The eastern tip of the Skares—a scarred, rocky reef off the Aberdeenshire coast in Scotland—reaches out like a fang. Sharp-edged and set above the lip of the foamy North Sea, it marks the entry point to the Bay of Cruden. And yet while the coast is the very incarnation of Gothic horror, it gets even more dramatic: The landscape was a refuge and chief inspiration for Bram Stoker while writing the world’s most famous vampire novel, Dracula.
This year is the 125th anniversary of the classic spine-chiller, and although armchair travelers might mostly associate the novel with rural Transylvania in Romania, the Irish author never once visited the Carpathians, Brasov, or Bran Castle, now commonly known as Dracula’s Castle. (Or, indeed, Sighisoara, the skyline-spiked city where Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Stoker’s toothy anti-hero, was born in 1431.) Instead, Dublin-born Stoker holidayed in the Scottish village of Cruden Bay on the Bay of Cruden more than a dozen times in the late 19th century, taking inspiration from the Aberdeenshire coast’s almost supernatural geography and using its castle, cliffs, and characters to help blur fact and fiction.
To mark the anniversary of the book’s debut in 1897, Dacre Stoker, the author’s great-grandnephew, has mapped out a new literary trail across the Uited Kingdom for the Bram Stoker Estate (the custodian of the author’s life and work), using redacted notes, transcripts, family journals, letters, and circumstantial evidence to pinpoint the locations that were far more of an influence on the novel than many people realize. In the making since Dacre Stoker published Dracula the Un-Dead, the 2009 sequel to his great-grandfather’s original, the trail covers 20-odd locations that inspired Stoker’s vision and is a haunting tribute to his forebear’s influence and art.
“There’s a competition between Transylvania, Whitby, and Cruden Bay for Dracula tourism,” says Stoker, also the author of Dracul, the authorized prequel to Dracula. “But while Bram never made it to Romania, he certainly left a trail that we can follow today in the U.K.”
Picture a seaside town with roofs red as a blood moon: This is Whitby on the Yorkshire coast and where the Stoker trail starts. The stacked streets off the harbor are edged with places from the early chapters of Dracula—the high piers, the great viaduct, the 199 stone steps leading to the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church’s on the time-weathered clifftop and where one pays nothing to walk around. The writer visited in 1890, in what must have been “a heck of a holiday,” as his ancestor puts it, and though he didn’t start writing Dracula until five years later, its design is intricately woven into the epistolary novel. Nowhere more so, in fact, than at the broken Benedictine ruin of Whitby Abbey, where Stoker magicked a legend of a vampish white lady who could be seen in one of the windows.
It is impossible to spend time in Whitby and not talk of its former library, now the Quayside fish and chip shop, where Stoker found a textbook from 1820 called An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia by William Wilkinson. One line in particular jumped out for the writer: “Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil.” Horror’s most famous character then took shape in Stoker’s mind, and today the seaside town has more than just the patina of devotion; every May 26, World Dracula Day brings Gothic swagger onto Whitby’s streets with locals and devotees dressing up in bat cloaks and blood-red lipstick.
Edinburgh, the most macabre of all U.K. cities, gets more visitors because of J.K. Rowling today, and yet there is something ineffably vampirish here, something completely Bram Stokerish. Four hours north of Whitby, this is the trail’s next stop and where the author, at the time a theater manager in London, oversaw a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyceum Theatre’s opening night in September 1883. Aptly, the venue sits beneath the crags of Edinburgh Castle and the Witches’ Well, a fountain that pays tribute to hundreds of women who were convicted of witchcraft and burnt at the stake in the late 16th century.
Exploring the coast three hours north in Cruden Bay, you’ll find flashes of other places that inspired Stoker while he stayed at the village’s Kilmarnock Arms hotel: the devilish beauty of the Watter’s Mou’ sea inlet and the granite outcrops, St. Olaf’s Well, and the strange geological trauma of the cliffs. Of all the places discovered by Stoker, though, Slains Castle best fits the fantasy nightmare. The 16th-century ruin, a jumble of winged courtyards and witch’s hat towers, looks straight out of a Hammer Film Production, with a perfectly spaced octagonal stone room that matches Stoker’s description of Dracula’s home, almost to the word. “When he was at work on Dracula, we were all frightened of him,” said his partner and literary executor Florence Stoker when interviewed in 1927 about their time in Cruden Bay. “There he would sit for hours, like a great bat, perched on the rocks of the shore.”
On reflection, there’s something also very romantic about reading, or rereading, this old Gothic page-turner, with a view of Slains Castle at trail’s end. It makes travelers feel like they’ve stepped right into the page, if not the mind, of Bram Stoker himself.
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