Friday, July 20, 2012

Castle Touring the Lothians Outside Edinburgh, Scotland


One thing Scotland is renowned for is its castles. Ruins upon ruins of once grand structures dot the countryside, and every now and then you'll be lucky to see a castle that has remained mostly intact due to the Historic Scotland Society. You don't have to drive far to stumble upon a castle in Scotland's green hills and valleys.

On my 'to-do' list for our visit to Scotland, I had mapped out a route through the Lothians, pin-pointing various ruins that I wanted to see. We began with Edinburgh Castle on Day 2, since we were in Edinburgh already. The next morning we explored Rosslyn Chapel, and then entered "Crichton Castle" into our invaluable TomTom GPS system, and we were off - castle #1 of what was to prove to be a very busy day.

Excited for our day of castle touring in Scotland's Lothian region

From Rosslyn to Crichton, it was approximately a 30-minute drive. On GoogleMaps, we were informed that Crichton was just off the highway... don't believe that for a second! The road to Crichton Castle takes you through a few small villages, down some country roads, through what appeared to be a trail made for cows and carriages, and through a sunlit forest. Hardly 'just' off the highway! However, it was a lovely drive, considering we never doubted our trusty TomTom (okay, we doubted her for a few seconds during our trip down the cow trail), and the journey gave us several wonderful photography opportunities. We passed by fields of sheep grazing, vibrant green hills and glens, and quaint stone cottages.

Crichton Castle, as seen from the road - our first glimpse of it!

Our first sighting of Crichton Castle was extremely exciting: the structure was crumbling and missing several walls and its entire roof. Yet it was still majestic, and whoever was in charge of the grounds was doing a fabulous job of keeping the site well-maintained and tidy.

Walking up the road towards Crichton Castle

We parked outside a churchyard in a graveled parking lot, and locked our rental car. We didn't feel any trepidation about leaving our car there - it was extremely peaceful, and not busy in the least. A muddy dirt-road led to the castle itself, and we meandered up towards our destination. The cost to get into the castle to explore it freely was £4.00 per person, and this is where Joey and I discovered the Explorer Pass (read about it in the Edinburgh Castle post). We purchased it right away, knowing it would make our castle tour much more affordable. The castle was also open only until 5:30 p.m., as most castles are in the Lothians, so we knew we'd need to time out our visit accordingly.

The inner courtyard of Crichton Castle in the Lothians

The castle was built in the late 14th century by a family with the name of, you guessed it, Crichton. They built the original structure, at least, which was the main tower house. Over the years, the castle moved from their hands to the ownership of other families, and at one point, to John Stewart, Lord Darnley, whose half-sister was Mary, Queen of Scots - she stayed for a few days in Crichton Castle when John got married there! Crichton had a ton of interesting information and history attached to it - it was a shame, really, that it was lying in ruins. But it was still beautiful!

An ancient hallway in Crichton Castle

Next up and entered into the TomTom: Dirleton Castle. This is the castle where our friends Jason and Emily got married, the wedding for which we actually came to Scotland for. I missed the wedding, but I was determined not to miss the castle! Dirleton Castle is located by North Berwick, and was about a 40-minute drive from Crichton Castle.

Dirleton Castle in the Lothians - an impressive structure to this day

Dirleton Castle is slightly different from Crichton Castle in that it is in the middle of Dirleton town, is a lot more private due to the grounds walls still being intact, and is a much more maintained area. Crichton is wild and remote, in the middle of a sea of green fields, while Dirleton is a relic embedded among the modern.

On the drawbridge of Dirleton Castle

We ate at the Castle Inn right across the street from Dirleton Castle (they had really yummy chips!) and then headed inside Dirleton. The cost to explore this castle was £5.50 per person, but since we had the Explorer Pass we were fast-tracked right in and didn't have to pay. Inside, we saw some of the most vibrant and colorful gardens I have ever seen. It would have been paradise for my gardener mother. In fact, Dirleton is actually world-famous for its well-kept and diverse gardens.

The 'Alice in Wonderland' type gardens of Dirleton Castle

Touring the gardens of Dirleton Castle

Past the gardens we came upon the castle itself. It is also in the same state of disrepair as Crichton Castle, which is not to say that Historic Scotland isn't taking good care of it. Dirleton Castle is slightly older than Crichton, being built in the 1300s. It was home to at least three noble families: the de Vauxes, the Haliburtons, and the Ruthvens. It was annihilated during Cromwell's attack in the 1600s (1650 according to the castle's website), but was preserved when it was purchased by the Nisbet family in the 1660s. I'm glad they did, because it is a beautiful ruin!

What remains of the Great Hall in Dirleton Castle

The dovecot at Dirleton Castle

One of my favorite facts about Dirleton Castle was the murder hole, located right above the main gate entrance, where defenders of the castle would dump hot oil and giant stones upon the heads of attackers entering through the gate. I might have to install one above my front door - not sure who I'd use it on, but it would be nice to have the option!

The afternoon was beginning was fade, and I still had Tantallon, Blackness, and Linlithgow Castles on my list to visit. Joey and I made an executive decision to finish the eastern part around Berwick and see Tantallon Castle, and then drive to Stirling to stay the night, seeing where we stood regarding the other castles in the morning. It was the best choice we made, considering I personally found Tantallon Castle to be one of the most magnificent ruins in all of Scotland (and yes, I know I haven't seen them all, but Tantallon was freaking GORGEOUS!)

Approaching Tantallon Castle from the parking lot - the outer wall is surely impressive!

Tantallon Castle stands on the edge of the North Sea, on top of a cliff, overlooking the crisp, blue water and a huge island made of stone called Bass Rock. It is also in ruins, but is massive, with its entire front wall dominating the landscape as you approach it. You can feel yourself shrinking as you pass through the crumbling gatehouse and into the shadow of Tantallon.

Bass Rock, as seen from the ruins of Tantallon Castle

A shot of the North Sea and Bass Rock, just off the coast of Tantallon Castle

It costs £5.00 to enter Tantallon's grounds (except with the Pass, but of course), and in my opinion they could charge twice that, although I'm glad they don't. The views are amazing, the ruin is amazing, the ocean breeze is amazing - I think the point I want to make is that Tantallon is amazing. You should go, because it is amazing. Enough said.

Tantallon's Great Hall and kitchen buildings - or what is left of them...
Looking through a window in Tantallon Castle out at the North Sea

On a fun note, Tantallon Castle is the only castle that day that we visited that supposedly has a ghost. This phantom, according to legend, resembles a nobleman dressed with a ruff about his neck, and sometimes shows up in pictures popping through wall openings. Not one of my photos captured him though! Oh well.


Next up in the blog: the city of Stirling, with Stirling Castle and Argyll's Lodgings!

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