Will Self: PsychoGeography

Castles in the air
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The Independent Online

I've driven north up the A9 from Inverness many times, swooping across the wide firths - Moray, Cromarty, Dornoch - and marvelling at those alien invaders, the oil rigs, about to strike out on their solid legs for the open sea. I've often thought that it's only here, on the last sagittal crest of apish Britain, that you can truly apprehend the entire shape of the island, as it revolves around the car in a widening gyre of space and time. As I say, I've driven north many times, but I've never thought to stop at Golspie and visit its two principal visitor attractions: the statue of the First Duke of Sutherland that stands on a hill high above the little town; and Dunrobin Castle, the mad schloss he and his family inhabited.

Antony, my companion on this particular northerly progress, is made of more inquisitive stuff; he cannot see a high cliff without dangling over it, a deep sea without plunging into it, or an archaeological site without digging it up. So, this frenetic embodiment of satori demanded that we turn off the road and give the hire car a work-out over forestry tracks, until we found the path up through the woods and out on to the open heather. The ducal obelisk loomed above us, an octagonal monstrosity perhaps some 80 feet high. Atop it the Duke, Thomas Granville - infamous in these parts for his vigorous instigation of Highland clearances - stared stonily out from the stony folds of his cloak. His visage spoke of a sense of ludicrous entitlement: the very silvery sea is mine - he seemed to glower - for an eternity.

It's a mystery to me - and to a great many others - why the Celtic fringe hasn't long since blown up the Bloody Duke, but Antony told me, as we drew closer, that he knew of a Scots sculptor who wants to carve an entire Grampian into a reclining statue of Ossian, the fraudulent Hibernian bard. With follies as monumental as these winging about the glens, the old ethnic cleanser remains entirely safe. Besides, there was no one up there save for us, and a gentle man from Falkirk on a caravanning holiday. In my experience there's one of these everywhere you go in the known world.

Then we turned our attention to Dunrobin Castle. Originally an unpretentious chunk of medieval castle, successive nobs had tinkered with the gaff, until the Second Duke brought in Charles Barry, that imagineer of the High Victorian. Now, with its conical towers, mansard roof and icing-sugar masonry, Dunrobin wouldn't look out of place in Disneyland. It has something of the Mad King Ludwig's about it: a camp fantasia of the regal, rather than the real thing.

None of this was in any way mitigated by the heritage-industry garb of the modern castle: the kilted pseudo-seneschals flogging tickets, the coach-loads of Euro-tourists, the falconry display under the leaves of a gunnera the size of a baobab tree. Antony and I paid our money to the Bloody Duke and strolled down through the grounds to a small museum that looked a little like a hunting lodge. Inside we found the most astonishing collection of hunting trophies: the entire walls, the ceiling and even the floor featured taxidermy gone terminal. Elk, bison, wildebeest, eland - all so tightly packed that their horns and antlers were plaited. Eight feet of giraffe's neck rose from the floor, while pinioned on the back wall were the outstretched ears and upraised trunk of an African elephant. A large sign ordered us not to take photographs, while a small man in a blazer sat quietly beneath the gaze of tens of glass eyes.

Seizing the moment I advanced on him, saying: "You must get a bit freaked out in here, what with all of them looking at you."

"I - I've never really thought of it that way," he blustered, while behind his back Antony took illegal shots of the trophies. I persuaded the custodian to show me Pictish dolmens and a seat made entirely from whalebone, while Antony continued to get a visual record of the atrocity exhibition.

Back up in the baronial vestibule of the castle, we locked antlers with a retainer who was warming his plaid behind in front of a roaring fire. "Tell me," Antony said, lowering over him, "what with his statue up there on the hillside, showing an inordinate amount of stone leg, and this castle - which frankly is distinctly camp - you don't suppose that the First Duke of Sutherland was gay, do you?" I stood to one side, expecting a vigorous denial, but far from it, the guardian of the family silver and the minor Canalettos seemed rather tickled by this subversive notion. "Gay," he rolled the word round in his mouth like a bonbon. "Not that I know of ... but now you mention it ..." And mention it Antony had to, because he can't see a homophobic society without wanting to flirt.