Monday, 19 November 2012

Rosslyn Castle

This time eight years ago we spent a weekend at Rosslyn Castle, south of Edinburgh, and right beside the wonderful Rosslyn Chapel, which featured, I gather, in That Book...but this post is about the Castle, which dates back to the 14th century. The castle was destroyed during one of those typical bits of Scottish history, known as the Rough Wooing, which was a euphemism for something else entirely, and the ruins which are there today are mostly those of the rebuilt castle, although there is one stretch of 14th-century wall remaining. In 1622 the building was renovated, and an attractive Renaissance house incorporated within the walls, though it got bashed about again by Cromwell's lot. Despite that, it has been almost continuously habitable throughout its history, though I've heard that it got pretty dilapidated before its most recent restoration began in 1982 - there were stories that people used to drive down from Edinburgh to hold illicit parties in the big lower rooms (popularly referred to as "dungeons", which they weren't). Sadly, no one ever invited me, but I was probably too law-abiding, though I believe that at one time there was an eremitical caretaker who might have facilitated such events, probably in return for a bottle or two of whisky. At any rate, both castle and chapel became objects of desire in my student days, for their romantic settings, for their associations with the Knights Templar, and the chapel for one of the most remarkable interiors I've ever seen, with a proliferation of Green Men who peer from every nook and cranny. So when I discovered that the castle was now managed as a holiday let by the Landmark Trust (who do tremendous work in restoring and making wonderful buildings accessible), I was determined that I was going to stay there one day. My 50th birthday seemed like the perfect occasion.


The castle sits on a rocky promontory. It was originally approached by a drawbridge, but later a breach was made in the rock to create a chasm across which a narrow stone bridge with an alarmingly low parapet was built - I wasn't at all sure that my son's car would fit crossing the bridge and breathed in sharply!


The bridge safely negotiated, the house lies ahead of you - actually, we arrived after dark, which was a strange sensation. Would the key work? Could we find the light switches? Did we remember which box the dogfood was in? Unpack first, and then explore!


We quickly discovered, to the enormous delight of the two dogs, that there were two staircases, an elegant main one (I loved the figures in the hallway):


and a spiral stair in the little tower (which you can see on the left-hand-side in the picture of the house). The dogs did happy circuits until we firmly closed the door to the tower and unpacked their food. The tower was the exclusive retreat of younger son for our stay. The fireplace in his room had some interesting original stonework in it - a rainspout, perhaps:



The house is very modestly sized, with just two main rooms downstairs, dining room and drawing room. We cooked elaborately in the minuscule kitchen (both OH and elder son arrived with a battery of cooks' knives, knowing holiday lets of old!), which opens out onto a minuscule private garden, within the curtain walls, which would be perfect for picnics in warmer weather.




Did I mention weather? That weekend was the start of a real cold snap, the sharpest there had been that year. That fire was more than cosmetic, it was vital! If you peer at the right side of the fireplace, you can see the most splendid chainmail fire curtain. There's a guest book in the drawing room which makes very entertaining reading, but one thing which stands out is that everyone who has been there in winter has commented on how icily cold the house is. Some speculate about ghosts. I put it down to this:

Photograph by supergolden

That's the drawing room and dining room, with the big windows. Below them are three floors of nothing, with little or no window glass -- those are the so-called dungeons, actually the original kitchen and more service rooms, but pretty grisly nonetheless. And cold. Because you may remember from the first picture of the house that it's only two storeys high. It's actually perched on the edge of the promontory, and the lower floors descend into the glen below, a drop of 60 feet. This is the kitchen, where those parties used to be held. There was a single lightbulb in the centre of the ceiling at this level, and no incentive to linger. Reluctantly, because it seems very pathetic at this remove, this was as far as I got. Well, someone had to stay with the dogs, and there was no way I was letting them carry on down to the unlit depths.


A floor down, another kitchen and another enormous fireplace. And no electricity. Good thing we'd brought torches for taking the dogs out last thing.


We wondered what lived here. Judging from the heap of sticks on the floor they had been in residence for a long time. Owls? Ravens?


Someone else who'd been in residence for a long time. Younger son said this was the biggest spider he'd ever seen. There were obviously going to be a lot more of them, judging by the size of the bundle of eggs she was guarding.


At the end of the day there was a very sleepy puppy (don't tell the Landmark Trust! but we did take lots of blankets to protect the sofas). It was a pity she needed to go out at 3am -- as I stood on the frost-rimed lawn in my nightie and greatcoat, I was horribly conscious of all those ruins around me, the yawning gulf beneath my feet, the ghosts -- including a ghastly hound who bays. Do spectral hounds have the same habits as living ones? In which case, my two girls were going to be like magnets...but actually, the only howling likely to be heard that night was mine, as I recalled the 3-storey nursery for giant spiders!


