Dunblane is situated at the end of a pleasant train journey and the beginning of the road to Doune Castle. For anybody who grew up in the nineties, Dunblane is one of those words, like Childermass or Crippen, which seems to be sculpted from ice. Did Dunblane sound shivery before Thomas Hamilton descended upon the town? – perhaps he was only drawn to it because of the suggestive name. One expects Dunblane to be dwarfed by the enormity of Hamilton’s massacre, for there to be only a handful of quaking, boarded-up houses left, but it is actually a sparkling little place. The core of Dunblane is a village of medieval grandeur, complete with a tiny cathedral and cushioned by commuter suburbs.
The Old Doune Road between Dunblane and Doune has fallen by the wayside, superseded by the A820, and once it leaves Dunblane there are more holes than road. Today the countryside is singing at the top of its voice. The greenery is nodding with the white blossom of elderflowers and hawthorn; the road surveys a meadow in which what passes for a society amongst a dozen or so cream-clay and terracotta cows has erupted into pandemonium. Their heads blocked up with cow fury, they are teeming at the hooves of some desperado, and they chase her prancing down to behind a screen of trees and an unwitnessed, no doubt vicious, final act.
This makes me nervous and later the road takes me past a cottage farm and a modest, crooked tree which is weighted down with hundreds of squealing starlings. Squeals and answering squeals fly thick and fast. Impulsively, the murmuration rises to a crest and dives swirling, like water flushed in a lavatory, from the home tree to the next bush to another, smaller tree and then back to the original tree again. If these swarming creatures were confined to the ground, they would be rats and unendurable. Above head height, they are apparently lost in their own affairs. I scuttle beneath them like a beetle.
The Old Doune Road fades into a path which runs south of the A820, crosses it halfway to Doune, and then proceeds overhead for the rest of the journey. Doune was immortalised in Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley as “a small and mean town,” but it is, at least to look at, as fresh as a daisy. The handsome parish church, built in 1822, steps out to salute you from amongst the bright cottages, but they have actually sent it to Coventry and it is today derelict. The whole town has settled around an ancient mercat cross: a melted lion on a spindly stone stick in the middle of the road. Doune must drive carefully, since in a hundred years of motorised transport nobody has administered the bump needed to tip this relic into kingdom come. Outside the community’s Spar, I chuckle at a notice which boasts that all of its customers have between them raised nineteen pounds for a children’s hospice. Yes, they must be a shrewd, careful people in Doune.
Doune Castle stands outside the village like a manor house, luxuriously intact for a medieval castle though frayed a little around the battlements. It is singular amongst Scottish castles in being built all in one go, but it is nonetheless a bit lopsided. When the Duke of Albany planned the castle at the end of the fourteenth century, he probably fancied that his heirs would attach towers to the south side of the courtyard. His heirs would, in fact, be beheaded on a Stirling hillside after falling foul of James I. They apparently died overlooking the castle which, had fortune’s dice rolled another way, they would have enlarged along with their political influence. With Doune reduced to a royal hunting satellite rather than the seat of independent nobility, all development ceased.
The castle thereafter contributed more to fiction than to history. It popped up in Scott’s Waverley and it was used as a setting in the 1952 film adaptation of his subsequent novel Ivanhoe. It doubled as Winterfell for the TV series Game of Thrones, and, perhaps most famously, as Camelot and Castle Anthrax in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974).
Monty Python have seen off the Albanys and the Stuarts and the Morays, and now the winners are writing the history. The Python Terry Jones narrates the audio tour which comes free with admission to the castle. I initially assumed that this guide would consist of cursory acknowledgements of the castle’s history, followed by lengthy reminiscences about the Pythons’ on-the-set tribulations when trying to launder armour or obtain coconut shells in rural Scotland. But the movie ends up as just a hook on which to hang a fat satchel of history. Aside from occasionally mentioning that you are, say, standing in the hall where they sang the Camelot song, the guide gives the history its full attention. The room-by-room narratives are at once succinct and richly detailed.
Perhaps Jones, or whoever is writing his script, has seen things which I would not have seen. I am led to inspect the grooves in the kitchen’s stone wall where the medieval caterers had sharpened their knives. At one point Jones is insisting that service was often glorified by medieval teenagers as a means of escaping the countryside, which is something which had never really occurred to me before.
I know that it is churlish, but I come to begrudge this voice in my ear. I want to explore the castle on my own initiative, blundering through sequences of mysterious, empty rooms which end with bare corners and dripping walls. Instead, Jones becomes rather like the servant in his narrative who lighted the castle’s guests up treacherous spiral staircases with a candle. I stand dutifully to one side and listen to what I can already see being described for me. Despite my displeasure, I never discard the headphones, for fear that this would leave me excluded from the fullest possible history of the castle.
The Python intrusion upon this castle’s history is merciful, however, when compared to the Victorian restoration. Some features, such as the timber floors, are better than nothing, but a spurious, fanciful renovation of the Lord’s Hall drowns out the medieval completely. Doune Castle’s history is sometimes blurred at the very points where it is architecturally most detailed.
Swallows are weaving helter-skelter under doorways, like bats in a horror movie, and they pause to chirp irascibly at the tourists. They have seen off the Albanys and the Stuarts and the Morays and Monty Python, and so what we still doing in their castle? The tour concludes at the top of the gatehouse tower, with the surrounding countryside spread out like a banquet table and a saltire twisting overhead like Lady Macbeth’s hands.
Afterwards, I stroll down by the River Teith, where the vegetation is seething and exploding and ejaculating in the sunshine, its fumes and juices everywhere. This summer riverside walk is surely meant for lovesick teenagers, draped on each other’s arms, and not for a scummy guy with a cigarette. I should be seated indoors somewhere with the curtains drawn, watching a television. Sunshine springs again on to the landscape and I back automatically into the shade. Perhaps somebody will surprise me for a moment, trembling alone like a deer, before I turn and plunge into the forest shadow.