Grim Heritage


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.Β 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.Β 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!**

37 thoughts on “Grim Heritage

    • The day was so incredibly pleasant…one of the best I’ve ever experienced, but possibly because it had been so gloomy for weeks. I’d love to see Threave in the fog, though. But not alone!

  1. Beautiful photos. Glad you were able to visit on a sunny day. Very compelling story about your ancestors, too. I loved the dummy you captured on film, and how Historic Scotland published it.

  2. I have a relative from Castle Douglas I just found out about last year. Great Post…nice to see some of the landscape she came from.

  3. You know I love your writing. But, in the sixth paragraph, last sentence, you could delete “somewhat”. As an outsider, I’d say family get-togethers must have been spirited and entertaining or scary.

    • Thanks, Chuck. I get what you mean. I put the “somewhat” in there to add some subtle, ironic humor. Although the family events were bizarre and scary at the time, I now consider them as character-building.

    • Not to sound preachy, but I think that every place that we pass through can teach us something about ourselves and our personal path in life. Thanks for reading. πŸ™‚

  4. Love the photo of the window and the deteriorate state of the structure of the castle with all of its history and past against the sunny landscape, like how you ended this…
    “I turn away from the window. We can’t choose our ancestors, but we can break the cycle.”
    It is about the paths we take and choices of change…good post.

    • It’s difficult to break out of negative family patterns, especially when they are encoded in our DNA and not just behavioral. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to fight against the DNA. Thanks, as always, for your insight, Doris.

  5. A nice story J. And the photo of the dummy almost freaked me out, hahahha! that’s how weak I am to horror or scary photos and movies.

    • Yes, another WordPress user started to use the same one that I was using before (grrr!), so I changed to one that I own the copyright on. πŸ˜‰

      • It’s not enough that people steal your pictures…. They steal your avatar, too?! That’s shameful and disgusting. Your new icon is swell; but the old was was so mysterious. Bastards.

        • I thought it was an obscure enough avatar, but obviously not. I don’t know if the person is a copycat, but I’ve been using it for almost a year and have never seen it before. It started showing up on blogs that I visit, so it’s hard to believe that the person never saw it. Anyway, if someone copies this one, they’ll have to deal with my wrath!

  6. Excellent post and pics and story. My family is from Sussex England originally and visiting Scotland,England and Ireland is on my bucket list..:-)

  7. Thank you for this small virtual journey to Scotland…to see this places is one of my dreams….here were I live now, in Iceland we don’t have castels, thank you for your story!

  8. Oh, they could of had a time with you. I might have told you I couldn’t see anybody in the picture and sent you back another of the same pic with the empty pit. After working with the public for so many years I can be a bit of a hooligan.

  9. Lived on the banks to a River Dee in the mountains here back in the 90s, such a rush is a mountain river when it is in flood.

    As for the clear weather, the ghosts knew a Douglas would be setting foot on island turf that day and made company to welcome you, Julie, perhaps.

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