This is part of an occasional series here about maligned places. I wrote about Prestongrange recently; today I would like to write about two places I personally slag off. But first an explanation.
I am from a town called Dunbar. It is a small town in East Lothian, one of a collection of distinct, fiercely proud communities in my home county. People from Dunbar can have a major case of small town mentality, with the world stopping at the Beltonford Roundabout, beyond which are perceived dragons. There is a deep dislike of, and rivalry with, nearby towns, particularly Haddington and North Berwick. Haddington is where the local council is based and North Berwick gets more visitors and money. End of, ken.
While I am from Dunbar, I have escaped. I hope that I have developed a sufficiently broad mind to look beyond where I am from and where I am. However, in the past, I have not been slow to run down Haddington and North Berwick. Here’s the thing: they aren’t bad places. North Berwick is pretty. It is a Victorian seaside resort surrounded by islands, fields and the Bass Rock. Haddington is a nice market town with a fine history. I know the place well. I used to work there. The walk by the river Tyne is beautiful. It still sticks in my craw saying it, though.
Arguments against. Not long after I moved to Glasgow, I was on a bus passing through Haddington. I was sitting with my music on as the bus stopped at Artillery Park. I looked up and saw some poor bugger getting huckled off the bus by the police. I have lived in Glasgow, No Mean City, no less, for nearly three years and never seen anything like that. It’s a little snobbish too, as a place, Haddington, plus it has better bus links than Dunbar.
North Berwick is definitely up its own arse. It is posh. So posh indeed that the teenagers raid their parents’ drinks cabinet and drink gin and port rather than necking Bucky or White Lightning or whatever. Or so I hear.
Being a Glaswegian now, and of course looking down on anywhere outside our great city as hopelessly provincial, I don’t care so much about parochial rivalries. Haddington has lots of good points. The John Gray Centre with its library and museum, St. Mary’s Kirk, the Tyne, the grand, country bank buildings on Market Street, the cracking painting by William Geddes in the National Gallery.
North Berwick is also a fine place, mainly because of what’s around it. Fidra inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island. Dirleton and Tantallon Castles are both within a decent walk. The Bass Rock dominates Canty Bay, though it looks more like a quaint island than one of the greatest seabird colonies on the Earth from NB. It has a second hand junk shop on the road down to the harbour with books in the window that hasn’t changed in my lifetime. North Berwick Law looms high above the town, complete with its whale’s jawbone on the top, even if it is now fibreglass.
This might be a bit of an advert for the East Lothian tourist board and an unlikely diversion for me. But I was lucky to grow up where I did. From a distance, you get a sense of perspective. I do have mixed feelings about where I grew up. I might not be the biggest fan of Haddington and North Berwick but I like them anyway. Going to NB, even for someone like me, always felt like going on my holidays. The journey through fields and by Traprain Law to Haddington is beautiful and never failed to inspire me. No place is perfect and that’s fine. Change is good but you should never forget where you’ve come from, even while where you’re going to is completely different. Especially when it’s furth of the Beltonford Roundabout.
As I write this, I am looking at a photograph I took on a far warmer day about five years ago. It shows the East Lothian coastline in the distance, taken from the harbour at Anstruther in Fife. In the middle of the Forth is a yacht with a white sail and a tanker sits right in the middle between the Bass Rock on the left and North Berwick Law on the right. It is one of my favourite photographs. I think I used it here somewhere before. I like it because it reminds me of a beautiful day and a beautiful place, more than one place, really, and I used to have a copy on my office wall in my old work, just as I do beside my bed, to inspire me.
I was there on Sunday. It was a mild January afternoon, cloudy but still dramatic. There were folk rowing in the harbour but no sailing yachts. More tankers moored in the Forth, though. The light was vivid, not bright but sharp. The photographs I took weren’t of prizewinning calibre. It’s not my forte. I like doing it. And I liked taking photographs as I was walking that day, just capturing the changing light and what I could see in the distance. I know Anstruther well and it is always a pleasure to be there, just as it is just to look and consider the Firth of Forth before me.
