A Visit to the Culzean Castle Caves
We do love a bit of spooky don’t we? Never mind ghost tours – grim dark pits under ancient castles that are shrouded in mystery and intrigue win every day for me and they don’t come any better than the Culzean Castle caves. While the opulence and grandeur of the Culzean Estate speak of centuries of the good life for those fortunate enough, there is no escaping the significantly darker past of what lies beneath…..
The Culzean Castle caves tucked under the foundations pre-date the fortress above and, staggeringly, likely have origins from the 9th Century. With an external appearance reminding me of my adventures in Petra, the caves are cut into the rock directly beneath the castle and still stand in hauntingly ever-lasting condition. But first, a word about the castle itself.
Records show that a towerhouse at Culzean can be traced back as far as the 1400s, while the castle we see today began its long development in the late 16th Century. Under the ownership of multiple generations of the Kennedy family, Culzean grew into a stunning mansion in the 18th Century thanks largely to the architectural guidance of Robert Adam. Dramatically located on the coastline amid a massive estate, Culzean is home to numerous gardens, beaches and wildlife species – making it one of Scotland’s most loved tourist destinations today. The views from the castle over the Firth of Clyde and to the island mound Ailsa Craig are magnificent and it’s worth getting down to the water to get the best vantage points.
Personally, I like to think I have an interestingly imaginative mindset, prone to the dramatic and far-fetched. Drifting somewhere between hyperbole and nonsense gets me through the day. Which made for some interesting fiction in my early travel writing days too (nothing got published, go figure). There can be few better places in Scotland to let this, shall we say, colourful creative streak run riot. The history of the Culzean Castle caves are riddled with speculation and guesswork but it’s fairly clear that there were some dubious/lethal goings-on at various points.
What appears certain is that the Culzean Castle caves were used as a smuggling hideaway in the 1700s, whereby contraband from the Isle of Man was brought ashore and clandestinely stored along the Ayrshire coast. It seems unlikely that this carry on could be conducted completely unbeknown to the castle occupants and there may have been some dodgy deals done to the benefit of all. Tax avoidance at its best. Dubious as it may be though, this is a positively cheery period in the caves’ history compared to its other, darker, presumed chapters.
One includes mention to the infamous Sawney Bean. Nasty piece of work this guy. Cannibal extraordinaire, this charmer set up camp in Ayrshire sometime in the 1500s and is said to have utilised the coastal caves to, well, eat his victims. Along with his small clan of family supporters, they terrorised the region with numerous abductions under cover of darkness. Eventually they were rooted out and unceremoniously dismembered, hanged and torched by an understandably edgy local populace. Could the Culzean Castle caves have been one of their lairs? Quite possibly.
There are several ‘rooms’ within the cave system, with the furthest inside having a clear low level door. Almost crawling in to this increasingly damp underground mystery, we learn that the door was built to only be closed from the inside – meaning that someone would have sealed themselves into this pit-like space voluntarily! That’s a real head-scratcher. With seemingly no other way out, why on earth would someone do that? Cue frantic speculation. Katie and Eric are excellent guides and play on the groups’ growing unease brilliantly once we are inside. We all switch out our headlights and take a few moments to embrace the total blackness. More eerie and thought-provoking than actually scary, the thought of being locked away in such a place with, at best, the odd candle to keep you sane is utterly incredible. Logic says there must be more to the caves and that they perhaps connect up to the castle somehow. An escape tunnel? A cellar? A dungeon? It would appear not based on the exploratory radar and laser work already carried out here, but can we ever be completely sure?
The plot thickens with the revelation that, early this century, police were called in after the discovery of remains within the caves. Quickly establishing that they were ancient and that the potential murder investigation could be called off, it adds an astonishing new aura to the place. Did people live here? Were they murdered? Was it Sawney Bean’s doing? And then there’s the tale of the piper that went into the caves never to return but who, some swear, can still be heard playing in and around the area. This story goes something along the lines of the piper, and his dog, heading into the cave booming out his tunes to exorcise the ghosts and evil spirits (apparently they are not fans of the ‘pipes). Problem was that he didn’t come out again and that only his dog returned, trembling with fear and completely hairless. Picture the scene as we are all being told this while inside a cold, almost black murder pit with the sound of the wind whistling by off the cliffs outside. Seriously spooky stuff.
Home alone and researching/writing this at midnight’s not good for my nervous system and it’s time to call this one a night. Armed with a Talisker under each arm, I’m off to bed. Spare a thought for me as I hesitate slightly before flicking that last light switch, won’t you?
Culzean Castle and Country Park makes for one of the best days out in Scotland. Easily one to fill a full day when the sun’s out, there’s something for everyone here. It’s important to note there’s a reason it’s taken me this long to finally take on a tour of the Culzean caves – they only run a couple of times per month over the summer and need to be booked in advance. You’ll be provided with appropriate headgear and the expertise of experienced ranger guides, costing an additional £10 (£5 children) to your entry price to the Estate. Some of the spaces are highly confined so the heavily claustrophobic may want to think twice and be prepared to get a bit muddy. The tour lasts an hour or so and are run in small groups of around a dozen.
Disclaimer time. My recent, much-anticipated, visit to the Culzean Castle caves was at the invitation of The National Trust for Scotland, partner to the Scotlanders bloggers. As any regular readers will be well aware, I am a huge fan of the Trust and regularly promote their properties as, in my view, they make a vital contribution to our tourism sector. A conservation charity, the great work they do relies on the support of its membership so, if you are interested in joining, here’s a special discounted offer for you.