FAST Castle is a mad dream of a place. It’s not in East Lothian, but just to the south, in Berwickshire, perched atop a coastal promontory with dramatic cliffs. It’s said to be the inspiration for Walter Scott’s fictional Wolf’s Crag in his tragic novel The Bride of Lammermoor.

I have always wanted to visit it, but never seemed to get the opportunity; then suddenly, a day of sunny weather last week combined with some free time made a trip possible.

The walk to the castle was stunning, with purple heather-clad braes and a sparkling sea. To add to the magic, we saw dolphins as we approached the ruins.

There is actually little left of the castle itself: small chunks of masonry jutting out like broken teeth are the only obvious evidence to the existence of the cliff-top fortress.

But it’s the location, and the stories attached to it, which tingle the spine.

It’s a steep descent to it, and care needs to be taken as you near the castle, for the path veers dangerously close to the edge of the cliffs.

We took it gradually, with a distant view of the ruins enticing us. A solid cement walkway now links the promontory to the mainland, where once a drawbridge gave access to the castle. The kids crossed it, one by one, with help from me and my wife Kate. It’s at this point, as you enter the historic remains, that the power of the location is truly revealed.

It’s like walking into ‘the gods’ of a giant natural amphitheatre, with cliffs looming on both sides, and sheer drops below. The sound of the open sea and gulls swamp your senses, and I was thankful we had visited when it was calm, for I can imagine a visit on a windy day would give the precipitous edges an almost terrifying character. We settled down for our picnic where once the great hall stood, with breathtaking views.

Whenever I visit such places, it’s not just what is seen that inspires me; it’s the stories of the place. Here the ghosts of the past wait to tell you their tale, if you have an ear to listen. And what tales are sewn onto this rocky top!

East Lothian Courier:

The castle gets its first mention in the early 1300s, but for sure human habitation predates that. In 1346, the English captured it and it remained in English hands for the rest of that century; a stone in the shoe of south-east Scotland. It was finally retaken in 1410 by the forces of Patrick Dunbar but later it became a rebuilt stronghold of the Home family.

History records that they hosted the young princess Margaret Tudor here in 1503 as she headed north to become Scotland’s queen, with her marriage to James IV; and thus change the destiny of both countries.

She will have shared the views we had while we ate our picnic, although I suspect her banquet may have been a little more indulgent. Who can say what impressions this wild view gave her of her new homeland.

Her granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots, would visit the castle 53 years later in 1566, in what for her was a very turbulent time.

How I wished the few stones of the castle that still stood could tell a story of these remarkable women, who had to navigate their royal privilege through misogynist contempt.

After being abandoned, the castle’s windswept ruins were the haunt of smugglers and wreckers, who would set a light amongst the old stones, making it look like a welcoming port.

But it was the story of Madge Gordon that was foremost in my mind as I sat amongst the ruins of the castle that, according to the tale, she helped liberate from the English.

The story is called the ‘Guid Wife of Coldingham’ and it is to be found in Wilson’s Tales of the Borders. These were a fantastic collection of stories written by John Mackay Wilson in the early 19th century. Today, the Wilson’s Tales Project promotes his work, which was prodigious.

It is a tale set in the grim times of the Rough Wooing in the 1540s, when English forces were using force and terror to persuade the Scots to agree to the marriage of the young Mary Queen of Scots to Edward Tudor.

Madge was a widow with an abiding hatred of the English occupiers, who had killed her husband. Her daughter Janet was in love with a young man called Florence, but Madge would only agree to their marriage if the young man showed his loyalty and mettle by helping her to take Fast Castle, which had been occupied by English forces.

This he agreed to do, and raised a force of over a hundred local people. Madge hatched a plan to attack the castle, but both she and Florence kept it secret from Janet. She feared for her love’s life, and felt strongly that war was pointless for it mattered not who occupied the castle as the poor folk would be oppressed either way.

Madge led the attack, entering the castle in the guise of being a seller of local produce, then plunging her husband’s sword into a guard. The ensuing fight was short and brutal. The young Florence fought bravely and the castle was won.

After this, Madge proudly agreed that the brave Florence was worthy of her daughter’s hand in marriage. Janet, who had heard the commotion of the fight and rushed to the scene, desperately looked for her Florence.

East Lothian Courier:

When she saw he was alive, she rushed joyfully to him and held him in a tight embrace. He held her likewise, saying her name “Janet”.

But this was to be his last word spoken, for his hold on her began to weaken and his legs gave way. He had been mortally wounded in the fight. Janet screamed for help and he was carried into a room in the castle, where frantic attempts to revive him were made; but he was gone.

Janet plunged into inconsolable grief. She blamed her mother, and the unbearable loss sent her to the grave only two years later. Her mother followed the year after, and all three rest in Coldingham kirkyard.

“What a sad story,” my wife said after I had finished telling it. “Is it true?”

“Maybe not in the sense you mean,” I said, “but it is a story with real truth: how war spawns hatred and loss, and as Janet said, the poor folk lose out whoever rules the castle.”

On such a sunny day, it was difficult to leave this beautiful place, but the kids wanted a swim and the sun was already lowering in the sky.

The walk back is a hard slog up the brae, but it gives moments to rest and catch your breath while turning to view the ruins.

Here, surrounded by millions of years of geology, with the view of the tumbled remains of a castle in which lives now long forgotten were lived, a whisper is heard in the wind.

“Whatever your woes, whatever your joys, yours is a tiny speck in time, so use it wisely and with gratitude.”

On that day, I think we did just that.