There are certain sounds that immediately take you back somewhere, to some point in your life. Every time I’m by the sea, hearing the call of gannets reminds me of the new harbour in Dunbar, where quite a few of them call the Castle Rock home. Dunbar Castle was once one of the foremost castles in Scotland until it was demolished by order of the Scottish Parliament in 1568 after Mary, Queen of Scots fled there to be with the Earl of Bothwell. What survived was used as a quarry, firstly to build the port of Leith then the Victoria Harbour itself was created in 1842 by driving a channel through the rock. One of the archways to the west of the harbour fell in about 20 years ago so there’s even less of the castle left now. But the castle is still resilient and evocative of Dunbar and Scotland’s history as well as being home to hundreds of seabirds. Every time I see the castle, it always raises my spirits, without fail. Where I grew up stimulated my love of history just as much of exploring and it underpins my own resilience too.
The newspapers this time of year are invariably full of features about the ‘Best of the Year’. I have already seen loads of such space-filling articles about the best of this year’s books and as ever, they puffed up books that in nearly all cases I hadn’t read and would need several lifetimes to read. My personal favourite was in The Herald where one writer mentioned an obscure pamphlet some of her friends had written with the words ‘if you can find it’. I believe that is what Private Eye would call log-rolling, par excellence.
Anyway, this will be a ‘Best of 2016’ post but since this is a travel blog, we will be focusing on the best places I’ve been this year, like I did last year. The categories last year were:
Best art gallery
Best historic place
Best place to watch football
Best fish supper
Reviewing last year’s post, I noticed that at the end, I listed five places I wanted to get to this year – Dunnottar Castle, Tantallon Castle, Oxford, Bristol and Stornoway. How many of them have I reached? None. There’s always 2017. So, rather than recriminating, let’s get into those places that have enriched my 2016, beginning with the best museum.
Best Museum – Ulster Museum, Belfast –
Without a shadow of a doubt. This was a very easy choice. When I was in Belfast in August, I went to the UM three out of the four days, spending ages wandering about its history, science, natural history and art collections, as happy as a pig in some kind of manure. As much as the art was probably my favourite bit, kudos to the curator who had the bright idea of creating a replica of a pastoral painting featuring a dragon, in a tribute to Game of Thrones.
Runner-up – The Ulster Transport Museum, Cultra, near Belfast –
Another Northern Irish choice, partly down to customer service (the person behind the counter could have charged me full whack to get into the Folk Museum up the road too) but mainly due to the incredible transport and social history collections, of old trains, buses, vans and a sedan chair.
Best art gallery – Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy, Fife –
My favourite art gallery in the land. I can easily spend an hour in its four or five rooms amongst its fine collection of mainly Scottish art, from the Colourists, Glasgow Boys and William McTaggart. It is an easy trip for me and necessary every few months for a top-up.
Runner-up – Fergusson Gallery, Perth –
I like JD Fergusson. This was mainly for the building as well as the surprisingly subtle and well-done exhibition about nudes I saw there earlier this year.
This was a hard one, another new place but one with incredible views and which can change your perspective on a lot of things too. I even felt some local pride when I encountered the tomb of John and Isabella Elder, who donated the money to build Elder Park Library in Govan.
Runner-up – Culross, Fife –
A place on my list for many years, 16th century architecture but firmly living in the 21st century, a conservation village with pragmatism about its selling points. In short, it’s sexy and it knows it, beautiful and historic. Looking forward to another trip soon.
Marsh’s Library is an old library behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. I left after an hour enriched by spending some time amongst its stacks and just being in the place. It doesn’t take itself too seriously either. Best three euros spent in a while.
Best place to watch football – South Stand, Hampden Park, Glasgow, on Saturday 21st May 2016 about 4.52 pm –
Still can’t believe it. ‘It’s Liam Henderson to deliver!’ ‘It’s been 114 years. Now it’s not even been 114 seconds!’ And so on.
Runner-up – East Stand, Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh, on Tuesday 16th February 2016 –
The Hearts replay at Easter Road. Probably led to Robbie Neilson’s departure from Tynecastle as I write this in the dying moments of November.