The River Forth turns into the Firth of Forth at Kincardine, where two busy road bridges cross. To the west, the river passes towards Alloa and Stirling until its source in Loch Ard in the Trossachs. To the east, meanwhile, the Forth is a tidal estuary, with a coastline dotted on either side by industry past and present, cities, large towns and quaint coastal villages. Plus Methil and Leven. There are three further bridges, one – the Queensferry Crossing – opens later this year, currently on time and on budget, remarkably. The Forth Rail Bridge, meanwhile, with its seven million rivets and Victorian overengineering, is still going strong 121 years after it opened. One of my great regrets of moving west is that I so rarely pass over it now. Even a trip across to Fife was filled with adventure because I crossed the Bridge. Invariably, though, the ticket inspector would come along on the train just as it passed Dalmeny on its way onto the Bridge, spoiling the brief journey by having to hunt for my ticket rather than savouring the view, intersected by red pillars and spans, along the Forth in either direction.
I love looking in the distance, particularly over the sea. From the Forth Bridge, you can see to the Isle of May and the Bass Rock one way and up towards the Ochil Hills in the other direction. At Morrison’s Haven, near Prestongrange, it is possible to see from the Forth Bridges to the East Neuk. From Dunbar, you can see Fife on a good day, Angus on an even better one. In the other direction, from Crail and Anstruther, you can just about see Dunbar and can get an uninterrupted view from St. Abbs Head to the Pentland Hills. There are many fine places just to stand and look. One unlikely place is the Ocean Terminal shopping centre in Leith, where I would often walk straight through to the big glass window at the back to look over the docks towards Fife. I make a point of going whenever I am in the area.
Looking in the distance is something I do a lot. I think it made me a writer because it made me think of what lay beyond where I was, what I could see as much as what lay beyond the horizon. Like being in a church, there is something incredibly spiritual about being by the sea. It is the world stripped back to the essentials, muted in colour by day and black by night, shimmering perhaps with the glare of street lights in distance. I have had many of my best thoughts while walking with the sounds of waves lapping beside me, gazing for miles out there, looking at nothing in particular and just letting the space without make new thoughts within.
Walking by the sea washes your spirit clean, as John Muir said. I have left the cares of the world and tangled knots in my thinking behind on coastal paths and with my footsteps deep in the sand. And I have come up with new ideas and images that have often stayed with me. One idea that I brought into a story once came one day walking along Belhaven Beach. I saw a seagull that had been washed to shore. It had been disembowelled and its ribs were incomplete, standing like the shell of a building in progress. Its eye was still open, with a sharp gaze. The only thing I’ve seen like it was a painting by Salvador Dali in the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, called Oiseau, which had a seagull lying with an embryo in its belly. Stories and poems came with the rising of the waves and with my footsteps as I walked.
The mental health charity Mind launched a campaign this past week about places that are special to people. It’s called ‘Postcards from somewhere’ and encourages people to think about those places that sustain us and hold us together. When I searched near me, I found people had written about all sorts of places near here, including Victoria Park, which is about three miles away on the other side of the river, and Scotstoun Stadium, the athletics stadium that also hosts the Glasgow Warriors rugby team.
My place is rather definitely by the Firth of Forth. A little bit of me lives in Belhaven Bay and at Prestongrange. Even while I live here in the west, and deeply enjoy doing so, my somewhere is by the Forth, looking in the distance, thinking and dreaming. There is always a better tomorrow, just as persevering invariably makes it so. I never mind going back for that.
Amazingly, writing this blog actually involves some research. When I was in Edinburgh a week or two ago, I took some photographs though there was the flaw that it happened to be dark and they just didn’t come out right, sadly. Luckily, I was in Edinburgh during the day time and managed to get some photographs. But first some background.
I am a big reader. Being Scottish, I am a wee bit biased in prizing our nation’s literature above most others. As a nation, we are getting better at promoting our writers and our writing. One of the foremost examples of this is the Writer’s Museum, in Lady Stair’s Close in Edinburgh. It is a fine place with displays about Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and Walter Scott. There are invariably temporary exhibitions too. Outside, in the close, are quotations set into the pavement from Scottish writers, some of whom are favourites of mine. I like to take a walk through there from time to time and always see something new. Some examples are below:
I particularly like the George Mackay Brown quote, chosen in 2005 and taken from his poem ‘Hamnavoe’. It’s a simple and direct description of what it’s like to write a poem or to write. We do put our hands in the fire. Sometimes we get burnt, though.
