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.


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.


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:


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)

Saints’ Bones and a Mummified Head – Siena

Okay, so I went a little crazy in Siena. But you have to give me a break – it’s pretty much the first real stop on my trip, and the whole place looks like this:


But really my favorite thing in Siena, besides the coffee and the gelato, were all the saints’ relics.¬†The medieval person’s obsession with the body parts of saints and holy people is one of the stranger aspects of medieval Christianity. But it leads to some of the most awesomely gruesome sights you’ll ever see in someplace as “tame” as a church or museum.

As a rule, medieval Christians believed that the preserved physical parts of saints could, when prayed to or even touched, act as intercessors between the individual and the saint, and thus between the individual and God. Popular and enduring relics include pieces of the true cross, the Virgin Mary’s veil (important because it could have 2000-year-old residue of her breast milk… yummy), scraps of Christ’s foreskin (not even kidding), and heads of John the Baptist (there are about ten of these floating around Europe and the Holy Land). Teeth, fingernails, scraps of skin… these physical remnants of spiritual people held enormous power and appeal for medieval Christians (and for many Catholics today… Sorry, guys.), and their worship actually drove a large portion of the medieval economy. Pilgrimage was common practice, and the more famous the relic, the more power it had, the more people would come to whatever church owned it, the more money pilgrims donated to the church and spent along the way (see how it works?). So in many cases, any church or cathedral was really only as important as the relics it displayed.

Alright I’m getting a little carried away, but you guys know how I get about medieval things. The point I’m getting to is I saw more relics in one afternoon in Siena than I’ve seen in my entire life and European travels combined.

The only thing I knew about Siena before coming was St. Catherine of Siena (more on her in a minute). I’m a big admirer of hers, so I spent the day wandering between her various holy sites around the city. But on the way, I got sidetracked by signs leading to something called the Museo dell’Opera. I was like, Awesome! The other thing I’m most interested in! So I bought a ticket, expecting some exhibit of costumes and props from Italian opera, and instead I found… a room full of saints’ reliquaries and Medieval art. I was pretty confused… but I like those things too (and I’d just paid 6 euro), so I just went with it.

One of the very first popes (92-99 AD), St. Clement was killed by being tied to an anchor and thrown off a ship. This story is apocryphal though, and I kind of doubt it’s true: I’d like to know who swam to the bottom of the ocean to untie his body and bring it back to Siena…

Most of the reliquaries were pretty small, but this one caught my eye. It’s the size of a casket and has the complete skeleton of St. Clement the Martyr. The inside of the casket is gorgeously decorated, with delicate golden flowers and pearls twining in and out of the bones. I also noticed that one edge of the casket has a seal, which I assume is supposed to guarantee that the casket has never been opened and thus that the bones inside are authentic. Or at leas, authentically old.

I finished the day with a pilgrimage to some Catherine of Siena sites. Since she was born here in 1347, there are quite a few around the city.

Besides the typical saintly things – ecstasy of marriage with Christ, reception of the stigmata, etc. – Catherine was particularly known for her fasting. I read Rudolph Bell’s book Holy Anorexia in high school, and I’m pretty convinced by his argument that medieval ascetic fasting has many behavioral and psychological parallels with modern disordered eating, particularly anorexia. From an early age St. Catherine used extreme fasting to manipulate her parents into calling off her arranged marriage and allowing her to become a nun (she had already vowed chastity at age 7). At 16 she gave up all food except water, uncooked vegetables, and bread. At 22 she gave up the bread, and at 26 she gave up food altogether, taking nourishment only from the sacrament, which she received daily. Her health declined until she died of malnourishment at age 33, the same age at which Christ was crucified, which I’m sure is exactly what she wanted.

It might seem strange to say that I admire her, but she managed to carve out her own life path and do things exactly the way she wanted in a time when basically no woman had that freedom. She used her mental/physical weakness as a strength, becoming famous and influential in her own day as well as a saint after her death. That’s really as high as a woman could aim for in a career in the medieval church.

But I digress – the whole point of this spiel on St. Catherine is that, although her body is buried in Rome, her head is preserved and on display in San Domenico in Siena: