Carbisdale Castle will forever be a warm sunshine-filled summer for me. With rough grey blocks of castle walls almost glowing in the sunshine and speckles of quartz sparkling within the granite. And embedded in the stone, tall wide windows that invited visitors to see into the reception rooms, the library, and halls; windows that for me reflected a summer of adventure, laughter and a little bit of love. When I discovered my voice and found the confidence to take small groups on Castle tours and tell tales of love and spite, of history and ghosts.
The castle didn’t just sit on the hill above the Kyle of Sutherland, the river than ran beneath it, it commandeered it. It demanded your eye give it more than just a passing glance. The grounds that surrounded it on 3 sides had, on its fourth, a steep cliff that overlooked the road, the river and a railway bridge. The road below skirted respectfully around the cliff base past the lower Castle gates, following the Kyle’s waters upstream from the small village of Culrain up into the heart of the Highlands. A little way upriver is a tributary, the River Shin, where at the right time of year, salmon could be seen leaping up the splendid Falls as they made their annual pilgrimage as far as they could to spawn.
Leaning lazily up the slopes above the Castle were forests of Scottish pine, asymmetric in shape with sometimes twisted and gnarled upper trunks. Their rusty salmon bark glowed when lit by stray beams of sunshine through the pine needle canopy. On warm sunny days, their wonderful scent would fight for your attention with that of the rhododendron bushes that filled the ground beneath the trees, covering the hills in a twisting tangled jungle. Their scattered pinks, mauves and faded white flowers were delightful dots of colour beneath the first canopy, but these Himalayan guests were like a relative who is invited for the weekend and remains, making themselves at home, and eventually taking over.
The Castle itself could be reached up a long narrow drive. It was steep and if walked with heavy backpacks would leave you breathless on reaching the main gates at the top of the hill. The hike up felt like a tunnel, with rhododendron forming a wall on both sides where granite walls failed to appear. Many hostellers arrived from the nearby railway station of Culrain – a simple one-platform affair that serviced the single-line track that ran all the way from Inverness, up the coast, to Thurso, the jumping-off point to the Orkney Isles. That railway was originally a private railway for the very wealthy and powerful Sutherland family who owned much of the Scottish highlands. Through the main gates into the gravelled courtyard and the imposing structure of Carbisdale felt like it was assessing you, begging the question, were you worthy to enter?
Yet this building, belonging to the Scottish Youth Hostel Association since the 1950s, made all who entered feel welcome. It was regarded as the grandest hostel in all of Europe. And grand it was, for beyond the tall glass windows, you could see the polished wooden floors on which sat marble statues on plinths, walls decorated with oil paintings that would have been at home in the Tate Britain gallery in London, and a grand staircase with finely carved wooden handrails. For hostellers, a night spent within the walls of Carbisdale was like spending a night in an art gallery or a museum. While most walked up the hill from the station, some had hitched a lift, a few would drive, and there were always the hardy cyclists, who had ridden on heavily laden bicycles from as far afield as southern England.
The Castle, however, did not have such welcoming beginnings. It was built out of spite, by the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, cast out by the family of the man she had married, following his death. The 3rd Duke of Sutherland, took Mary Caroline Blair as his second wife, shortly after his first wife had died, and following a scandalous affair. Queen Victoria, who the Sutherland family knew well, it appears, made it very clear that she was not amused. The duchess made sure that the clock tower that stood tall above the building and grounds, was clearly visible from the Sutherland railway, and only had three clock faces. The side that faced the railway, which her estranged in-laws would use to get to their family home at Dunrobin Castle up the coast, was blank. She would not, it seems, give them the time of day.
But in later years, the castle was sold to a wealthy Scottish shipping magnate, who was a little more welcoming than the previous owner. With his Norwegian roots, he made Carbisdale into a safe haven for the King and Prince of Norway during WWII. It then passed to his son, who in turn donated it to the Scottish Youth Hostel Association.
For me though Carbisdale also became a haven. But it was much more. A place of friendships: from Scotland, England and Australia; from Germany, Scotland and Switzerland. Of falling for girls with accents and pretty smiles. Of routinely escaping up to a small grassy hill across the Kyle (the river), where a small depression at its summit made for a perfect spot to sit, eat a sandwich or an apple, and devour books I’d found or borrowed. There, I’d admire the rolling hills of the Scottish highlands, as cloud shadows played across the valleys, and hills sides dressed in heather, pine or bracken, and slopes dotted with the dirty white of highland sheep. And in those moments when the sun was out, life felt idyllic, with warmth on the skin and air that was often fresh and crisp, but always light and clean. I could look down upon the Castle, sitting resolutely above the fast-flowing Kyle. The clear waters bubbled and burbled their way down towards the small town of Bonar Bridge, through which the main road passed, weaving its way up along the coastline to John O’Groats. And beyond Bonar Bridge, the Kyle emptied itself into Dornoch Firth which then opened up into a broad sound, capturing more streams and rivers before emptying itself into the cold grey waters of the North Sea.
Behind the castle, from my soft padded eerie, I could see the forest that rose like a green collar behind the castle. Where I knew trails wound up the hill side to small lochs, one of which supplied the water to the hostel. How many times had hostellers, from cities like London, or Berlin, or Sydney, complained about the brown colour of the water. “Is it safe?” They’d ask. “Yes,” we’d say, “It’s just the tannins from the trees and plants that are colouring the water.” We told them that the water was probably cleaner than the tap water that they would drink at home!
The Castle, which I had keys to, the place I called home for 6 months in my early twenties, it was a place of more than just good memories. It was a place where for a short period of my life, I was truly happy. As part-time manager, I checked guests – hostellers – in and out, performed a few hours of cleaning, did some occasional maintenance, and I learned how to entertain small groups with ghost tales and history talks. It was a life of simplicity; a period of bright spring flowers, luscious summer scents, and the purples of autumnal heather; of walking dogs along fire trails under long twilight near midnight; of ghost stories, and secret passages. And it was the perfect base from which to explore, on my days off, the bens and lochs, narrow country lanes and tall Atlantic cliffs, and buzzards wheeling on soft summer thermals over rounded Highland hills.
While happy times still carve a place in my memory of the Castle Hostel, it has changed hands and fallen silent. Sold by the SYHA when repair bills made it too costly to maintain in 2011, it passed through the hands of several developers. The statues and paintings were sold off. It’s hard to say whether it will yet again provide good memories for those who visit, whether they will appreciate the rhododendrons in bloom, the scent of pine on warm summer days, or views across the Kyle to the heather-clad hills on a sunny autumn day. I hope so.
While it was a castle built from spite, it has also seen countless hostellers, young and old, pass through its gates, most to admire its priceless works of art, its forest walks and fine mountain views. And many will have walked away having found new friends, or lost their heart, or maybe, just maybe, enjoyed a tall tale about a royal scandal and resident ghosts.