30 October 2013

Dunstaffnage Castle

Wrapping up my brief trip to Oban on the west coast of Scotland, I thought it would be fitting to end this series of posts with the reason I went out there in the first place! That would be Dunstaffnage Castle, which is currently in the care of Historic Scotland and sits on a promontory at the south end of Loch Etive, about 4 miles north of Oban. I'm doing a presentation on this castle and subsequently writing an essay for one of my classes on this and a group of early stone castles to which it belongs. So let me tell you, I've been reading up a lot on Dunstaffnage Castle! But for the purposes of this post, I'll stick mostly with photos and just say that it's totally worth the very short drive/bus ride out of Oban to go see.

Just a wee bit of a background: The main enclosure, or what is called a curtain wall, was built probably mid-13th century, somewhere between about 1220 and 1260 or so... probably. The thing about these old castles is that it's really, really hard to be sure. Historic evidence just doesn't exist like we'd (I'd!!) like, and it's not possible to date stone. So one tries to pick out whatever remaining architectural characteristics there are and hopes to tie them in to the building of other similar castles or what was being done in other locations at the time. In the case of Dunstaffnage, there are a few windows with a tiny bit of detailing on the frames about which has been written tons... because when that's all you've got to go on, well... run with it and best of luck!

It really is a gorgeous castle, having gone through remodels and rebuilds throughout its history. Originally the courtyard would have had timber buildings in it, including a great hall and a kitchen. Later additions were the big gatehouse and another stone house (the one in the pictures with the apparently floating fireplace)... it's really interesting to stand on the ground floor of these structures and try to imagine there being at least one if not a few timber floors over your head. It's hard to imagine when you're being rained on. ;)

But here we go, starting with a sort of abstract shot of the entrance. I love that you can see where the original archway was, and then they made it smaller and built another arch inside.

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The photo above is taken from inside the west tower, but in the photo below, the corner where it looks like a huge chunk is missing -- that's the north tower, and is probably where the lord would have lived.  This old boy has been remodeled and rebuilt and ruined throughout the centuries so much that sometimes walls and windows are difficult to make any sense out of. Windows exist in the outer wall that aren't visible inside anymore and stairwells lead to nowhere or start spontaneously where the rest of them have decayed.

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The feature that stands out immediately is the huge rock outcrop that this castle is built on. It's just amazing how the walls are sheer with the face of the rock in some places, and creates a natural fortification--extremely difficult for medieval attackers to scale.


A short distance from the castle is a chapel that was probably built around the same time. Not much remains of it, but it was probably once extremely gorgeous. Imagine these walls covered in a smooth layer of what's called harl and painted. The fragmentary remaining masonry is gorgeous, though.

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Kate x

29 October 2013

Dunollie Castle

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I feel a little sad that so many of these photos are so rainy! Sunshine is so much more pleasant, but what is one going to do in fall/winter in Scotland... I don't really have much of a choice. ;) So, onward!

In the (very wet) afternoon that I was in Oban for the full day, I walked north of the city center to a little promontory on which sits Dunollie Castle and the 18th century MacDougall house which has been converted to a museum. It's £4 to access the grounds, which includes the museum, the castle ruin, and a woodland walk. It was so wet that I didn't bother with the woodland trails, but I did get up the hill to the castle since... well, why wouldn't you?

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The house museum, which visitors approach first, is quite interesting, really, showing how the laird and his family lived in the 18th century. They had an exceptionally old tartan on display which was rather nice. I spent a lot of time in the museum because of the rain, but eventually I steeled myself and climbed up to the castle ruin. It appears, according to the website, that they're about to close up the castle to undertake some conservation work.

The ground floor of the castle is a dank, exceedingly dark space, and I wasn't brave enough to go in myself (that should tell you how dark it was, eeep). But there are steps (rather treacherous, but still) up to the first floor, and that was much nicer, although filled with really creepy-sounding pigeons. Standing in a ruin by myself on a dreary day, the only sound being low, weird pigeon noises... I admit I sort of spooked myself. But hey, what else are castle ruins for than to get a little spooked? That's what I tell myself anyway. Ha!

