David C Weinczok, aka Castle Hunter, explores Fife's latest history trail with a difference.
Wherever you go in Fife, you are in the footsteps of Kings. Some of those footsteps were errant, such as those of Alexander III whose tumble from the cliffs at Kinghorn led to the Wars of Independence. Others were proud and sure, such as those of James IV whose Renaissance palace at Falkland became a jewel of the realm. Two of Scottish history's biggest names - Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots - both spent significant energy and time in Fife, though I suspect that Bruce, whose skeleton rests at Dunfermline Abbey, was rather more fond of it than Mary who was imprisoned on the island stronghold of Lochleven Castle.
Clearly there is plenty to keep history lovers going as they criss-cross the Kingdom, and now there is another tool in the explorer's arsenal. In the Footsteps of Kings is an augmented reality (AR) mobile app that utilises the latest mobile technologies at historic sites across Fife, putting the power of cannons, castle-building, ghost hunting and more in the user's hands. It's aimed at children aged 3-13, but while visiting the sites, I saw people of all ages using and enjoying it. The app is now live at six sites across Fife: Markinch Church, Falkland Estate, Falkland Palace, Lochore Castle, Ravenscraig Castle, and Aberdour Castle.
Each location has an activity to complete that unlocks historical insights. Anything that uses new trends to engage people - especially young people - in Scotland's story is a good thing, and in that spirit I gave it a shot on the app's opening weekend in July with a focus on the latter four locations. All of them are easily reachable by public transport, and it was by a combination of train, bus, and bike that I set off from Edinburgh in the footsteps of kings.
Aberdour Castle is a masterclass in castle architecture. It's got a little bit of everything from the twelfth through eighteenth centuries, which pretty well runs the length of the castle age in Scotland. It's brilliant for neuks and crannies, too, and has long been a place for family fun. I was delighted to find a few extra additions in that department since my last visit, including a dress-up station where I did my best Regent Morton impression. He may never have been the king, but as Regent over the young James VI he wielded tremendous influence and adapted Aberdour to reflect that.
In the Footsteps of Kings tasks you with digitally reconstructing the medieval castle, aided by the jaunty Jess the Jester who is voiced by Balwearie High School drama student Cerys Paton. Building a castle while standing inside that very same castle was certainly a first for me! Upon momentarily displacing the gatehouse I was playfully reprimanded by Jess, which made me redouble my efforts and pump my fist when I got it right. My castle ready and the jester suitably impressed, I raced round Aberdour's terraced garden and spellbinding doocot before heading on to my next mission: tackling the local pirate problem.
What a name! There's something brooding and slightly menacing about Ravenscraig Castle, which stands at the east end of Kirkcaldy overlooking the Firth of Forth. Of the 400-odd Scottish castles I've visited so far, Ravenscraig is easily in the top ten in terms having the most dramatic entrance. Two massive towers flank a bridge spanning a rocky trench, and the weight of the gatehouse bears down as you proceed through it and into the castle's now ruinous courtyard. Lovely beaches on either side lighten the mood, and the views from this clifftop castle are spectacular.
Ravenscraig was originally intended for James II's queen, Mary of Gueldres, though James died before it could be completed and the keys were handed over to the mighty Sinclair family. Its landward side was designed to absorb and dish out artillery fire, making it one of the earliest castles in Scotland designed to handle the terrifying impact of gunpowder weapons.
You can see where this is going. Your job at Ravenscraig is to clear the Forth of the dastardly pirates infesting its waters. Firing up the app, you get to place a cannon along the castle walls, load it with powder and shot, take aim, and smash the buccaneers into oblivion. My first shot fell woefully short, but the second shattered their hull and I let loose a somewhat diabolical 'mwahaha' as it turned into flotsam. I always mocked James II for his obsession with artillery - something that, thanks to a burst barrel at the siege of Roxburgh Castle, would claim his life - but after this I'm starting to see the appeal. Well chuffed, I caught the train back to Edinburgh to rest up for round two the following day.
It's great to see a lesser-known castle getting some love. Lochore is a fascinating site; it once stood upon an island known as Inchgall, 'the island of the strangers', and evolved from a timber motte-and-bailey castle into a stone-built baronial bastion. With only its corners and earthen mound still standing, however, it hardly draws the crowds and is usually the domain of dedicated castle hunters like myself. So it was incredible to see a crowd of more than fifty gathered around it, phones in hand to capture the digital flags sprouting from an AR version of the castle. This is the power of technology: it can bring to life places whose grandeur is long since behind them, and foster a new appreciation for places that many simply pass by or take for granted. I truly believe that every historic site is special - you just need a good story, or in this case a fun app, to turn it from being 'just a ruin' to a place where memories can be made.
Lochore Castle also lies upon the brand new Fife Pilgrim Way, a network of trails connecting Culross and North Queensferry to the ancient spiritual centre of St Andrews. The power of St Andrews loomed large over Fife's lairds. In 1417 Lochore Castle passed by marriage to the Wardlaw family, and it was Henry Wardlaw who founded St Andrews University, the oldest university in Scotland. Following in his footsteps would have to wait for another day, for there was one more stop to make: wrapping up in royal style at Falkland Palace.
By the late fourteenth century the trend in much of Europe had moved away from draughty, austere castles to resplendent palaces and country houses. Not wanting to be left behind, Scotland's kings developed Falkland as a country retreat to rival their royal counterparts. An earlier castle stood on the site of the palace which itself replaced a 12th century hunting lodge. Despite its regality, Falkland is a place of complexity and contrasts and no stranger to dark episodes. In 1402 David Stewart, heir to the throne, was starved to death by his uncle here as part of a vicious power struggle within the House of Stewart. A few generations later, occupants of Falkland could forget such unpleasantries while enjoying a round of tennis in what is now the world's oldest tennis court that is still in use.
I certainly wasn't expecting those two aspects of Falkland's history to combine, but on firing up the app inside the palace that's precisely what happened as ghosts emerged and I found myself wielding a virtual tennis racket. Now, you can debate the educational merits of lobbing AR tennis balls at ghosts all you like. When they sprung up on me in the Old Library, I was furiously swiping to repel them with as much manic energy as I could muster. This one's addictively fun, and the palace's gardens are the perfect playing grounds for ghostbusters of all ages.
Alongside other forms of on-site and online interpretation, apps like this make visits to historic sites both informative and entertaining. Both are crucial for getting more people engaged with Scotland's history. Many people have childhood memories of being taken to such places by parents and grandparents, and that tends to cut either way: some develop a lifelong passion for them, while others bemusedly recall being 'dragged along'. The use of AR technology and the development of apps like In the Footsteps of Kings can help to tip the balance towards the former, and that's what it's all about.