Thursday, 27 September 2012

Personal Wonders: Old Slains Castle

My quest to select the Seven Wonders of the World involves visiting forty countries, 102 different sites, and will take God knows how many years of my life. Of the many rules and regulations I set myself, one is to try and be impartial; when I visit a Wonder I try to keep a fresh eye, remain unbiased, and not let the personal whims of temporal mood and experience affect my judgement. It's impossible, of course, to be entirely neutral - but I try.

But what if I didn't? What if I chuck all these rules out the window and forget about the "World" aspect of the Seven Wonders, and just focus on my own, personal, Wonders? Places or sites that might not mean that much to other people, but have great significance for me. Places that, in my world, are the best. In the end, for all that the world's greatest monuments may have a lasting legacy for mankind itself, they do not have a direct impact on the lives of the vast majority. Everyone has their own personal Wonders, buildings or landmarks that have shaped their lives, that they look upon with fondness. In the first of an occasional series, here's one of my mine.

1. Old Slains Castle, near Collieston, near Aberdeen.

Old Slains Castle is the name of that ruined castle wall you see in the above picture, and also of the much more modern house just behind it. Between September 2002 and August 2003 I lived there, with a handful of friends. It's fair to say it was one of the most irresponsible, enjoyable, ruinous and remarkable years of my life.

The actual castle of Old Slains dates anywhere from around 1300, although it's believed even older fortifications once stood. Following the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, Scotland's King, Robert the Bruce, made a gift of it to Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll, who had been one of the king's most faithful supporters. Fast forward 688 years and the land still belonged to the family: in 2002, myself and three others rented from an ancestor of Sir Gilbert's, the 24th Earl of Errol, with the wonderful name of Merlin, a name one can only assume made his school life somewhat exasperating. At least he would have been consoled by his brother Peregrine, who now has the far more eccentric title, Peregrine Moncreiffe of that Ilk. Of that Ilk?

I never spoke to Merlin directly, as our dealings were usually through a leasing agency, but my "castlemate" Mike did, and he got some of the history of the castle direct from him, which has since been substantiated by some online reading. The Hay family of Erroll's reward for royal loyalty saw a corresponding punishment a few centuries later, when their disloyalty to King James VI saw Old Slains Castle blown up with cannons and gunpowder. The 9th Earl of Erroll had participated in a Spanish-supported Catholic rebellion against James VI of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I of England, and got his castle razed  for his troubles. Remarkably, he managed to escape without much further punishment for, after a short spell on the run, he simply renounced Catholicism and bingo, everything was ok.  He even won favour with the king and enjoyed the privileges associated. I suppose in these days the motto was "Anything but a Catholic."

Evidence of our rented home's military past was evidence by the four cannons in the grounds, none of them still in use needless to say (we tried). After the demise of the castle, the area became a fishing community, using much of the rubble of the ruined castle to build the cottages. One such cottage - although I can't vouch for it using the ruins - was part of the house we lived in.That was what we called, sensibly, the "old part". The "new part" was the larger wooden A-frame design you see in the photograph, as built by Merlin's mother, the 23rd Countess of Erroll, in the late 1950s.

Unfortunately, unlike the castle, which had stood for centuries before being blown up, with the ruins surviving even more centuries, the modern A-frame was a little less robust. It was to a decrepit wooden house that four of us moved into on the 18th September 2002. Sitting on a little peninsula jutting out into the North Sea, the house was buffeted by wind and sprayed with sea salt, and was in an alarming state of decay even after a mere half century. That winter was one of the toughest I've ever endured. There were no showers, only baths  - and we had no hot water for the majority of the time. The cheap electric heating couldn't compete with the cavernous drafts and the cold of a North-East winter, and even a roaring fire would only extend warmth to those gathered immediately around it. The wind howled, and found any gap it could to howl through, and the entire house creaked and moaned. And the darkness... the main room was a huge room, and once the winter darkness had fallen, struggled to rise above "dim", with the corners always cast in shadow.

Perhaps for these reasons, the house was on the market for a mere £600 a month. That was a mere £150 a month each, astonishing for a massive house with five or six bedrooms, and numerous other rooms. In fact, we never managed to work out how many rooms there were, simply because many of the rooms seemed to defy categorisation. The huge main attic was divided into three - does that count as one room, three rooms, or no rooms at all? What about the other attic, in the old part of house, itself divided in two? The huge main room had a movable wall, which in position would create two smaller rooms. And then what about the secret room? Yes, we had a bona fide secret room, behind the main room bookcase and fireplace. It took us a month to find it. Inside was a cache of old books, furniture, a locked safe, a war ration kit, an old wedding dress, and much more.

The fireplace that fronted the secret room had a few secrets of its own. Upon returning from his exile, the 9th Earl of Erroll looked upon the ruins of his old castle and, it seems, shrugged his shoulders. He set straight to work building a new castle, a few miles north. This too is now ruined, quite spectacularly, and is called New Slains Castle, and is most famous for being the apparent inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. When our A-frame house was being built in the 1950s, the Countess of Erroll salvaged a few things from the ruins of New Slains, the most notable being the elaborate stone-carved fireplace, commemorating the family and a marriage. So throughout the year, this was one of our boasts - we had the fireplace from the house that inspired Dracula. (In fact, it's just possible we may have stretched on that truth a little, and claimed that our house was the inspiration...).

