THE atmosphere at Hailes Castle is, in some ways, quite unique. It is almost hidden in a dip in the landscape, with the Tyne quietly flowing past its ruined but still impressive and ancient walls. When we visited last weekend, the ruins were sitting amongst a sea of snowdrops.

The children were not really interested in the stories of Mary Queen of Scots and the sieges the castle has seen. One of these involved the legendary English knight Harry Hotspur, while a later siege in 1443 ended in a bloody massacre, the details of which have not been recorded, but the stones of the castle were witness to this example of humans’ ability to be barbaric towards each other.

I didn’t mention this, of course, and anyway, I strongly believe that when visiting places rich in history such as Hailes with children we should allow them to first engage with the place on their terms and not decide what they should learn from it. There is time later for them to mix their memories of a place with historical information, but first let them explore and feel the atmosphere of a place. Let them make their own discoveries and ask their own questions.

What a fascinating ruin Hailes Castle is to do this. It might be one of the oldest surviving castles we have, as parts date from the 1200s. Although the setting lacks the drama of other East Lothian castles, it is quite beautiful and the walk along the river adds to this.

“Tell us the snowdrop story,” was the first request. We sat carefully amongst a carpet of snowdrops as we told the tale together of how snow originally missed out on nature’s colour and so asked the flowers if it they would be willing to share some of their colour. The bluebells and the daffodils said no, as did all the other flowers, except a wee white flower.

“We will share our colour with you,” they said.

The flowers took a small part of their colour from the inside of their petals so their white appearance was unaffected. But it was enough to make the snow look white. Look carefully inside at the wee flower and you will see the green bits from where the white colour was taken.

From then on, the wee white flower became known as a snowdrop and snow gives snowdrops the privilege of sharing the ground with it in return for its generosity.

I thought after this the children might refer to the castle as the “snowdrop castle”, but I was wrong. We continued the exploration and lamented the fact I’d forgotten to bring a torch. Next time, I’ll try and remember so we can shine it into the darkness of its pit prisons, and also use it in the pitch dark of the old oven in the vaulted lower chamber. The two girls played at being princesses and asked loads of questions.

But it was when we explored the later and ironically almost vanished parts of the castle that we finally got the name to root it in childhood memory. This part of the castle is mostly gone, and I suspect that is because the newer and possibly better dressed stone was more desirable to be taken for other buildings.

The result is an undulating and irregular pattern on the ground, where the foundations and lower sections of the castle walls remain just under the ground. I watched as my seven and three-year-old played on the strangly shaped ground. Then suddenly, Manja, my seven-year-old, stopped and looked frightened, then said something to her sister. They were now both looking spooked. They came towards me with uncharacteristic care, and I wondered what was wrong.

“I think giants are here,” said Manja. I wondered what she meant, and so she explained.

“There’s something under the ground, I think it could be sleeping giants, like in the BFG.” The BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, a tale by Roald Dahl. While the main giant in the story is friendly and kind, there are extremely unfriendly giants as well, who eat children. The story is a favourite one in our home just now, as is the recent film by Spielberg, which I have to say is a wonderful adaptation and visual feast.

The film has a vivid image of the child-eating giants sleeping and hiding just under the ground, ready to pounce. No wonder my daughter suddenly had a look of anxiety on her face, as she was standing on a very similar-looking shape in the ground! It was a wonderful example of childhood observation and imagination running riot.

There was, of course, something under the ground, and I explained it was stonework from the castle. Somehow, this seemed a really boring and less convincing explanation. And so we left that section of the castle quietly, with the kids carefully tip-toeing out of the danger zone.

I cast an eye backwards as we left.

“What is it?” asked my wife Kate. She’d missed it all, as she’d stayed with our sleeping son in the car.

“Dunno,” I said, “I think we’re being watched.”

“Eh?”

“The giants,” said the children, “it’s the castle of sleeping giants.”

And so we now had a memory name for Hailes Castle. And guess what DVD the kids wanted to watch that evening!

“Can we go back to the castle of sleeping giants for a picnic?” asked my daughter later.

“Of course,” I replied, “but aren’t you scared the giants might wake?”

“Hmm, a wee bit, but if we get more food we can give them some and so they wouldn’t eat us, and it’d be really cool to see them.”

The historic tales can be added later. What is important is that the children now have a powerful connection to this place, rooted in their own imagination. The stories we associate with a place can be very personal, but that makes the connection all the more powerful and long-lasting.

But in truth it was a two-way process, as sharing a child’s view of the world does truly transform a visit into an exploration of imagination. It made me laugh, but I can truly say I enjoyed the castle in a whole new way and next time I will look a bit more carefully at that section... just in case!