In this instalment of the Highlands adventure we explore the now-collapsed Birkwood Castle, still one of our most exciting finds.
In the past two days we’ve barely slept. Ben opened the window and yelled as we crossed the border. That was yesterday, about 5pm. Not long after that we stopped off for a break and stumbled upon a derelict school. A famous abandoned castle was somewhere nearby but we weren’t sure exactly where and the area didn’t look particularly promising, parked as we were next to a small council estate, up some side roads off the B707. Following the path from the school, we came to a complex of structures. All the buildings were rotten and withered, with holes in the floors, flakes coming from the walls and ceilings, swollen beams supporting them—beams so sodden they could have come from shipwrecks.
The building we were passing was a long, once beige block, now bulging from rain, showing splintered grey wood and black mould. It might have been a bunkhouse once. I can’t remember who turned the corner first, but whoever did would have looked back at the rest of the group with a wide grin. We’d found what we were searching for. Vaguely, kinda searching for, anyway. It was out of our heads for the most part, we didn’t expect it to be so easy. The worn, reclaimed structures around us and the school from earlier had already won us over. The castle had become a side note. For it to be around the next wall and across a gravel clearing seemed a serendipitous event. We were seeking and the world provided adventure.
An etching in the masonry told us that it was built in 1890. There were towers and massive gilded windows with cobweb cracks in the glass or completely smashed panes. It had multiple wings, all impressive and ornate. The walls were lined with battlements, though they were solely decorative. Most recently this structure was Birkwood Hospital. Soon it would be renovated and open as a hotel. One the three of us would probably never have the money to stay in. That being the case, we decided to try and find a way inside.
We walked to the parameter until we found a place where the security fence was compromised and went inside. Then we continued around the building and found a side door with one of its panels kicked in. We squeezed through the gap—only about three foot high and three quarters of a foot across—and headed into the darkness of the building. As I crawled through my fingers groped around spider’s web. The other side was stripped to the floorboards. There were scattered medical papers; referrals, surgeon’s notes and countless big red hardbacks, which was an old medical text of some sort. They were dotted all over, outside and on the way to the roof too. The air was dank and dusty and smelt of old wood. A little light still got through the cracked windows in the hall but where we stood was dark.
We climbed the grand staircase nervously. At least, I did and sometime after the others. I was hyper-aware of the floors, their age and state of disrepair and the strange pliability they seemed to have underfoot. In my head were the memories of holed floors in other nearby buildings—person shaped holes in some cases. I walked up the stairs with a hand glued to the banister and took care to stay close to the edge. As I crossed different floors on the second level I pictured the twenty foot drop to the rooms below. I wondered whether the floors of those rooms would break my fall or if my weight and momentum would send me into the basement. My feet no longer felt as if they touched solid ground, instead I walked on the strength of my belief that the floor was sturdy and my belief wasn’t strong.
‘Keep to the edges,’ Ben advised. ‘I’ve worked on loads’a building sites. It’s always stronger at the edges.’
This is a point though; you can’t sterilise the unknown. Any exploration has an element of danger or else it wouldn’t be an exploration. I reminded myself of these things between those breaths where I thought about the floor collapsing.
On the second floor we came to a tall, thin spiral staircase. The floor was stone and the stairs wound up to an unknown height. Ascending through the gloom of the old staircase, smothered by two hundred year old stone and walking in lots of small circles, it was hard to say how high we’d come. The tower was disorientating and concerned a previously non-existent claustrophobia but at the top, when it opened onto the roof, we were higher than the trees and half as high as the clouds.
Over the old iron roof of the castle and the sandy brickwork that held it, we could see all the abandonments we’d past, all the sagging and sinking buildings held up by withering skeletons. Beyond them, were the cows in the fields as small dark points and before the horizon were tall evergreens that seemed lonely lined up in the drizzle and wind. I went to the edge and looked over for a second. My legs felt weak. It was as if some part of me had already fallen and was plummeting over the other side. I wondered how high we were in this castle that was falling apart.
We considered going back up to the top of the tower for a joint but none of us had the nerve. We were happy just to have done it.
A year or two later, unbeknownst to us at the time, Birkwood castle would collapse. Apparently of it’s own accord, although the Daily Mail wanted to imply that ghosts might have had something to do with it. Headline: Did ghosts cause this castle to collapse? Seems harsh to blame entities which may well not even exist. Harsh and amusing. Probably not one of the the Mail’s bigger lies.
The article described a ‘mysterious crumbling’, although there doesn’t seem anything that mysterious to me about an old building falling down. If they’d seen the inside, the floors that were soft and wouldn’t support you if not for the carpet acting as a net over the top, they’d find it less mysterious too. In any case, it was quite trippy, especially given the fear we had while exploring it. I felt less of a coward after discovering the place had ended up in ruins.