Buchanan Castle, Stirlingshire/Scotland

The overgrown ruins of the Buchanan Castle seem to be out of place in the middle of a residential estate near the village of Drymen, surrounded by holiday homes and a golf course.  The once magnificent Baronial-Style castle was designed by William Burn as a replacement for Buchanan Auld House, the ancestral seat of the Buchanan Clan that burnt down in 1852.  The surrounding lands were the property of the Buchanan Clan since at least 1230-es, but by the end of the 17th century the Buchanan estate was gradually sold to satisfy creditors and pay off the debts accumulated by the family.  The Graham Clan became the new owners of the estate, but the original name remained.

The path to the castle ruins

The Buchanan Castle, finished in 1858 0.5 miles (0.80 km) to the southeast of the old house, was a striking structure with pointed towers, tourelles and asymmetrical living areas was built to impress.  The Dukes remained at Buchanan until 1925, when it was sold. 

Inside one of the big castle halls

The plans for the Castle to serve as a hotel were cancelled by World War II, when the estate was taken over for the war effort and turned into a hospital.  It was during war times, that the Buchanan Castle had briefly witnessed one of the little-known bizzare events of the war, connected with the unsanctioned peace mission of Rudolf Hess.

Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s right-hand man and “Deputy Führer” was briefly treated at the hospital on the Castle grounds after his unsanctioned and failed peace mission.  Concerned that Germany would face a war on two fronts as plans progressed for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union scheduled to take place in 1941, Hess decided to personally try to bring Britain to the negotiating table.  In a bold and mad move, he took a solo flight to Scotland to meet the Duke of Hamilton, whom he had never met, but mistakenly believed to be one of the leaders of a party opposed to war with Germany.  Hess learned to fly a plane (a Messerschmitt Bf 110) specially for this mission.

He set flight on May 10, 1941, and despite all taken precautions was detected by the British, ran out of fuel, and had to parachute out of the plane, injuring his foot during landing.  He was captured and arrested by the local Home Guard unit.  His plane crashed about 12 miles (19 km) west of Dungavel House, the Duke of Hamilton’s home.

The Duke of Hamilton did visit the prisoner in a police station, and Hess outlined  to him the reason for his flight as a “mission of humanity“, saying that Hitler “wished to stop the fighting” with England.  Hess’ offer was for Britain to let the Nazis have free rein in Europe, and in exchange, Britain would be allowed to maintain its Empire.  The Brits did not take the offer, and Hess spent the rest of the was under arrest, until he was transported to Nurnberg to stand trial as a war criminal in 1945.

Upon finding out about Hess’ unsanctioned peace mission, Hitler did not take the news too well. He stripped Hess of all of his party and state offices, abolished the post of Deputy Führer, and ordered Hess to be shot on sight if he ever returned to Germany.

After the war ended the building was briefly used as the Army School of Education.  The roof was removed from the Castle in 1954 to avoid paying tax on the property and outlying parts of the building were partly demolished and left to nature.  A number of residential buildings were subsequently built in the castle gardens and grounds, almost completely swallowing the building.  The ruins, however, remain the official seat of the  Graham Clan.

In 2019 one could still get inside the ruins, but as of April 2021 the castle has been fenced off and is now best viewed from a safe distance.

Buchanan Castle is a category B listed building, and is included on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland.  Proposals were put forward for redevelopment of the building as flats in 2002 and 2004, but both applications were refused planning permission.

Fireplace in one of the grand halls of Buchanan Castle

Location of Buchanan Castle on Google Maps, surrounded by houses and holiday homes.

Checkpoint Alpha, Helmstedt/Marienborn, Germany

While everybody must have hear about Checkpoint Charlie in the center of Berlin, labeled after the third letter of the NATO phonetic alphabet, what about the first two letters of it?…

There were two more main border crossings between East and West Germany during the Cold WarCheckpoint Alpha was the largest and most important border crossing between East and West.  It was the shortest (170 km or 110 miles) and route between West Germany & West Berlin, and the main travel route from West Germany to East Germany, Poland and former Czechoslovakia.  The border crossing existed for 45 years, from 1945 till 1990.  Its western side at Helmstedt (in the former British zone) was labeled Checkpoint Alpha, after the first letter of the NATO phonetic alphabet.  The eastern side at Marienborn was unimaginatively christened “Marienborn border crossing point”.

