Monday, 4 May 2020

My First Castle

Duntulm Lodge Hotel and the dreadful castle
The sparse ruins of Duntulm Castle sit on a promontory of volcanic rock that juts out from the west coast of the Trotternish Peninsula at the most northerly tip of the Isle of Skye. Looking northwest from the castle it is possible to see Lord Macdonald’s Table and the romantically-named Fladaigh Chùain (Flat Island in the Ocean), where the nuclear submarine, HMS Trafalgar, ran aground and suffered five million pounds worth of damage in 2002 because important navigational features had been obscured by tracing paper laid over the chart. In the distance, on clear days, the Outer Hebridean islands of Harris and Lewis and North Uist rise out of the cold water. 
Around 170 million years ago, in what is now the bay to the southwest of the castle, vast long-necked sauropod dinosaurs left trails of footprints as they ponderously went about their business. Much more recently, around 1662, the flat fields above Tulm Bay to the northeast of the castle were occupied by Duntulm Farm and the settlements of Duntulm and Erisco. All that remains of the settlements are a few stone walls, but the farm was converted to a hotel, Duntulm Lodge, in the 1930s. In the winter of 1951/2, the Wilson family, Jim, Eve, youngest daughter, Susan, and infant son, John, moved from Edinburgh to take over the running of the hotel. To entice visitors, they stressed the scenery, the ‘romantic adventures of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald’ and hot and cold water in all bedrooms. I suspect that an echo of Jim’s life in India snuck in with the offered, ‘Salmon, sea trout and trout fishing on lochs and rivers. Shooting over 21,000 acres.’ All of this was available for a mere twenty-five shillings per day or seven to eight guineas per week.
Having life's first worry on Skye
The first memory that I have, that I am certain is genuine, is of sitting on a bench beside my mother on a ferry. Across the way is a young woman with an infant who will not stop crying. The noise is bothering my mother and she says, “Why can’t she keep that baby quiet?” This was out of character for Eve and I suspect that is the reason it has stuck in my memory. I was turning four-years-old and, after the failed attempt to make a go of the Duntulm Lodge Hotel we were retreating south to Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy) where Jim was to begin work as a Planning Engineer at Mechan’s Ltd., an engineering firm on Clydeside in Glasgow. Mechan’s dates back to 1862 and was noted for building steel lifeboats, engine room telegraphs and watertight doors for the British fleet in the years prior to the First World War. However, they were a general firm and also made steel structures for gold mining operations and machinery for water, cyanide and sugar plants. Jim was to become one of the 1,000 employees at their 20 acre factory.
The reality of my past becomes slowly solid and defined after Skye, like a figure walking forward out of a thick fog. Skye itself is a blank so, if all I can remember of Skye is leaving, why say anything at all about it? Because I have been told stories of it by others. 
I “remember” Jim having to climb out a window to dig snow away from the front door, which opened outwards, and taking me fishing or checking lobster pots in the rowing boat that was kept in Tulm Bay. I was told about a neighbour who was a die-hard Free Presbyterian, “Wee Frees” we called them. He was dead against the ferries to Skye running on Sunday—there was no bridge in those days, so I suspect the Devil has unlimited access now. He also frowned upon children playing on a Sunday and spent the hours between the several Kirk services sitting at home reading Pilgrim’s Progress out loud. Apparently, because all our neighbours and those who worked in the hotel spoke Scots Gaelic amongst themselves, I could speak a few words at four-years-old. All I remember now is Slàinte mhath, which means good health when raising a glass of Uisge Beatha (whisky), although even that might come from reading Robert Burns.
Happier days with Sally
I had my first pets at Duntulm, a very friendly spaniel called Sally, a less friendly cat called Black Devil, and a duck, inevitably named Jemima, which had been hatched and raised in a cardboard box on top of the huge AGA cooker. Apparently, I spent hours peering into the straw-line box waiting for the egg to hatch and consequently I was the first thing Jemima saw at birth and so she was imprinted and followed me around in the belief that I was her mother. Amidst copious tears, all pets had to be relocated and left behind when we went south.
