A few years ago, I picked up a paper and saw that something I had been doing for years had become fashionable. That doesn’t happen very often – I am quite happily unfashionable and will happily remain so until such a time that speccy, slightly spotty guys with floppy hair take over the earth. Our day will come. What I read about was castlebagging, a trend whereby people go around the country visiting castles, ticking them off a list in much the same way as folk tick off Munros, trig points, lions in Paisley and Oor Wullie statues in Dundee (the last two being real public art trails going on in Scotland at the moment). I’ve been visiting castles for years. I particularly like ruined castles because they lend more to the imagination plus National Trust castles tend to roll into one for me. I prefer cold and damp ruins to big hooses with fire guards to prevent the ladies’ makeup running.
My favourite big castle in Scotland is Stirling but I wrote about that a while back. So, I would like to write something about one of my other favourites, a place I have only visited three times despite it being near Dunbar. For those who don’t know it, Tantallon sits on a cliff jutting into the Forth. Across the way from it is the Bass Rock. It’s a little way out of North Berwick on the road to Tyninghame and ultimately Dunbar. But it might as well be on an island in the middle of the sea for it can get absolutely baltic as I found one day a good few years ago when I went on a February morning when it was snowing. To snow in East Lothian, it better be bloody cold as it certainly was walking back into North Berwick afterwards.
To be fair, my last visit was on a roasting hot day in July about five years ago. To put it into context, it was warm in East Lothian terms but probably still about five degrees cooler than it was even a few miles inland. It was stunning with clear views down the coast and across to the Bass and the Isle of May beyond. From the battlements I looked over the fields to North Berwick Law and towards Fidra and the Lamb. On such days, the historical interest is secondary to just enjoying my surroundings, just as I did as I ambled into North Berwick a wee while later, looking down to Canty Bay as I walked.
Tantallon Castle is a place I have passed many times and each time it raises my spirits. The road from Dunbar to North Berwick is probably one of the finest in Scotland, with fields and sea views pretty much all the way. I haven’t done it for a few years (in fact the last time I did was in a convertible) but it was often part of my childhood. I thrilled every time, particularly when the road turned right and Tantallon and the Bass came into view. Even though I’m happy here, thinking of that makes me glad I grew up where I did. Every time I see the painting of it we have on the living room wall, it does the same. This year, I need to go back, I think, just to get a top up. It’s a once every five years kind of place, yielding loads without ever diminishing the impact.
The only other place I know like it is many miles north, Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven. It sits on a cliff slightly out to sea. Dunnottar feels many miles from anywhere, just like Tantallon, and has a connection in that Covenanters were imprisoned in both castles (as well as on the Bass Rock) in the 17th century. That’s another place that is on my list.
Strangely, near both of my workplaces there is a Tantallon Road. They feel very far away from the battlements at Tantallon Castle, watching the birds on the Bass while anxiously making sure the wind doesn’t blow you down, but they serve as a reminder of the world beyond the city, of the great fortune of growing up in such a beautiful part of the world and of why castles are more than just ruins. Imagining the winds there while far away reminds me of WB Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, for:
‘While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core’.