Robert, the Spruce and the cannibal of Carrick

Scotland – DAY 2
It’s a bright, showery morning as we drive west from Dumfries towards the breathtaking wilderness of the Galloway Forest Park. The hills march before us, a restless landscape of peaks and troughs appearing and disappearing with every torturous twist in the road. To the northwest they climb higher still, marking the borders of the ancient earldom of Carrick, Robert’s ancestral lands. It’s late September and the slopes are copper and russet, the vivid purple carpet of heather now fading. Everywhere we see the ubiquitous plantations of spruce and Douglas fir that are constantly being felled and replanted for timber. These Scandinavian-looking forests, established here over the last century, wouldn’t have been familiar to Robert, whose landscape was dominated by towering Scots pines, oaks, birch and elm.

After a time we arrive at our first destination of the day, the vast, gun-grey sweep of Loch Doon, the brooding setting for another of Robert’s castles, which offered brief refuge to his comrade, Sir Christopher Seton in 1306, before the English took it. Clouds drift fast overhead as we make a pit stop at a tiny roadside coffee shack, the first sign of civilization we’ve seen in miles. Handing us frothy cappuccinos and confirming that we’re on the right track to reach the castle, the owner points out a series of concrete bollards on the loch’s far shore, below the dark fringe of another spruce forest. He tells us they’re the remnants of a monorail system built during the First World War for target-practice. Trains would pull the targets along the rails as planes soared in across the loch, strafing them. Apparently they missed a lot, he says, pointing out the stone bridge we just crossed over, which we realize is peppered with bullet holes.

Loch Doon Castle has moved. Once, it stood on an island in the loch, a stout, almost circular fortress that must have seemed pretty impregnable out on the water, but in the 1930s, during the implementation of a hydro-electric scheme, it was transplanted from the island and rebuilt on the side of the road. The origins of the castle aren’t certain, although it’s thought it might have been built by a former Earl of Carrick, making it one of Robert’s ancestral homes. After a good dig around the 13th century ruins, we climb into the hills behind to get a better view, narrowly avoiding death by quad-bike as a group of kids come roaring past. On the heights of a rutted logging road, we survey the vista. It’s so quiet we can hear the conversation of a couple of anglers far below.

We head on to Turnberry via Maybole, the sea opening before us. Although still debated, this is commonly believed to be Robert’s birthplace. Nowadays, Turnberry is given over to a luxury hotel and golfing resort. The last time I came here, I rode on the beach – which gave me the inspiration for the first scene in Insurrection where we meet Robert, although thankfully my horse didn’t throw me into the sea. I intended then to take a closer look at the location of Turnberry Castle, seen from the beach, but didn’t have time, so I’m back and determined. Parking our grubby little Mini (nicknamed the wee beastie) at the swanky hotel, which is swarming with elderly Americans in flat-caps and squeaky shoes, we get directions to the ruins from a doorman in a posh kilt. Armed with a map we head towards a distant promontory, marked by a lighthouse. Between us and the headland lie the green undulations of three championship golf courses. What is it with Robert’s castles and golf, anyway? As we enter the first course, incongruous without a caddy, I tell Lee I’m sure I’ve heard more people are killed by golf-balls than lightning strikes. Or is it choking on peanuts? We persevere, despite the warning signs that grow ever more ominous. Danger – golfers playing from the left. Stop and look before you cross. Turn back, before it’s too late…

In the distance, the dome of Ailsa Craig juts from the sea, a muffin-shaped island populated by seabirds, which we glimpsed from the rocky shores of Antrim the week before. The map and our actual route begin to seem more and more at odds. We duck across greens, past flags and frowning Americans, heading deeper into the course. A short while later, a man in a golf-buggy comes whizzing towards us. Busted, murmurs Lee as we stand and grin awkwardly, the map flapping in our hands.

Golf-patrol is wearing a windbreaker and has sparkly blue eyes and an appealing Scottish brogue. He inquires, wryly, if we might have lost our way. Showing him the map, he points out where we’ve gone wrong: 20 yards to our right is the path we should have been following. While we wait for a clutch of golfers to tee-off (or whatever it is they do) the man asks why we’re wanting to see the ruins as there’s so little left. I explain. He nods,Robert Bruce – oh, aye. He pauses. But, ye ken, there’s a muir interesting man from these parts? Lee and I frown, intrigued, and huddle closer. His blue eyes get sparklier. Aye, Sawney Bean. He robbed travellers. His voice lowers. But he didnae just rob ‘em. He ate ‘em! He says this last with relish looking over at the flat-capped golfers, as if wishing old Sawney might still be around.

As we say farewell and head toward the path, I must have one of those looks on my face, because Lee grabs my arm and says, You promised, no more novels set in Scotland after this trilogy – not until we’ve been somewhere warm!After swearing to shelve any novel about Scottish cannibals, I lead the way to the ruins on the cliff-top. They really are ruins – only a few stones can be seen, embedded in the scrubby grass. It’s a moody place, the sea swirling around the crumbled rocks. The Bruce family’s castle would have been impressive, certainly in setting, although it’s impossible now to get any real sense of the building, leaving my imagination to do most of the work, before we wend our way back and drive on to Glasgow.