Nan Shepherd wrote probably one of my top three favourite books, The Living Mountain, which is about walking in the Cairngorms. It is also a very slender book that I read cover to cover within an hour. I remember it vividly: I was on holiday at my auntie’s in Aberdeen and was sitting on a summer’s night in her conservatory reading it. I had bought it that day at one of the National Trust castles somewhere in Aberdeenshire, possibly Craigievar or Crathes. I liked the look of the book and I think I had read about it in one of Robert Macfarlane’s books. I re-read it about once a year. In the best traditions of nature writing, Nan Shepherd’s writing is full of life, incredibly evocative and beautiful. If you take one thing from this, go read Nan Shepherd. You’ll be glad you did.
I wrote a little about Gavin Douglas in the post ‘South’, referring to a sculpture at Tullie House in Carlisle. The first line roughly translates into English as ‘make it broad and plain’, not a bad way to write, I would say.
Last but not least, John Muir. At some point, I will write in much greater depth here about Muir, a fellow Dunbar native and a figure I know more than a little about. This quote comes from his Life and Letters, published posthumously and edited by his literary executor William Frederick Bade. It is also the very last quotation in the video played on the middle floor in John Muir’s Birthplace in Dunbar.
There are many other quotes in Lady Stair’s Close, from Sorley Maclean to Naomi Mitchison, Iain Crichton Smith and Muriel Spark, leading down from the High Street through the Close down to the Mound. Have a walk through it some time. See where it takes you. It is, as Muriel Spark says, a ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’.
For the next wee while, there will be new posts here at least twice a week. This unusual surplus output reflects the fact I have done loads of writing in January, taking advantage of more time (which isn’t going to last) and also a shiny new computer.
A longer essay will appear on a Sunday morning, which is the time I was writing posts for a while, and then a shorter one will be published on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. At least that’s the aim. I have a fair few posts ready to go, on topics as diverse as Dumfries and Galloway, Stirling, Orkney, the photo that graces the top of this page, day tripping while autistic, London, sensory overloads and flat Irn Bru.
Sunday’s post is called ‘Furth’ and is about East Lothian or two towns in particular.
Our shorter post tonight is called ‘Scriveners’ and is about Lady Stair’s Close in Edinburgh. Enjoy.
Day trip planning is a serious business. It is often the best bit of the whole enterprise though often the most difficult too. Choosing where to go is tricky sometimes, when I fancy going some place but can’t think of just where or even the right side of the country to pick. I often start with Google Maps, zoomed out as far as it can go, with much of Scotland and northern England on the screen ready to narrow it down. Or otherwise it is an idea, a glance at a leaflet, a conversation or a stray thought. A recent trip to Kirkcaldy Galleries was inspired by reading a Tweet. A trip to York last year was inspired by looking at a train on an adjoining platform at Central Station.
After I have decided on a destination, and that can often change or be decided on that day or as I go sometimes, I need to figure out how to go about it. Sometimes I can do that off the top of my head. Getting to Edinburgh, for example, requires knowing when the train is to Central then there are trains every 15 minutes from Queen Street to Waverley or buses from the bus station. And then the reverse. More often than not, I will know the way but not the times. I have loaded my phone with apps, namely Traveline Scotland and Scotrail, that are invaluable in this process. In the olden days, I would plan with paper timetables and the Internet when I could have access, carefully noting where and when in a notebook. I might still note things down but there’s always an app for looking it up first.
Most journeys start with a short train journey from Cardonald to Glasgow Central on a Class 380 Scotrail train. The journey isn’t that exciting, with some graffiti to make it interesting, including at Cotterill Lighting which is very arty. There used to be Yes and 45% type graffiti near Kinning Park but it seems to have been covered over recently. One of my favourites is for Turning Point Scotland, which has silhouettes of some of the prominent city landmarks as well as a mural with two male faces, one clean shaven and smiling, the other more dishevelled, showing the effects of rehabilitation.
At Central, there are more options. From there, I can go south to England, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. More often at the moment, I head for Queen Street, where there are trains to Edinburgh, Falkirk, Stirling, Dundee, Inverness, Aberdeen and the West Highlands. Both of these stations are beautiful but Queen Street has the edge on it, purely because it was so often where I arrived into Glasgow on day trips past. I like Central too, though, mainly because it gets me home and of course the view along the river at either end, particularly that towards the Broomielaw, the Kingston Bridge and the Clyde Arc.
