The castle trail with a difference

Simon and Nev are two Scottish guys.

Simon lives in Inverness, one of Scotland's top spots for travellers and backpackers.

Nev lives in Aberdeen. No travellers ever go there.

Their mission is to persuade travellers in Inverness to go and experience Aberdeen - with one surefire way to tempt them.

Free accommodation with Nev. In a castle.

This is their story...

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Thursday, April 24, 2003
Hello, Simon here back in Inverness. Yes as Nev said, I have indeed found a couple of people, only a few days into the challenge.

Castle trailer number one, or perhaps CT1 as we could call her, is Australian. Although due to it being in a rather lively pub that is about all I know about her. And unless she emails Nev soon it will be pretty much all we ever will know.

I was out in Inverness with a friend a week or two ago, and went to a pub that I'd never been to before, which was in an ideal part of town being right next to a couple of youth hostels. There, I got talking to this Australian girl, who is currently working in Bath. Yes, she's on the same gravy train as the rest of her countrypeople... working in the UK for a year or two, before doing Europe. No doubt she will hit Istanbul with its plethora of Australians, and then go to Dublin or Edinburgh to "do something a bit different from London". That's my guess, apologies if it is a stereotype. Albeit a frequently true one.

I digress. She was up visiting some friends for a few days, and was planning to go back to Scotland at some point in the summer to do more of the country. Having forgotten about the agreement Nev and I had set ourselves, my brain began ticking.

"How do you fancy staying in a castle in Aberdeenshire for free?" I asked.

"You're kidding, right?" Well, it was the first time I had ever said it. I guess I have not acquired the confidence and authority at this early stage.

"Sure, I have a friend, Niall (as I call him!) who lives in a castle on the coast - he'd said to me any time I find travellers, send them his way!"

"Wow, he must be rich," she suggested.

"No, he's a kitchen porter."

CT1 paused, struggling to identify the logic of this. I explained the situation, about the discussions Nev and I had had, and that she should get in touch with him next time she was in Scotland. I gave her his email address. She eyed me rather suspiciously and asked me if I was getting any sort of commission out of it. Instantly, I put on my best Egyptian accent...

"Yuzzz... I have friend, very good hotel, very good - you want?" This humour at least reassured her - for the moment - that it was just a silly task we'd set ourselves. I made her promise that she would email Nev - after all, what was the worst that could happen? She said she would do when she got back to work. The bar closed, and we parted, and I drifted home. Mission begun. And so that, so far, is the story of CT1.

Now CT2 I know a bit better, but have still to meet her. She is a Canadian girl called Sarah. We are both subscribers to a website called Global Freeloaders, where travellers can get one night's free accommodation from other people if they can find potential hosts who are free. I signed up to it out of idle curiousity, plus out of the hope of using it next time I go on holiday or go travelling (a long time away yet, I fear, thanks to my credit card still being overwhelmed by the double whammy of my last travels and of recently moving into my new flat in Inverness).

Sarah is coming to Scotland, so her email claimed. I am not sure if I will be around when she plans to be in Inverness (July), but I did get back to her to wish her well on her travels. And to ask whether she fancied staying in a castle on the Aberdeenshire coast for free. Sarah is either very trusting, or has the same sort of odd streak that Nev and I suffer from (both, I am coming to believe), but is all up for it and I have given her Nev's email address. She's full of enthusiasm for Scotland, and has said that she will get in touch with him. So, CT2 does seem a bit more of a surefire bet than CT1, and is my top tip for being the first to complete the trail.

So that is all the news from Inverness. I guess there will be no more news from the castle trail for a while.

Unless Nev hears from CT1 or CT2. Or unless I meet more willing volunteers here in Inverness. And right enough, Inverness is getting very busy...

Hey, this is Nev and I live in a goddamn castle. Unfortunately, from the point of view of incoming tourists, my castle is north of Aberdeen which, as Simon rightly asserts, is a city that no traveller seems to ever reckon is worth visiting. I wouldn't strongly disagree. Although I greatly enjoy living in (or near, as I suppose I now do) in the greyest city known to man, with its improbable number of pubs and disproportinate number of really rather ugly people roaming the streets, there really is very little for the casual tourist to see. A good nightlife, generally, but not a vast array of mesmerising buildings from the biblical era or a single fictional monster living in a lake. So a few weeks ago, when visiting Simon in the Medina that is Inverness (Edinburgh being Scotland's Mecca) over a few drinks we discussed him sending the travellers he encountered with relative frequency to me, in a city without any.

Truth be told, I'd forgotten about it the day after the idea. I liked the idea but didn't think we'd actually utilise it so when Simon phoned saying he'd already met a couple of people - girls by all accounts - interested and forwarded my details to them, I was both surprised but certainly pleased. You see, the castle is a fabulous place. Ok, it's not actually a castle per se, but it is a mansion on the site of an 800 year old castle. Go on a search engine and look up "Old Slains Castle" and you'll find it. Some of the castle still stands in the form of a wall twice as large as the house, and we're hard on the coast, surrounded by cliffs and with a beach to the north and south. The craggy coastal scenery both north and south is beautiful. The castle itself is a fascinating place. In two parts, one 200 years old and the larger - wooden - part just 40 years, it has a number of intruiging features such an authentic Spanish Armada cannon in the garden retrieved from a nearby sunken galleon and a secret room behind the bookcase. Bascially, I reckon the castle is a bigger tourist attraction than Aberdeen itself, pretty much.

So what it seems is going to happen is that Simon is going to "ensnare" the backpackers he meets in Inverness, and package them off to me. I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying the castle experience. Apart from the building and location, my flat/castlemates, the castle residents are all entertaining in their own right. There's me, and I'm alright; there's the self-assured Mike with the direct line to the Earl of Errol, our landlord; there's Heta the peaceful-yet-not-at-all-peaceful Finnish girl; Bo/Borja the wild and entertaining Spaniard, and our most recent addition, Allan, a chef and DJ with a penchant shared by all castle residents for getting rather wasted - but one in which he excels.

The plan is for me and Simon to report on the various people we encounter and how we get on with them. During our previous travelling experience we both kept web-diaries (Simon = here and myself here) so hopefully we can maintain this one just as well. Let's see.