My heart’s in the Highlands (2)

Driving from Inverness to Wick up in the northern Highlands, I was struck by something that I remember Walter Scott also picked up in his travels around Britain, and that is the contrast between English and Scottish houses. The latter are built in stone, which give them an air of solidity and majesty that the brick houses of England (especially southern England) do not possess as a rule. Everything we saw driving down the eastern coastal road was made of stone, and stone seems to be a cheap commodity, as there are many ruined stone houses, which I expect would be plundered for their stone in more southern parts.

We reached Ackergill Tower near Wick at about two in the afternoon. The tower, rising high by the sea, stands out from the surrounding lowland like a solitary cliff. It is five stories high and has a number of annexes and outbuildings. Now used as a hotel and a wedding venue, it was once the birthplace of a local legend. Back in the late Middle Ages, I was told, there were two rival clans, the Keiths and the Gunns. The Keiths owned the Tower, which they used to lock up a Gunns young lady named Helen, apparently as a human pledge in a fragile arrangement with her family. However comfortable the rooms are now, it seems rather clear that they were not so back then, as Helen threw herself into the sea. The postscript is predictable: she’s haunted the tower ever since.

Helen’s ghost does not seem to have frightened Oliver Cromwell, who stationed some of his troops there in the 1650s. I like to think she was of some help to Cromwell’s men, as he used them to besiege a neighbouring castle belonging to a member of the Keith clan.

There is another nugget of Ackergill local history that I’d like to mention here. In the early seventeenth century, the estate passed to the Dunbar family. In 1965, a certain lady Maureen Helen Dunbar, nicknamed Daisy, succeeded her more distant, yet male relatives to the Dunbar baronetcy and inherited the Tower as Dame Maureen Dunbar of Hempriggs. Daisy was the daughter of Janie King Moore, C.S. Lewis’ peculiar partner from 1930 to her death in 1951. Maureen lived with Lewis and her mother at the Kilns in Oxford until the late 1940s, when Mrs Moore was hospitalised. I recounted this whole history to the Tower receptionist. She knew that, and added that Lewis may have taken inspiration from Ackergill Tower for one of his stories. I looked for a reference of Ackergill in Lewis’ work, but couldn’t find anything. Again, I like to think that he not only dreamt about the romantic tower, but even spent some time there, perhaps in the summer, during Daisy’s regular yet short visits.

Despite its rude outward appearance, the tower offers splendid lodgings. And I could say, like King Duncan, that

this castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself

Unto our gentle senses.

Though advertised as a five-star hotel, the property feels more like an old friend’s welcoming home. The fires were blazing, the drawing room, morning room and, yes, snooker room were open to everyone without any restrictions or etiquette. The books in the library, leather-bound and dating, for the most part I reckon, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were also fully available for consultation. A brass telescope looked through the window towards the coastal village of Ackergill, which looked more like a hamlet of scattered bungalow houses than a proper village. Outside our bedroom window, the waves were crashing down on a palisade of rocks. This proved to be a most efficient lullaby.

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