I often visit the Buchanan Bus Station too, particularly if going to Fife or occasionally Edinburgh if I fancy a trip along the M8. The bus station is bright and relatively shiny with lots of public art, including the statue of a snogging couple in the main concourse as well as the clock with running legs which is just outside. I often have to run past myself, invariably hurtling down West Nile Street towards Central and my train home.
Day tripping from Dunbar was a whole different story. Trains were barely once an hour, more often less, and very often late. Buses were once an hour and similarly perfunctory and dilatory, a timetable a glance at a calendar. Still, it was on the East Coast Main Line and there were direct trains to Newcastle, Durham and York, as well as London, which I did at least once. Day tripping on a Saturday was a nightmare, with the last train to Dunbar from Edinburgh at 7pm, which, to put it mildly, was dire. (It is, at time of writing, 22.06, which it was when I left, but not for very long.) Coming back from Newcastle or the south was even worse with a train every two hours and I spent quite a lot of time in Newcastle Central Station waiting for my (late) train while others for Aberdeen, Glasgow and everywhere else appeared without a stop in Dunbar while the good folk of Berwick, Alnmouth and Morpeth could toddle home no bother.
Thankfully this isn’t an issue any more. I live in one of the most connected places in the land. There might not be a train from my bit of the world into the centre of Glasgow until 9am on a Sunday but there are still buses along Paisley Road that I can utilise. There are multiple options for every journey. An urge to pop into an art gallery can be put into action within half an hour. I can walk around the corner and be at the Burrell Collection within the hour. It’s not an endeavour any more.
But there are still challenges, still places I haven’t been to or are difficult to reach from this great city. The Borders is just as hard from here as Dunbar, despite my home town being closer. Much of Argyll, including Kilmartin Glen, is tricky and requires about three buses each way. Dumfries and Galloway is a beautiful part of the country but similarly hard to navigate. (I have, though. At some point, I’ll write about it here.) Craignethan Castle, near Lanark, and Dundonald Castle, near Kilmarnock, are two-bus jobs. That’s what makes it fun.
This year’s list of places to go is constantly being added to. When I was in Kirkcaldy recently, I came up with a list of four places to visit based on the art collections in the Galleries there. They were:
Of those four, only Kellie Castle is unknown to me. It’s a National Trust castle near Pittenweem in Fife and featured in two very fine paintings at Kirkcaldy. It would be one for a weekday and an early start to get myself firstly to St. Andrews then down the coast, possibly to be combined with a walk in Anstruther and Cellardyke.
I have been to Iona at least twice. It’s a beautiful island and one I would love to spend more time on.
Port Seton and Cockenzie are in East Lothian, both fishing villages with harbours. Seton Collegiate Church is nearby, possibly one of the most peaceful places in Scotland. It’s well worth spending the price of an Historic Scotland membership just to keep it open another year. I read Around The World In Eighty Days by Jules Verne sitting in the grounds there one sunny afternoon a few years back.
Crichton Castle is more of a challenge by public transport. It involves getting to Edinburgh and then on an hourly bus service to the village of Pathhead (pronounced ‘Pethheid’ if you want to say it properly). From there, it’s a decent walk along farm tracks until you find the castle ruins, remote and on an incline, above a valley. I love castles anyway and this one is a particular favourite, not only for the surroundings but its architecture. The courtyard has what HS calls a ‘diamond-faceted facade’, which is beautiful and unique in Scottish castles, nicked from the style of an equivalent noble home near the Mediterranean rather than in deepest Midlothian.
Thinking on where to go is often the best part, for sure. It’s definitely more fun than some of the travelling. I don’t always visit the most glamorous places but those I do, there’s always something to make it worth it, even if it is a long walk or the view at the end of it. I look forward to more of the same in this coming year, even if some ideas might need to wait another year for their time to come.
Lamington is a village in South Lanarkshire. A lot of people probably don’t know it’s there. I didn’t until recently when the viaduct there was closed due to the recent storms. Said viaduct carries the West Coast Main Line and due to structural damage it is closed until March (at time of writing), significantly disrupting transport links across the border at this side of the country.
It got me thinking about the border itself and about our southern neighbours. The border stretches north-east from the Solway to the Tweed, through the Debatable Lands and the Cheviots until it hits the North Sea at Lamberton, just north of Berwick. Part of the route follows that of Hadrian’s Wall, once the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. In Parliamentary terms, the border sees Conservative constituencies on the English side and SNP and the sole Conservative constituency in Scotland on the other. There are differences in prescription charges, drink-drive limits, laws on many things and culture too. In the Cheviots, a couple of feet can determine whether the Border Mountain Rescue or the Northumbrian equivalent will come to your aid.
