The Allure of Castles: Dunscaith

The Western Isles of Scotland are a magical place. Although many were once heavily populated, famine, migration, and clearances have left them peopled mostly by ghosts, and the structural remains of past peoples.

For me, it is the archaeology of remote places that create that particular “magic of the desolate” that was so beloved of Romantic poets and painters. From undateable cairns to Iron-Age broch forts, all the way up to the roofless stone crofts of the past century, remote Scottish islands like Rum, Barra, Orkney, Shetland, and the world-famous St. Kilda are littered with evidence that for a long time these places were of great importance to a great number of people. Important enough to fight great sea-battles over, pitting Norwegian Vikings against fledgling Scottish kings; important enough to defend with castles and hill-forts and brochs, expensive and labour-intensive statements of dominance and power; important enough to erect cairns, stone circles, and massive burial mounds for figures whose long-forgotten names are commemorated only in the remains of structures that required an astonishing feat of labour, engineering, and social cooperation by the “primitive” peoples who build them.

For whatever they can tell us about history, to me such remains ask a question that thrums in the insistent western wind, and repeats with the waves that pound inexorably at the barren coast: Where did everyone go?

The Isle of Skye is hardly the remotest of the islands, and is by far the most visited by tourists (on account, I have always suspected, of its beautiful name), but its not difficult to find places on Skye that evoke that same feeling of poetic desolation, particularly if you can manage to turn off the well-traveled road that takes the ubiquitous coach tours from Kyle of Lochalsh to Portree.

At the very south of the island on the Sleat peninsula, a rough single-track with a constant obstacle course of sheep leads seven miles to a small cluster of houses called Tokavaig (in such places, a collection of three or four houses is enough to earn a name on a map), just past which, on an outcropping of rocky coastline, are the remains of a castle.

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You knew there had to be a castle involved eventually, didn’t you?

Dunscaith Castle (or Tokavaig Castle, in honor of the village) was originally a stronghold of Clan Donald (or MacDonald), but there is no definitive beginning date for the structure, the earliest terminus ante quem being sometime in the 14th century, when the castle is already referred to as changing hands (ergo, already built in some form) to the MacLeods.

But it’s not the history of the castle that continues to fascinate me – it’s how little we know of it. Other than its capture by James I in the 15th century, its abandonment in the 17th century, and its designation as a protected scheduled monument in 1934, almost nothing is known about it.

And the question that obsesses me is, How can that be? How can a place that has been continuously inhabited for at least the past millennium forget its own history?

Now of course I speak from a particular place: the severing effect of warfare and emigration means that I only have four generations to keep track of since my ancestors came to America from Poland and Austria-Hungary, and any knowledge of or ties with family who still live in the Old Country are mere luck. The astonishment I felt when I found out that my Polish relatives have equally little idea of our ancestry beyond a few generations – despite living in the same village for centuries – was enormous.

I am a historian (if only a fledgling one), and so I understand the forces that lead people to lose their own history: lack of documentation, indeed of literacy means that for most people in most places, preservation of history must be oral – how many families do you know that maintain a formal oral memory, like the King Lists of Ancient Ireland? Even today the surest way to preserve family history is orally. Sure, if you wanted to know the name and birthplace of your great-grandfather, there are many resources to hand that can give you the answer, with a little digging. But even this requires a kind of “re-discovery” of genealogy, not to mention requiring an interest in the first place. Whereas if you were told from a young age that your great-grandfather’s name was Stefan and he was born in Detroit… The knowledge is that much more able to play a part in your cultural consciousness and self-identification. It is known, rather than learned or studied.

Dunscaith Castle has a manifold allure. Its situation on an almost-island connected to the mainland by a particularly treacherous bridge makes it exciting – you can vividly imagine the castle defending itself under siege, rival clansmen trying desperately to take that bridge.

And the setting is spectacular – surrounded by sea on three sides, with majestic views of the sun setting behind the mountains of Rum.

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But even though it’s a scheduled monument under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, it has this overwhelming air of forgotten-ness. Through warfare and clearances, the people of Tokavaig have survived in an unbroken line from the people who built and lived in this castle. Where is their self-history? How did Dunscaith Castle go from the fiercely contested regional stronghold, to “That old run-down thing? The clan hardly uses it any more,” to “Wow, what an amazing old pile of stones. I wonder who built it, and why?”

