Sharing a Castle with a Ghost

Retirement Living and Travel

Part 2, 1982

don_uppIn my last article, I said I would next write about our trips in retirement. Well maybe not after all. Before retirement, there was the trip to Scotland in 1982 that set the traveling stage for us. It was key to determining if we really could afford to jump off the deep end and go places. It all started with an Ann Arbor photo instructor inviting us to attend a meeting about an opportunity  to go to Scotland and live in a castle for a week. My wife, Jan, is an established watercolor artist, and the instructor wanted to have her comments on the fine art aspects of images there.

Penkill Castle in Scotland became home for the Upps for one week.
Penkill Castle in Scotland

Our first impulse was No way! The cost for the two of us seemed astronomical.  But the next week, Thanksgiving week in 1981, we were talking with our 35-year-old neighbor across the street while she was raking leaves. She told u s she was going into the hospital for exploratory surgery, but did not think it was anything serious. It turned out to be advance cancer and she passed away just after Christmas.

That got us thinking about how quickly something can change in your life. We looked at our finances (we had a daughter in college and one in high school, plus  we had the usual home mortgage and car loans. And my wife was enrolled in the fine arts program at Grand Valley College). But we had enough insurance to cover all that, plus we were healthy. So we said “Yes!” In the spring, off we flew to Scotland.

The infamous Loc Ness on a cloudy day.
The infamous Loc Ness on a cloudy day.

Since we were spending most of the money on air fare, we went a week early, rented a car, and did some sight seeing. Loc Ness was of course on the agenda. The day we were there, it was gray and blustery. If you looked out over the water, it would not take much to convince yourself that something big and snake-like was out there.

In 1692, the Massacre at Glencoe took place here. It was a violent dispute between the Campbells and the MacDonalds.
In 1692, the Massacre at Glencoe took place in this beautiful glen. History claims different versions of why the Campbells clan slayed members of the MacDonalds clan.

One of the really spooky places we stopped was where the Massacre at Glencoe took place in 1692. Scottish history claims one Scottish clan, the Campbells, slayed another Scottish clan, the MacDonalds for not pledging their allegiance to the newly appointed King William. The ground here was soft and spongy, and it felt like one could be swallowed up. We found out later that only 38 MacDonalds were killed but over 300 were led to safety by Captain MacDonald. Ill feelings between the two clans still exists today.

We spent our nights at bed and breakfasts which are plentiful in Scotland. At one of them, we were so far north we could take photos at midnight because it was so bright.

After a week of our own sightseeing, we met our group at Penkill Castle, in Ayshire near Girvan. Built in the 16th century, it was, at the time we were there, considered to be the second longest inhabited castle in the United Kingdom. Our group was small: my wife and I, another couple, the photography instructor and the laird of the castle, Elton Eckstand of Detroit. Around 1848, the castle had been a popular rendezvous for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, poets and critics trying to reform art at that time. As a result, many castle walls had paintings and murals of their work. One is buried on the castle grounds.

The Upps shared a bedroom with a former resident at Penkill Castle
The Upps shared a bedroom with a former resident at Penkill Castle.

Because the castle was built in the 15th century, there is no central heat. Each bedroom and bathroom has its own fireplace. It wasn’t until the last night of our visit that my wife asked for a fire in our bathroom!

One evening, as we were getting ready for bed, we heard a very faint voice calling out “Albert.” The next morning, at breakfast, we were told that was the name of one of the previous owners that had met a very untimely death. Apparently former guests of that bedroom said they heard the voice as well. (That was the same night that the castle houseboys clipped a rose blossom from a hundred-plus-year-old rose bush on my wife’s pillow. A nice touch!)

Evening entertainment at the castle focused on Scottish culture.
Evening entertainment at the castle focused on Scottish culture.

Each evening after dinner, we were entertained by local dancers, singers, bag pipers and, one night, by the ceremony of the haggis. The tradition of the haggis is based on the first lamb or sheep to be slaughtered for the season. All the parts that cannot be stored (mostly the organs) are chopped up, mixed with oatmeal, and roasted in a sheep’s stomach. A person in full kilts recites a poem by Robert Burns dedicated to the haggis, and cuts it open. After that, two men in kilts did the dance of the spinning sabers.

The castle was our home base for exploration. One of our trips was to Ailsa Craig, a solid granite island. The granite from here is the official source of all Olympic curling stones. It is now a nature preserve, and so granite can only be quarried every 20 or 25 years. Around noon, we always tried to get to the woolen goods store – they served the best lemon meringue pie in all of Scotland!

Ailsa Craig, a solid granite island is the official source of all Olympic curling stones.
Ailsa Craig, a solid granite island is the official source of all Olympic curling stones.

While we were in Scotland, we became curious as to why so many ruins had no roofs. We learned that in the UK, if a building has three walls and a roof, it is taxed as habitable. No roof, no tax. Many of the original buildings had lead roofs and much of the lead was also taken for use in WW1.

At the end of the week, we all went our separate ways. I flew home, and Jan went to London, where she and another Grand Valley student attended Richmond College to complete some fine arts work. She then went on to Stonehenge, the Isle of Wight, and to Brighton. There, she was able to meet the sister of our Swedish exchange student who was coming to live with us the following fall. The timing could not have been better for us taking the trip to Scotland after all.