Best fish supper – Cromar’s, Union Street, St. Andrews, Fife –
Another new entry and a very fine chip shop indeed. Absolutely mobbed when there in the summer but a fine scran. All the more memorable for the persistent mooching seagulls who would not leave the bonnet of the car despite being repeatedly shooed away.
Runner-up – The Tailend, Leith Walk, Edinburgh –
I had a fish supper before one of Hibs’ evening games at the end of last season, scranned sitting in Leith Links in the capital. Very, very braw indeed.
Best park – Queen’s Park, Glasgow –
For the view from the flagpole across this great city, on grey days and sunny days, on the 21st of May and on other days when wondering what to do.
Runner-up – Leith Links, Leith, Edinburgh –
For the parade on 22nd May, when thousands of Hibees saw what they dared dream about only rarely. For smiles that still haven’t quite dimmed and when it is always time for heroes.
Best beach – Belhaven Bay, near Dunbar, East Lothian –
‘The curve of the bay opens out into the Firth of Forth with the Bass Rock and the Isle of May out into the distance. A place full of memories but never fails to wash my spirit clean. Usually because it’s bloody windy.’
Last year’s entry still true and it’s still the best place on the face of the earth.
Runner-up – Kev’s Beach, near St. Abbs, Berwickshire –
Now, ‘Kev’s Beach’ is not what it’s called on the Ordnance Survey maps. It is near St. Abbs Head, in what I believe is called Horsecastle Bay, as you walk down from the cliffs that lead from St. Abbs to the Head. It is a little secluded bit with rocks at either side, a pebbly beach and cove. Short of it having an official name, I hereby declare it ‘Kev’s Beach’, for there are few better places on the planet to be than St. Abbs and to rest your tired feet in the water and listen to the waves and pebbles caressed by them as they come to shore.
Honourable Mention – Prestwick, South Ayrshire –
For the walk I had a few weeks ago in the sunset casting changing, gorgeous colours across the Clyde, Arran and the Ailsa Craig.
So, that’s the best of 2016. Who knows what next year will bring? We could hardly have guessed what this year has brought. Let’s hope next year, 2017, will be better for the world. My year personally has had many blessings and I am thankful for what I have been able to experience this year. Have a very lovely New Year.
The Weekly Photo Challenge this week is themed around paths, the path taken and the one still to come. The photo above was taken walking around St. Abbs Head in Berwickshire, easily one of my favourite places on earth and a path trodden quite a few times over the years. This year has been mentally busy and there have been times when I have longed to escape to places like St. Abbs or just to go on a long walk, an aimless derive in the psychogeographical way or a saunter in the best traditions of John Muir. As Gwyn Thomas rightly said, “But the beauty is in the walking — we are betrayed by destinations.” Sometimes the act of walking is all it takes to stimulate new thoughts and to jettison old ones along the way. The act of putting one foot in front of another is invaluable in keeping me sane and I hope over the festive time to do a fair bit of it, in the city or outside, maybe not down at St. Abbs but somewhere with a beach or a park. To be best inspired to write or to study or just to live, walking is vital and picking the right path, the wildest, leafiest and least-trodden one or otherwise, even more so.
Before Scotland came into being, Northumberland, or more precisely the Kingdom of Northumbria, stretched as far as the Firth of Forth. If I lived in those times, I would have been considered an Anglian rather than the slightly geographically confused Scot I am today. Northumberland is an independent sort of place, keenly fought over through the centuries, defiantly Northumbrian despite being part of England. Berwick has been besieged more times than anywhere except Jerusalem and while it has been English since 1482, its football team plays in Scotland, Berwickshire stretches miles into Scotland and the local shops stock both English and Scottish newspapers.
Northumberland is one of the most beautiful places in these islands, with many fine beaches and historic places between Berwick and Newcastle. Plus Barter Books in Alnwick, easily one of the finest bookshops in the land. I have spent many fine days in Northumberland, most recently last Sunday, walking along the beach between Low Newton and Dunstanburgh Castle. Walking along a beach in any weather tends to have the right effect on me but the combination of a beautiful place, not so many people, winter sunshine and not so much wind just made it absolutely great. Rather than gushing any more, here are some photographs from the walk, including from going around Dunstanburgh Castle:
Some blog business before we finish. Our next post will be next Wednesday and will be a resume of 2016. For those reading, have a very lovely Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.
