With the arrival of spring, it has occurred to me once again that there are miles of unexplored countryside behind the Edinburgh skyline. Actually, today has the freshness of spring but none of the colour, as if the world has finally woken up but in a sombre mood. I am walking from the hamlet of Drem to Dirleton Castle, past bleak farmland and a thick doughy sky which has descended to pause ominously above the fields. However mad and tyrannical the Scottish winter, it will always have to obey one law: it cannot go on forever. Yet it is departing with unconcealed reluctance, yielding by a single degree’s centigrade every week.
Drem is a funny little spot; it has a population of ninety three and its own station. It was a mistake to disembark prematurely from the train to North Berwick. I should have arrived at my original destination and then walked back the two miles to Dirleton. It is three from Drem and without any footpath. There is a tight little road with hurtling haulage and in the end one has to wade through verges and skirt the sides of unlovely, scrubby fields.
At the heart of Dirleton is a long bald triangle of grass: the village green. A noticeboard within the castle would claim that witches had been burned here in 1649, but I came across no further allusion to this event whilst I was on the ground in Dirleton itself. I will provide the names and details here, as I later found them in David M Robertson’s 2008 Sourcebook of East Lothian Witchcraft. Robertson cites the minister of Dirleton’s application to the Presbytery to try the witches in question.
Agnes Clarkson, a “widow from Diriltoun” had confessed to dancing on the village green with “several others,” including a local married couple, Patrik Watson and Manie Haliburtoun. The Devil had “appeared amongst them in the likeness of a black man with a staff in his hand, with which he knocked them on the head.” They had gotten off lightly: he had previously invaded Agnes’ home as a black man with an icicle for a penis, and subjected her to his chilly sexual attentions.
They must have twisted her arm. Agnes had been imprisoned in Dirleton Castle prior to her confession and she was “executed” less than three weeks after the Presbytery had approved her trial. Robertson has uncovered no records pertaining directly to her trial or death. Manie left her own loopy confession for posterity, describing a similarly unpleasant sexual excursion with the Devil. Luckily, there was a distinguished expert witness at hand to supplement Manie’s confession with a bit of objective analysis. The “witch pricker” John Kincaid was able to identify witch-marks, or bedevilled parts of the body which would not bleed or feel pain when pricked with a pin. Patrik and Manie both appealed to his science, stupidly assuming that they would be found innocent.
Since we live in a period of history when people no longer socialise with their neighbours, let alone burn them as witches, Dirleton green has been left with no apparent purpose. No doubt it will be sentimentally maintained in this condition until the end of history. A display board beside the green declares Dirleton to be “reminiscent of an English village.” There are not many places in Scotland which would make such an outward boast, and incidentally there are not many places in Scotland where the local castle has been besieged by so many English armies.
Dirleton Castle is a pretty ruin which the aristocracy have abandoned to the birds. It was held by a string of noble families, none of whom are today household names. Only Ruthven rings a bell: firstly because Dr. John Polidori gave his “vampyre” this surname in his pioneering 1819 novella; and secondly because the Ruthvens were always up to no good. They had a leading hand in the murder of Rizzio and the conspiracy to kidnap James VI. In 1650, Cromwell’s forces had marched about the region extinguishing castles like candles. Dirleton Castle fell into disuse after its commander was hanged from the walls.
In its day, Dirleton Castle had fallen foul of Longshanks and Cromwell, but by the nineteenth century it was being besieged by something much more existentially compromising to a fortress: tranquillity. The Victorian owners, the Nisbets, had cultivated beautiful gardens around the castle, and they seem to have regarded the structure itself as little more than a folly. It filled the gap where one might expect to find an Arcadian temple or a pagoda.
From a distance, the castle is the colour of bone, but come closer and the brickwork offers a rich mosaic of orange, auburn, chestnut, silver, and purple sandstone-and-rubble. A spindly black bridge spans the lawned moat. Modern painters have envisaged the old castle rather dreamily, as a chateau with towers sprouting as splendidly as toadstools. From the courtyard, however, the castle looks poky. Successive owners had clad their modest manor-houses in its heavy armour of stone. When the lord’s family and retainers were all holed up in here, it must have been deeply claustrophobic.
At first wander around the interior and savour the mystery. There is a warren of dank higgledy-piggledy little rooms; perhaps you will turn a corner to surprise some monstrous humanoid rabbit dimly silhouetted against a window. But next peruse the information boards which Historic Scotland have put up around the castle: they will imagine the place for you and their illustrations will bring it back to life very vividly. One can almost hear the hum up in the great hall and glimpse the immense activity down in the kitchens. A swan sails up to the feast on a platter; turnbrochies are nodding and blinking in the kitchen heat.
The gatehouse ceiling is fitted with a “murder hole.” If invading soldiers became trapped in the gatehouse, they would be killed from above with rocks – a grim, desperate way to die, cut off from their own men and suddenly helpless before their enemies.
The pokiness of Dirleton Castle is most evident in the de Vaux family’s old rooms. Although Lord de Vaux had been on speaking terms with royalty, his private chamber seems to have been half the size of my own bedroom. If he had installed a double bed and a wardrobe, there would have been no space on his floor to do push-ups. His private latrine is tiny and without running water it must have been abominable (modern illustrations fail to concede that there would have been raw sewage running down the walls of this fairy-tale chateau). More cheerful is de Vaux’s parley room, with alcove window seats framing an interior which circles a fireplace: the layout, in other words, of any modern gastro-pub. With every room seeming to contain a fireplace or a latrine, this castle provides a good sense of how it would have functioned as a household.
The cellars are as dry and cavernous as the hull of a ship. Far from being poky, they must have been a marvellous sight. The remains of a staircase lead down into the “pit and gallows,” but a barrier has been erected forbidding entry. I arrange the posts to one side and begin to grope my way down, but I am suddenly apprehensive lest it has been closed off in the aftermath of various unexplained deaths. The doctor would have looked perplexed and admitted that, “he appears to have died of fright,” and the trustees would have decided to quietly shut the room away.
This is, after all, the dungeon in which Agnes Clarkson had prepared herself to be annihilated in front of her community. Perhaps she had hammered her woe into these walls and the blows still ring silently, the atoms now throbbing with malevolence. Yet I am greeted by a pleasant, spacious stone room, with a heap of sticks in the fireplace. There is an information board on the far wall. I am walking over to inspect the board when there is suddenly a distinct, indignant cluck from the darkness of the fireplace. I have scrambled up into the daylight long before I grasp that there is bird nesting in the room, rather than any stirring poltergeist.
But I have here put my finger upon what is so odd about Dirleton Castle: there is no ghost! This castle has stood derelict but inhabitable for centuries: tramps and travellers must have sought out its dry places to spend the night; courting teenagers must have crept up from the village after dark. There should be a long merry history of cold hands darting out of corners and headless horsemen appearing in the courtyard. Yet the only example I can find of anything supernatural ever flickering in this castle is a recent and rather tiresome attempt to make out that a foggy face had been photographed at a window. Perhaps the local imagination has declined (or matured) since its witch-burning days, or else the Victorian owners gave no quarter to trespassers and gossipers.
Considering that they reportedly contain the longest herbaceous border on the planet, the castle’s gardens are small and undistinguished. Perhaps they only come to life in the summer. There seems to be some mischief afoot with the dovecot (doocot in Scots): a squat stone phallus from which white or grey doves would have flocked out of a hole in the roof, replicating the appearance of a human ejaculation. As far as architectural pornography goes, this is corny but not without charm.
[Tychy has hitherto visited the nearby Tantallon Castle. Ed.]