It was a gorgeous little place, but some of the walls were really in need of stabilizing, so I'm glad they've been able to secure funding for some work on that.

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This guy shows up in numerous photos, in this exact pose, some of which I didn't even notice until I was going through photos. Love it! He's so cute, I want to take him home. I imagine he's smiling at me, probably condescendingly like, of course, sheep do.

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Some of them had the right idea to shelter under the Dog Stone, which Celtic legend holds that the legendary giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (a.k.a. Ossian) used to tie his dog to, hence the name. Just love this stuff.

Hope you all are enjoying a marvy week. <3

Kate x

28 October 2013

McCaig's Tower

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The hike to McCaig's Tower atop a central hill in Oban is short, but depending on the route, can be strenuous. One can either wind up gradually on narrow streets, being aware of cars taking tight turns (and trying to get round one another as well, kind of a hairy situation...) or take the stairs. Steep stairs, and a lot of them. I took the street route first and the stair route the second -- yep, I climbed to McCaig's Tower not once, but twice!

The morning of the one full day I was in Oban, I knew I had to get up to see this tower. It's an unusual sort of thing, easily spotted from just about anywhere in the city because it's so high up on Battery Hill. It looks like an approximation of a colosseum shell, which it apparently was modeled after by its designer and financier, banker John Stuart McCaig. He died before it was completed to his original plans, which included a museum inside, along with statues of the McCaig family, so all that remains is the shell. Now the interior is lined with paths and landscaped with shrubs and trees.

Perhaps more important than the tower itself: the view. Let me just say right now that if there's anything worth doing in Oban, it's saving your money and skipping the high street shops and making your way up to this vista point. The neighborhood is also worth a good little toot around, too, just for its quaint architecture and continuous wonderful views down the hill. On a clear day, you can see foreveerrrrr!  Or at as far as the farthest island will let you. Hence taking two trips: the first day was overcast with lower clouds that obscured some of the higher peaks of the isles in the distance. The second day, though still overcast, visibility was much better. So I just had to!

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And then for day two... You can get a much better sense of distance here. It was so nice to sit and watch the ferries come and go. If it hadn't been raining sporadically, I would have loved to sketch some of this scene.

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If only I had been in the area for more than a couple of nights, I would have loved to take the ferry to some far-flung island and hike around. I think that might be a bucket list item for the summer.. Go scout out some seal colonies, cycle around islands (I'm harkening back to my 2011 family vacation now, I can't help it!), pick up seashells... I really love and miss the smell of salt in the air, and seaweed and the sea wind. I'll definitely be back.

The same day that I first climbed to McCaig's Tower, I wandered to the north of town to visit the ruins of Dunollie Castle and a Clan MacDougall house museum. More on that... NEXT TIME. :)

Kate x

27 October 2013

Mission accomplished: Oban

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Above is Dunollie Castle, a Clan MacDougall stronghold from the 15th c, now very well abandoned. There's an adjacent 17th century house which has been turned into a museum. More on this later. ;)

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I'm back! And blogging! I feel a little guilty that there's been a bit of a delay getting a new post up, but a lot's been happening! I may not have been posting, but I've been accumulating material to post. Right? Right. ;)

I arrived back at Edinburgh last night a little before 9, after, I admit, a really shitty just-bearable train ride. Being a Saturday evening, and en route to Glasgow, it's quite possible this was the reason for a much more boisterous group of people being on the train. Perhaps to even out this pitfall, I met two Scottish couples who sat across from me and had been visiting Oban for a few days. They had a bunch of leftover venison and smoked salmon sandwiches, so they very warmheartedly provided me with supper and some cheery conversation. They were en route back to their retirement home in Portugal. Sigh!

Oban is on the west coast of Scotland, about as far west as you can go on land before having to hop ferries to the islands. It's a small, friendly city. I walked around there very briefly when my family came to Scotland on vacation back in 2011, but I was able to walk around and explore a lot more this time around. That's one benefit of traveling solo... you're on your own timetable! Albeit sometimes there are moments when it would be nice to share a beautiful view with someone, or a meal, or a drink at the pub. Just thought I'd share a few photos of the first evening I was there. I'll get some more up soon, from the subsequent days.

Kate x