And I have photographs, small grey, grainy images of me in Skye, on my mother’s shoulder, in my pram, in a snowsuit, in my dad’s rowboat and, rather apprehensively, meeting a cow. In many, beneath my pudding-basin haircut, I seem dubious about what I am involved in and often positively worried about something. I am happiest playing in the snow, on the beach, or in the boat. Apart from one shot where he proudly holds up a large lobster, Jim is invisible, busy with the hotel. As soon as I could get about on my own, Eve too mostly disappears into the role of photographer. The person most commonly with me is Susan, my sister closest to me in age. My two older sisters, Eelin and Dorothy, were old enough to stay in Edinburgh and go to University or finish school, but Susan was only fourteen and so accompanied us to Sky to go to school in Portree, so it was often her task to look after me. 
Uncertainly meeting that first cow.
For a toddler, it was a fairly solitary, adult-centred existence. The only children in evidence in four years of photographic history are cousins who appeared for a brief summer visit. I think Skye gave me a sense of comfort being on my own or around adults but not children my own age. It also contributed a love of open, barren countryside and the soft, highland accent, that was to be a handicap going through my troubled teenage years in the lowlands. Over everything in those years, literally and figuratively, loomed the ruin of Duntulm Castle.
Duntulm Castle was on a good defensive site protected on three sides by sheer cliffs that disappeared into the grey treacherous waters of the Minch. It was additionally protected by the blue men of the Minch, mythological creatures who sought to overturn ships and drown shipwrecked sailors. They would gather around a ship and their leader would rise up and recite two lines of poetry. The only way the ship’s captain could save his vessel was by competing poetically with the blue man. One tale gives the following exchange where the captain outsmarts the attacking poet:
Blue Chief: Man of the black cap what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?
Skipper: My speedy ship takes the shortest way
And I'll follow you line by line.
Blue Chief: My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you below the waves.
Skipper: My ship is speedy, my ship is steady
If it sank it would wreck your caves.
After the Norse left in 1266, the castle changed hands numerous times as the local clans struggled for power. Eventually, in  1618, the Macdonalds of Sleat won out and ruled there relatively peacefully until the castle was finally abandoned in 1732. From then on it provided a handy stone quarry for the local crofters until it became, when Susan was in charge of me, her favourite place to keep me occupied when the busy hotel required my absence. While  we walked up the grassy slope, she would tell me a story.
Donald and Hugh wouldn't recognize the old place now.
“Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, Donald, the chief of the clan Macdonald lived here. One day, his cousin, Hugh, came to visit. In those days there was a law of hospitality, anyone who showed up on your doorstep had to be invited in and given food and a bed for the night. The trouble was, that Hugh had plans to murder Donald and become clan chief himself. Fortunately, one of Hugh’s servants told Donald of the plot and Hugh had to flee the castle in the middle of the night. He went over to Uist and hid there, but Donald never forgave him for violating the laws of hospitality, so he hunted him down and captured him. He brought him back to Duntulm and imprisoned him in the deepest dungeon in the castle where the tide came in every day. He gave Hugh salt meat to eat but no water. After a while, poor old Hugh went completely mad. He beat the stone walls with his fists and screamed and shouted, but Donald just laughed. Eventually, Hugh died a horrible lonely death in his dungeon. It is said that, on nights when a storm comes in, Hugh’s ghost can be seen walking the castle ruins and that all the screams of the storm aren’t just from the wind.”
Of course, by this time I was totally entranced. We would reach the castle and my sister would lead me over to a deep, damp, hole in the ground and tell me with great glee, “And this is the dungeon where Hugh went insane.” It didn’t matter that the hole was far above the high tide mark and could only fill with water during a truly massive tsunami, I was fascinated by that hole in the ground and its appalling history. I don’t remember having any nightmares around my sister’s tales but, perhaps it wasn’t just from Jim that I got my love of storytelling.

No comments:

Post a Comment