It means that Border communities have a very distinct identity. Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town that has been besieged more times than any other except Jerusalem, has been English since 1482. It has a very split identity, neither Scottish nor English. It is Northumbrian and proudly so. Its football team, Berwick Rangers, though, play in SPFL League Two, the only English team in the Scottish League. Rather wonderfully, in Berwick you can get the best selection of newspapers anywhere, with paper shops there stocking both Scottish and English editions. I like it a lot. The train station stands on the site of Berwick Castle, a prominent place in our island’s history. It also has a trail dedicated to the artist LS Lowry, who holidayed there and in Sunderland, taking a break from painting matchstick men to portray waves and seascapes. To be honest, I prefer them to his more famous works but that’s me.
Carlisle, meanwhile, is about eighty miles away at the other side of the country. It has one of the finest museums in the country, Tullie House, and a pretty decent castle, run by English Heritage. The underpass between them features reminders of the area’s past, of industry and of the Border reivers, the raiders who pillaged and stole and caused general strife in the border lands over time. It is why much of the western Border passes through an area known as the Debatable Lands, as who ruled was often open to question. One of my favourite sculptures anywhere is in the underpass, a lump of stone featuring the words of Gavin Douglas, the bishop of Glasgow in the early 16th century, brutally denouncing the Reivers.
Between them is Hadrian’s Wall, built in 122AD by the Romans, covering 73 miles from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend, near Newcastle. One of the most evocative historical experiences I have ever had was at Housesteads Roman Fort, not so far from Hexham. At the back of the fort, I sat a while and looked over the wall. I could readily imagine Caledonian forces in times of conflict and local traders heading for the wall to trade, Reivers and much else besides. The landscape distinctly changed there, a valley and then hills beyond, as I recall, and it was quite incredible, really.
I know Berwick better than I do Carlisle. Berwick is about 30 miles from Dunbar and I sometimes went for a walk around the walls at Berwick to help me think when I was studying a few years ago. There is a direct bus route from Dunbar to Berwick, passing through Coldingham and Eyemouth en route. Berwickshire is a gorgeous part of the world, with fields, trees and a dramatic coastline, including St. Abbs Head, sitting high above the pretty fishing village of St. Abbs, one of my favourite places on earth. It is one of the pleasures of travelling south via the east coast that the train passes through Berwickshire. The country just gets a lot nicer beyond Torness and Bilsdean, where East Lothian becomes the Scottish Borders.
The same can be said travelling south from Glasgow to Carlisle, particularly when the train turns right at Carstairs Junction. The hour’s journey south is beautiful, passing through valleys and then low by the Solway before it hits Carlisle. It is best seen through the window of a tilting Virgin Pendolino at 125 mph, it must be said, though of course not at the moment. Carlisle is one of the best train stations I know too. You can get a train to a lot of places, including along the Tyne Valley Line to Newcastle as well as along the line to Settle in Yorkshire, which I have wanted to do for years but haven’t managed yet.
I like the North of England. Great people, fine scenery and quite a history. Getting there from here is brilliant, whatever way you go. I hope to be on the Lamington Viaduct again soon, possibly to go to Tullie House to go to the Roman Galleries or perhaps to Newcastle, another favourite place. Maybe I will finally get to the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick, a town badly hit by the floods in recent weeks. It’s not so far, England, but it’s completely different. Not bad different, though.
The post that was due to appear today was about the border lands between Scotland and England. It will appear instead some time in the coming week. As befits snow days, let’s junk the routine and play about in the snow.
As I write this, all is white outside. Snow came suddenly and fell in considerable depth. It’s still snowing and I like that. I grew up in a part of the country where it didn’t snow very often. I didn’t see snow, or I can’t remember it anyway, until I was about nine or ten. I remember being at school in Edinburgh and seeing snow outside the window. It was amazing, completely unknown and beautiful, completely changing the world and how it looked.
That feeling still comes to me every time it snows. I remember being at school and my head openly turned towards the window rather than the teacher, even when I was a teenager and supposedly above these things. (Then again, I spent much of my high school years writing poems and stories rather than properly working so I probably would have been looking out the window anyway.) I was at work yesterday when it started to snow and I just felt a great smile come over my face.