Following on from the 200th post a couple of weeks ago, recently I was walking in Lochend Park in Edinburgh and as I walked I thought about my history in that part of the capital, some of which I wrote about in Craigentinny recently. In the 200th post, I wrote a little about how I know Edinburgh more than I do Glasgow, despite having lived here for three years. The gap is narrowing, though.
I am quite a visual thinker. If I’ve been to a place once, I can usually remember it if I’m there again, right down to which way I walked or what the surroundings were like. In cities, I find it useful to walk around as you can make your own mental map more readily than you can on a bus or a train, forming connections between districts that appear on an actual map but blend into one when you’re on foot.
Sometimes I like to walk in the West End here in Glasgow. One of the last times I was over there, I walked around the Botanic Gardens, all the way through into the arboretum and back to where it comes out near Kelvinbridge. I walked along Great Western Road for a bit then down through Woodlands to Charing Cross, onto Bath Street and down to Central Station from there. That walk is about an hour, all-in, and takes you through quite a few distinctive parts of the city. From the West End, there are about four or five routes you can take, along Great Western Road or through Woodlands, on Berkeley Street then Bath Street or alternatively along Argyle Street. I mix and match with them, just letting my feet take me forward, inclination leading me left or right even while I have an eventual destination in mind.
I work in the south side of the city and one lunch break I headed out for a walk around the block since it was beautiful and autumnal. Around Langside are lots of streets named after places connected to Mary, Queen of Scots, whose forces went into battle about where the library sits, including Lochleven Road, named after the castle in Kinross where Mary abdicated, Craigmillar Road, after the castle on the outskirts of the capital, and Dundrennan Road, named after the abbey where Mary spent her last night in Scotland before crossing the border to her eventual doom. All three of those places I have been to and all three of them are Historic Scotland properties, incidentally. Anyway, I headed down Sinclair Drive and ended up at the Cart after a few minutes, looking up and down the streets, putting names to places. I noticed that there are a few lanes up and down that way too, like in the West End.
Not so far from Langside is Cathcart, where Holmwood House is, which I wrote about recently. That day I walked from there round by King’s Park to Hampden and eventually to Cathkin Park. There are parts of it, like the Snuff Mill Bridge, which are stunning, putting me in mind of the Brig o’Doon, down at Alloway, part of the tale of Tam o’Shanter. The city has lots of hidden dimensions and that day at Holmwood was incredibly useful in helping to widen my mental map of the city.
Around this way, there are still places I am yet to venture into, like Rosshall Gardens, in Crookston, about a mile from here, the House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park, and Barshaw Park, on the Glasgow Road in Paisley. They are all on my radar but it just needs the right day and time. I have only set foot in Bellahouston Park once, which I wrote about here, but it was excellent, with great views and interesting sculptures. Sometimes you don’t need to go far to discover something new.
Sitting writing this tonight has made me think about the jaunts I could go on across the city and beyond. I am due a trip down to Alloway – my first visit there, quite a few years back now, was on a dreich winter’s day, which makes it more atmospheric – while the House for an Art Lover is reachable from here within half an hour so it can be done with minimal thought or planning. Provan Hall is still on my list and I am still curious about the stone circle up at Sighthill too. There are corners of this city I am yet to reach and it might take another three years for it to happen. But my mental map of the city is growing all the time and some day, it will take in more than even my knowledge of Edinburgh, since I live here and that won’t be changing any time soon, sure.
I am sometimes confused for being younger than I am, in looks and how I act. But I feel every one of my 27 years and more, in fact I take a sort of perverse pride in being a young fogey, having quite old music taste and just generally breaking the mould in what people expect of twentysomethings, or people generally sometimes. Often people ask what I’m studying, somehow getting a student sort of vibe off me. I am of course studying for a degree in history from the Open University but it’s not the main thing I do in my life.
