Archive for Scotland

Return to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Castle, Caves, Gardens, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by mysearchformagic

It’s been well over a year since I made my first trip to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik, but I have thought a lot about this wild and wonderful place since that visit. Last week I was able to visit again, and explore more of its magical corners.

First on my list of things to see was Knightslaw Tower. Although it may look medieval, the tower was actually built in the middle of the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, an enthusiastic antiquarian with a taste for the ancient. When first constructed the tower could be seen from miles around, and dominated the rest of the Penicuik estate. Since its heyday, however, the tower has fallen into disrepair, and the high trees which have grown up around it hide it from the outside world. The result is a rather melancholy, but definitely quite magical ruin.

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

Next I walked on past the majestic ruins of the huge mansion of Penicuik House, built by Sir John’s son James in the 1760s, and into the valley below. Here I found the river Esk, which babbles its way down from here to nearby Roslin Glen, another of my favourite spots. Once over the river I crossed a field, heading uphill until I reached the Hurley Ponds.

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds are another of Sir John Clerk’s creations, part of his ambitious plans to landscape his park at Penicuik. Once used as fishing ponds, they have now largely returned to nature, spookily quiet apart from the odd quack from the resident flock of ducks.

Sir John was obviously rather partial to a magical experience himself, and evidence of this can be found in his construction of the Hurley Cave, a rock-cut underground passage which leads from the side of the hills closest to the house into this secluded valley. The original entrance to the cave was over a bridge across the Esk, where a cascade waterfall was constructed to add to the sense of drama. Visitors would presumably have been guided through the cave with candles or burning torches, and half way down would have found a carved Latin inscription Tenebrosa occultaque cave, beware dark and hidden things. The other end of the cave emerges from a rusticated stone doorway in the hill, and can still be seen today.

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Unfortunately vandalism and structural problems mean that the Hurley Cave has had to be locked up. Its heavy metal door does, however, have a large gap at the top which allows a glimpse of the dark depths beyond. I couldn’t resist sticking my camera into the gap and taking a picture. It offers an enticing hint of what lies beneath.

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Much work has been done to consolidate and preserve Penicuik House and its estate in recent years, largely thanks to the hard work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust. Apparently both the cave and the tower are on their list of works for the future, but restoring both will be an expensive job, and fundraising is ongoing. In the meantime I was happy to enjoy the overgrown, rather sombre mood of the lost gardens, and imagine the dingy depth of the Hurley Cave. I like to think Sir John would have approved!

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

For details on how you can support the sterling work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust, click here.


Yester Castle, East Lothian

Posted in Castle, Ghosts with tags , , , , on January 3, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Despite the fact that it was once one of the most impressive and important medieval fortresses in south east Scotland, you won’t find Yester Castle in any guidebooks or on many maps. Its romantic ruins sit in wild woodland just a couple of miles outside the pretty town of Gifford, on private land belonging to the later Yester House. Finding the castle is not easy – I parked up on a farm track, walked across some fields, climbed a couple of fences and cut across the corner of a golf course before I spotted the tips of its craggy walls rising above the treetops.


The approach to Yester Castle

Yester was originally built by one Hugo de Giffard, a 13th Century nobleman who also dabbled in the dark arts. The famous Goblin Ha’, which was reputedly built by a band of hobgoblins, is the only remaining part of his original castle, and also the location of the warlock’s supposed magical experiments. Ever since the castle fell into ruins in the 16th Century, tales of strange sounds and lights emanating from this underground lair have circulated, a result perhaps of de Giffard’s alleged pact with the Devil.

On a grey, drizzly winter day Yester Castle can seem rather forbidding. Slipping and sliding in the leaves and mud as I scrambled up a low rise to reach the ruins, I quickly regretted my totally unsuitable canvas trainers, but it was worth the treacherous climb. At the top sits a tall fragment of ancient masonry, a barrel-vaulted room at the base and some intricately carved moulding towards the top giving a tiny hint of the long-lost grandeur of this once imposing building.

The ruins of Yester Castle

The ruins of Yester Castle

Wandering further through the trees, I suddenly came upon a huge stretch of curtain wall, its grey stonework almost camouflaged amongst the muted colours of the woodland.

The camouflaged curtain wall of Yester Castle

The camouflaged curtain wall of Yester Castle

The wall is still impressive and solid, punctured by just a small arched doorway, but down to my left I spotted a set of stone stairs, inevitably covered at this time of year in slimy brown leaves. At the foot of these stairs lies two dark, iron-grated windows, and beyond them the reason for my visit, the Goblin Ha’.

Stairs down to the Goblin Ha'

Stairs down to the Goblin Ha’

Getting down to the windows without breaking my neck was the next challenge. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but once they did the sharp gothic vaulting of the subterranean chamber below became clear. The Goblin Ha’ is wonderfully spooky from the outside, but I wasn’t going to stop there. I had read somewhere that it was still possible to gain access to the mythical hall. And so I began the search.