I managed to get out during my break to get some photos, which appear below:
When I was growing up, we used to take the dog out every night after tea, usually the same route, past the Pool, through the Glebe, along the Prom and back. This was all year round, even on cold, winter nights when we took torches. Dunbar sits on a point where the Firth of Forth joins the North Sea and on clear days you can see the East Neuk of Fife and even Angus from the clifftops. By night, you could see the street lights shimmering in the distance while above a whole sky of stars shone. On those walks, by day and night, I got my love of a good vista, what Patrick Geddes called the ‘synoptic view’.
I had just finished work and was walking down the ramp to the bus stop. Where I work, or one of the places, is high up, under the Glennifer Braes, and I could see streetlights for miles, across to Glasgow, Knightswood, Scotstoun and possibly even Clydebank. It was a clear night with only a few clouds dark grey on the not-quite-dark sky, though I couldn’t quite pick out many stars. I couldn’t help smiling. Being able to survey the world under you, even if you aren’t quite the master or mistress of it, can’t be beat.
I wrote here recently about my experiences visiting museums, including about sensory overloads and how to manage them. Remarkably, that post seems to have generated a bit of interest, which is nice given it was also the most difficult post I have ever written and the most personal. I would like to expand a little on it, if I may, with some thoughts on what it’s like to visit an art gallery, an environment which on the face of it is even more of a sensory feast/all-you-can-eat buffet than a museum.
I never used to like art. Not that I had anything against it, it just didn’t interest me. When I first started going on day trips, nearly eight years ago now, I realised I hadn’t set foot in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh since I was at primary school. I decided to rectify that and ended up going to more and more art galleries. I can’t claim to be an expert but I know what I like. I like landscape paintings, particularly French Impressionists and Turner as well as the works of the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists, photography and the odd portrait.
Art galleries can be very intimidating to many people. I know someone who is a very gregarious person but yet is intimidated by some of the more distinguished art galleries in Edinburgh. Many galleries have made great strides to be more welcoming to people. National Galleries of Scotland, for instance, are very good at promoting their blockbuster exhibitions each year, often making use of the pillars at the front of the Royal Scottish Academy to make sure absolutely no-one on Princes Street or Hanover Street can miss what’s on. My favourite was the Andy Warhol exhibition on a few years back when the pillars were done up like Campbell’s soup cans.
An art gallery is a very intensely visual environment with a direct gaze at a painting or an artwork more regular than perhaps a glance at a museum object. An hour is usually enough to cover what I want to see in an art gallery, which luckily seems to be the extent of my attention span before it begins to wane rapidly and I am crying out for a can of Irn Bru and a Milky Way to right myself.
What also helps is breaking up the day a bit. Usually when I go somewhere, I usually have a rough idea of what I want to see though usually I just rock and roll, depending on my mood and impulse at the time. A visit to an art gallery is usually followed by a walk outside for a while, to get some fresh air and take the stress off my eyes. By that I mean not having to look so intensely and think about it as much.
Being able to sit down helps me to enjoy my favourite works more, to fully appreciate them but also to keep any overload at bay. The National Gallery in Edinburgh and Kelvingrove here in Glasgow are excellent at providing seats around their galleries, particularly in the body of the kirk upstairs in NGS’s case and in the French Art gallery at Kelvingrove. I remember, though, being in the wonderful Kirkcaldy Galleries, possibly in the Scottish Colourists’ room, where the rather plush bench seat was, naturally, positioned in the wrong direction. You can’t win them all.
It helps to know the gallery well. For instance, one of my favourite galleries is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, as shown below. I was lucky to have a behind-the-scenes tour just before it reopened a few years back. NGS did a great job in doing a sympathetic refurb, keeping the best of the way the gallery was before while expanding it to reflect additional space. They also have several very fine quiet places to which I can repair if I need to. Or simply because I want to. I like it when I can sit down for the pleasure of it, not just as a physical, sensory necessity. The ambulatory, or mezzanine level, is magnificent with murals all around depicting key events in Scottish history. I like to sit there just to soak it all in as well as to recharge. Another good place in that gallery is the Library, just along the corridor. Libraries, of course, are fine places to be any time.