And that, in a nutshell, is my castle quandary. How do we come to forget what’s been right in front of us all along?

The Allure of Castles

If I really go back to the very beginning, my love affair with Scotland began with a castle. I was volunteering on an organic farm in Fife, and one afternoon I was taking a walk in the surrounding countryside, when I saw this in the distance:

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Really it was much farther away, only just recognizable as “a great big cool-looking thing.”

So obviously, I had to tramp through every farmer’s field and cow pasture in outer Kirkcaldy until I reached the bloody thing! I never did manage to get inside it – I could say I was deterred by the enormous “Danger – Unstable Ruins” sign, but let’s be honest, it was really the impenetrable thicket of nettles that kept me out.

Pitteadie Castle. Run of the mill 15th/17th century tower keep with a fairly intact but unremarkable structure and few remaining decorative features. That’s how I understand it now, after I’ve spent a year intensely studying castles. But then, in that adventurous summer of 2011… It was awe-some.

I might chock it up to having never seen a castle before. Now, I’d recently spent two days in Edinburgh and, yes, visited the castle, but I feel it doesn’t count. It may sound rich to say that Scotland’s most famous castle is not really a castle at all, but honestly I don’t consider Edinburgh Castle a castle. In look, in atmosphere, in historic material – it’s more of an 18th century fortress turned into a tourist attraction by the lure of the crown jewels and a few key restorations. But I digress.

So I stand by my guns, that I was a castle virgin until I came across Pitteadie, and that that unmarked, neglected, shabby ruin of a building was the starting point for my castle addiction, although it took me several years and several more trips to Scotland to recognize it.

I had been staying in Fife for a week already. I had been briefed on “things to do and see” in the area quite thoroughly, I was assured, by several people, including my host family, yet somehow no one had mentioned that marvelous old Pitteadie Castle was only a fifteen minute walk northward.

And so I think it boils down to this: What kind of magic must there be in a place where marvels like this are so commonplace, so frequent, as to not be worth the mentioning? If this country, this Scotland, could hide a treasure like that beautiful bloody ruin out of sheer blasé-ness, what other heart-stopping secrets must be out there, hidden behind watchful forests, lurking in the deep glens, waiting for discovery down winding single-track roads?image1(2)

The Cult of Empress Sisi

This is a post that I wrote after visiting Vienna in 2012 but somehow never published. Enjoy!

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Empress Elisabeth of Austria had everything the world and God could offer. She was beautiful and slender. Fiery and determined and frighteningly intelligent. She was born into great money and married into even greater. Her husband was not only a prince, but a good and gallant one, who married her for love, not money. She had several healthy beautiful children. In a restricted court society, she had great freedom, and when she lacked freedom, she took it anyway.

Empress Elisabeth had absolutely everything. And was incredibly, tragically unhappy.

Many said she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Her hair was so long she could stand on it.

She had an 18-inch waist (if that):

Picture courtesy of my iPhone

She was the queen of fashion in the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Empress Elisabeth of Austria was the most beautiful woman in the world. And she knew it.

I would summarize Elisabeth’s personality using the following three (or four?) words: vanity, and mental instability.

A staggering proportion of her life’s energy was spent on the upkeep of her famous beauty. Her hair required an average of three hours of care and styling daily. The rest of the day was devoted to exercising vigorously, and to eating as little as possible. Like Catherine of Siena, Elisabeth was another historical figure who clearly had an eating disorder. I won’t call it anorexia, or bulimia, or exercise bulimia, because it was a combination of all these. Suffice it to say, Elisabeth had disordered eating. She would go on crash diets, eating nothing but oranges and chicken broth for weeks. She had a private exercise room in each of her palaces. Walking was a popular Victorian pastime, and Elisabeth loved walking. Except her walks sometimes lasted 8 hours. And instead of walking she practically ran. Her other favorite form of exercise was horseback riding, which she practiced daily and fiercely. She preferred eating while standing, and when forced to sit at public functions and state dinners, she never took more than 25 minutes to finish eating (a great inconvenience to the guests, because one had to stop eating when the person of highest rank set down their fork).

