I have long been interested in castles, the more rugged and ruined the better. Many of them in Scotland are looked after by Historic Environment Scotland, the agency formerly known as Historic Scotland until they merged with the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments in Scotland (RCAHMS) earlier this year. A few castles in Scotland are known the world over – Edinburgh, Stirling (see previous post on that great place here), Urquhart – and I have been to all three at least once. I tend to prefer smaller castles in more isolated spots. They tend to be more dramatic and be easier to bring to life as you walk around them. It’s much harder to do that at Edinburgh Castle, for example, where you are invariably surrounded by thousands of people and Tartan tat in the giftshops at every turn.
One of my favourite parts of Edinburgh Castle is probably one of the least-known parts of it. Off Crown Square is an exhibit about American prisoners of war, which features some intriguing exhibits including a model warship made out of food bones and various examples of graffiti produced by prisoners in the Castle over time, including renderings of the Stars and Stripes from the very early days of the United States. By the time this post appears, we will (hopefully) know the outcome of the US Presidential election, whether it may well be the end of days for that great nation.
I have become a connoisseur of castle graffiti. It is perhaps a latter-day version of social media, the ‘look-at-me’ culture where everyone wants to make their mark on wherever they are, like the padlocks that weigh down many bridges and quaysides. My interest started when I first visited castles as a kid and I was at Crichton Castle, which sits in a very dramatic setting in the wilds of Midlothian. Behind the central courtyard I found a bit of graffiti dating from 1745, no less. It’s amazing what you find on castle walls, the traces of masons making and visitors carving in centuries past. When I was at Caerlaverock Castle in April, I found an example of a lavishly carved signature, featuring two very curly ‘c’s, apparently dating from 1815, another year momentous in European history. Not so far away was another very clear signature from 1857, a less momentous year though still notable for being the year Sheffield FC, the world’s first football team, was founded and when the Victoria and Albert Museum was opened in London.
I follow a blog called lullueblog, which I enjoy reading. Its author writes about authentic travel experiences. I’ve often wondered about what makes a travel experience authentic, what makes an experience more vivid and broader than just a stray glance without much meaning conveyed. Being autistic affects how I see the world, for good or ill. When I visit castles, my deep interest in architecture and my keen autistic fixation on detail play varying parts in how I see where I am. Oftentimes, forging a personal connection with a place depends on the day, one’s personal preoccupations and predilections. I like castles for many reasons. They are often in places with beautiful views, by the sea like Tantallon or Dunnottar or in the midst of flowing countryside like Doune or Huntingtower. Some people form a connection in different ways. I tend to write about where I go. Other people want to be seen to have been there, to leave a permanent mark on the place. That date they carve into the wall weathers over time, a winter or two taking away the sharpness of the indentations of those numbers, soon becoming historical in its own right, as much a part of the place as those inhabitants long gone for whom it was built.