Created with Nokia Smart Cam
There are also other practical compensations. I have tinted glasses that react to light when I am outdoors. When I go to Kelvingrove, I often sit on a step near the entrance to let my glasses readjust. That just so happens to be next to my favourite painting in the entire world (as shown below). It depicts the Paps of Jura, as seen from Machrihanish beach in Argyll, painted by William MacTaggart. It is beautiful, slightly Impressionist in how it shows the distant hills with a choppy sea and waves lapping onto the shore. There are very few things worse than letting my glasses adjust to being inside and looking at such a fine painting.
For what it’s worth, I firmly believe that accessibility is more than just about token efforts, platitudes and PR wheezes. Often what is provided for one group, with one idea, can benefit far more people. More seats, for instance, benefit older people as much as people like me. Quiet times in museums, like those held by the Natural History Museum in London, benefit the families of autistic children as much as the kids themselves.
I remember once being in Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery, possibly the only museum in the world that has a Nissan as an exhibit. It also has a rather fine selection of paintings by LS Lowry. They had a display of paintings by autistic young people from the local college. They were rather fine. I particularly remember one painting that was in the style of Pablo Picasso, with the outline of a human head with lots of lines and colours inside. I can relate.
Museums and galleries are for all of us. In most cases, we also pay for them with our taxes. More and more, they are coming to represent different and varied groups of people and that can only be good for encouraging new visitors to cross the threshold. If people have a good experience then they tend to remember and come back. They also tell people about it, by far and away the best publicity ever devised. If it meets the standards of good PR and counts towards statistics, even better. But that must be secondary to people enjoying themselves, which is the main thing. I love museums and I love art galleries. I like being in them. I experience things differently than most people but I make it work. Encouraging people to experience the world on their own terms is the task of all cultural institutions. Some people need more help and support than others but that makes it interesting and, from personal experience on the other side of the coin, more rewarding too.
On Friday, I am going to Edinburgh. Apart from a guided tour of a certain sacred place in Leith, I plan to have a good walk around some of my favourite bits of the capital, including the Meadows and possibly the Botanic Gardens as well.
I can’t remember if I have posted about the Botanics here. I seem to remember writing about the Botanics in Glasgow and the remains of the railway passing through it, but not the real Botanics, those in Edinburgh. I have been to the Botanics many, many times, in every season and probably every weather and every mood. It is a beautiful park, full of trees and foliage that I cannot name but like immensely all the same.
My favourite part of the Botanics is the John Muir grove of Giant Sequoia or Redwood trees, tall and elegant firs near the East Gate. I often like to sit there with my thoughts, letting them scatter like those great trees’ seeds. John Muir never visited the Botanics – they were too late for him plus I think when he visited Edinburgh, they were still somewhere on Leith Walk – but they are a fitting tribute, tall trees that are still growing, evoking great groves of their gargantuan cousins on the Pacific coast of America that Muir knew so well.
A January Botanics walk is very different from one in high summer. It tends to be quieter, colder, wetter and less leafy but it still has the potential to turn my head around, to slightly misquote James Taylor. I think a walk in winter is better than one in summer. The light is more precious, as is suitable weather. The Botanics are still beautiful and there is plenty still to see, especially an exhibition in the fairly new John Hope Gateway. In the Gateway is a quote from the Victorian polymath Patrick Geddes, who said ‘By leaves we live’, which is also the motto of the Scottish Poetry Library, incidentally. We do live by leaves, by trees, their seeds, acorns and by literature too. Those four words say a lot and I am not done making sense of them.
The Meadows are usually busier, a city park that is also a major thoroughfare between the University of Edinburgh and the city centre and Marchmont and Bruntsfield. I have walked around them a lot. Usually in the summer time, they are mobbed with people having barbecues and generally having a good time. Still it is a nice place to walk and ponder in during the winter too. There are two unicorn figures on plinths on Melville Drive which are majestic and reminders that this is the capital city. There is also a fine view to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, Arthur’s Seat looking like an elephant as it so often does from the western side of the city. It is also where Hibs played their first game, on Christmas Day 1875, against Hearts.
Even when I lived in Dunbar, I liked taking long walks in cities. I think it is the sensation of being anonymous and being able to put one foot before another and cover a great distance in not so much time. Edinburgh is a great place to walk, familiar but far enough from home. It is endlessly interesting, an ancient yet modern city, more a collection of villages, really. The Meadows and the Botanics are both favourite places and I look forward to being there, not so much to think but just to be and to walk a while.