Once through the door in the curtain wall I was able to make out the subtle line of a path which curved down the side of the hill. As I followed it I became starkly aware of the huge drop to the gushing river far below. Squelching and sliding precariously along the tiny path I began to wonder whether I wasn’t being slightly foolish, but by then it was too late to turn back. At the end of the path, tucked in at the base of the ruinous corner of the curtain wall, I found a tiny, stone lined doorway, with a low, murky passageway beyond. I took a deep breath, hunched my shoulders and headed in.

The tiny doorway into the Goblin Ha'

The tiny doorway into the Goblin Ha’

The Goblin Ha’ is even more impressive on the inside. The two grated windows give some light, but it is still pretty dark in there, particularly on an overcast winter’s day.

Inside the Goblin Ha'

Inside the Goblin Ha’

It was only when I used my flash to take a couple of photos that I noticed something in the shadows of the blackest corner – a narrow set of stairs descending into the shadows below. Of course, my first thought was how I could get down there to find out what lay at the foot of the stairs. In the absence of a torch, could I somehow use my camera flash to guide my way? Could I edge down in the darkness and then flash away to reveal what lay beneath?

Stairs down into the darkness...

Stairs down into the darkness…

Then the reality of  my situation hit me. I was standing in a dark, reputedly haunted castle cellar in the middle of nowhere. No one knew I was there, and as far as I knew there was no one for miles around. I was considering heading down some dark, wet stairs to find God-knows-what at the bottom. My heart began to pound, Sweat prickled my brow. I glanced around at the desolate, dank hall with its impenetrable shadows and dark corners.

Within seconds I was up the passage, out of the door, and slithering my way back up that muddy path to safety. I blame it on a lifetime of ghost stories and horror movies, combined of course with the unmistakeably creepy atmosphere of the Goblin Ha’. It took me a good few minutes of brisk walking to recover from my overwhelming feeling of cold terror. Yester Castle is certainly extremely magical, but visiting the strange, decidedly spooky Goblin Ha’ is not an experience I will be rushing to repeat, at least not without some sturdy shoes, a torch and a brave companion…

Saltcoats Castle, East Lothian

Posted in Castle, History with tags , on September 27, 2012 by mysearchformagic

In my last post I touched on the magical potential of deserted buildings, when I featured Alex Chinneck’s contemporary art installation Telling the Truth Through False Teeth. This time I am looking at another very different, more ancient example of charming decay. There is something wonderful about ruins, and picturesque castles and abbeys have long been an obsession of mine. Nowadays most well-known ruins are preserved and well tended by English Heritage or the National Trust, but every so often I stumble across somewhere like Saltcoats Castle, which is still in the process of disintegrating, and is quite literally crumbling before our eyes.

The path to Saltcoats Castle

The path to Saltcoats, which sits next to the pretty village of Gullane in East Lothian, is so overgrown as to be almost non existent. The walk involves damp shoes and avoiding swathes of nettles, but the castle itself is well worth the trouble.

Saltcoats Castle from the east

Built in the late 16th Century by Patrick Livingtoun, this imposing house was occupied by the Hamilton family until around 1800. For the next few years it was used as a handy source of free masonry by local builders, with nature also playing its part in the building’s gradual dilapidation. Its courtyard is now filled with bushes and grass, trees pushing up through the once-proud sandstone walls.

Saltcoats Castle

The boards which once blocked the gates to the castle courtyard have long since been pulled down, allowing entry to those who are brave (or foolish) enough to wander through the precarious ruins. Dark doorways into shadowy undercrofts can be seen through the undergrowth, and in one corner it is possible to peer into the murky depths of a barrel vaulted basement below, a space which once probably housed the castle’s kitchen. The remaining walls of the tower look solid enough at their base, but towards the top large cracks and gaps between the stones suggest that they are far from stable.

The overgrown, crumbling walls of Saltcoats Castle

Saltcoats Castle is a place brimming with atmosphere. There’s something maudlin about its slow descent into ruin, but something wonderful about it too. This is the kind of castle that inspired the 18th Century passion for ruins, which resulted in wealthy land owners constructing their own ruined ‘Gothick follies’ as decoration for their landscaped gardens and estates. Standing beside its craggy, overgrown walls, surrounded by the wide open vistas and rich farmland of East Lothian, it is easy to see why the Romantics found magic in such places. Unlike the many better-known castles nearby which are open to the public, with their gift shops and car parks, Saltcoats retains that air of romance. It’s sad perhaps that such a historic building has been left to fall into such a fragile state, but I can’t help but be slightly glad that Saltcoats remains virtually untouched, totally unrestored and ever so slightly magical.

The view from Saltcoats Castle