Skip to main content
Updated date:

On the Trail of Count Dracula, Bram’s Stoker’s Transylvanian Vampire

Author:

Glenis has a B.A. Hons in English Literature and is familiar with the places mentioned in this article about the creation of Count Dracula.

Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III (c. 1560), reputedly a copy of an original made during his lifetime

Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III (c. 1560), reputedly a copy of an original made during his lifetime

Many readers of Gothic fiction know that Dracula’s fictional home was a castle in Transylvania and that Dracula arrived in England at Whitby, a fishing port in North East Yorkshire. Chapter 6 of the novel provides a vivid description of the town, in the form of an extract from Mina Murray's journal. Visitors today, over 120 years after the story was written, will easily recognise some of the places described.

Perhaps less well-known is that for several summers Stoker and his family took their holidays at Cruden Bay (in his time known as Port Errol) in north-east Scotland, where New Slains Castle, high on a cliff overlooking the North Sea, provided creative fodder for the imagining of his character's home.

I am fortunate to live close enough to Whitby for day trips and have visited this delightful seaside town on the North Yorkshire coastline since childhood. But it was only when I read Dracula as an adult that I became conscious of the Bram Stoker connection. Before then Whitby was known to me as the place where Captain Cook, famed for the voyage of discovery that found the New World, first took to sea; and as the place to buy jet, popularised by Queen Victoria for mourning jewellery.

Cruden Bay is the small coastal Aberdeenshire village where my daughter-in-law was raised. I have tramped the long and wide beach many times, in the footsteps of Bram Stoker, and climbed the steep ascent to the ruins of Slains Castle. Nowadays Cruden Bay is perhaps best known for the internationally renowned golf course. Golf has been played in Cruden Bay since the early 19th century so it is not unreasonable to imagine that Bram Stoker played a few rounds when on holiday there.

The Connection Between Bram Stoker and Whitby in North Yorkshire

At the end of July 1890 Bram Stoker arrived at Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse at 6 Royal Crescent, Whitby. He spent a week on his own, exploring the town, before being joined by his wife and baby son.

Whitby’s windswept headland, a ruined abbey on a high cliff, below which lay a church surrounded by swooping bats and weather-battered graves teetering precariously on the cliff edge, provided an excellent setting for a Gothic Horror story. Some of the headstones stood over empty graves, marking sailors whose bodies had been lost at sea. Stoker wrote the inscriptions and names in his notebook, including ‘Swales’, the name he used for Dracula’s first victim in Whitby.

Vlad Tepes, Also Known as Dracula

Stoker's regular morning walk whilst on holiday in Whitby took him on 8 August 1890 to the Coffee House Corner end the Quay, where he visited the public library. There he found a book published in 1820, recording the experiences of a British consul in Bucharest. William Wilkinson’s book ,still in print today, mentions a 15th-century prince called Vlad Tepes who was said to have impaled his enemies on wooden stakes. He was known as Dracula – the ‘son of the dragon’.

Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. The Wallachians at that time … used to give this as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.

— William Wilkinson 1820

The Wreck of the Ship Dmitry in Whitby Harbour

In 1885 the Russian cargo vessel Dmitry, ballasted with silver sand, ran aground in Whitby during a heavy storm. The shipwreck was well-documented in the Yorkshire press and Bram Stoker, after reading about the disaster in the public library, talked about it with the local coastguard.

He mentioned in his notes how he had been told that a big dog jumped off the grounded ship and ran up the church steps and into the churchyard.

For the purposes of Stoker's novel, the Dimitry became the Demeter, from which Dracula, transformed into a big black dog, bounded to run up the 199 steps to a churchyard.

Chapter 7 of Dracula is in the form of a newspaper cutting. It clearly draws upon the newspapers report of details of the ship's ballast (silver sand), the circumstances of the storm and of the events the following day that led to the Dmitry becoming an irrecoverable shipwreck.

Read More From Owlcation

Whitby Goth Weekends and Halloween

Largely due the the Dracula connection, Whitby was chosen in the 1990s as the venue for a goth themed music festival that is held twice each year.

In recent years the October weekend event on or near Halloween has attracted large numbers of non-goths in a wide variety of fancy dress costumes, including Victorian vampires.

Bram Stoker's Connection with Slains Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

For many summers Bram Stoker and his family stayed for a month or so at the Kilmarnock Hotel in Cruden Bay (known until 1923 as Port Errol). The Hotel still has the visitors’ book containing the Stokers’ signatures, which has helped trace their visits during the period 1892-1910. Stoker’s biographer, Harry Ludlam, has written that he was told by Bram’s son, Noel, that writing of the Dracula story started during the family’s third visit to Port Errol in August 1895, though it had been in the planning stages for several years.

When not resident in the main hotel building, Stoker stayed at Hilton Cottage, which belonged to the hotel. If the weather was fine, he sat to write with the castle in view from a small table placed in the cottage garden. In 1960 the journalist Gordon Caseley interviewed villagers who remembered Stoker. One elderly lady recalled that she once helped Bram collect papers that had been scattered about by a gust of wind.

The influence of Slains Castle on Stoker's planning is evident in the passage of the novel where the heroic character Jonathan Harker meets the Count for the first time. He is escorted into an octagonal room, the description of which suggests that Stoker crafted his words from personal memories of the reception hall at Slains.

Slains castle is now an unoccupied ruin but the octagonal room, which served as a reception hall with doors leading out the rest of the property, survives. A photograph belonging to descendants of the former owners shows the “octagonal hall” in 1900. It is probable that Stoker, who was connected through his work with the cream of society, saw the room - probably invited to visit Slains as a guest of the Earl of Erroll.

[…crossing the room, opened another door, which led into a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort. Passing through this, he opened another door, and motioned me to enter]

— Bram Stoker

References and Further Reading

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/whitby-abbey/history-and-stories/dracula/ accessed 25th October 2021

https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=938741&resourceID=19191 accessed 25/10/2021

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vlad-the-Impaler accessed 25/10/2021

https://thewreckoftheweek.com/2014/02/03/no-44-the-dmitry/ accessed 25/10/2021

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Glen Rix

Related Articles