But her beauty was reserved only for herself.  Even though she had a handsome royal husband who worshiped and adored her, she would have none of him. She spent years at a time away from the Viennese court, and even when she was home, her husband had to petition to see her along with everyone else. But she never took a lover, either. Because Elisabeth hated sex. She was [reportedly] frigid, and wrote poems on the disgusting nature of physical passion. We are not dealing with Helen of Troy here, people. She posed for many famous portraits, as was her royal duty, but she was very reluctant to have her photograph made. She had a personal photographer who had exclusive rights to reproducing her image (and only rarely did she give him permission), and when paparazzi got too close, she thwarted their efforts with a fan she kept handy at all times.

Elisabeth’s favorite pastimes were riding, not eating, and writing volume after volume of melancholy, nihilisic poetry.

I guess what finally fascinates me about Elisabeth, is her infinite self-absorption. Okay, I get that not all people who “have it all” are happy. I understand that the pressures of the court, the pressures of her royal mother-in-law (who was super strict regarding Elisabeth’s behavior in Vienna and restricted Elisabeth’s role in the raising of her own children) can make being rich, famous, beautiful, and powerful not all that fun. But Elisabeth demonstrated that she wasn’t afraid to break the imperial mould. Contrary to the wishes of her husband, her mother-in-law, and her government, she spent the majority of her time far away from the Viennese court, traveling for years at a time all around Europe. At some point, Elisabeth learned to do what she pleased, and to hell with everyone else. And yet, somehow… she never managed to do anything to make herself happy. She was skinny and beautiful. Not happy. She traveled wherever she wanted. Not happy. She could have had any lover she chose. She didn’t want any. She spent millions and millions building fabulous palaces for herself. She used them once and then promptly sold them. She threw all her energy into helping the “plight” of the Hungarians. After being crowned Queen of Hungary, she promptly ignored their political problems.

Elisabeth had the resources and the strength of will and character to do whatever it took to make herself happy. And she tried – why else would she have built the palaces, why else would she have roamed the world? I think she was looking for something she never finally found, and never even really knew what it was.

Imperial champagne – Sisi is rosé, and Franz Josef is blanc…

Now her face and her beauty of which she was so jealous are plastered on cheap knicknacks that people covet, talismanlike, just to touch a bit of her melancholy mystique. Sissi dressup dolls and fashion figurines fly off the shelves at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna; she is every girl’s fantasy of a fairy princess. But her dark hair and shimmering gowns just keep reminding us that being beautiful is more important than being happy.

The Road to Bristol

The path I took here was unpredictable. If you’d asked me a year ago to guess where I’d be, Bristol, Rhode Island would not have made the top 5. Or the top 100.

I hope there will be more in the weeks to come about this year in the country’s tiniest state. The whole thing feels like a blip, an isolated pocket of time that was never meant to happen. But if this was a blip, it was a beautiful blip, and if it was never meant to happen, I’m still awfully glad it did.

But there I go, talking vagueness. Really, I have some interesting and highly digestible posts in the works that come directly out of this time I’ve spent among strangers in Rhode Island. But after such a long hiatus it felt odd to jump right into 18th century cheese-making, or the proper way to lace your corset, or the secret vocabulary of chickens.

So let me give a brief recap of the the past year – that is, how I unexpectedly and randomly came to be where I am now – and then we can get down to the fun stuff, like just how many strangers can you fit into an 18th century bed? It started with a boy who was working in New York. I liked him; we were dating. I had a year to kill while I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship and the world was my oyster; all options were open! So I decided to move back to New England and see if things could work between us. I’d dreamed of working at someplace like Plimoth Plantation and this seemed my time to try, before I flung myself abroad the following year (I hoped!) to Scotland. So around this time last year I sent my resume to every open-air and living history museum between Philadelphia and Boston (no really, I was working off a list), and I heard back from exactly one of them, a tiny farm in the tiniest state, Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol, RI. They weren’t hiring me, merely granting me an interview, but that was enough. I chucked all my eggs into that basket and my worldly possessions into the car and put a deposit on a rental house in Tiverton, RI.

I’ll tell you the ending: They DID hire me, and I’ve been working there since October. Other key facts about my life since then: A neighbor put me in the way of a troupe of Gilded Age living history actors in Newport, with whom I’ve had the joy of performing since December; The boy is long gone; I DID get the Fulbright, so I’m off to Scotland in September.

Many adventures and shenanigans to report this past year, and hopefully a few of them will make it into tidbits on this blog. Get ready for a history lesson, boys and girls.

