‘And here one day, to the sound of the sea on the Scottish shore, Count Dracula made his entry,” wrote Bram Stoker biographer Harry Ludlam.
Dracula’s creator had never been to Transylvania when he fled London for the bracing North Sea wilds of Cruden Bay in the twilight of the Victorian era. In Aberdeenshire, Stoker finally found Dracula’s world of raging sea and glowering sky – a world of fisherfolk whose pagan beliefs the railway had yet to dim. On this shipwreck-strewn coast, where the mournful cries of seals haunt the night, Count Dracula emerged undead from the granite cliffs of Slains Castle.
“The idea had long been brewing in Stoker’s imagination, but it was here that Dracula raged into the world,” says Mike Shepherd, a Cruden Bay author whose books map out Scotland’s “Dracula Coast”.
This month marks 125 years since Dracula’s publication, an anniversary that has drawn me north to follow in Stoker’s bloody footsteps. We drive past the Kilmarnock Arms, where Stoker threw himself into writing the first chapters of Dracula. His wife Florence reported that Stoker “would sit for hours, like a great bat, perched on the rocks of the shore”, and walk for miles along the craggy coast.
Stoker’s great-grandnephew, Montreal-born Dacre Stoker, has written that these north-eastern walks were “where all of Bram’s earlier inspiration, notes and research came together”. Stoker escaped here at least a dozen times – it’s there, in ink, in the Kilmarnock Arms guestbook. “This area offered him peace and quiet, a far cry from the interruptions and stresses of his office in the Lyceum Theatre in London,” noted Dacre.
Alone now, I walk south on the linear coastal trail from the village of Boddam, whose Buchan Ness lighthouse echoes just how treacherous a coast this has always been. It’s an elemental landscape: hulking red granite cliffs vault from the icy surge of the North Sea; waves unleash with fury into the cliffs, over time forging caves, grottos and arches.
It’s also the setting for a walk that sweeps you along in search of Dracula and a pint in the hotel where Stoker penned his magnum opus.
I track an old railway line and skirt abandoned quarries, but then nature envelops me. I don’t see another soul for over two hours, but I do encounter porpoises and a seal colony. The fulmars and gulls are returning; the guillemots, razorbills and puffins will soon join them, as the chirping soloists transform into a deafening natural orchestra playing in the most dramatic of amphitheatres, between the sea and the towering granite at Longhaven Cliffs nature reserve.
Humankind’s attempts to tame nature in this part of the world are largely doomed to failure. A short section of the path in the north of the reserve is under repair after being ravaged into the water, so I divert inland slightly, along the edge of a field. The most striking example of nature’s power is at the Bullers of Buchan, a collapsed sea cave connected to the sea by two great rock arches. This is as striking as any coastline I’ve seen in Britain. Dr Johnson was struck, too. “The eye,” he noted, “wanders over the sea that separates Scotland from Norway, and when the winds beat with violence, must enjoy all the terrific grandeur of the tempestuous ocean.”
I read of a Liverpudlian steamer wrecked here in 1866; all but four of its 57 crew were swallowed up. In 1894 another unlucky steamer, the Chicago, was shipwrecked. A tragedy was averted when locals battled to save the 27-strong crew one by one using a breeches buoy just below Slains Castle.
Slains Castle, then: Dracula’s lair. As I continue south, it creeps towards me, very much the gothic ruin of horror lore. The path becomes hazardous again as my boots kick up dirt that tumbles into the gurgling black nothingness below. Taking care not to join the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors and fishermen, I push on to the vast northern face of Slains Castle. It’s too dangerous these days to go inside the ruin, but its power and drama are unmistakable. As are the Dracula connections.
When Shepherd led Dacre Stoker into Slains Castle for the first time, the Canadian reported his delight at its unusual octagonal reception room, a dead ringer for Dracula’s Castle. The Dracula legacy is overpowering, but this is a ruin alive with layers of history. And intrigue.
Winston Churchill, Herbert Henry Asquith and Robert Baden-Powell all sought escape here; Dr Johnson was taken by the clifftop location “upon the margins of the sea, so that the walls of one of the towers seem only a continuation of perpendicular rock, the foot of which is beaten by the waves”.
I’m joined for the final approach to Cruden Bay – known in Stoker’s day as Port Errol – by Shepherd again. He shows me the Watter’s Mou’, a smugglers’ hideaway off the main path that so bewitched Stoker he penned an eponymous novel set around this treacherous inlet. The wind is whipping up and the North Sea – Stoker’s “devouring monster” – reminds us of its baleful power. I’m minutes from the Kilmarnock Arms, but divert across the modern footbridge to wander with Bram Stoker along the golden sands of Cruden Bay where, many mornings, his vampire would burst from his boundless imagination. All along this coast, death and tragedy linger. In 1012 a Viking landing party was savaged on the sands so brutally they left without taking their dead. Just before Stoker’s arrival, workmen uncovered 100 human skeletons by the sands.
Stoker thought Cruden Bay’s beach and rocks were like “fangs rising from the deep water”.
He was particularly entranced by the appositely named Skares, rocks that shudder out of the North Sea at the beach’s southern end. He heard first-hand accounts of the shipwrecks, of real-life drama far more compelling than the Lyceum’s theatrics. It probably occurred to him there were many souls here not at rest.
The welcoming Kilmarnock Arms awaits back along the beach; I need it, my blood is starting to run cold.
Finish Kilmarnock Arms, Cruden Bay
Distance 10 miles
Time 4-5 hours
Total ascent 390 metres
Difficulty Moderate; not for young children
Google map of the route
The Kilmarnock Arms has stood at the heart of Cruden Bay for more than 120 years. It has roaring open fires, solid wooden furniture and period touches. It also has a copy of Bram Stoker’s entry in the guestbook, and visitors who ask nicely may be allowed a peek. Stoker devotees should book a table in Stoker’s Snug, which has portraits of him and lines from Dracula on the walls. A new plaque will be unveiled as part of anniversary celebrations on 26 May, with a QR code directing people to Shepherd’s Stoker-themed local walks. It’s a great place to settle in with a copy of the book, a bowl of local fish chowder and a pint of Brew Toon beer from nearby Peterhead.
The pub’s 14 rooms stay just the right side of tartan twee and feature stylised posters from the heyday of the British railways, when Cruden Bay emerged as a holiday hotspot. Some bedrooms peer – as Stoker would have done – across the garden to the Water of Cruden river. Events to mark the 125th anniversary include a celebratory dinner and a talk by Mike Shepherd and Dacre Stoker on the theme of Bram Stoker, Cruden Bay and Dracula.
Doubles from £139 B&B, kilmarnockarms.com