On the Vampire Trail: Slains Castle in Cruden Bay, Scotland
The path to New Slains Castle (all photographs by the author)
Welcome to my house. Enter freely and of your own will.
— Count Dracula to protagonist Jonathon Harker in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”
This is the second installment of the author’s journey through vampire lore in Europe. Click here to read part one: Undead Secrets of Paris.
When we flew into Scotland, the weather forecast was particularly bleak — rain day in and out, a cold front coming — and as we followed the pastoral “drystane dyke” (“dry stone wall”) path to the New Slains Castle ruins, a fog rolled around the structure’s warm-colored stone walls in what felt like a Quest’s distance. The North Sea was silvery and disturbed when we came up on the castle grounds, foaming as it crashed at the cliffs below.
The castle ruins
New Slains Castle, now just wall segments with large picture windows, stone stairways to nowhere, and unreachable, crumbling turrets, was once the painstakingly grand reconstruction of a 13th century castle just a few miles away. New Slains was built in the 16th Century by the newly re-established Earl of Erroll, who had been banished and his previous castle destroyed for rebelling under the name of the Roman Catholic church.
The lounge at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel
Later into the evening of our arrival, as my husband and I sat in Kilmarnock Arms, a picturesque inn with a traditional pub cozied into the corner of Bridge Street in Cruden Bay, I recounted the Paris leg of our journey to his aunt and uncle, both Cruden Bay locals for 14 years. I described in detail our incredible journey through Paris on the vampire trail with Jacques Sirgent, a world renowned vampire specialist who runs the Vampire Museum of Paris. I shared how surreal it felt to flip through a first edition of Dracula and run my hand over the keys of Bram Stoker’s typewriter. My husband’s aunt, a local historian, was delighted to inform us that we had, in fact, incidentally followed the vampire trail further, right there to Kilmarnock Arms.
Bram Stoker’s name in the register at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel
We left our cozy table by a corner window in the lounge and entered the lobby, which felt part lodge with its stone fireplace burning, and part local history gallery with illustrations and photographs of nearby New Slains Castle and other village landmarks. We approached the reception desk with our inquiry and the concierge said, “Ah, yes, would you like to see the book?” She disappeared behind a door and returned with a large, yellowed ledger book and opened it wide on the desk. There, in a clearly legible script, I recognized immediately the signature of Bram Stoker.
The cliffs at Cruden Bay
In 1894, while taking holiday here in Cruden Bay, Bram Stoker may have experienced a similar palette and sense of delicious anticipation as he came upon the ruined castle grounds. According to multiple sources on New Slains Castle, Bram Stoker was invited by the 18th Earl of Erroll to visit his humble home. A dark and foreboding sky combined with a sense of awe at the majestic structure before him and curiosity about the nobleman who ordered its construction and walked its candlelit hallways at night, is all reportedly real inspiration for the fantastical fictional Romanian castle in Dracula and its eccentric master. The Kilmarnock Arms website even affirms that the castle was a tangible inspiration.
Birds flying over the castle ruins
If Stoker was invited to cross the darkness to New Slains by its Earl, then his own story isn’t much different from his protagonist, Jonathan Harker. As Stoker might have done politely with the Earl, Harker returns the invitation to Count Dracula. Now, collective consciousness would tell us, though we may not be sure how exactly we know, that a vampire cannot enter a home without being invited. This is something Jacques Sirgent touched on in his recent lecture at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.
View from the castle to the North Sea
“It’s true,” Sirgent said in his talk, “they cannot enter anywhere they are not invited.” While Sirgent sees this thread of vampire knowledge weaving back further into medieval superstition about dead loved ones coming back to the family door and knocking, Stoker’s Dracula is the only literary source in which an explicit list of vampire traits is given directly to the reader, by his character “expert” Professor Van Helsing. If this is the case, that Stoker invented this myth of invitation and his inspiration was indeed New Slains, then another tidbit of information from the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel’s historian found on their website is a bit chilling: “Sir Iain Moncrieff, the first husband of Diana, Countess of Erroll, has an ancestor who married into the Rumanian family of the same Drakula.”
Inner walls of the castle
Staircase in the castle
Part of the castle showing different renovation materials used over time
The New Slains Castle you encounter today is much different than what Bram Stoker might have experienced. It is currently in ruins, and plans to renovate the structure and give new life to its once grand courtyard and gardens have been forgotten in the last couple of years. You can see, however, evidence of its many facelifts and makeovers by examining the various ancient and modern materials embedded in its crumbling walls, now completely exposed to the elements. You can, however, see through this amazing photograph from the University of Aberdeen’s Special Libraries and Archives how New Slains Castle looked in the 18th Century.
Windows to the old castle courtyard
Walking the soft ground in the castle’s former garden
The ominous weather never quite lifted during our stay in Cruden Bay, but it also held me in a pleasant state of nostalgia and fascination. Much like the late night conversations in the belly of the Vampire Museum in Paris, cozying up to the fire at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel and spinning tales about the Earl of Erroll and Dracula made the trip especially memorable. And following Bram Stoker’s footsteps as I stormed New Slains Castle myself felt like the perfect end to our vampire-hunting adventure.
NEW SLAINS CASTLE RUINS, Cruden Bay, Scotland
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