A Tangled Web, Excerpt Three: Culkein Drumbeg Castle

Jenny tutted. 'When you're on a road like this, in July, on a Sunday, it's easy to see why so many people who live in the areas it passes through are less than positive about the North Coast 500. This coastal road from Lochinver to Kylesku forms part of it. Theoretically, we're going with the flow of the route, which is described and usually followed in a clockwise direction, but you'd not know it from the amount of traffic we've met. That last one simply had no idea how to drive these roads.'

'The BMW convertible with the two guys in it?' asked Callum.

'Yes. It was obvious he should reverse. He only had a short distance to go back to a passing place, whereas there wasn't one in sight behind us. Yet he sat and waited for you to do something before eventually deciding his car had a reverse gear after all.'

'He did reverse, though,' said Callum.

'Yes, and then he gave you the finger as we passed. If he tried that with some fisherman in his beat-up old Land Rover, the man in the BMW would find he'd acquired some nice green stripes along the side of his shiny white car. That sort of aggressive ignorance has no place in the Highlands.'

'This is a spectacular road, though. You can see why people are drawn to it.'

'Yes, and those people, some of them at least, do contribute to the local economy. It's a bit of a dilemma. Anyway, we're looking for a minor road turning off to the left not far along here.'

'Even more minor than this one? Is that possible?'

'Oh yes, but hopefully rather less busy. Then we just follow the road for a mile or so over a hill and down to a disused jetty at its far end. The castle and its island are close by. This is the road. Take a left turn.'

'Have you been before?'

'Yes, but although the island is shown on Ordnance Survey maps as tidal, it was inaccessible when I came here with the girls. I'd read about the castle and the planning dispute and knew Iain was involved because of his role as a committee chair, though he never said much about it to me. The girls and I just decided to visit one day last summer when Iain was in Inverness. The island the castle stands on is maybe thirty yards offshore and is fairly rocky, rising to a height of around 20 or 30ft. Enough to have caused smallish cliffs to form round part of its coastline facing the mainland.'

'So the odds are we're not going to be able to access the island either?' asked Callum. 'I didn't take much notice back at Achmelvich, or when driving past bits of visible coastline since then, but I didn't get the impression the tide was out.'

'We'll have to see,' said Jenny. 'I read recently that although planning permission has been refused, it's been agreed that consolidation work on the ruins can proceed to prevent further deterioration while the appeal is considered. There was a suggestion that temporary access had been arranged to allow this to happen. I don't know the details but we can at least look.'

'That part about consolidation chimes with something I was told at Sarclet Castle yesterday before the convivial atmosphere cooled.'

'Look, you can see the castle now. Its island is sandwiched between the mainland and a rather larger island, one of a number that are scattered around this part of the coast. Down here the road curves round to the right, in front of that white house, then comes to an end in a parking area beside what seems to be the gated-off stump of a once much longer pier.'

Callum parked. 'There doesn't appear to be anyone about. You'd expect parked vans for the people working on the castle.'

'No, but then it is a Sunday. To get the best view of the castle and the island, we need to climb that concrete ramp behind the parking area up to what appears to be a base for a gun emplacement from one of the wars of the last century.'

Standing on top of the concrete plinth, itself placed on top of a rocky outcrop, Callum got his first really clear view of Culkein Drumbeg Castle and its setting.

The castle seemed to comprise a massive encircling stone wall forming an irregular shape that he presumed was dictated by the shape of the island it stood on. He found it difficult to gauge size, but it did seem that the castle covered a fair proportion of the land area of the island. The top of the wall varied in height and was topped off by crenellations. In several places, gable ends of internal buildings could be seen protruding above the height of the surrounding wall, though these seemed to be largely covered in ivy.

'It's quite a place, isn't it?' asked Callum.

'It is,' said Jenny. 'And if you look down here, it seems the temporary access is formed by a slightly tatty-looking floating pontoon, the sort of thing you see in marinas for mooring boats to. I suppose that makes sense. They need something that can be used whether the tide is in or out. If the gap between the island and the mainland does drain at low tide, then the plastic floatation boxes of the pontoon will simply settle on the bed of the loch, assuming it's not covered in large rocks, and the wooden walkway on top will still be usable to get to the island without getting your feet muddy.'

Callum made his way down to the mainland end of the pontoon. 'I think this piece of Heras fencing that's been pulled across is intended to deter casual visitors. And the “warning, dangerous structure, do not enter” sign certainly is. I presume we'll be trespassing if we go over to the island? I guess we are at the moment for that matter?'

'This is Scotland, remember?' Jenny saw Callum's blank look and continued. 'It's often said that unlike in England, there is no such thing as trespass in Scotland. That's not actually true, but the law is very different and there is an overarching right to roam. There's a list of exceptions which include areas around people's houses and gardens, on railway lines, at paid-for visitor attractions and so on. In this case, however, I think the main risks we are going to run revolve around having something large and heavy drop on our heads after coming free from higher up a wall. For my money that's a risk worth taking. It's not raining and hasn't rained for a couple of days, and there's not much wind. I'd have thought those would be the things that were most likely to dislodge stones from the structure.'

