The Canadian Castle And The Forest Of Screaming Heads

We all have that one friend who has a business idea or art project that they just never seem to get around to. Maybe they swear up and down that it's awesome, or maybe they're a bit self-conscious and believe it will fail, and so never try. Suppose that friend says, "So you know this forest in the middle of nowhere? I'm going to build a bunch of stone circle things there that look like screaming faces. Oh, and a castle with a dragon for a chimney." You might reply, "Uh huh. Well, good luck with that," and continue sipping your iced latte. Well, it turns out someone already went and built those screaming faces and castle in the forests of Ontario, Canada, located quite a bit away from ... well, everything. That someone is art teacher-turned-hermetic spirit guide for off-the-beaten-path tourists, Peter Camani. Some call him eccentric. Others call him for tours and get no answer, as some reviews on Trip Advisor describe.  

Camani's sculptures and castle, Midlothian Castle, are essentially a personal art project turned public curiosity piece. Since 1989, he's built round screaming faces, pillar-shaped screaming faces, faces with hands, tree-shaped sculptures, and more. He's garnered the attention of news media, travel guides, and music festival-goers who've set up camp on his property for over a decade now, as the Toronto Star says. And if you die, for $10,000, Camani can inter your ashes in a screaming face all your own (per Slate).

An art teacher's creation

Before he started hewing faces from giant stone disks, Peter Camani was an art teacher at Almaguin Highlands Secondary School (AHSS) in Ontario, Canada. By all accounts, as student and staff testimonials on Muskoka Region say, Camani was a beloved figure and community staple. He taught at AHSS for over three decades with a very evident and obvious earnestness that fostered an interest in the arts in his students. One fellow teacher, Mr. Dobson, said, "He has this passion, I don't know why he does it, but it's interesting. Maybe it's his legacy to the world." Camani retired from teaching at the end of the 2008 school year.

As Camani said in an interview on YouTube, the idea for his screaming faces art project had been brewing in his mind since he was a teenager. He started work on Midlothian Castle in 1989 while he was teaching — during summers, he headed out to the Midlothian area near Burk's Falls, Ontario. It's now complete with a dragon chimney that looks like it's breathing smoke when there's a lit fire and a turret formed after a "hear no evil" screaming face, as Slate describes. Over time, his 300-acre property, located about a half-an-hour drive from his workplace (as seen on Google Maps), slowly filled with structures. In 1995, he moved to the faces, which he calls a "vibrant creation" now numbering over 100. His intention was always to continue working on the sculptures into retirement.

Inspired by druidic lore

Public interest in Peter Camani's castle and screaming heads is no doubt due, in large part, to fascination over why someone would go through such a project to begin with. To Camani, the whole thing is a reflection of basic principles of duality. As he says in an interview on YouTube, "It's similar to the druids with their idea of the good and the bad, a right and left." It should be noted that light-dark duality isn't unique to druidic lore, not by far, but a part of countless religions both ancient and modern, including Manichaeism, Taoism, Gnosticism, etc. But still, invoking druids is a clear way to draw a line between the screaming heads and another of their themes: connection with nature.

As Slate describes, the screaming faces are supposed to represent the impermanence of humanity and the horrors of the destruction of the natural world. This is why Camani has taken to offering to inter folks' ashes in made-to-order screaming faces. His long-term vision, it seems, is to blend ashes with concrete and have a forest of monuments to the dead. This might be why some describe the whole installation as "weird" or "eerie," as Trip Advisor and Atlas Obscura describe, respectively. Yet others call it relaxing or nifty, or good for a walk, and some don't seem to be moved one way or another. Such varied reactions also fit the goals of the installation: to provide a multiplicity of perspectives depending on where one stands.

Castles in Ontario and Scotland

You'd be forgiven for thinking that "Midlothian" is Peter Camani's homebrewed, B-tier "Dungeons & Dragons" name for his "Midlothian Castle & Gallery." But actually, it's the official designation for the small stretch of land west of Burk's Falls, Ontario, as Google depicts. It looks like Camani just lucked out when he purchased his very castle-sounding property.

But lo and behold, Midlothian is not a name belonging only to Ontario. Midlothian gets its name from Midlothian, Scotland, a district southeast of Edinburgh with some honest-to-goodness, ancient, beautiful castles — 156 of them, in fact, counting towers and fortified houses, as the Scottish travel site Stravaiging says. Accurately described by Visit Scotland as a "beautifully rural area with rolling green hills and huge expanses of thriving woodland," it does in a lot of ways resemble Midlothian, Ontario, as a screaming faces travelogue video on YouTube shows.

That being said, a lot of the greenery on Camani's land is due to Camani himself. As the Toronto Star says, he's planted over 22,000 trees on his property since purchasing it in 1987, as well as a series of spring-fed ponds. And despite the seemingly arbitrary nature of the screaming face's layout, the statues are designed to resemble an eye from a bird's eye view, with a brow on one edge and a pupil in the center. The castle itself has towers and a gate that welcome visitors, turrets, and even, perhaps like its cousin castles in Scotland, a dungeon. 

Site of Harvest Music Festival

At this point, Midlothian Castle and its screaming faces have become an honest-to-goodness pilgrimage site, the kind with rave-y glowsticks and drop-the-beat DJs. Every year, the Harvest Festival hits the grounds of Midlothian for an electronic music bonanza sanctioned by Peter Camani himself. As To Do Canada says, 2022's Harvest Festival is slated for September 16 to 19 and costs $270 (we're assuming Canadian dollars). What's the purpose of the festival? As To Do Canada puts it, "The rolling hills, waters, sculptures and forests of Midlothian Castle are once again our place to gather and celebrate season's change by the fire, under the stars and on the dance floor."

Festival-goers like visual artist Nicole Sternbauer likewise describe themes of change associated with the Harvest Festival. In a mini-documentary on YouTube, she says that the festival has been "so transforming ... in so many different ways ... I feel like I'll always be coming back because it's an experience of me growing as a person." In this same video, around five-and-a-half minutes in, Camani describes "seven or eight-hundred people" congregating on a Friday night to kick the festival off. They've got fire twirlers, tents, spray-painted artwork, and more. To Camani, he says around the 16-minute mark, there are five seasons: winter, spring, summer, harvest, and fall. 

And lest you think that Harvest Festival is something new, we've got footage on Vimeo dating back to the 2011 installment. 

A tourism hotspot

At present, Midlothian Castle and the screaming heads are something of a tourist phenomenon. The whole site is located west of Algonquin National Park near Burk's Falls in Ontario, Canada, about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) from Ottawa, as Google shows. That's about a 4.5-hour car ride. The entire area is gorgeous, full of sweeping vistas, and worth hiking or canoeing regardless of Camani's art project or the Harvest Festival. It stands to reason that the natural environment has been a big part of the draw of taking a trip out there. 

Folks on Trip Advisor tend to be pretty positive about the whole castle and sculpture experience, saying, "Interesting is an understatement," "What a wonderful hidden gem," "This place is amazing," and other such praise. But despite the property supposedly being open year-round, a number of reviews describe it being closed or say that Peter Camini was hard to get ahold of. The area also seems to have some intense insect problems, as the Toronto Star describes. Regardless, Midlothian has a Facebook page with over 7,000 likes at the time of this article's writing. 

That being said, Midlothian's main website — Mmage – is currently up for sale. While it's possible that Camani might have just lapsed on a payment, it's a little concerning, nonetheless. That being said, Midlothian was never a thing of the internet, anyway, but a thing of the natural world to see in person.