Saltcoats Castle, East Lothian
In my last post I touched on the magical potential of deserted buildings, when I featured Alex Chinneck’s contemporary art installation Telling the Truth Through False Teeth. This time I am looking at another very different, more ancient example of charming decay. There is something wonderful about ruins, and picturesque castles and abbeys have long been an obsession of mine. Nowadays most well-known ruins are preserved and well tended by English Heritage or the National Trust, but every so often I stumble across somewhere like Saltcoats Castle, which is still in the process of disintegrating, and is quite literally crumbling before our eyes.
The path to Saltcoats, which sits next to the pretty village of Gullane in East Lothian, is so overgrown as to be almost non existent. The walk involves damp shoes and avoiding swathes of nettles, but the castle itself is well worth the trouble.
Built in the late 16th Century by Patrick Livingtoun, this imposing house was occupied by the Hamilton family until around 1800. For the next few years it was used as a handy source of free masonry by local builders, with nature also playing its part in the building’s gradual dilapidation. Its courtyard is now filled with bushes and grass, trees pushing up through the once-proud sandstone walls.
The boards which once blocked the gates to the castle courtyard have long since been pulled down, allowing entry to those who are brave (or foolish) enough to wander through the precarious ruins. Dark doorways into shadowy undercrofts can be seen through the undergrowth, and in one corner it is possible to peer into the murky depths of a barrel vaulted basement below, a space which once probably housed the castle’s kitchen. The remaining walls of the tower look solid enough at their base, but towards the top large cracks and gaps between the stones suggest that they are far from stable.
Saltcoats Castle is a place brimming with atmosphere. There’s something maudlin about its slow descent into ruin, but something wonderful about it too. This is the kind of castle that inspired the 18th Century passion for ruins, which resulted in wealthy land owners constructing their own ruined ‘Gothick follies’ as decoration for their landscaped gardens and estates. Standing beside its craggy, overgrown walls, surrounded by the wide open vistas and rich farmland of East Lothian, it is easy to see why the Romantics found magic in such places. Unlike the many better-known castles nearby which are open to the public, with their gift shops and car parks, Saltcoats retains that air of romance. It’s sad perhaps that such a historic building has been left to fall into such a fragile state, but I can’t help but be slightly glad that Saltcoats remains virtually untouched, totally unrestored and ever so slightly magical.