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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


Updated: Sep 10, 2022

It is known that Bram Stoker started writing Dracula in Cruden Bay (then called Port Erroll) in 1895. Although much of the plot of Dracula was in place before Bram discovered Cruden Bay, there are hints that the Scottish village and its coastal scenery influenced the writing of the famous novel.

What follows is of necessity speculation anchored to what is known about Bram Stoker’s time in Aberdeenshire - Bram Stoker was a private person and revealed few details about how his famous novel was written.

First of all, Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania. He got his information about the place from books and articles, notably Emily Gerard’s 1885 article Transylvanian Superstitions. He also found line drawings of Transylvanian castles in books he borrowed from libraries in Whitby in 1890 (and yes, Slains Castle did not inspire the plot for Dracula as you will frequently read on the internet).

Bram Stoker first visited Cruden Bay in 1892, returning there year after year. This is where he took his monthly August holidays from his full-time job as a London theatre manager. The setting for his 1895 novel The Watter’s Mou’ is the village of Port Erroll, now part of Cruden Bay. It’s a smugglers tale. Relevant here is the description of the sea gorge known as the Watter’s Mou in the novel, an actual place near Slains Castle. It gives hints of Dracula to come.

The entrance to the gorge is partly blocked by a row of rocks resembling teeth. And as Bram wrote: ‘The white cluster of rocks looked like a ghostly mouth opened to swallow whatever might come in touch.’

'Bram Stoker's teeth' at the entrance to the Watters' Mou' - a 'ghostly mouth'

I call these ‘Bram Stoker’s teeth’. They are best seen in action at high tide in a choppy sea. The waves surging in and out give the impression of a mouth chomping away.

What is known is that Bram summarised the idea for The Watter’s Mou’ in a journal he kept as a young man - it lists ideas for future stories. The original title was The Angry Waters – which ‘wishes ill to person & kills them then murmurs sorrowfully for ever’.

The theme of ‘angry waters’ is found again and again in Bram Stoker’s gothic novels. The ‘monster’ in The Watter’s Mou’ is not a vampire; it is the pagan entity that is the spirit of the sea. A belief that a spirit moved the sea was a long-surviving tradition amongst the fishermen of Port Erroll, normally devout Christians. And not just in Port Erroll, it was a widespread tradition amongst fishermen throughout Europe at the time. Bram Stoker was aware of this.

Slains Castle on the left, the Watter's Mou' on the right.

The second of his two books set in Cruden Bay is appropriately given the title The Mystery of the Sea (1902). Curiously enough, another ghostly mouth appears in the novel, although this time it is the Bay of Cruden thus described: ‘If Cruden Bay is to be taken figuratively as a mouth, with the sand hills for soft palate, and the green Hawklaw as the tongue, the rocks which work the extremities are its teeth.’ And a few pages later he mentions ‘jagged rocks, rising like fangs from the deep water’.

‘jagged rocks, rising like fangs from the deep water’

To the south of the bay lies the rocky reefs of the Skares: ‘Did the sea hold its dead where they fell, its floor around the Skares would be whitened with their bones, and new islands could build themselves with the piling wreckage. At times one may see here the ocean in her fiercest mood; for it is when the tempest drives from the south-east that the sea is fretted amongst the rugged rocks and sends its spume landwards.’

In chapter five of The Mystery of the Sea, Bram describes a moonlight procession of ghosts of the drowned sailors as they emerge out of the sea from the Skares.

Dacre Stoker (great-grand nephew of Bram) pointing to the Skares.

The strong impression gained from reading Bram Stoker’s Cruden Bay books, these excerpts and others, is that coastal scenery of this part of Aberdeenshire was linked in his mind to a pagan sea monster, either figuratively, or he may actually have believed this.

According to Bram Stoker’s first biographer Harry Ludlam, Bram started writing the early chapters of Dracula in Port Erroll in 1895. He was told this by Noel Stoker, Bram’s son, who was with his father and mother in the Aberdeenshire village that year.

The opening sentences of the published version of Dracula (after the first 101 pages were cut out at the recommendation of the editor!) starts with Jonathan Harker making a train journey from London to Vienna, from there to Bistritz in Transylvania, before taking a horse-drawn coach to Castle Dracula. And in 1895, Bram Stoker took the train from London to Aberdeen, and then to Ellon, where he was taken in a pony and trap to Port Erroll (with Slains Castle looming on the horizon when he arrived).

Bram Stoker, his wife Florence, and fifteen-year-old Noel, signed into the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel (where the guest book they signed still survives). And once Bram started writing Dracula, his behaviour changed. This is what Florence remembers:

When he was at work on Dracula, we were all frightened of him. It was up on a lonely part of the east coast of Scotland, and he seemed to get obsessed by the spirit of the thing. There he would sit for hours, like a great bat, perched on the rocks of the shore, or wander alone up and down the sandhills thinking it out.

Why was Bram, normally a cheery Irishman, behaving like this? Nobody knows for sure, although the explanation of Bram Stoker biographer Daniel Farson remains undisputed. Bram had forced himself to think the thoughts and to feel the emotions of the terrified Jonathan Harker trapped in Castle Dracula and the evil Count Dracula. As I walk along Cruden Bay beach, I like to think back to 1895 and imagine the embodiment of Count Dracula walking along the same sandy strand.

My take on this is that Bram Stoker had been using the method acting technique of his boss Henry Irving to get authenticity into his writing (and if anyone disputes that method acting hadn’t been invented yet, Bram Stoker wrote about Henry Irving’s acting technique at length, describing his method acting as the ‘dual consciousness’ technique). If so, it worked:

‘What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature, is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me. I am in fear, in awful fear, and there is no escape for me. I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of.’

Let’s dive deeper into speculation, If Bram Stoker had transformed himself into his main characters using method acting, then he will also have imagined Cruden Bay as Transylvania. The way he linked the coastal scenery with the supernatural will have helped to get him in the mood. And there in the distance, visible from the southern end of the beach, is Slains Castle ‘from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the sky’.

Yes, Cruden Bay twinned with Transylvania...

REFERENCES Bram Stoker, 1895. The Watter’s Mou’. Archibald Constable & Co., Westminster.

Bram Stoker, 1897. Dracula. Archibald Constable and Company, London. Bram Stoker, 1902. The Mystery of the Sea. William Heinemann. London.

Bram Stoker, 1907. Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. William Heinemann, London.

Harry Ludlam, 1977. A Biography of Bram Stoker Creator of Dracula. New English Library. Daniel Farson, 1975. The Man Who Wrote Dracula. A Biography of Bram Stoker. Michael Joseph, London. Mike Shepherd, 2018. When Brave Men Shudder: the Scottish origins of Dracula. Wild Wolf Publishing.

Mike Shepherd and Dacre Stoker, 2021. Slains Castle's Secret History. Wild Wolf Publishing.

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The walls of the octagonal hall inside Slains Castle

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