Sometimes the unplanned, spur-of-the-moment trips are up there with the best… Don’t you think? Last weekend, after a night at the Lake of Menteith, we drove west beside the flat lands of the River Teith before parking up at Doune Castle. Hidden in a hunk of green leaves beside the water, we felt like we’d stumbled upon a gem. Which actually, we kind of had.
I’d done no research before we rocked up at this castle. Literally. I didn’t know about either its Scottish history or its pop culture notoriety; I had no knowledge of its unrivalled great hall or its famous cameos in Monty Python, Game of Thrones or the Outlander series. It had just caught my eye on our Ordnance Survey map… and here we were!
Along with being pretty famous on the small screen, Doune has some of the best preserved rooms of all Scotland’s castles. This is largely thanks to Robert Stewart, also known as the First Duke of Albany or ‘Scotland’s uncrowned king’, who owned the castle in the fourteenth century and made it what it was. Up the path and under the drawbridge, our shoes slipping on the cobbles like infiltrators, we picked up an audio guide in the castle shop. Narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones (not that they’re milking that link, or anything!) the guide provides immersive and informative commentary on the castle’s many alcoves.
There were three areas of Doune which particularly stood out for me. The first — which we accessed from a narrow, shallow staircase in the courtyard — was the kitchen and servery. Two rooms joined by a massive arch (the former serving hatch), it was easy to imagine the heat from the fireplace filling this large space. We wandered over to the window, listening to Terry Jones on the audio guide as he explained how the gashes in the stone were made by kitchen staff sharpening their utensils. Stepping into the shadows of the past always triggers some existential thoughts. I wonder what they would think of our world?
Just adjacent to the servery was the impressive great hall. With the yellow light dripping in through the parallel windows, and the long stretch of space, it felt almost like a place of worship. In a sense it was, as this was where the Duke would host his own form of reverence: partying. He and the Duchess would sit at the far end of the hall, enjoying the chatter and roar of the fire whilst music played from the gallery.
Guests wouldn’t just be treated to entertainment, though. They would also be lodged in some of the castle’s best rooms, high above the kitchen. We loved exploring these chambers, squeezing ourselves up small spiral staircases to reach the most luxurious accommodation in the castle: the Royal Apartments. One particularly — above the ‘central heating’ or kitchen fireplace — was particularly illustrative of how people lived in medieval times. A suite of three rooms, the first (and biggest) would be an entertaining space for the guest to play cards or music in; the second was a bedroom; and the third was a ‘privy’ or toilet. Although there was a wooden toilet seat, any waste would drop directly to the ground below for some poor soul to clean up. Don’t think I’d want that job…
There’s so much to see at the castle — the battlements, the old chapel alcove, the cellars and the wide courtyard — but we concluded our visit with a wander around the castle walls. With the soft singing of the river below, and views (on a clear day!) towards Ben Lomond, you can see why this spot has been a constant fortification site since the Roman days. We gathered it may also be a pretty sweet place for a picnic… There’s always next time!