Castle Douglas, Scotland – July 2004
The roads in Scotland are not pedestrian-friendly. I walk on the grassy ledge next to the pavement, facing the traffic in case a vehicle might swerve in my direction. I could have taken a taxi from town to Threave Castle, but I like to get around on my own two feet. I also want to take advantage of the most glorious day that I’ve seen since I’ve been in the U.K. For the first time in over two months, I take off my jacket.
My maiden name is Douglas. I’ve spent some of my time in Scotland researching the infamous clan. The name means “black water”. The Douglases were originally Flemish (Norman) mercenaries from the Ypres area in Belgium. They became one of the most powerful clans in Scotland.
I don’t have the means to see all of their castles, so I chose one – Threave. Located in the very south of Scotland, it sits on a small island in the middle of the River Dee. It was built in the 1370’s by Archibald “the Grim” Douglas. He was a Black Douglas. I’m apparently a Red Douglas. The difference is based on physical appearance.
The boat ride to the island takes a couple of minutes. I’m one of a handful of visitors. The guide gives us a short talk about the history of Threave. The castle is haunted, of course. A paranormal researcher once tried to stay the night on the island, but only made it a few hours before he called for the boat. The guide tells us that days like today are rare. Threave is usually a gloomy, unnerving place.
The other visitors don’t linger inside the castle. After their voices recede, a watchful stillness settles over the room. It is the silence of a drawn breath. I shake off a shiver. It’s been a long time since a place has made me uneasy. I lean against the window and look out. Clouds converge and advance. Soon the sunlight will be conquered once again.
My father’s last name is Scottish, but that’s where the heritage ends. Like most Americans, his ancestors are a blend of nationalities. And unlike my mother’s side of the family, none of the ethnic traditions were carried on. In fact, they had no family traditions at all, because my grandfather was an extreme alcoholic. He had a good job, but drank all of the money away. His five sons slept in one room. The house, though poor, was kept clean. My grandmother’s schizophrenia, though untreated, didn’t keep her from doing housework. My father was the only child to inherit both of these mental illnesses. You could say that family get togethers were somewhat uncomfortable.
My grandfather was never mean to me, but I stayed away from him. He called me “Dolly”. I don’t think he knew, or cared, what my real name was. I was seven when he died. He had a heart attack while bellowing for money to go to the bar. My aunt had refused. She had begun to take care of their finances. He collapsed on her living room floor and that was the end of Cecil “the Sloshed”.
I turn away from the window. We can’t choose our ancestors, but we can break the cycle.
***On my way out, I snapped a photo of the “prison pit”, which seemed to be just a black hole. When I viewed the image on my computer, this figure became visible. I sent it in to Historic Scotland and asked if it could be a ghost. They got back to me right away. Apparently it’s a lifelike dummy that they put down there, but it’s rarely seen, because even flash photography can’t penetrate the gloom. It was the combination of the sunny day and flash that made it show up. They got such a kick out of my letter that they published it in their magazine and sent me a bunch of really nice gifts!**