When I was plotting The Castilians I had to work out how I was going to sneak its heroine, Bethia, inside St Andrews Castle. The obvious way – through the gate in the curtain wall, and across the drawbridge — wasn’t going to work.
Although around 2500 people lived in St Andrews in the 1500s (there were 60 bakers alone), the chances of Bethia, as the daughter of the well-kent Merchant Seton, being observed by someone who knew her were high.
A solution was for her to gain entry by a gate on the seaward side and, in the ruins of the castle, such a gate still exists.…
But how is she going to get in here? The castle sits perched on a cliff. Last summer I realised I needed to get a good look at the castle from the sea, but this is COVID times and there were no boats going out. Instead I went at low tide and scrambled over the rocks in a most precarious, and undignified, manner.
Wow, the castle is impressive from the seaward side. Shame about the graffiti halfway up, which rather destroys the atmosphere.
It’s also high – how am I going to get Bethia safely in and out of there, especially if the sea is rough?
They reach their destination sooner than she expects, bumping up against smooth rocks which form a jetty below the cliff. Geordie leaps out and offers his hand to steady her. She tips her head back; the crumbling sandstone is soothing to the eye, but the castle wall rising over it is grey and forbidding. She can see a small gate high above, but she can’t see any way to reach it.
Geordie shouts and after a few moments a face peers through the bars of the yett. Geordie sniffs, ‘They must be thinking God is keeping watch for them, since they’re no bothering.’
‘Bethia Seton, what are you doing here?’
She sees James of Nydie’s blonde head and frowning face looking down.
‘Is there a way up, I need to speak with Will.’
‘There is a ladder but it’s not an easy climb.’
‘I’ll manage,’ she calls, voice quivering.
A rope ladder is unraveled and hangs, swinging in the breeze. Geordie grabs the end and she goes to step on.
‘Wait,’ cries James and the end of a rope comes slithering down. ‘Tie it around you.’
Up she goes, the ladder swaying and banging off the cliff. She keeps her eyes fixed on the uneven rock close to her face, so close in places that her nose and knees bump off it, and her knuckles scrape over it. Her skirts catch around her legs, restricting movement. Her breathing is loud in her ears, fluttering and panicked. She’s grateful to James for the rope, doesn’t think she could have done it otherwise.
‘Ye’d better no be long,’ Geordie shouts, as she’s crawling through the gate. ‘If the tide gets too far out the boat will be stuck till it rises again.’
One day recently I visited Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick. Castles served different purposes and St Andrews Castle is really a wee fortified bishop’s palace. Tantallon is a BIG castle on a GRAND scale.
And there I found the perfect explanation of how goods would be lifted from the deck of a ship a long, long way below and hoisted into the castle.
Perhaps Bethia could have been hauled up this way— but I suspect she’d prefer to stay with the ladder, rather than being swung around in the air in a most unsafe, wind-tossed ascent.
Ps Do note the walkways around Tantallon – all without barriers. Terrifying!!
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