Only OH was truly unmoved by the possibility of ghosts, I think, he has no imagination at all. Possibly he was preoccupied with trying not to die of exposure and add to their number, as were we all. I have never been so cold in my life. It was a mistake, too, to underestimate my fear of heights. The bridge terrified me, and I found it hard to trust to the dogs' good sense after hearing that the river in the glen has claimed a number who fell in. The Bolter was only a puppy, and not misnamed, although unlikely to take off in strange surroundings. In retrospect, I'm not quite sure whether it was a magical experience or a nightmare -- perhaps it was as magical as our family does! It certainly offered some insight into the life in a country house in, say, the 18th century, though thankfully, we didn't have to manage with candles as well. OH would have been glad, I think, of a television, but he did have the most awful cold. Actually, the most 18th-century bit was that we all rushed for the shower the minute we got home -- it had been too cold to shed any garments in order to wash while we were there. The castle did have a shower, at the top of the stone steps down to the basement kitchen! But even the "proper" bathroom was arctic.

 Rosslyn Castle by Vic Sharp

One of the things we did during our stay, of course, was to visit the chapel. This was during the period when work was being done on the roof, so we didn't take views of the outside, but we did go up on the scaffolding for a very different view of the building:


Sadly, photography is no longer allowed inside the chapel -- I would love to be able to spend hours in there with a camera, although it always seems to be busy now, even on the gloomiest of days. Even busy, I think it's the most remarkable church I know, and it's no wonder that so many stories have grown up around it. The castle, too, is a wonderfully romantic place, and it's gratifying to stay in such a building and know that while doing so you are helping to preserve it. And honestly, they are not always freezing - we were unlucky with a weekend when the frost on the ground didn't melt all day but just sharpened with each night. But I'd certainly recommend hotwater bottles, just in case!

13 comments:

  1. I'm ashamed to say that I have never been to the chapel in all the years I've lived in Edinburgh, and I didn't know the castle existed! I must go and explore soon as I've had the chapel on a mental list of places to visit for ages. A belated happy birthday to you!

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    1. Thank you, Karen - I had a very pleasant and peaceful day. A mild winter day is perfect for the chapel, because there is something so magical about the view across the glen with the bare trees creating a sort of smoky backdrop. The interior is really beyond description. The history of both, with their associations with Templars, freemasonry and, even more interesting in a way, gypsies, is completely absorbing, and has a way of making history seem very immediate.

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  2. Belated birthday wishes from me too. I loved the castle ruins when we were there a few weeks ago, so it's good to see what the house looks like inside. I must say that I'd really like to stay there, but in better weather.

    We first went to the Chapel a few years ago, when you could go up on the roof (although I didn't, but OH did). I enjoyed that visit more than our recent one, which was on a rainy day in the school half-term and packed with people - we should have known better.

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    1. Thank you too, Margaret. It was your post prompted me to write this one, because I thought it might be fun to show the inside of the house. It's definitely for warm weather though.

      Despite my fear of heights I enjoyed seeing the roof and went up on two separate visits. I haven't been back since, but would love to go again now it's finished. But not at half term. I think I need to decide the day it is *least* likely to have visitors, and go then. I wish I knew when that would be!

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    2. I have been to the chapel today, so thankyou so much for giving me the push I needed. What a place! Must gather my thoughts, and the pictures of the exterior I took, and write it all up, but I'm so glad I've seen it at last.

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  3. What a fascinating post, thank you for sharing this with us! When I first started reading, I thought how wonderful it all sounds, and then when you wrote about the cold and your discomfort because of the height, the possibility of losing one of your dogs due to that bridge, the spider nursery and the arctic bathroom, I thought, hmmm... maybe not THAT wonderful :-) Still, it was an unforgettable experience for you and your family, and maybe if one was there at a warmer time of the year, things would be different.

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    1. It would be lovely in a long hot summer!

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  4. Happy birthday! What a wonderful post, it was lovely to read your story, about the history, and see your photos. Being able to wander around the rest of the property, too. It does sound cold and a little spooky, but what an experience!

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    1. I had to keep telling myself firmly that it wasn't too spooky. I am SO glad I didn't see a ghost (not least because the rest of the family would have been horribly dismissive about it!)

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  5. How utterly gorgeous and what a treat! I have always suspected that the past would have been too cold a place for me and this confirms it.

    I hope you enjoyed your birthday.

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    1. I had a lovely birthday, pottering, writing some of the above post, baking for the upcoming week and reading - very lazy.

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    2. PS happy late birthday for this year, too!

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  6. What a lovely way to spend your 50th birthday!!! It was delightful to read. The chill would have got to me too, as well as the spiders and heights.....My 50th is coming next year, and we are trying to think of something special or interesting for it. I'd love to spend it in a castle!! Wow. I love that fire, and the hallway, etc. Plus the view.

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