Callum led the way across the pontoon, which moved enough to be slightly alarming as they walked on it. The far end had been tethered to what was the lowest point of this side of the island and a rope attached to three wooden stakes set into the ground gave some support for the short scramble up to a trodden path that seemed to go all the way around the outside of the castle wall, on the landward-facing side of the island at least. It then wasn't very far round to the south end of the castle. Here the stone gateway had been blocked by a wood and metal structure clearly intended to prevent access.

'That would work better if there wasn't a space where the actual door is meant to be,' said Callum. 'This warning sign looks very recent, though.'

He walked through a short passageway set within the thickness of the outer wall and found himself in an irregularly-shaped courtyard. Jenny followed. There were two connected ranges of buildings, one directly ahead of them on the far side of the courtyard and the other diagonally to their left and ahead of them.

'If you look, you can see where parts of the walls have been cleared of the dense coverage of greenery and there are signs of other work in places,' said Callum. 'There's a replacement lintel above that doorway over there.' He pointed. 'But there's still a hell of a lot to do here. Right now, it seems to me that the main danger from entering the castle comes from the huge banks of nettles.'

'There are beaten paths that lead to both ranges,' said Jenny. 'Do you fancy a look inside?'

Callum followed Jenny across the courtyard, up a short flight of badly degraded stone steps and into a doorway.

'There are more signs of work being done in here,' said Jenny. Look at that huge crack that runs up through three storeys of the shell of the building. It seems to have been filled in. I assume they've left their supplies under that tarpaulin over there.'

'I'm not sure I'd want to work up those ladders that are leaning against the walls,' said Callum. 'Look, over in this corner there's a doorway leading into the other range. Watch out!'

'What's the matter?' asked Jenny.

'There's a sheer drop here, of ten or twelve feet, but because of the vegetation you simply don't see it until you are about to step off it.'

'The doorway into the other range from the courtyard was at a lower level. Let's take a look there.'

Callum followed her back out into the courtyard, and then into the darkness beyond the entrance to the second range of buildings. 'Hang on a minute,' he said. 'I'll switch on the light on my phone.'

With the benefit of the light from both their phones and the sunlight coming in through the doorway behind them, Callum could see that they were in a vaulted ground-floor area.

'There's the start of a set of spiral stairs on this side,' said Jenny.

'They seem to be at the point where the two ranges meet,' said Callum. 'Maybe they climb up to the area we were in just now, though I didn't see where they emerge.'

Beyond the hallway they had entered there was a central corridor, with a series of rooms off it.

'Hang on, Callum. Don't go any further. Look at the state of the stone vaulting above your head. There seems to be almost nothing holding it together.'

Callum looked up. 'Ah, yes, I see what you mean.'

'This place gives me the creeps, Callum. Should we go back out into the courtyard? At least you get the sunshine there.'

Callum emerged first from the doorway into the courtyard. As he did so, there was a clattering noise above his head that caused him to duck backwards and collide with Jenny.

'What was that?' asked Jenny.

'I think it was a pigeon taking flight but when I heard it I thought it was a large rock heading my way. The courtyard does seem by far the safest place from which to view the castle.'

Jenny stood quite close to him. 'Why would anyone want this for their home?' she asked.

'I was thinking much the same thing. Look do you know anything about this place? The woman at Highland Council said it's historically and culturally important, but that it has been in ruins since the 1715 Jacobite uprising.'

'As I said, I did take an interest last year. A castle was first built here in the 1200s, though the earliest stonework you can see may have been erected in the 1300s. The place seems to have been used as a bolt-hole by various minor relatives of the Lords of the Isles, who wielded huge power across the western seaboard and the Hebrides. It was updated and redeveloped several times over the centuries and saw plenty of action in terms of conflict and sieges. In the 1715 Jacobite uprising it was held by a small force of government troops and subsequently burned. It's spent the last three centuries turning itself into what you see around you.'

'Thanks, Jenny, that does help bring it to life. In this state, it's difficult to get any sense of either its past or its potential.'

As they made their way, slightly tentatively, back along the pontoon leading from the island to the mainland, Callum realised that someone was standing on the shore above its far end. Someone who had presumably arrived in the blue pickup truck that was now parked next to Callum's Audi. As he got closer, he saw it was an elderly man wearing, incongruously given how warm the day was becoming, a green cardigan with leather buttons down the front.

'Hello,' Callum called out. 'It's a beautiful day, isn't it?'

'Can't you read? The castle is dangerous. No one's allowed to enter.'

'Are you the owner?' asked Callum.

'Do I look like the owner? No, I live away up the hill over there.' The man gestured vaguely behind himself towards the scattered settlement of Culkein Drumbeg. 'I keep an eye on the place when they're not working on it.'

'It's all right, Geoffrey Gunn invited me to visit when I met him over at Sarclet Castle yesterday.' Callum could see that this was a name the man knew well.

'Who are you?'

'My name's Callum Anderson. I'm a detective inspector with the Metropolitan Police.'

'I'm sorry to have bothered you. If Mr Gunn asked you to visit, then there's no problem. You can never be too careful these days, you know.'

As they drove away, Jenny turned to Callum. 'Did Geoffrey Gunn really invite you to visit?'

'He did say that I should visit, though that was also before the convivial atmosphere cooled. I'd not be surprised if word gets back to him that I took advantage of his invitation.'