Chatting with a Keeper of a Castle

It is finally Friday! I have been promoting this interview this week because it is something that I am excited to share with everyone! I’m a little intimidated to share this because honestly I am not a journalist; I am a former English teacher.

I am new to blogging, but I am passionate about sharing stories. This is a story of two writers connecting via Twitter just to share about the magic of a castle.

Before I share this interview, I want you to know that am a normal person. I love writing and I love reading, but I know that there is so much for me to learn about blogging and publishing and networking with this type of industry and I am teaching myself as I go.

But I love that someone who has never met me was so kind and gracious to chat with me and answer all of my questions. I have formatted this so it feels more like an in-person interview, but it might help you to understand that that we collaborated for about a month using Twitter DMs and I have copied and pasted my questions and her answers in a more readable format.

So without any further ado, here is my interview (my FIRST interview ever!) with a a castle steward who works at Doune Castle in Scotland and I know her from Twitter as Karen Soutar (AKA: Kaz Ess or @kaz_ess on Twitter!)

I hope you all enjoy reading this at least half as much as I enjoyed the process of connecting with a fellow writer.

WriteThingJohns: Hello! Thank you for saying I can interview you for my blog! 

Feel free to share as much or as little with me as you want! I love connecting with people, especially writers and readers. 

I visited Scotland for a few days in 2018 and I loved the land and the people I met. I currently live in Texas and recently stopped teaching, which has given me time to work on networking and writing.

Karen: Hello! Great to connect with you! I had a little look at your blog yesterday (we have a few ex-teachers working in castles over here in Scotland). Hope your writing goes well with your extra free time – finding time to write is one of my biggest challenges. 

Anyway, here’s a start on answering your questions:

WTJ: I loved how everyone on Twitter was so excited about your job! Is that a common reaction when you tell people?

Karen: Yes, people generally are very interested and excited when they hear about my job!

WTJ: Were you born near the castle? 

Karen: So, the castle is called Doune Castle. I wasn’t born near it, but for the last two years I’ve lived just a couple of miles from it. I was born in another part of Scotland (Fife), about 40 miles away.  

WTJ: For people not familiar with areas of Scotland, are you near Edinburgh or Loch Ness?

 Karen: Our nearest city is Stirling in central Scotland. That is between Edinburgh and Glasgow – slightly nearer to Glasgow.

WTJ: How long have you worked at the castle? Have you always had the same job/position there? 

Karen: I’ve worked at the castle for two years, and the year before that I worked in a medieval priory on an island on a loch! (I still work there sometimes too). I’ve had various managerial jobs in my life, and decided a few years ago to do something which interested me (I’ve always loved history and visiting ancient monuments), and also something less stressful!

WTJ: How long do you see yourself working at the castle? 

Karen: I can see myself working at the castle indefinitely! It suits me perfectly. 

Karen: Me on the roof, being safety conscious with my hard hat.
The river you see in these photos is called the River Teith (pronounced ‘teeth’). Also, Doune is pronounced ‘doon’.

WTJ: Do you think the castle is haunted? 

Karen: I do think the castle is haunted (how could it not be!) but there is no particular ghost or ghosts associated with it. (Lots of castles in Scotland have a green/grey/white lady, for example). Some of the staff have seen figures on the stairs and in certain rooms. But there is no bad ‘feeling’ about the castle, so I think our ghosts are friendly ones.

Karen: I love it when people are interested in the castle. Here is a spooky pic of the castle at twilight.

WTJ: Do you ever pretend to be a ghost in the castle to scare people?

Karen: Sometimes we accidentally scare visitors by popping up in rooms where they don’t expect us! We scare each other, too! We also have staff in costume in summer; I’m sure some visitors mistake them for ghosts! 

WTJ: What are your favorite parts of the castle?

Karen: My favourite parts of the castle are the great hall, the duke and duchess’s chamber, and the roof (where visitors are not allowed at the moment for safety reasons). 

The Great Hall
The HUGE fireplace in the kitchen. Also, note the serving hatches on the right, for food to be passed through to be taken into the Great Hall

WTJ: What does this castle mean to you personally?

Karen: Doune Castle is the most well preserved medieval castle in Scotland, so it is amazing to look at. It means a lot to me because it is my ‘local’ castle. It also features in some of my favourite films and shows: Monty Python, Game of Thrones, and Outlander.

WTJ: Since it is such an iconic and beautiful castle that has been filmed, do you work with people when they want to film it? Do they film the inside too or just the outside?

Karen: We sometimes get to observe what’s going on, but the castle is closed to the public when filming, so all the staff don’t need to be there. We aren’t a recurring location for anything, because it is very expensive (even for a film company) to close the castle! Outlander were there the longest: about 2 months in autumn 2013 and 2 months in spring 2014. The last thing filmed at Doune was Outlaw King, a Netflix film about Robert the Bruce. The actor Aaron Taylor Johnson was there. I didn’t meet him but apparently he was pretty cool. One of my long-serving colleagues met Sean Bean and George RR Martin when Game of Thrones was filmed there. 

Karen: Me posing with our Winterfell sign (which is not there anymore, so don’t send anyone to us to get photographed with the sign, lol).

WTJ: Are visitors and tours allowed there? Do you give tours? 

