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.
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.
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?