You always find stuff that you didn’t know when preparing these articles, and this little nugget it happens is my find of the week. It’s been well reported that Stoker got part of his inspiration for Count Dracula from Vlad Dracula III (Vlad the Impaler), though retro-actively working the figure into his idea, rather than being originally inspired by him. I was also aware that one of Stoker’s colleagues, actor Henry Irving, who worked at the Stoker-owned Lyceum Theatre, was widely considered another inspiration for the character. However, I was not aware that one of the largest inspirations may have come from New Slains Castle, up in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland.
Admittedly, my Stoker knowledge is, depressingly, severely lacking. The extent of it goes to lots of Dracula and its various adaptations, my undying devotion to The Jewel of Seven Stars (which people who read my section here a lot will know I bang on about constantly, but damn you, it’s an incredibly bleak and unnerving novel), and Lair of the White Worm on my phone which I’ve sadly never gotten around to. So it surprised me to discover that this castle, which is mentioned in The Watters’ Mou and The Mystery of the Sea (more well-read readers can confirm this for me), may not only have inspired the castle in Seven Stars, but also Dracula’s castle, particularly a specific octagonal room mentioned in the novel. It turns out that Stoker frequently went on trips to the area on holiday, and so would not only have known the area very well, but most likely been very familiar with the castle, both its location and grounds, and its interiors.
A brief history lesson first. The old castle was built in the early 14th century by John Comyn, part of the Comyns family who held it for many years. In 1594, it was attacked by King James VI of Scotland (who was also James I of England, successor of Elizabeth I, final ruler of the Tudor family) as the then-owner, Francis Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll, was leading a rebellion against him. The old castle was mostly destroyed with gunpowder and cannon-fire, though remnants of it remain to this day. It remains a ‘scheduled monument’, a title given to architecturally important monuments in the UK and as such protected against change and modification.
The new Slains Castle (The one we’re interested in) was built by Hay upon his return from exile (the uprising hadn’t gone too well) a little ways up the coast. Originally a tower house and courtyard, it was expanded and changed over the years, with wings and towers built up as the centuries went past. In the mid 1800s, a complete redesign was ordered, turning what was there into a more contemporary, Baronial-style castle, giving it granite facing update. Large gardens were designed and laid out only a few years before Stoker visited for the first time. The whole thing was eventually unroofed not long after WWI, and has remained derelict ever since.
The history lesson over, this brings us back to Dracula, and the octagonal room in question. The novel has a small passage which reads as follows: ‘The Count halted, putting down my bags, closed the door, and crossing the room, opened another door, which led into a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort.’ (my copy, p 21). It turns out that New Slains Castle has a similar room, specifically octagonal in design, and considering Stoker knew the castle well, the very unusual design seems to be a big red flag alerting us to the fact that New Slains is indeed where he got it from. Coupled with the fact that Stoker is rumoured to have been staying in, or near, the castle at the time he was beginning to plan, or even write, Dracula, it’s not too far a stretch to say that, even if parts of the castle weren’t intentionally lifted and transported to the rugged hills of Transylvania, there was more than likely a subconscious application.
Obviously, the location in the novel is nothing like the coastal views of the Scottish ruins, and there doesn’t seem to be any reports or rumours of ghouls, ghosts, or sunlight-fearing vampires lurking in Slains Castle. I would assume it’s now in the ownership of the National Trust, or some other organisation, so I’m not sure if you could just rock up and have a look around, but if you are ever in the area, might be a fun time to go and check out the real Castle Dracula.
-Article by Kieran Judge
Postscript: People interested in following up on this topic might want to check out When Brave Men Shudder: The Scottish Origins of Dracula, by Mike Shepherd. I haven’t read it, but it’s got an introduction by Dacre Stoker, great-grand-nephew of Bram, and plenty of 5 star reviews on Amazon. Link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/When-Brave-Men-Shudder-Scottish/dp/1907954694