I am currently spending many hours a day in an imaginary sixteenth-century castle, Blackhope Tower, sending my young characters up its turnpike staircase to an eerie and magical room that houses an infamous painting, a tiled floor labyrinth and a ceiling decorated with mermaids and sea monsters. Blackhope Tower is a sort of memory castle, a construct inspired by features of places I've seen in my travels around Scotland, most notably the Borders and Aberdeenshire. But memories can fade and get a bit vague around the edges. When that happens, nothing beats a visit to the source of one's inspirations.
This is why I was so delighted to do events recently for the Aboyne and Deeside Festival at atmospheric Crathes Castle, one of the Aberdeenshire tower houses that inspired features of Blackhope Tower. On this visit the National Trust for Scotland kindly permitted me to take some photos to share here, for which I am very grateful.
|Crathes Castle gardens
Crathes Castle has, in addition to its beautiful gardens and grounds (including the rather special topiary features), some of the finest Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings in the Stair Chamber, the Nine Nobles Room, the Green Lady's Room and the Muses Room. They were painted in the late 16th century but were hidden by lathe and plaster ceilings until 1877 (the Stair Chamber was not uncovered until 1960). The decorations on the boards and oak support beams were probably made by a local Scottish artist and done with water-based glue tempera paint. The boards and beams were covered in a white base, the text and decorations were done in black and filled in with colour pigments. Artists apparently adapted images and emblems based upon European engravings and pattern books.
|Judas Maccabeus detail, Nine Nobles Room
The Stair Chamber's ceiling contains text from the Geneva Bible while the Green Lady's is a collection of sayings about life, marriage, good and evil. While all four ceilings are impressive, the Muses Room and the Nine Nobles Room are spectacular. The former features descriptions and elaborate illustrations of each Muse, while the latter celebrates characters of the ancient world and the Old Testament, including Julius Caesar, Hector of Troy and King David. It's likely that the ceiling images were used not only as inspirations but as memory aids. The paintings are a feast for the eyes, graphically strong and expressive, and intensely mysterious in places.
After spending time in Crathes Castle, taking in its colour and atmosphere, I felt as if my imaginary castle had been cleaned, painted and given a good airing out. I returned to writing with renewed vigour and immense gratitude that I live in a country so endowed with historical riches. These days my characters are positively running up the turnpike stairs, their senses heightened because mine have been.
I've enjoyed sharing my thoughts and sketches with you over the past year and am sad to say that this is my last post as a History Girl. I am handing the torch to the excellent novelist Karen Maitland, whose books I have read with relish. She will make a fantastic addition to the History Girls and I look forward to reading her posts from next month. My thanks to all the History Girls and to you, our readers, who have helped to make this a splendid blog.