Fictional vampires were only the half of it though: Old Slains Castle had a few (fictional?) ghosts too. Although, as ghost sightings invariably are, never substantiated, throughout the year there were numerous "kind of" ghost sightings. The gloomy atmosphere of nighttime and the neverending creaks and groans of the slowly dying wooden house was certainly conducive to ghostly antics. My own mother - not one for hysteria - claimed that both nights she spent there she heard very definite footsteps on the stairs that were never accounted for. Mike had a spell of continually getting glimpses of what he described as a "friendly ghost". And even I had some odd experiences. As the year went on, I began avoiding the old part of the house, as the low ceilings and dingy lighting began to freak me out, but it was in my own room where I woke one morning, frozen in position, and with a voice in my ear, very clearly telling me to "Teach English, you must teach English, teach English." I decided to go to Korea as a result. And there were some mysterious disappearances and reappearances too. The entire base of a double bed disappeared over the summer (or, at least, it wasn't there when we came to move out), and all my underwear disappeared from my room during a party. On a similar vein, a whole bunch of fresh lady's underwear one day appeared on the main room sofa, with nobody able to provide an explanation. Ghosts, therefore, are the only answer to these deep mysteries.

We were extremely fortunate that year because after the hard winter, we got a lovely spring and summer. The castle house had balconies overlooking north and south, and even when windy, one of them would be sheltered. During the day, we would very often just relax on a balcony, drinking coffee or wine, and enjoy the fabulous view. The castle was on a stubby peninsula, surrounded by cliffs, and with craggy North-East coastline stretching beyond the horizon from both balconies. It was fabulous, as were the two, virtually private, beaches we had in either direction. On a nice day - of which we had many that year - it really was idyllic.


So the castle, the history, the scenery, and the supernatural, all of these made the year living there special. But what really stands out from that year, and what elevates Old Slains Castle into a Personal Wonder, was the fun. That year, in large part facilitated by living in the remote North-East of Scotland in a shambolic but historic venue, was simply amazing fun. We had epic parties there, sprawling dinner parties, and endless nights fueled by wine and general excess. It was a year that epitomised being young and irresponsible. I was working in a kitchen, washing dishes, earning less than £130a week - and living in a castle. The year was wild, it was exhausting, it was unsustainable, and sometimes totally reckless, but it was most of all just a lot of fun. Sure, in a city centre flat in Aberdeen it would certainly still have been fun, but it would never have been as special and as utterly memorable. In a city centre flat, I'd never have been woken up by sheep in the garden, I'd never have found five messages in bottles on my private beach, I'd never have answered my doorbell to a coachload of old people asking if they could have a look around - and I'd never have gone to Korea for two years to teach English upon hearing a voice in my head telling me as much.

After we all moved out of Old Slains, for years it remained unoccupied. I know, because I used to pop by every now and again to see how it was getting on. A fence appeared, new wiring installed, the balconies fixed (they were at the point of collapse) and the whole house was double-glazed, but there was no trace of any occupation. It was clear the Earl of Erroll was getting the place back to an inhabitable state after many years of falling apart. But it's been something like three years since I've now visited, so I have no idea of its state. If it's on the rental market again, well...

Old Slains Castle is a Personal Wonder for me both because it was spectacular - a decrepit modern house next to the towering ruins of a castle, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cliffs, and with spectacular scenery all around - and also because of the sheer fun and memories it packed into just one year. I remember at the time thinking to myself, "I never want to live anywhere else," and sometimes that sentiment returns. I would love to live there again, no matter that it would hopelessly impractical. I suspect also that it would cost a little more than £600 a month these days.

Finally, a year or so ago, a heap of people contacted me to point me towards this: the BBC website featuring Old Slains Castle in a "then and now" photo comparison. It looks like the castle is still falling down - part of the wall in the foreground has obviously collapsed or crumbled in the last century. Personal Wonders, alas, don't usually come into the attention of UNESCO, and 1950s built wooden house certainly don't.

The following websites helped with the background and history:


  1. please do you have more pictures of the inside of the house then . Im very interested.

  2. Yeah, I've got loads. I recall that the bathroom had very ornate sinks and taps, although I don't think I ever took photos of these.

  3. Hi,Nev I too am very interested in more pics of the inside of the cottage at Slains.I am directly related,to this branch of the Hay clan who has been on this land for centuries,it would really be wonderful to stay in this historical remnant of our family's.Lol,wonder if the ghosts of my ancestors would show themselves to a living member of the family.If you have any info left from the time you stayed on who to contact,that would be so great!Please let me know,will send you contact information.Sincerly,Alexander Hay

  4. Hi,Nev I too am very interested in more pics of the inside of the cottage at Slains.I am directly related,to this branch of the Hay clan who has been on this land for centuries,it would really be wonderful to stay in this historical remnant of our family's.Lol,wonder if the ghosts of my ancestors would show themselves to a living member of the family.If you have any info left from the time you stayed on who to contact,that would be so great!Please let me know,will send you contact information.Sincerly,Alexander Hay


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