cruden Bay. Cruden Bay is most famous for being the site of the first successful crossing of the English Channel by plane, when Norwegian Tryggve Gran, after three attempts, made it into the air and across to his homeland, a distance of 465 km. I do love a good aviation story, but I was there to see the castle, in particular because it has captured the heart of a writer you may have heard of.
In the 19th century, a young Irish writer was captivated by the sight of the castle, and pictured it with a black-caped creature crawling down one outer parapet. Bram Stoker so loved the place that he moved his family to Cruden Bay for part of the year so he could write DRACULA there in the shadow of Slains Castle.
The castle is a ruin, and is [technically] closed to public view, but — hey — the gate was open, so I might have wandered around a little, to the sound of the calling seabirds from the cliffs below.
Just a little fodder for the imagination, wouldn’t you say?