Living on the Edges
The day started later than I would have liked. So late, in fact, that when I told Jane my plans over another foodie’s breakfast, she looked momentarily surprised, then said, ‘you’d better be on your way!’. Hangovers are not pleasant travel companions.
(I regret nothing.)
On the plus side, getting away well after 10am gave me the chance to duck into Leakey’s Bookshop. I missed out on snagging a photo of the owner, sitting behind the counter with a coffee in one hand and a paperback in the other, framed by the leaning towers of books on either side of him. The opportunity was lost when he paused to assist a woman who was looking for a copy of Pride and Prejudice in Gaelic, to add to her collection of copies in different languages, collected on her travels. Why didn’t I think of that?
On the decidedly negative side was the necessity of having to change plans. There is a limit to the adventures one can both have AND enjoy. This walk from Gardenstown to Crovie? Out. A quick jaunt to the village of Pennan, in Fraserburgh (where parts of Local Hero were filmed)? Also out. There was nothing for it but to take the most efficient route to the Bullers o’ Buchan.
The Bullers of Buchan is a collapsed sea cave that has formed a natural, cliffside, stone archway, not far (two hours or so) from the easternmost point of Scotland (also off the agenda). It caught my eye not only because of the rugged beauty of the surrounding cliffs, but because there is a pathway that wraps around the coastline, leading to Slains Castle, which is said to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I wasn’t sure I was up for it, to be honest, but I was damned if I was going to let a whole day get away from me, so I parked the car, walked past a small cluster of cottages, and made my way towards the cliffs. This is the first thing I saw. Not bad, huh?
The path mostly looked like this…
…but it also branched off in sections, leading walkers out onto the outcropped fingers of rock. I played it pretty safe, having read about this guy. But I did venture down a little way to get a closer look at the cave.
The birds make an absolute cacophony, and the sounds of the wind and the waves are background-constant, yet there is still a fundamental tranquillity to the area that they never really punctuate. The sounds are just layered on top.
Listen. The cottages you can see are where my car is parked.
I am feeling pretty pleased with myself right about now. The fresh air had shaken out the cobwebs, and I was over the initial panting, why-am-I-doing-this?, internal debate. It was just so beautiful. I could feel my cheeks starting to colour, in the way that only happens when you exert yourself in cold weather. It felt like I was on the edge of the earth.
Then, beside one of the busiest bird outcrops, I caught my first glimpse of Slains Castle (henceforth known, during the walk at least, as ‘the carrot’).
Seeing the castle was really something. When I first learned about the walk, the recommendation was to begin at Cruden Bay and conclude at the Bullers of Buchan, but doing it this way around (accident, hungover) was waaaaaay better. The walk is long enough for the outline of the castle to grow, ever so gradually, on the horizon as you approach. And the scenery doesn’t let up for a second.
A selfie (I was here!).
A pathway (with a castle!).
A beach (oh, so tiny!).
A rockpool (it’s an apple!).
I was becoming slightly obsessed with Slains Castle. I just had a feeling about it. I remember thinking, ‘this is going to be the one…this is my castle’. When it started to take shape, I was literally chaffing at the bit to see it.
Its position is magnificent. The castle is set on the cliffside, but it is also sealed in on the north and west sides by a deep gash in the earth (upon which you can see the remnants of a stone wall), making it impossible to gain access from anywhere but the south. I had to walk right past it, alongside the chasm, in order to reach it. Here it is…so near, and yet so far.
You know, there wasn’t a soul there. Not a single, solitary person. Can you believe that? These are the first two photos I took, at the north-west corner, as I headed towards the coastline, to see how it sat on the cliff.
This is the east side, along the cliff, where the path eventually stops against the tallest tower, and can’t be rounded.
I walked down this little, outcropped path, to look back up at it, and spotted this stone arch beneath, set into the earth. Has it sunk? Was it once a bridge over the chasm? The rocks are seen to my left, as I’m down at the end of the path, looking up at the east side of the castle.
I climbed back up, entered the castle, and turned left so I could exit from the south side. I wanted to get a feel for the perimeter before exploring the interior more fully, and I particularly wanted another perspective of the tower. As I walked through, I started thinking this was one of the most incredible things I had ever seen in my life. Genuinely. In my life.
Aaaaand, here it is from the south east corner, and from the south. Isn’t it incredible?
After reading a rumour that nobody had ever entered the lower levels, because of how dark they were, I had arrived determined to venture down for a look with my trusty iPhone torch lighting the way. Confronted with stairs descending into the bowels of the earth, however, I decided I would rather shoot myself in the foot than do so. It was black and cold. Deeply, silently black and shockingly cold.
So, if I wasn’t going down, I was most certainly going up! On the way up the spiral staircase, I saw the remnants of the only remaining floor, and felt the extraordinary strength of the internal column, which felt like cold, dimpled marble.
And if it seems risky, keep in mind that these guys managed to etch their names into the upper walls of the internal column, well above what would have been possible whilst standing on their own two feet on the uppermost landing. Look at the view.
Then it was time to look around downstairs. It was a marvel.
‘Look at where the fireplaces were!’
‘And they were the chimneys up above!’
‘The pieces of wood are set in the stone all the way up!’
‘You can see the sea through the old windows!’
That’s me talking to myself.
I took much longer at Slains Castle than I had allocated, on my already-very-tight day so, after taking this photo of the south side while walking towards Cruden Bay…
…I instead decided to backtrack and follow the inland road back to the car. What a rubbish walk. When Google Maps sent me there, they might have mentioned that my choice would either be walking on the road with 60mph (yeah, sure) cars zooming along on it (not actually possible), or tackling the clumpy growth on the roadside. I up-and-downed it. Drivers kept slowing as they passed me, with quizzical looks on their faces. I wished I’d gone back along the cliffs.
By the time I made it to Stonehaven for a late lunch-turned-early dinner, I was starving. And, despite having eaten a truckload of fish and chips since I arrived, I was pretty excited about these ones. It’s important to mention here that Scottish fish and chips are far superior to anything I have ever eaten in Australia, so eating their peak version was a welcome proposition.
Here it is…the famous Bay Fish & Chips. Number 31 on Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate Eatlist’, a ‘guide to 500 of the most memorable food experiences around the world”.
When these battered pieces of haddock were slapped into the window in front of me, I almost started dribbling.
Then, with haddock and chips (with salt and vinegar), and homemade tartare sauce and mushy peas in hand…
…I sat down on a park bench to eat, with this view keeping me company.
With views like these, I don’t think I could ever be lonely.
A whole castle to yourself. Wow!
Read a report that it was haunted. Still, you can take that with a pinch of porridge, every castle in Scotland is said to have its resident ghostie. The last occupant was said to have left money behind, hidden in the castle. Another sarcastic soul said that he didn’t as much leave it behind but was taken away from it!