The word “Tantallon” may put one in mind of a little fanfare on a trumpet, but the castle so splendidly heralded actually stands like a solitary rotten tooth in the lower jaw of the firth. This seat of the Douglas family was built in the fourteenth century, and it survived various attacks and sieges before General Monck and an army of over two thousand roundheads turned up to smash it completely in 1651. Set on cliffs above the firth and with its only land-accessible side protected by a large curtain wall, Tantallon Castle was perhaps uniquely qualified as a fortress, and the Douglases may have assumed that it would last forever. Yet the castle has stood derelict and uninhabited since Monck’s siege, and salty air rather than artillery now assails its walls. The castle’s soft red sandstone may have successfully cushioned the impact of medieval cannon bombardments, but it is less victorious against the daily lashing from the elements. The walls now have the soggy, crinkled texture of hands which have been too long in dishwater. If the castle has languished in a sort of coma for the last three centuries, the point of death will surely arrive when coastal erosion causes it to finally keel over into the sea.
One reaches Tantallon Castle by way of North Berwick – a little toy town with golf-links on the seafront, shops which sell boiled sweets, and about four-hundred tearooms. The gruesomely twee High Street puts one in mind of a model village, and one can almost imagine a giant hand descending from the clouds with a paintbrush to add yet more dainty details to the shop facades. Perhaps one should return once the recession kicks in and there are riots on the streets – this would make the town a lot nicer. North Berwick would be even more palatable if they pedestrianised their High Street – shoppers presently have to jostle their way down tiny little slips of pavement, whilst cars bump and grind with equal frustration out in the miniature road. The triumph of middle class sentiment is inescapable even within North Berwick’s public toilets, which are apparently the best in the civilised world (an array of certificates over the washbasins testify to this effect.)
There is no obvious path to Tantallon Castle from North Berwick and I ended up walking down the A198 which – with hurtling 90mph traffic and stretches of missing footpath – was at times a little hair-raising. One could theoretically walk along the beach, but I suspect that such a route may be incomplete or dangerous, and that I would have ended up being washed out to sea. From the A198, however, one gets a generous view of the Bass Rock: a fat loaf of East Lothian adrift out in the firth. Like a lost sheep, the rock is a muddy white colour which, after some thought, I attributed to the guano of seabirds.
The Battle of Culloden was almost resumed at the castle’s ticket office. Because I had travelled from Edinburgh, I was classified as “Scottish” on my ticket. “But I’m not Scottish!” I objected. In the eyes of Heritage Scotland, however, I am officially Scottish, which is, however one looks at it, a demotion.
Tantallon Castle was in the news a few months ago when a research project led by the sceptic Professor Richard Wiseman released a photograph in which the image of a “ghost” can allegedly be seen at a barred window in the castle’s gatehouse. Great play was made of Wiseman’s conclusion that the photograph was undoctored by any programme such as Photoshop, but this rather disregards the fact that the window is easily accessible to the public, and that the “ghost” could therefore have been any passing tourist. The figure has been variously described as wearing a “ruff,” “period costume,” and “Tudor dress” but no amount of looking will reveal anything other than an ordinary anorak.
The grounds for being spooked at Tantallon were all rather hopeless, but I inquired about my prospects at the ticket office. The man was dismissive: he had worked at Tantallon Castle for over fourteen years; he often locked-up at night, alone and in the dark; and he had never received any bad vibes from the castle. Indeed, he found it a peaceful place. But gloomy?, I prompted helpfully. Considering that the celebrated photograph had brought in many more tourists, I thought that the official at least owed it to his employer to come up with a ghostly hand on the shoulder, the glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye, or even the old disappearing-and-reappearing keys, but unfortunately he was far too scrupulous. I tried to conclude that this official was an insensitive brute – and incapable of receiving otherworldly transmissions – but in truth I felt sorry for him because this was doubtlessly the ten-thousandth time which he had recited his opinion of the ghost. I was struck by the sad thought that this official was the only remaining employee at what once had been a critical military fortress, and that he was, in this respect, the last in a line of thousands of men.
Up the hill and towards the castle. The ruined interior of the gatehouse is agreeable gothic, and, once outside again, the inner court is spacious and airy. There is a well – about thirty or so feet deep – I flip a coin and count for three seconds until there is a faint tinkle at the bottom. I suddenly realise that I was supposed to make a wish, but at that moment nothing occurs to me. I reach the cliff overlooking the Bass Rock. There is a slot-machine telescope – I feed in twenty pence and look through:
It transpires that the powdery colour of the Bass Rock is not guano, but the birds themselves. The whole of this great mound is carpeted with nesting seabirds. The birds have settled below and within an endless choppy cloud of dipping and peaking, which swirls like the inside of a child’s snow-globe. It is the avian equivalent of New York: a fantastic, gigantic seabird metropolis. It looks incredible and utterly preposterous. I am glad that I am far enough away not to hear the racket. The guano must be dreadful, and a stroll over the Bass Rock must be like walking through a custard-pie fight.
Returning to the castle, I resolve to climb the gatehouse. I have a childhood fear of spiral staircases: a fear of missing my footing on those treacherously-slender steps and crashing messily back down again; a fear of meeting a descending party on my way up and having to edge awkwardly aside or down; and, less rationally, a fear that the staircase will not end and that I will be going round and round forever, stiffly and apprehensively climbing in a frantic little panic. It had never occurred to me until recently that these claustrophobic, airless, and ludicrously-narrow staircases may once have been painted and decorated; but perhaps a modern spiralling interior would be even more unnerving.
I fortify myself for the climb. Do not look down, just scamper to the top as quickly as possible. I arrive breathlessly at a gallery high above the castle. There is a little further to go and I will have reached the top of the gatehouse.
And then I am at the very top and I feel like a sailor-boy in the crow’s nest of an eighteenth-century ship. The sea and the land swing merrily below, my head is full of spray, and I wobble helplessly forward, trying to find my sea legs. “I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal!” A pigeon on the wall beside me is ruffled by all the air up here, but otherwise unconcerned by the height. The sea is casting wide webs of milky foam on the rocks at the feet of the castle. I do not dare to look down, in case I lose my reason in the terror and throw myself over the edge, but if I look straight ahead then my eyes meet a space several inches above the horizon…
Retreat! Retreat! Back down on the gallery. I can hear children shouting somewhere around the gatehouse. I imagine encountering some riotous unattended children and being tossed over the gallery by them. The awful great crunch as I hit the rocks below! I am surprised to find myself suddenly looking at the window where the ghost had been snapped. I take a photograph, but I cannot make out anything on the camera screen.