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.