Karen: Visitors are allowed in the castle – it is very popular for the reasons mentioned above! We have an audio tour, and we are always available to answer questions.

WTJ: Do you ever try to write when you are at the castle? Does the ambiance help?

Karen: I do sometimes jot down notes and ideas when at the castle, but don’t often have time to get ‘proper’ writing done. It is a very inspirational place to work though!

WTJ: Is there anything you would like to share? It can be anything at all, a poem, a story, or your thoughts when you first walk up to the castle each morning. I would love to get a feeling of what a “normal” day is for you and what you want to share with other people.

Karen: I have written a slightly humorous account of a day at the Castle, because working there is fun and I want that to come across. Here it is:

So, a ‘typical’ day at the Castle – there’s really no such thing, as unexpected stuff happens all the time! But I’ll try and describe some of what makes up my working day. This is a basic winter day at the Castle:

Karen: the pic with the slightly snowy crag seen above the castle wall is looking towards where I live.

8.30: Arrive on site along with 4 or 5 other stewards. We use the Victorian Cottage near to the Castle as our staff base. Make coffee, put on lots of clothing layers. Typically at this time of year I wear: thermal leggings under trousers, thermal socks, walking boots, thermal long sleeved top, woollen jumper, slim fleece, thick fleece, woolly hat! 

8.45: Staff briefing. Did any bits fall off the Castle yesterday? Are there any (new) leaks? Or sticking doors? (These are the problems of a +600 years old building!) Discuss any events happening that day: tour groups coming in, repairs being done, deliveries due, etc.

9.00: Prepare Castle for day. Open all interior doors, mop up any leaks, sweep up dust. Get tills in ticket office and shop ready. Ensure adequate stocks of guide books, souvenirs, and hot drinks to warm up chilly tourists! 

10.00: Open very large and creaky Castle doors. Welcome guests from inevitable 2 or 3 tour coaches already waiting outside. Answer lots of questions. Keep sipping coffee to keep cold at bay. Also nibble on unhealthy Scottish snacks such as shortbread or fudge. Repeat throughout morning and afternoon.

12.00-13.00: Lunch. HOT lunch. At this time of year I either have stew, chilli, or curry. And more coffee. 

14.00: Check Castle for litter, damage, items left behind by customers (usually hats, gloves and umbrellas at this time of year. In summer, it’s sunglasses). 

15.30: Close outer doors. Visitors now have until 16.00 to finish their visit. Cash out tills. Check Castle before leaving to make sure everyone is out (no, we have never locked anyone in. Well, actually, one staff member, ages ago. But we realised and went back for them). 

Here’s me at the top of the Gatehouse Tower this morning (March 2nd, 2020)

So that’s the basics. But today, we also had:

Tree surgeons felling trees on site and making an ungodly racket with chainsaws

Fire officer checking all fire extinguishers (yes, we have them even in a stone Castle)

Auditor checking monetary procedures 

Visits from new staff who will be working over the busy summer period 

So there’s always something happening! Recently we have also had:
Wildlife team counting how many bats we have in the Castle (28, if you want to know)

Conservation team cleaning, repairing and replacing windows 

Archaeologists digging in the courtyard (they found a buried wall, and some bones – relax, just animal bones)

So as you can see, it’s never dull! We have a great team and we have fun together. We all love history and I think that comes across to our visitors.

WTJ: I am loving learning about your incredible piece of the world! 

Karen: Also, here’s a little thing I wrote, thinking about what I feel about the Castle. I suppose it can be spooky, but I always think it feels friendly, in spite of some of its history. 

What do I think as I wander through Doune Castle?

There must be ghosts. 

Who was here first? 

The Picts, then the Romans. Medieval people even before the Duke of Albany and his family, who were the builders of this Castle.

And who was the Duke, really? Some say a cheery, generous Lord. 

Others say a power hungry, ruthless despot, who left rival relatives to languish and even die in captivity. 

This reputation rubbed off on the Duke’s son Murdoch, who found himself without a head when King James I finally got out of the Tower of London. 

The Castle passed to the Crown, and fell gradually out of use. 
A hunting lodge, the equivalent of a modern holiday home. 

A Jacobite stronghold, housing Redcoat prisoners. A picturesque Victorian ruin.

But the Victorians saved the Castle. They replaced the roof. They repaired the halls. They invented ‘tourism’, and the conservation of ancient monuments. 
So many people have lived, and loved, and fought, and died in this Castle.

So there must be ghosts.
I don’t see them, but sometimes, I think I can feel them. 

And maybe, hear them. Hello, they say. We love our Castle. You do, too. Welcome. 

Write Thing Johns: I cannot begin to express how wonderful Karen Soutar (AKA: Kaz Ess or @kaz_ess on Twitter!)has been with this whole experience. I think this is a wonderful story of a writer who saw me wanting to learn and support and share a little bit of the magic that she gets to live with daily. She has shared pictures with me (all pictures except my logo are cutesy of her), retweeted me, and just all around been a wonderful woman to chat with through this whole experience.

Please know that I would LOVE to keep connecting with writers all around the world and I am interested in interviewing more people especially anyone who shares my love for writing, history, travel, and making connections all over the world.

Feel free to email me at [email protected] with questions or to be added to my email newsletter list that I am starting.