The other two were Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden, Wannsee in the south-west corner of Berlin and the already mentioned Checkpoint Charlie in the middle of Berlin.

Marineborn border crossing point

The nomenclature of “checkpoint“, as opposed to the East German “Grenzübergangsstelle” (which literally means “border-crossing-point“) was a result of the Western Allies not recognizing the legitimacy of East Germany as a state.  That changed in 1973, when the GDR was admitted to the UN, but the term remained in use.

Control Tower and observation bridge

Checkpoint Alpha was established on the demarcation line between the British and Soviet occupation zones on the 1st of July 1945.  It included the interzonal railway and motor vehicle traffic on the Reichsautobahn between Hanover and Berlin.  The first checkpoint buildings were just temporary wooden shacks.  The border was initially manned by the UK Royal Military Police and the USSR Group of Soviet Occupation Forces In Germany.

Passport control

Starting with 1950, the East German Border Police (or Grenzpolizei, later renamed to the Grenztruppen der DDR) performed the border control on the Eastern side of the checkpoint, and the Soviet Army escorted NATO military traffic to and from West Berlin.  Due to the escalation of the Cold War, the border crossing was extensively expanded and security was increased during the following years.  Even with these reinforcements the original checkpoint was eventually regarded too unsafe and between 1972 and 1974 the GDR built a new control facility on a 35-hectare (86-acre) field situated on a hill near Marienborn, about 1.5 km (1,600 yards) east of the border.  The control facility was staffed with as many as 1,000 passport control, customs, and border police employees.  The buildings were linked with a tunnel system, through which military or police units could reach the control portal quickly and secretly.

Ironically, it was during the early 1970-es that my parents both served at Marineborn border crossing point (Eastern side) – Mom as an interpreter to high-ranking military staff (few of whom spoke anything but Russian), Dad as part of the Soviet military personnel checking NATO military traffic.  Throughout my childhood they both referred to this time as “when we lived in Germany” without providing any further details.  It was only when I grew up, visited Berlin and the Berlin Wall memorials for the first time, realization dawned on me, that my parents were part of the Group of Soviet Occupation Forces In Germany referred to in all literature about the period…

Initially the control of their checkpoint on the Western side was with Western Allies, represented by small garrisons of FrenchBritish and American troops stationed in Helmstedt.  Later, the West German Border Protection forces (Bundesgrenzschutz) had assumed control of the western side of the border crossing, where the buildings and facilities were notably smaller compared with their Eastern counterparts in Marienborn.

Checkpoint Alpha was notorious for lengthy waiting times on the West German side due to restrictive East German controls.  The West German government was forced to add extensive car parks and rest areas on the autobahn approach to Helmstedt.

After the Reunification of Germany (known in Germany as the Wende) in late 1989 border controls were relaxed and at midnight on June 30, 1990, exactly 45 years after its first opening, the crossing was dismantled.  The former GDR buildings have been a listed building since October 1990, however the former GDR departures area was demolished when the A 2 road was expanded to six lanes.  A rest stop with a motel has now been built on part of the old GDR control portal’s area.

The rest of the East German part of the checkpoint is now part of the Marienborn Memorial to Divided Germany (“Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn“), opened on August 13, 1996.  The memorial of the reserved section of the border crossing features Soviet Allied Control, car and truck entry points, customs processing area, veterinary inspection, currency exchange, control tower, office building, and other technical functional areas.  It is well marked on Google maps, is easily accessible via the nearby rest stop’s exit and can only be explored on foot.

The West German buildings near Helmstedt have either been demolished or are now used for other purposes.