Tuesday 14th February 2006
First stop for the day was “Stirling Castle”. The day was overcast and pretty gloomy, which was less of a problem than it might otherwise have been because I had left the camera back at the hotel. What a magnificent place it is.
Having said that, the tour of the Palace (built by James V to house himself and his French queen) within the Castle’s precincts was a disappointment. It has been all but gutted as part of a major archaeological project aimed at restoring it completely by the end of 2007, but in the meantime, despite the storyboards, it was a bit like touring a building site. If the results of these efforts are as successful as the restoration of the Great Hall after removal of three floors of barrack accommodation, however, it should be something special. Whilst on the subject of the Great Hall, I thought the reconstruction of the hammer-beam roof impressive but the orangey cream exterior walls less so, however accurate the reproduction.
I think I’m already on record as being unexcited by castle kitchens – and that despite a liking for what’s produced in their modern counterparts – but the recreation of the Great Kitchen here is particularly well done. I can feel a photo opportunity coming on, even if I have to come back tomorrow. And if that wasn’t sufficient reason, the views from the walls – and that of the vestiges of the Royal Gardens and what is now known as the “King’s Knot” from the Ladies Lookout – certainly are!
My second visit – after picking up the camera – was to “Doune Castle” some 15 minutes from where I’m staying. Of all the castles I’ve visited, Doune appeared to be the closest to what I’d describe as “all of a piece” – and a seriously “forbidding” one at that. And, in fact, it was – the guide said that, of all the Scottish castles, this was the only one which was built in accordance with its original design and little changed thereafter. Although the forbidding description suits the defensive purposes for which the castle was built, it was more intended as a residence fit for a King’s brother, which was what Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany was – and a statement of his wealth and standing.
Both the Great Hall and the Duke’s Hall provide evidence of that, as do the number and size of the various chambers, but attractive I found them not. I wonder if the “this feels like us” reaction that one gets from one house and not another when in house-hunting mode applies to castles. I suspect it does – and Doune certainly didn’t feel like me!
One thing that did surprise me – though the restoration of the Duke’s Hall should have given me a clue – is that it’s a popular wedding venue!
The “Royal” dinner was, again, a mix of good and less so. The entrée of grilled Scottish scallops came close to matching the Wheatsheaf’s offering, the char-grilled fillet of beef would have been delicious if it had been served when plated rather than by the time the vegetables had dried out and the béarnaise sauce had solidified. That rosette is looking “overblown”!
Wednesday 15th February 2006
Although it was raining when I left for my return visit to Stirling Castle, by the time I arrived the sun was out – and stayed out for almost all of the hour and half I was there. How lucky can I be?
One more castle to go: “Castle Campbell” – near Dollar, a little over 30 minutes from Stirling. “Position, position, position” is what all the real estate people are purported to say. If the ideal position for a castle is in lofty isolation on a narrow ridge, Castle Campbell would be a real estate agent’s dream. Of course, that lofty isolation meant crossing a couple of ridges to reach it – on foot! All in a good cause says he – otherwise all he’d have to write about is food! And the exercise does help to keep the results of all this “good living” at bay – well to some extent.
Anyway, back to the castle which, it turns out is another popular wedding venue. In fact, while I was there the Monument Manager took a call from a couple in the US who wanted to be married there in late December. I hope they’re hardy souls. They’d probably be permitted to bring one car up to the castle, but then bride, groom and everyone else will be faced with a climb up two flights of narrow stone spiral stair to reach the hall! For the bridegroom, kilts – or trews even – might be OK, but I don’t see a wedding dress with a long train being too practical.
Oh, you want to hear about the castle. Well, originally it was called Castle Gloom – an accurate enough portrayal when seen, as it was this afternoon. in a lowering sky. But I digress; the “gloom” was apparently derived from the Gaelic word “Glom” for a chasm – an apt description of the Dollar Glen way below the castle.
It was not built by the Campbells, but acquired by them in the 15th century and renamed. The best-preserved section, the Tower House, is the oldest and comprises four main floors incorporating everything from a pit prison to a garret in the roof space. Guess who’s getting better at – and fitter – negotiating spiral stairs; else he wouldn’t get photos from the roof, would he? Two more recent (16th and 17th century) additions to provide greater comfort are in ruins, but overlook what once must have been most attractive terraced gardens.
Having a distant link with the Campbells on my mother’s side of the family I found the visit added something to my knowledge of this powerful if unpopular clan, but I can’t say I fell in love with this one of their “residences”! Apart from the obligatory photos of the buildings and views, Castle Campbell provided my first sight of this season’s snowdrops – and they looked just stunning in those stark and unwelcoming surroundings.
In its last opportunity to retain, in Norm’s view, its AA rosette, I’m afraid the “Royal” failed. Again, the entrée of mussels was, even by my high standards, excellent, but the main of slow-roasted pork, rather than lamb, shank suffered from not being roasted either long enough or slowly enough, or both.
Thursday 16th February 2006
Most of the Historic Scotland sites are closed on Thursdays and Fridays during winter, but one that I did want to visit, namely Dunfermline Abbey & Palace, is open on Thursday mornings. Because of a wait at the barbers – while other customers were shorn rather than the time it took to shear me, I hasten to add – I didn’t get away from the Bridge of Allan as early as I’d hoped, and arrived at Dunfermline only an hour before it closed.
This meant that my self-guided tour was more rushed than I would have liked, and on reading the guide book later there were some things that I just missed. I did get some photos, however, and some more stair-climbing exercise, so I probably got my £2.00 worth. For some reason or other, I had imagined that the Abbey and the Palace were two separate entities. They’re not. As part of its function, the abbey was expected to provide hospitality to all who called on it, but in Dunfermline’s case, the abbey’s principal Guest House accommodated “Royals” from the beginning and as such was designated a “Royal Palace”.
Even from the surviving ruins, the Guest House must have been very grand indeed, as also was the Refectory with its splendid west window. Only the nave of the Abbey Church remains and, if I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t spend more time there than elsewhere. Some of the mid-fifteenth century stained glass windows are just gorgeous.
Then off to Perth where I’ll be spending the next couple of nights. The “Lovat Hotel” definitely doesn’t boast rosettes and, fortunately for the budget, is priced accordingly. At some time in the past the hotel closed its restaurant, and “bar food” type meals are now served all day in a sort of bistro. All very modern with chunky tables and chunky (and uncomfortable) chairs in trendy, I suppose, blonde timbers. Somewhat lacking therefore in the cosy warmth of your traditional pub, but the Steak & Guinness Pie was “very tasty” (as a comedian whose name is long gone, used to say after every meal)!