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Bram Stoker's Cruden Bay

Just over a week ago I went on a five-day holiday to Scotland with DracSoc. As usual, there was a particular Gothic literature-related theme to our trip: in this case, that our main destination, Cruden Bay, was also Bram Stoker's favourite holiday spot, where he spent the month of August at least twelve time from 1893 onwards. But, while we were in the area, we also took the opportunity to visit its best castles and various other local attractions. I'm going to write up the experience in those two parts - first the stuff directly related to Bram Stoker, and then everything else.

Cruden Bay is a tiny fishing village on the east coast of Scotland. According to local Stoker expert Mike Shepherd (on whom more below), Bram discovered it after walking down the coast from holiday accommodation in the larger town of Peterhead, and decided that its quiet character, beautiful beach and coastal walks were more to his taste. Thereafter, it became his regular holiday destination, and importantly for us he stayed there for the first time in 1893 - half-way through the period of 1890-97 when he was slowly writing Dracula. Since he was so busy as Henry Irving's theatre manager throughout the rest of those years, he must have written most of the novel during his summer holidays in Cruden Bay.

The first two years, he stayed in the Kilmarnock Hotel, where we were lucky enough to be able to see his signature in the guest-book from his second visit in 1894:

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After that, he began renting out a local cottage, now called Hilton, which has a garden with views over the surrounding bay. Again according to Mike, his own conversations with the current owners of the cottage, plus interviews which a journalist conducted in the 1960s, both brought up local memories of people regularly seeing Bram seated at a table in the garden writing - which of course would have included him finishing off Dracula during his first couple of years there.

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Obviously, as many DracSoc members as possible stayed in the Kilmarnock Arms, but as they only had a limited number of available rooms, I was amongst a group of five who stayed up the road in the Cruden Bay Bed & Breakfast instead. I had absolutely no complaints about that, though - it was a very comfortable place with a genial host called Ian who enjoyed hearing all about our exploits and regaling us with his anecdotes, and bless him had gone to the trouble to make us feel welcome by decking the place out with vampire-related tat finery and even leaving a copy of Dracula out for us in the reception area in case we needed to refresh our memories!

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Later on in life, Bram obviously came to find Cruden Bay too busy and bustling for his tastes, and instead began staying in a cottage at the even smaller village of Whinnyfold.

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This overlooks a bay with dramatic rock formations, where seals were resting and calling out eerily when we visited. Apparently, it features heavily in one of his later novels, The Mystery of the Sea, which is entirely based in the local area, and features the ghosts of centuries' worth of sailors who have drowned on the rocks emerging from the mist and climbing, zombie-like, up the zig-zag path to the top of the cliffs.

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Between Cruden Bay and Whinnyfold is a beautiful curving golden sand beach, along which Bram used to like to walk, either with his wife Florence, or on his own with one hand behind his back and his head bowed, deep in thought as he worked out the next stages of his latest story.

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Here you can see Mike Shepherd (on the right holding a sheaf of paper) guiding a select handful of DracSoc members along the beach, talking to us about the local landscape, what we know of Bram Stoker's visits there, and the various ways in which it inspired his writing.

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One such feature, at the Cruden Bay end of the beach, is this little cove, known as the Watter's Mou', about which he wrote a short story of the same name.

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Just as we got to this, three deer, who had been startled by a man nearby walking his dog, came bounding past within a few metres of us, over a fence and off across a beautiful big green field of ripening wheat.

The biggest and most Gothic attraction, though, was Slains Castle, which stands on the cliffs just beyond the Watter's Mou' at the north end of the bay, and can be seen from almost anywhere within the village. Today, it is a ruin, having been de-roofed and partially demolished by an owner who no longer wished either to live in or pay taxes on it in the 1920s, but in Bram's day it was a splendid stately home, which he may well have visited. Certainly, it has two particular features which have their counterparts in Dracula's castle, which itself is clearly perfectly habitable with only a few partially-ruined features (the chapel, the battlements) in the novel. One is a tower perched right over a cliff-edge, which I struggled to really capture with my phone camera, but in real life very much lives up to the following description from chapter 3 of Dracula: "The castle is on the very edge of a terrific precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!"

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The other is an internal octagonal room which may well have been the inspiration for these sentences from chapter 2: "The Count halted, putting down my bags, closed the door, and crossing the room, opened another door, which led into a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort. Passing through this, he opened another door, and motioned me to enter." Obviously, octagonalness is likewise difficult to capture in a single shot, but anyway this is the room in question - though unlike the Count's equivalent, clearly it did have windows:

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With or without those two features, though, Slains Castle is a very splendid place to explore, offering all the fun of ruination but also a largely-intact structure which means you can get a good look at the architecture underneath the original decorative facade, almost as though the outer finery had been peeled away, and also means that there are lots of enticing spaces to poke noses into and discover. Since it is still privately-owned and not maintained as a tourist attraction by Historic Scotland or the like, there are no health-and-safety features, it's all entirely at your own risk, and indeed a local woman called Jill who is campaigning to get the castle preserved and protected pointed out to us how one doorway lintel had collapsed since her own last visit only two weeks earlier. So, I join her in hoping that the remaining structure will be bought up by the Scottish government, stabilised and made safe for visitors in the near future. But at the same time, in its current state it makes for a wonderful playground to explore, so long as you pay due care and attention, and I'm very glad I got to see it this way.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 17th, 2018 10:28 am (UTC)
I love the vampire-themed breakfast table! Even the B&B sign looks like it's dripping blood, though it's probably meant to be a roof...
Jun. 17th, 2018 12:23 pm (UTC)
It was so sweet! The society did a previous visit there c. 20 years ago, and the landlord remembered them and was keen to make the return visit a good one. It is a very sleepy place, so I think a visit from the Dracula Society is big local news.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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