Sometimes my studying gets neglected because of one thing or another. There are days when I can’t face opening my books, when getting lost in the Internet, writing or going off somewhere on a bus appeals more. Luckily, as I’ve written here before, I tend to do a lot of my best studying sitting on buses and trains. A lot of my best thoughts have come either while out walking or in transit, scribbled into a notebook. More than once, assignments have been written on the hoof, submitted on returning home.
For me, writing assignments is often a rushed process, with the process of research, planning, composition, referencing and submission done within a period of a couple of days, even a few hours when my back is really against the wall. Strangely, my last assignment, the first for my current module, A223 Early modern Europe, received the best mark I’ve ever had in a second level module and some of the best comments I’ve had ever. Yet it was written in just shy of four hours, sat right here on my bed with my laptop on my knees. Submission is usually a massive weight off my shoulders, a sense of peace and contentment rushing over me as the pile of papers and notes can go for recycling and the assignment wends its way across cyberspace into my tutor’s inbox. Often I couldn’t care less about the mark. It’s the getting it done. The mark is just a bonus, in a lot of cases.
I was like that with my last module’s final grade, which was quite a good one, let’s say. Getting the revision done and then the exam was just a huge relief, it was done and over and done with. I was confident I had passed but didn’t really care exactly what I got. The grade was a shock because I felt I hadn’t put everything I had into the module as a whole but yet I had done well. Sometimes it just comes down to that burst of work and being jammy. What the Proclaimers once described as ‘with a faith and a bit of luck, and a half-tonne bomb in the back of a truck’.
This year, I have 12 days off over Christmas and New Year. Some of them I have plans to go see the Hibs, others will naturally involve family, presents and the like. I have to have a clear out as I have too much stuff (I am not even joking – I don’t kid when I say I don’t want anything, especially books) but I hope to spend at least a day or two catching up with A223 and getting myself up to speed for the New Year. The course calendar generously specifies this week and next week as the Christmas break but I will quietly ignore that. I plan to relax and read and reduce my formidable to-read pile but studying is a major priority. I honestly enjoy studying and get a lot of satisfaction from it. I just need to structure it into my life better. But then again my studying successes this year have come from keeping my back against the wall so I may have to be careful about being too good.
2016 has been a good year for me personally, if not so much for the world. Two of the four major things I wanted to happen in my life in its current phase have happened, one in the last couple of days, the other on 21st May, plus my family has grown too. 2017 will hopefully see me put one of those major things into practice and also finish this OU module. Next September I will hopefully embark on a level 3 module, the first of two that will lead me to a degree, with any luck just prior to my 30th birthday in 2019. In the meantime, though, there is some solid work to be done first, a few more rushed TMAs and hopefully some shocks at what I can achieve when I have a hard deadline heavily on my horizon, with more than a few good intentions to work more consistently while I’m at it.
Update – I had to defer A223 due to life pressures. As of June 2018, I am finally finishing the module with the exam in a couple of days. Lots of religion and gender history being revised right now. The plan is a year behind but hopefully it should still happen in the end.
Seagulls, particularly the urban variety, are famously not particularly known for their shyness. They clearly anticipated something in this photograph, taken in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat in Lochend Park, Edinburgh, about a month ago. Not sure what, though, as I had nothing for them.
Not far from Dunbar is the Torness nuclear power station. It is a major employer in the local area and a landmark for all those passing on the A1 or the railway so they know they are edging closer to home. Torness, to be fair, is not bonny; it is a grey boxy building devoid of much charm. Plus it is a nuclear power station so environmental considerations outweigh the architectural merits of the place. Those who live nearby are issued with special tablets in case everything goes wrong and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary patrol the local area, as they were the other day when we went to Dunglass Collegiate Church, about 3 miles away on the border between East Lothian and the Scottish Borders. Dunglass had long been on my list and en route to Northumberland, we stopped in for a wee look on a mild December morning.
Dunglass Collegiate Church is a fine looking church, sitting on a hill in the Dunglass estate with a view down to the sea at Thorntonloch and of course to Torness too. It is ruined now, roofed but open to the elements, used as a barn at one point and before that as a burial place and chapel for the Hall and Hume families. At the time, I was trying to write an essay for my OU course about the nobility in early modern Europe (now thankfully resolved and submitted) and imagined the noble families using this place as their own private sanctuary in life and in death too.
