Off to inspect another ruined castle today, like a senile general who does not realise that the wars are over and that his bravest soldiers are now a heap of bones. Blackness Castle stands sixteen miles west of central Edinburgh, and six miles west of South Queensferry. I covered the first ten miles by train (to Dalmeny station), and I would walk the remaining six.
Queensferry is a town built around a view. Looking out over the Firth of Forth from the High Street esplanade, it is hard to put your finger on the precise source of the magnificence. The once mighty Firth is now reduced to a puddle by the groaning grandeur of the two bridges overhead. Yet although it has washed past half a dozen landlubbing towns, the Firth retains some of the ocean’s solemnity. The mystery of the seas is here like the palest crescent moon, still up after dawn.
There are actually two Queensferrys: we are presently in the South town looking across the Firth at the North village, which has about a tenth of the town’s population. Perhaps visitors remain unaware that the two Queensferrys are in fact the extreme tips of a much larger municipality, most of which is hidden underwater. When the tourists are not about, you can probably spot the residents of South Queensferry wading into the Firth in their coats and hats to have tea with their neighbours. Students will slip into the waves to attend lectures at Queensferry University. The mayor of Queensferry is no doubt a fat triton with a slimy white beard, who blows through a conch shell whenever he wants to assemble his townspeople.
Everything slows down on the esplanade. There are cars parked in a long row with people sitting inside, picking at ice creams and watching the Firth. A train is taking to the trapeze overhead, like a larvae scuttling along a silken thread towards its monstrous red cocoon. Queensferry proceeds into a spick and span little town, with bright shops and grand little inns. It is probably most lively on Sunday afternoons. As with all places like this, there is a pair of disgruntled teenagers prowling on the esplanade, their attitude hilariously at odds with the chirpy, painted town in which they have to live.
Society Road emerges from under the road bridge and it passes through a thin housing estate to the end of Queensferry. It is easy to get down on to the beach. There is not a soul here, but it is not the sort of beach where people would come to loaf about, being comprised mostly of rubble and the occasional patch of bitty, scratchy sand. There are rocks of all sizes and an endless jumble of seashells. The tide is slinking away, vanishing imperceptibly from the spaces between the rocks as if it is drying up in the sun. Dank black bladderwrack flops everywhere, twisted and knotted higher up the beach, sleek and oily further down. Its blackness stands out vividly against the pastel greys and pinks of the beach, like tufts of abominable pubic hair on an ogress.
Along the beach, treading painfully from stone to stone, I am absorbed in the perils underfoot and indifferent to the water. Somebody is hammering languidly on a construction site across the Firth, shedding slow belts across the landscape. I suspect that I am subconsciously walking in time to them and that they are slowing me down.
The beach goes through odd, random phases, as if we are journeying through the strata of a fossil bed. There is a sheet of winding sand strewn with mussel shells. There are two hundred feet of small rocks which click together when you walk on them. At one point I squat down and run my hand through an infinity of periwinkle shells. I will never afford to buy a house at the rate I am going, and yet there are billions of these unwanted homes discarded on the beach here. If only I was a mite smaller.
This is the sort of beach where you are likely to walk right up to something lying dead, the sudden presentation of gore and rags screeching in your ears. Along with the tyres and cracked plastic safely helmets, there are indeed the remains of washed up seabirds left here and there. What was once an oystercatcher is now a forlorn cake of peeling feathers. The only people who I ever encounter on this beach are two elderly ladies in white, who sit on the rocks and watch me wading across the little racing channel where the Midhope Burn laps into the Firth. They don’t call out to me that there is a bridge up in the woods but I don’t slip over in the water, and so in some cosmic sense we have brokered a stalemate.
Where the beach retires to the land, a wood seethes and rustles, the vegetation exploding up all around like flames to gobble at the air. This is the last little bay and Blackness Castle is winking in the sun at its horn. Overlook the Forth bridges (which are still visible), the mouldering tyres, and the two old ladies, and I have had a medieval experience. Like a lonely traveller, I have made my way across this desolate landscape to where the castle gleams like a lamp.
You can buy a very good guide book in the shop for a couple of pounds and read your way around the castle, turning the pages on its towers. In common with Tantallon and Dirleton on the east coast, and Borthwick to the south, Blackness was besieged by Cromwell, but it proved the exception in living to fight another day. Blackness remained a working castle up until the twentieth century, limping on as a prison and then as an ammunition depot, before it was finally surrendered to the Office of Works in 1912.
The older parts of the castle and the curtain wall are crude and thick, as if the stonework has been smoothed together by a pair of enormous hands. The entrance to the courtyard is overlooked by a caponier, or a secret chamber through which the guards could fire on swarming invaders. Despite such delectables, Blackness lacks the gloomy atmosphere of Tantallon and Dirleton. It does not live up to its improbably sinister name or make the most of its spectacular setting. This is in part due to a somewhat fanciful restoration of the 1920s, which left the castle looking a bit too smart and handsome.
The only report of a ghost at Blackness is an even more recent addition than the 1920s parapet on the prison tower. The ghost-hunting websites concur that during an unidentified year in the “1990s,” an unidentified “sightseer” of unidentified nationality was chased out of the castle by an unidentified “knight” from an unidentified century. It is otherwise a well-documented story.
This castle has the appearance of being swept clean of ghosts and cobwebs. Inside the “stern” and “main mast” towers, one seems to re-enter the same featureless rooms on every floor. It is rather like undertaking a circuit of a rambling, unfurnished house and I cannot help noticing the plug sockets in the walls. I wonder why there are six in the tiny room which adjoins the great hall. Six maids with vacuum cleaners must arrive to service the castle at the same time, and all of the wires must lead back to this one room.
The splendid interior of the great hall dates from the sixteenth century, but like much of this castle it is an architectural hodgepodge. Fireplaces remain in the walls far above head height from where a floor had been added in the seventeenth century and then removed in the twentieth, to restore the appearance of the sixteenth.
Vertigo pounces on me out on the wall-walk, but this is not disagreeable and I fizz with exhilaration as the courtyard swings temptingly below. The prison tower is planted within the courtyard, itself a prisoner encircled by walls, and it does not touch the surrounding castle at any point. This tower offers the best view over the castle and the Firth.
You and your fellow visitors to the castle will find yourselves unexpectedly looking out at each other from the different towers and battlements, and then nodding ruefully if you meet in person back down in the courtyard. I end on the pier, looking back at the castle where, of course, there is the same family looking down on me from the north tower who I found myself previously watching from the prison tower. We both stare and ignore each other.
A tern stabs the Firth in a single, silent coup de grace. I am amused to read that the desolate mudflats around the castle have been designated a Site of Scientific Interest. The soldiers who once served in this fortress were probably so bored that they shot at the birds as kids today play computer games.
The Firth is mine, from horizon to horizon, sweeping up to my feet. Edinburgh is hidden around the corner of the land. Dirty green seawater wanders massively below me, the bladderwrack now standing upright in the water like the phantoms of soldiers slain on the battlefield. But I have reached the farthermost point and the tide has to turn. Time to walk home.