18 Dec 2009

Tantallon Castle: Homage to stone, sea and sky

Say it out loud: Tantallon. Does it not sound like an invocation? Do the T’s and L's not scramble around the mouth like fingers over rocks, calling to life the formidable giant perched atop a ragged cliff, in defiance of any who would challenge it?

The first time I heard the name Tantallon, it was spoken with a Spanish accent. Friends of mine exclaimed it to be their favourite castle. They told me about the green grass surrounding the proud ruin and the way the world just seemed to fall away into the water.

I don’t know about you, but whenever someone speaks of a place with deep reverence or awe, my mind’s perceptions encourage a growing sense of mystery about it, which stays with me until I can see it all for myself.
Approaching the castle, you are dwarfed by the upright slab that is the four-metre thick sandstone curtain wall. I even love the term: curtain wall. It sounds like a theatrical intermission for violent combat. War and weather have long since reduced to stubs the three towers that were once used as residences, giving the ruin a squat appearance on the horizon, like a bulldog on guard duty.

The castle was built in the 1350s and throughout the bulk of its tumultuous history was owned by the Earls of Angus, also known as the Red Douglases. In 1651 Cromwell’s army attacked, destroying the castle and snipping the end off its 300 year timeline.

The day my beloved and I visited Tantallon, it was a Tuesday. A damp cold drove in from the Firth of Forth and what clouds there were hung like a haze on the horizon. With its cliffs devoid of the massive colony of North Atlantic Gannets that clamour about from late winter through to the autumn, Bass Rock looked lonely, forgotten.
Since it was off-season, mid-week and freezing cold, we were alone with a building that has existed for more than six centuries. We stood in the grass-covered inner close (which once would have been surrounded by high walls) and watched the birds soar over the water until, numb with cold, we were driven into the castle itself.
Like many ruins, the rooms require much from the imagination to try to recreate what would have been. Information boards include sketches of how things might have looked, but they just filled me with longing for the shell of the building to be filled, for it all to come back to life.
That said, some of my favourite sections of the castle included broken stone that stood out against the sky and water. I also loved looking down from the battlements to the inner courtyard and the castle‘s well, which is an astonishing 30 feet deep. Also, in the bowels of one of the towers is an area that was once used as a dungeon. With little natural light the damp, creepy room does include a latrine, if you count a hole cut into the stone that expels directly onto the water and rocks below. Can you say draft?
The best thing about Tantallon is the view, the flat farmland that collapses like an unexpected sigh into the churning estuary. Also taken from the battlements, the photo below is my favourite of the day because it is a combination of the stone, the land, the sky and the sea. I have left this one large so you can click for more detail if you like. I have been using it as my desktop background and find it to be a porthole to another world.
When we left the Tantallon we talked about how we didn’t know if we would return, but since looking at the photos I have decided I would like to go again. But I would prefer to visit in the late spring so we can stand with the castle looming down on us and look out from our clifftop perch to where the returning glut of seabird life whips and dives around us.
Do you have a favourite castle in Scotland? What is the best thing about it?

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