Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Under grey skies, the air damp, with the prospect of drizzle, and with hardly a soul about as the afternoon turned to evening, the castle stood in complete contrast to the cloudless spring day on which we had viewed it last. I rejoiced, not out of some perverse enjoyment of the gloomy backdrop for which Dunnottar was more naturally suited, though it was, or even the chance to have the place to ourselves compared to the tourist horde that had swarmed over it on the last occasion – like a besieging army in shorts and gold-trimmed trainers – but quite simply for the chance to experience the castle in a different context and to gain a more rounded impression of the attraction as a whole.
I’ve always been one for ‘joining up the dots’: for trying to get as full an understanding as I can of a sight I’ve enjoyed, or a town or even a region, if time permits. Short of living there, that understanding can come from researching the history and culture of a place but also from re-visiting it, at different times or seasons and in different conditions, as well as approaching and leaving it from different directions, so that its relationship to other places, indeed its purpose in the local scheme of things, becomes more apparent.
As a teenager I wandered the backstreets, and one or two of the pubs, of Liverpool and developed an understanding of its growth as a port and of how that influenced the culture of the city, as well as how it was rapidly changing. I’ve been back to and travelled around Vietnam as often as I can afford to, to place in context the country of my birth. And there are a number of towns or cities in Italy that I go back to time and again as familiar landmarks at the beginning and end of a holiday as well as being convenient gateways to other, new destinations.
At a more local level, country walks can be better enjoyed by retracing a route from a different direction, incorporating part of a previously walked route into a new one, or simply walking it in different conditions.
These ‘layers of understanding’ all help to build an overall picture of the local geography, of the proximity of sites and attractions along the way and of their relationship and purpose one to the other. It’s another way of grappling with the spirit of a place, to use a phrase.
It was in this sense that we approached Dunnottar Castle for a second time, out of the enveloping gloom of the local woods to the mist-foreshortened horizon of the coast and with the prospect of continuing along the darkening cliffside to Stonehaven, from which we had previously descended in full sunshine.
On that first occasion there had been a real joy in the air, not just from the warmth of the sun and magnificence of the coastal scenery but also from the distance of the views as we crested the headland above Strathlethan Bay, just below the war memorial, and spotted the crenellations of the castle already rising above the next headland, keeping the prospect of the visit constantly in front of us. On a day like that, and especially as we neared the attraction and joined the stream of chattering tourists emanating from the car park of the castle itself, it was difficult to believe that anything bad had ever happened here.
Today, however, it was all too easy to imagine dark deeds and death amidst the ruins, poking above the rock like stumps of rotten teeth on a jawbone. From the headland in front of the rock, a steep path descended down to and along a causeway to the castle gate, built into the bottom of an imposing curtain wall in the deep shadow of the rock itself. It divided two bays, to the north and south of the castle, respectively, on which black water lapped over desolate shingle beaches. A lone figure, probably a member of the castle staff shutting up for the evening, walked back towards us up the path.
Looking for a seat for a few minutes, and some partial shelter from a fine drizzle that was starting to blow in from the North Sea, we headed down the path to a spot about halfway along. Here, with the black walls of the fortress rising sheer before us and the sea on both sides, we got out a flask of coffee and waited for the drama of the location to unfold.
Dunnottar sits astride a rocky promontory, or large sea stack, joined by a causeway to the coastline of north-east Scotland, about a mile and a half south of Stonehaven, in Aberdeenshire. Historical records suggest it has been a fortified site since at least the seventh century AD and in the early middle ages it resisted assaults by all-comers, including Vikings and invading English tribes. The current ruins are most closely associated with the Keith family, created Earls Marischal of Scotland, a key office of state, by Robert the Bruce in the 1320s, one of whose descendants acquired the castle and surrounding lands later in the fourteenth century. They retained possession until their luck ran out following the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, having switched loyalties one too many times.
The two events for which the castle is most famous both occurred in the seventeenth century and are associated with the Covenanters, a Presbyterian movement established in the 1630s to resist changes to their form of worship being imposed by the Catholic Charles I. Since the accession of his father, James VI of Scotland, to the English throne, the two countries had been united under the crown but retained separate forms of government, and of religion.
During the English Civil War the Covenanter-led Scottish government helped their Parliamentary counterparts in the south to depose Charles, but then changed their minds when they thought they could do a deal with him and then actively opposed them when they executed the king in London in 1649.
In 1650 the Scots invited Charles’ exiled son to become king in his stead, crowning him Charles II at Scone in January 1651. During his short stay in the country Charles actually visited and stayed at Dunnottar. However, the actions of the Scots prompted Oliver Cromwell to invade, successfully overcoming a Scottish army at Dunbar, taking control of Edinburgh and laying siege to Dunnottar Castle where the ‘Honours of Scotland’ – the crown jewels, comprising crown, sword and sceptre – had been transported for safe storage.
The siege lasted some eight months, during most of which period the small garrison of seventy or so men and their families seem not to have suffered great hardship. Their position was impregnable; they appear from an inventory of munitions handed over at the end to have been still able to return the fire of the English forces in equal measure, keeping the latter encamped on the hill opposite; and they seem to have enjoyed sufficiently lax security around the castle – as will become evident – to maintain food supplies.
In May 1652, however, the English acquired heavier artillery and began a bombardment of the castle which quickly took its toll of both the ramparts and of the men inside. For ten days, we are told, they were “exposed to the havock of bombs and the shoaks of thundering cannon” until, on 24 May, the commander of the barracks, George Ogilvy, surrendered “with all the honours of war.”
