Posted by: gabriellereneeleblanc | August 24, 2012

A Serious Series on Scotland, Part 1: Castles

Once upon a time, in a Bayou-like land, there lived a little girl who fell in love with castles.

Me.

Now, it is true that a great many girls go through a phase where they want nothing more than to be a princess. I worked in Walt Disney World for a short time and I can tell you, the way those kids react to the fiberglass Cinderella castle is a bit frightening. (Think The Beatles at Shea Stadium. We’re talking that level of noise.)

However, my obsession does have a slight distinction in that it originated not from Florida but, rather, a government building: The Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Where the Louisiana Legislature used to meet before Huey Long’s phallic spire of overcompensation was erected.

Even now, having walked along the haunting corridors of ancient structures and climbed atop the ruins of Jacobean battle sites, this 160 year old (baby!) castle will always have a special place in my heart. I confess, I always imagined getting married there: my one childhood princess fantasy.

As you might imagine, I was more than a little excited at the idea of touring true, honest-to-god castles while in Scotland.  From Towering spires to crumbling battlements, restored recreations to persevered ruination, historical landmarks to current residencies…there are a lot of them about!

Over 250 remain (in one form or another) of the some 2,000 that once adorned the northern most country of the British isle. Surrounded by greenery, mountains, and a great population of sheep, they grace the already breathtaking views as you travel along the countryside. Scotland is so picturesque one doubts it can be real, even while wandering within it.

Do you see the Loch Ness Monster?
…yeah…me, neither.

Urquhart Castle

The first I visited on this vacation, Urquhart is a beautiful castle ruin on the bank of Loch Ness. Dating back to sometime in the 13th century, it eventually became a military stronghold and was blown to pieces in 1692 by Williamite troops to prevent the Jacobites from taking it over: a great many of these beautiful structures met such a fate in Catholic/Protestant bickering.

In truth, the fact that it is a ruin makes the sight all the more lovely. It is near here where a great many sightings of the fabled Nessie have occurred. Because of this association,  a visit to the site is included on the Jacobite Tours that leave from the highland capitol of Inverness.

As I mentioned before in my Inverness article, if you do only one thing while visiting the capital of the highlands, make it a Jacobite tour.

Yes, everything in Scotland does look like a postcard.

Cawdor Castle

Much to the chagrin of it’s owners, Cawdor Castle will forever be associated with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The 5th Earl Cawdor is quoted to have said “I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!” Sadly for the Thanes, but luckily for the rest of us, he did.

Despite the fact that it was built in 1454, almost 400 years after the death of the historical Scottish king, tourists and locals alike refer to Cawdor as the “Macbeth Castle”. As Mackers was the “Thane of Cawdor” and Cawdor Castle is the home of the Thanes of Cawdor, the association is understandable.

Did you notice that I used the present tense when referring to the Thane? That’s because Cawdor is, to this day, a private residence: currently the Winter home of the Dowager Countess and the Campbell family.

Tours are permitted in the Spring and Summer when the countess is not at home and the historically preserved rooms are great fun to explore. If you have the time and wish for a taste of Scottish wilderness, there are nature trails on the property which are open to the public, as well as extensive gardens.

Getting to the castle from Inverness is not as simple a matter as getting to Urquhart, but it can be done without a car or tour bus. Once again, the European public transportation is a wonder: simply take the bus and it’s a reasonable walk form Cawdor Church to the gates of the castle.

Did I mention Cawdor has a drawbridge? Very cool!

Sterling Castle lies in Sterling, where the battle of Sterling happened.

Sterling Castle

Sterling Castle is, of all things, located in Sterling. Fancy that! Sterling is also home of the Wallace Monument and the site of the historic battle between the British and Mel Gibson. While greatly intact, the castle is about 50% restoration. Audio tours and guided tours are available: this is the first real “tourist trap” type of castle from my trip, similar in setup to The Tower of London, with a bit of Renaissance Faire thrown in for good measure: there are historical exhibits, a lesson on weaving tapestry, and a bizarre bit of cheesiness in the form of the kitchen…think Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride without the animatronics.

There are some amazing views from the battlements and a great many photo opportunities. It’s defiantly worth a visit: I mean, how many times in your life do you have the opportunity to sit on a throne and sneer at the underclasses?

Arriving at Doune Castle, having ridden the length and breadth of the land in search of …what do you mean I’m just banging two coconuts together?

Doune Castle

According to our tour guide, “Doune” translates from Gallic into English as “Castle”, making this structure outside of Sterling “Castle Castle”, which is how I shall forever refer to it.

Let me just say, Castle Castle is the best! And not just because it was used by the Monty Python boys in the filming of “The Holy Grail” (though, come on, that’s just great!). At £5, Castle Castle has the cheapest admission fee of any of those we visited: and this includes the self-guilded audio tour, hosted by Monty Python’s Eric Idle. The humorous historical account of life in Castle Castle gives visitors some great insights while exploring the nearly-intact structure.

Unlike Cawdor, which is still a modern home, or Sterling, which is mostly modern restoration, Castle Castle is an unaltered vintage relic. While preservation work is being applied to keep the walls from crumbling, nothing new is being applied to the rooms themselves.

It’s all grey stone, smoothed by age, and gleaming with atmosphere. Accompanied by Eric Idle and your imagination, Castle Castle is pure magic. And what magnificent views!

The Hairy Coo tour, which leaves from Edinburgh, marks Castle Castle as its final destination before heading back to the city and gives visitors about an hour to explore. Honestly, I could have spent much longer just walking about the place. I heart Castle Castle!

Hey, Orlando! You call that a castle?!

Edinburgh Castle

As Edinburgh was “home base” during my month in Scotland, I saved Edinburgh Castle till the end of my trip, not venturing within until the day before my departure.

Here’s my advice: skip it. Admission is a whopping £16 for adults, without the audio guide, and it’s really not all one would expect from the outside. There’s some modern restoration, as with Sterling, but not to the same scale and much less impressive. There’s a small military exhibit, a large memorial for fallen soldiers, and the Scottish crown jewels, along with the stone of destiny, are locked within. Sure, that’s neat and everything, but the experience is a bit of a letdown when compared to others. (Like, say, Castle Castle! Which, I forgot to mention, has current residents in the form of pipistrelle bats! Awesome.)

Honestly, the greatest thing about Edinburgh castle is how beautiful it looks from the outside: an impressive structure atop an ancient, inactive volcano that seems to jut towards the sky from craggy stones as a part of the mountain rather than an artificial construction.

It’s a lovely centerpiece for a gorgeous city but, honestly, not much more.

So, save your £16 and take a tour with The Hairy Coo, instead. You’ll be glad you did.

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