Ghosting Scotland

Why Ghouls and Ghosties Love Scottish Castles
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 31 2007 7:21 AM

Ghosting Scotland

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There comes a point in many a hastily planned vacation when a chosen destination doesn't live up to its promise. ("Adventure," said explorer Roald Amundsen, "is just bad planning.") On its artfully weathered and sepia-toned Web site, Castle Levan bills itself as an "exceptional family home of immense historical significance dominating an enviable setting" and claims it is "visually appealing and immediately striking." Plus, there's a ghost: the Lady Marion Montgomery, starved to death by her husband. I booked a room.

It wasn't until we arrived that I learned Castle Levan suffers the odd fate of having been swallowed by a housing development. A castle deprived of a grand approach is hardly a castle; to get to Castle Levan, you head west out of Gourock, turn left onto a residential boulevard, then drive through a quiet suburban neighborhood lined with split-level homes until you reach a cul-de-sac, at the end of which stands a wrought-iron gate set within an impassive stone wall completely obscuring whatever it is that lurks behind. A sewage treatment plant? A shopping mall? Once you park your car, get out, and walk down the path, you realize you are indeed in the presence of a very attractive 14th-century fortress—but that fleeting sense of arrival vanishes as soon as you cross the threshold, climb the stairs, and set your bags down in a bedroom (one of two) appointed with a TV/VCR, a bookshelf jammed with videos, and wall-to-wall carpeting. Call me crazy, but I don't think wall-to-wall carpet existed in the 14th century.

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I wanted to put the car in reverse and find someplace else to stay, but Gourock—Gaelic for pimple-shaped—was even worse. Like Castle Levan, its better days are gone. What at the turn of the century was a thriving seaside resort is now a down-at-heel stretch of rocky shoreline and parking lots that put me in mind of Revere Beach in Massachusetts. By sheer ineptitude, I'd discovered the only unbeautiful place in all of Scotland.

Confronting the reality of an imagined locale is the blessing and curse of any traveler, but in Scotland the phenomenon is especially pronounced. The country exerts a profound and inarticulate pull on the people who love it. The late British movie director Michael Powell evokes this strange magnetism in the 1945 romantic comedy I Know Where I'm Going!, in which Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), a headstrong if otherwise conventional young Englishwoman, sets off on a midnight train and series of ferries—complete with a surrealist dream sequence featuring tartan-covered hills—to marry a superrich English industrialist on the fictional Isle of Kiloran. Before she can join her betrothed, however, she's waylaid by a violent gale and forced to spend a week among the eccentric locals, rubbing the tartan from her eyes and falling for the laird of Kiloran (Richard Livesey, very fetching in a cable-knit turtleneck), the human embodiment of her longed-for destination. There aren't any ghosts, but there is a cursed Moy Castle that stands in for the characters' dangerous desires. It's a miracle that a landscape defined by its purpled hills could be captured in black and white, but somehow Powell does it. As Raymond Chandler put it, "I've never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way."

After seeing the film for the first time in 1988, New Yorker television critic Nancy Franklin was so captivated that she arranged a leave of absence from her job to spend three weeks on the Isle of Mull, where the outdoor scenes had been shot. Afterward, she gathered her photos into a wistful documentary chronicling her love affair with the place (it's one of the extras on the film's DVD). "The first thing I wanted to see when I got to the island was Moy Castle," she tells us, "which had become a symbol for me of the film's emotional power." And there it stands, in full color, bathed in various lights and regarded from different angles, nonchalantly outlasting every last one of us. I loved Franklin's photomontage, but even so, it's Powell's version that stays in my mind; like Scotland's famous mercurial mists, ancient castle walls come across just fine in black and white.

Castles are uncommonly potent structures. There are at least 1,200 remaining in Scotland. Most of them were built between 600 and 1500, when endlessly erupting internal wars and the strong arm of Norman invaders prompted feudal lords to wall themselves in with elaborate stone structures. All of them, whether a crumbled ruin or a beautifully preserved collection of turreted spires and bridges, can't help being impossibly romantic to American eyes, accustomed as we are to keeping Gothic architecture on college campuses or in theme parks. By the end of the 15th century, the widespread use of gunpowder rendered the strongholds anachronistic, and so they've stood ever since, the ranks occasionally replenished with majestic castle-inspired homes that are more folly than architecture.

Some parapsychologists believe that castles physically facilitate residual hauntings. I sent an e-mail to Daniel Renfrow, a sociology professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state who teaches a course called The Social Psychology of Ghosts, to ask him about it. "The idea is that certain materials record events as they occur, and when conditions are correct, they replay them like a record," he explained. "The region's long history is full of wars, disease, and other desperate situations, all of which can imprint themselves on the fabric of a place. The stonework of Scottish castles and vaults may explain the wealth of Scottish ghosts." I can't say that I buy this theory myself, but it resonates metaphorically. Scotland's castles are not only beautiful to look at, they're corporeal expressions of the past, repositories of the country's collective fantasy of itself.

My own fantasy of Scotland sprang from Local Hero, Bill Forsyth's enchantingly offbeat 1983 romantic comedy. As with I Know Where I'm Going! (Local Hero is part homage to that earlier film, actually), the plot is simple: A young Texan oil executive, Mac MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), travels to Scotland to acquire the fictional seacoast village of Ferness and turn it into a refinery, but with each passing day, the landscape and the oddball locals work on his psyche, much as they did on Joan's, and thwart his agenda. I was 11 when I first saw the movie, and I had no idea what it meant to be an oil executive, but the images of those dramatic beaches and the atmosphere of comfortable peculiarity never left me. (Plus, there was a mermaid-ish woman with webbed toes. What 11-year-old girl doesn't wish she were a mermaid?) Ever since, Scotland has existed in my mind as a place both totally familiar and completely different, the backdrop of my New England childhood but tweaked, with more saturated colors and sharper angles. Being there only strengthened this impression; even the people looked like intensified versions of those I grew up with, all steeply furrowed brows and sharp cheekbones. If Canada is a sanitized version of America, Scotland is our unicorn.

I suspect most people—like my man at Borthwick in the kilt—owe their fantasy of Scotland to Braveheart, which must have done more for the tourist industry than anything before or since, in spite of its blatant historical inaccuracies. (Kilts, for instance, weren't worn until the 1700s, though you wouldn't know that from the movie.) It's tempting to chalk up the film's appeal to kitsch and machismo. Yet at the end, when Mel Gibson summons every last iota of strength from his cruelly tortured body to belt out, just before the blade comes down, one last "Freedom!," even I got goose bumps. The ghosts and the tartan caps, the haggis and the whisky—what are they to the tourist but purchasable evidence of a nation that refuses to stop being itself, that prizes above all the freedom of eccentricity?

Kate Bolick is a writer in New York. Her first book, a personal exploration of single women in America, will be published next year.