Of particular interest were two monuments in the south transept, one to Lady Helen Hall, 1762-1837, whose ‘powerful mental qualifications and accomplishments rendered her a conspicuous member of her time’, and the other to her husband Sir James Hall, who had a particular interest in geology, significant in the area due to Siccar Point being nearby, one of Hutton’s Uncomformaties, which helped to define how we understand the earth’s makeup today.
We didn’t linger long though it definitely merits a longer visit on a warmer and brighter day, perhaps to sit with a book and to look out to sea and to appreciate the light’s effect on the grey, sandstone walls of the church. The closest similar place I know is Seton Collegiate Church, between Port Seton and Longniddry, which I last visited about five or six years ago and where I sat on a hot summer’s day with a copy of Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days in hand, reading and basking in my surroundings. Dunglass will definitely be on my list for next year, perhaps combined with a walk down into Bilsdean Glen with its fine waterfall and maybe even a walk along the John Muir Link past Torness towards Skateraw, Barns Ness and eventually Dunbar. In the meantime, I am glad to have gotten there, even on the way somewhere else.
In the spirit of sharing older posts from the blog that I am quite proud of, here’s one from April that I quite liked and wanted to bring back, from a day in York. It’s quite a good insight into what I love about a day trip and why looking the right way at the right time makes a good day into one of the best days:
“There is a Glaswegian comedian called Arnold Brown. He was particularly prominent in the 1980s. He has quite a laconic, meandering style, often saying ‘And why not?’ I was reminded of this recently while walking in York when I encountered a bit of graffiti on a wall, which said ‘Why not?’ It’s a good question, often unanswerable and can be encouraging for better things and new adventures.
Also, as I walked towards an Italian restaurant to grab some scran, I saw this nifty piece of graffiti scrawled on the side of the restaurant. They are indeed.”
One of the nicest recent posts from the blog was about the Creel Loaders sculpture on Victoria Street in Dunbar. I liked writing it immensely. Some posts are harder to write than others. Usually the best to write are those about day trips I’ve just lived through. They usually get written in longhand on a train or the day after on this here laptop. The Creel Loaders post came because I was looking through my photographs and the words flowed from there about them. It is also a Dunbar post and I’ve always liked them. Writing them keeps me emotionally in touch with where I grew up. Here’s the post.
“Every time I go to Dunbar, I have a bit of a routine. I head along the High Street to the Glebe then walk around the Prom and back towards the East Beach before going for the train home. I usually walk around by the Pool, along Castle Street and down the Vennel to the Beach. The last time I was there, about a month ago, I was crossing Victoria Street by the Methodist Church when I looked down the street and saw a sculpture I had never seen in my life. The sun was shining and it cast an excellent light over this sculpture of three figures carrying a creel. There wasn’t a plaque or anything to tell me anything about it but I figured out at least that it was a creel and was to do with fishing. The cat slinking around the legs of the centre figure is a nice touch, I have to say.
As it turns out, according to the Courier, it is called ‘The Creel Loaders’ and was unveiled about 6 weeks ago, produced by Gardner Molloy. This being in East Lothian, the Courier report wonderfully adds that Mr Molloy is ‘of Cockenzie’, establishing that he’s not an incomer or anything, an important distinction for many in my home county, of course. ‘The Creel Loaders’ is stunning, to be fair, a great reminder of the fishing history in Dunbar and along the coastline both north and south. When I was in St. Abbs, even more recently, there was another example of sculpture, relating to the Eyemouth fishing disaster of 1881, an event that is rightfully still remembered in Berwickshire and marked by a set of sculptures along the Berwickshire Coastal Path.
I am not always convinced by sculptures that are placed outside. I know someone who placed a stone outside on the beach then brought it in a few months later, covered in seaweed and weathered by successions of waves. That’s fine but people like Antony Gormley who put their own body in places he hasn’t got a connection with, that annoys me. When it has a direct relevance, and tells a story, that’s great and wonderful and thought-provoking. The next time I’m in Dunbar, I’ll be taking a closer look at ‘The Creel Loaders’ and thinking on the fishing history of the place over many centuries and of course still to come, even if in decreasing numbers.”