Nestled upon the rugged cliff tops of Aberdeenshire, overlooking dramatic seascapes and Cruden Bay Golf Course, we explore this ruin, join us as we wander alone and learn about how this very castle became the visual palette for the famous story of Bram Stokers Dracula.
Slains Castle is a large imposing ruin fronting directly onto south facing cliffs about a kilometre east of Cruden Bay. You can walk to it from the village itself or from the slightly nearer car park at a bend on the A975 like we did! At whichever approach to the castle that you might pick, you won’t need to be aided by signposts, simply follow the eerie fortress in the distance and you’ll be met with one incredible ruin. There is of course one thing to emphasise on your visit is to really take care, as it’s situated on sheer and jagged cliffs just be mindful of your stepping and be careful when exploring because of the dangerous state of the building is in. On the day we visited it was dry and sunny but this isn’t always the case! That said, I would encourage you to visit the castle even when the weather is wintery; I can imagine that it’s much more atmospheric and would spark the reminder of the novel it inspired, more on that later.
Weirdly enough there are two versions of Slains castle on this same very stretch of coast. The original lays a mile to the north east of Collieston and around six miles south west of today’s visit. For many years, people have believed that the castle we see today has just been built over the old one, however, that isn’t the case at all and the new and old castle exist quite a way away from each other in comparison. While they are both in Aberdeenshire, they occupy completely different sites and aren’t one castle as people believed for a long time.
The Old Slains Castle, however, is almost completely ruined now due to being left to surrender to time. Only one wall of the castle still remains and apart from that, there really isn’t a whole lot to see when you visit. That is why the newer castle is more popular because while this one may hold more history, the other is actually a physical structure as opposed to just memories.
Being one of the most powerful families in the area for generations, the Clan Hay possessed the lands of Slains since around the 14th century and in the year 1453, Sir William Hay, who was the clan chief, was made Earl of Errol by the trusted King James II. But in 1594 the owner, the Earl of Erroll backed a plot by the Earl of Huntly against King James VI. James responded by blowing up Old Slains Castle, Hay fled the country but returned in 1597 and made his peace with the king. Rather than try to rebuild Slains, he instead used a tower house at Bowness as the basis for a new Slains Castle. The structure was completely transformed and was built in the Scots Baronial style.
Later In 1664 the castle was again expanded and altered, and a corridor was built across the courtyard. The final major change came in 1836 when further wings were added and the underlying castle was given a granite style look and was generally quite Disneyfied.
Building costs and high living did little for the family finances and in 1916 death duties forced the 20th Earl of Erroll to sell Slains Castle. The castle was bought by Sir John Ellerman, a wealthy ship owner, He in turn gave it up in 1925 and its roof was removed and valuable dressed stone was removed for re-use elsewhere and to avoid paying taxes. That led to the inevitable ruin seen today. This ended 300 years of the earls of errol staying at Slains, the surrounding estate and farmland were not productive enough to support this grand castle, especially after a period of agricultural depression and after the death duties, or inheritance tax as its known was introduced.
It was Gilbert Hay that added to the property in 1664 where he took his grandfather’s two wings of the castles L shaped plan, the architecture and the fashion of the time was to make a 4 sided courtyard palace. It was interesting to know that the castle was only two storeys high and the entrance was at first floor level. This front entrance, now completely ruinous and not assessable would have once had a ruined staircase leading inside, very highly dressed with granite and would have had the coat of arms directly above. Immediately left of there was the billiards room.
Extending on the very right hand side was the family bedrooms, a screen from the front door with stained glass partitions would section it off. The earl that did the most here at Slains, was named William harry, who was the 19th earl, and unlike his father and son, he actually lived at Slains castle and his bedroom was at the top of the square tower which we are able to climb and the views surrounding are unbelievable.
In the room with the enormous bay window, facing right onto the beautiful sea is the drawing room, it was once a magnificent and beautiful room, it would have contained some of the family’s best artefacts and portraits that they owned from top end painters. Beyond that was Lady errolls sitting room and then the library. This library grew and grew as the earl at the time was obsessed with collecting and reading books. Interestingly this library was sold off in 1916 to Glasgow museum for a mere £3. Next to the library in the north was the dining room but really today is now just an open shell.
The buildings beyond the round tower at the left as we walk through at front entrance would have contained toilets and various storage facilities, but the rooms beyond here were the day and night nursery and the school room and further on from here to the west was the butlers house, a two storey house that was incorporated into the castle.
Downstairs on the ground floor level, there would have been very domestic buildings here including kitchens and halls with many guests’ bedrooms and even a smoking room for the gentlemen of the estate; they would drink brandy and smoke cigars in this room. At the very end of the estate is the stable yard that would have housed the stables and a carriage house and at one point even a bakery and a brewery ensuring everyone was well fed and full.
Abraham, Bram, stoker was an Irish author, best known today for his 1897 horror novel Dracula, fitting that Slains would be a plausible writers paradise for the descriptions of castle Dracula during his writing phase. There is a distinctive room in the castle here at Slains, the octagonal hall surrounded what was once rooms and towers and from above looks like a maze, it matches the description of the octagonal room in Dracula that stoker explains and is to have been used directly as the Count’s great room in the novel. Inspired by the jagged cliffs, it’s rugged look, gothic appearance and dramatic location it certainly brought out the intrigue of this area and made perfect to bring out the best in Bram stoker.
In 1895 stoker stayed at a cottage near Cruden Bay, and he no doubt would have been a guest at here at the castle. Not only an inspiration for horror novels but to some paranormal investigators, this was a chance to be able to connect with some unexpected visitors. Some readings say that whilst doing some investigations here people have heard the sounds of keys shaking and tugs at the jacket of visitors and many have commented about the sightings of a lady in white and one that is said often is the haze of a horse and carriage, in the midst of the night known to pull up to the once grand entrance on the drive. Either way,the castle is a slightly unsettling place and if you are on your own or there in the evening, with the only sounds the crashing of the waves on the rocks below and the cry of the many gulls, then Slains Castle really can begin to play on the imagination.
It’s so cool to visit here, it’s freely accessible to walk around and what we love is the walk around the whole area of Cruden bay, it’s a truly wonderful experience; I know I’ve said it before but this place is dark, atmospheric and just chilling, I love how it stares out into the North Sea. We had such a great explore here, it’s worth spending some time walking the entire place and watch the wildlife on the cliffs. What I really liked here is being able to freely wonder the interior of the ground level with its maze of passageways and smaller rooms, reflecting a high state of occupancy in 17th-century times.
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Till Next Time!