Expecting to be rewarded for their patience by capturing the Scottish crown jewels and other royal artefacts, the English forces were sorely disappointed. The king’s private papers, tradition has it, were smuggled out by being stitched into the skirts of a relative of Ogilvy’s wife, while Christian Fletcher, the wife of James Grainger, the minister of Kineff Church, a few miles south of Dunnottar, is said to have either smuggled out the crown jewels herself in instalments, or to have coordinated their removal by lowering them over one side of the castle down to a waiting servant pretending to gather seaweed on the rocks below. Either way, we know that, between them, the Graingers then kept the ‘Honours’ hidden until the Restoration in 1660.
Kineff ‘Old Kirk’, as it is still known, stands on the edge of a hamlet of half a dozen houses that shelter in a dip in the landscape of the Mearns, an area of rich, undulating farmland that forms a narrow coastal belt south of Stonehaven. We visited it in the same spring weather from which our first walk to Dunnottar had benefited, the fields behind yellow with daffodils in full flower, the crop of bulbs being harvested by a gang of labourers in the distance, their voices being the only disturbance in the still air.
The church, a tall but relatively plain stone building with a bellcote mounted at one end, was no longer in use for parish services but was being maintained by a trust as a museum, principally commemorating the story of the rescue and safekeeping of the ‘Honours of Scotland’. Only one wall of the church that the Graingers knew was still extant, the rest of the building dating from eighteen and nineteenth century restorations; but mounted on a wall of the south aisle was a stone arch, decorated with a crown, sword and sceptre, surrounding an inscription that commemorated the role of Reverend Grainger and his wife in the story.
For at least eight years, according to a letter which the minister sent to assure the Earl Marischal of their safety, the Graingers kept the ‘Honours’ buried under the stone floor of the church, creeping back into their own kirk by dead of night, every few months, to disinter and dry them off before returning them to a hole in the clay soil. For their services the Scottish government later made the Graingers a financial award of some 2000 merks (about £100), although there is some dispute as to whether it was ever paid.
Dunnottar’s other ‘cause celébre’ took place some twenty-five years after the Restoration, following the death of Charles II and the accession of his brother, the Catholic James VII (II of England) to the throne. Unlike the earlier story, it had a much less happy ending.
The siege of 1651-2 had destroyed most of the domestic buildings within the castle, leaving the structures above ground fit only for a military garrison, guarding prisoners in the vaults below. Meanwhile, beset by threats to his rule from invasions in both England and Scotland, James maintained a policy of repression of those who opposed him internally, including the continuing refusal of many Covenanters to recognise his authority over them in church matters.
In June 1685, having defeated the forces of the Duke Argyll, James’ commanders in Edinburgh, needing to make room for the resulting prisoners, decided to send some two hundred Covenanters, mainly from the south-west of Scotland, north to occupy the vaults at Dunnottar. The story of what followed is taken from the records of the subsequently victorious Church of Scotland, and so tainted by their desire for redemption, and martyrs, but appears in broad terms to be accurate.
Only 122 men and 45 woman survived the journey north and more died from the conditions in which they were subsequently held, imprisoned together for two months in a single stone vault built under the eastern end of the castle. At one point, twenty-five of them escaped through the single window at the end of the vault, fifteen being recaptured and possibly tortured for their efforts, while two more fell to their deaths onto the rocks below. Those that remained were transported to the West Indies, but some seventy of them died of fever on the journey.
There are two commemorative markers of the event. One is a metal plaque on a wall of the vault itself, now accessible to the public as part of a tour of the castle grounds. Even on a bright spring day, with the screams of mating seabirds emanating from the rocks outside and the click of tourist heels and cameras on the stone cobbles of the long, low cellar within, it is not difficult to imagine the wet, muddy and cramped conditions, and the likely stench, of the 170 or so bodies that were at one time confined in this space.
The other marker is more traditional and consists of an upright, inscribed headstone in the graveyard of Dunnottar Kirk, about two miles inland of the castle. It was this stone that we inspected as part of our second visit to the castle, taking it in as part of long loop through the woods south of Stonehaven and back along the coast.
A promise of a decent sunset from a low, slanting sun was being eclipsed by dark clouds even as we reached the deserted churchyard, its grounds filled with old tablestones carved with faded inscriptions and intimations of mortality. The Covenanters’ stone stands close to the south-eastern corner of the church, itself a Victorian reconstruction, and is by an unknown mason, probably engraved at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the cause was being resurrected, and its martyrs identified and commemorated across Scotland.
The text subscribes to a standard wording, including a reference to the Book of Revelations. Its otherwise plain surface, framed in a metal strap for conservation, records the burial of nine of the Covenanters who died as prisoners at Dunnottar, including five named men, two unnamed women and two other, unnamed individuals.
Suitably sobered, we headed south, through the woods, to a junction of the town bypass with the main north-south highway, and crossed it to continue over farmed fields and through a cold, damp breeze, eventually to reach the car park at the entrance to the castle. Aside from a handful of dog walkers in the woods, we saw no-one along the way and just a couple of stragglers were returning to their car as we started down the track to the castle itself.
Having soaked up the atmosphere, and warmed by our coffee, we walked to a headland immediately to the right of the promontory, reached by a path across the intervening creek and back up through gorse and heather. It offered what is probably the best view of the castle as a whole and on our previous visit was bristling with people vying for camera shots of the sunlit rock. Today we had the platform to ourselves and the view was dull and lifeless, devoid of contrasting shadows and with just a handful of gulls hunkering on the castle walls.
In its own way, however, this wasn’t such a bad approach to the castle after all, I thought to myself. Towards the end of the walk, and probably only because we knew where to look, we had spotted the ramparts on the horizon, but otherwise the approach offered little prospect of the castle or its promontory until you were almost upon it, surprising the visitor with a sudden, majestic vista. On the way back to town we decided to repeat the exercise at each headland or other viewpoint along the coastal path, anxious to imprint the different outlines of the rock in our heads and to remember the castle in its different moods.