(Oh, and just for reference, here’s an actual picture of the road to Bristol, RI. But more on that later😉

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30-Second Book Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

My rating: 4/10

On Amazon: 4.2/5

The plot in one sentence: Young country girl Tess is seduced by Alec, gets pregnant, retires to become a milkmaid, is fallen in love with by a gentleman named Angel, is married to him but, once confessing her earlier disgrace, is abandoned on her wedding night, is seduced back into the graces of the somewhat-reformed Alec, who makes her his mistress, is taken back by Angel, murders Alec, and finally enjoys a week on the run with Angel making sweet beautiful love in meadows before being caught by the police and hanged, Angel ending up getting together with her sister.

Am I a horrible person because I didn’t like this book? Does this make me a bad English major? Shall my status as a literary intellectual be revoked? Nah.

Things Hardy does masterfully: landscape descriptions.

Things Hardy does pretty well: characterizations.

Things Hardy sucks balls at: plot and pacing.

I think the main appeal of the book must be the idyllic world he creates. Aside from the ominous wickedness of Alec and his smile, the whole piece is pervaded by this sense of grace and blithesomeness, both of Tess and Angel and also as reflected in the landscape. Tess seems always to wear white; the grass is always pale green; there is always mist sparkling in the meadow; Tess’s hair is always charmingly and alluringly escaping in tendrils down her neck; Angel is always graceful and handsome and thinking profound, uplifting thoughts; the cows are always giving milk. And so on. Of course, when Tess experiences hardship, it suddenly becomes winter and the landscape is hostile. I get it, thanks.

I’m always one for a good romance, even a super sappy one, but the anticlimax of most of the romantic scenes here turned me off, as did the lengthy time spent describing the in-between action. Tess spends a lot of time reaping while Alec lasciviously watches her. She spends a lot of time trudging around the countryside while her life deteriorates. Angel spends a long time being vaguely ill in South America. It seems as though characters spend the vast majority of their time preparing to do things, or at least doing them very gradually. Things would have been a lot more enjoyable if each piece of action or advancement of plot were given a well-drawn, dramatic scene in which to occur, instead of occurring incrementally over the course of hundreds of pages. Perhaps Hardy should have taken notes from Charlotte Bronte.

30-Second Book Review: Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

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Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

My rating: 6/10

On Amazon: 3.9/5

 The plot in one sentence: Decades after a violent falling out, the protagonist (unnamed), is approached by his now cancer-ridden and rapidly dying friennemy Damian Baxter to identify the mother of his child from among a list of their former female friends and acquaintances.

 The best and worst thing I can say about this baby is that it’s Julian Fellowes being Julian Fellowes, doing what Julian Fellowes does best. I have to admit, before reading this, my only experience of Julian Fellowes was Downton Abbey, a show for which the charm lies in the care and detail with which each character is drawn, making them each a protagonist of their own plot; even the bad guys, Thomas and O’Brian, are compelling and sympathetic. Then, I watched Fellowes’ Gosford Park, and was sorely disappointed. Witty, complex, and historically accurate, yes, of course. But not a single one of the characters managed simply to be likeable. Everyone is mean, everyone is manipulative, and everyone has an agenda. Gosford Park is a story written with relentless cynicism, and Past Imperfect is just the same. The narrator, whose name I only just realized we never learn, is quietly (read: Englishly) snarky, and can’t seem to offer a compliment without backhanding it. According to him, who I can’t help but picture as Julian Fellowes himself typing away at a keyboard, no one was ever worth more than their money or their looks, and no one, looking from teenagerhood to late middle-age, seems to have reached their full potential. All is disappointment. Naturally the plot, which is simple and episodic, takes backseat to the encyclopedic knowledge Fellowes demonstrates about English high society in the 1960s and 70s. The wealth of detail is staggering and, although I know the man is brilliant, I think would have been quite impossible to replicate unless, like Fellowes, one has lived the life.

I must confess that, having not been able to squeeze in the last forty pages before moving to New Haven, I never actually discovered the identity of Damian Baxter’s baby momma. I don’t know; it’s a mystery.

I was readin’ some Literature, when all of a sudden…

This, from Hardy’s Tess:

“Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings” (Book 3, Chapter XXIV)

Can’t help but think of the intro to Chaucer’s prologue… #fertility