Recently I saw a picture on Facebook taken during the ‘golden hour’, that bit of time this time of year between 3-4pm when the light is slowly fading and what there is of it is golden-yellow, casting just the right shade across whatever the surroundings are. It is a time of day I love and invariably I structure day trips in such a way to make sure I’m outside as it starts to get dark, to wring that last little bit of day before the night takes hold.
Here are a few photos of the golden hour from various trips this winter so far, beginning in Northumberland and going through the city, Dunbar and a few other places besides.
Catching up with programmes on the iPlayer tonight led me to watch a documentary marking the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, one of Scotland’s great newspapers. (It is available for just over three weeks on the BBC iPlayer here). It made me think of a childhood memory. I went to primary school in Edinburgh, more precisely in an unit specifically for autistic children. Each day we had a copy of The Scotsman though only I read it in much depth (I was always a weird boy). One of my classmates did usually look at the sport though. The Scotsman was and is the morning paper of Edinburgh and surrounding areas, just as The Herald is Glasgow’s, The Courier Dundee’s and the mighty Press and Journal of Aberdeen. It was only natural that the paper we got was published only a few miles away, at that point on North Bridge in the very heart of our capital though soon to move to Holyrood Road in the shadow of the then-new Scottish Parliament. I became deeply interested in the Parliament after I was encouraged to do a project on it and then I read of its doings and sayings each morning, sitting in my little cubicle ‘office’ in the Miller class flicking through The Scotsman.
I haven’t read The Scotsman in a long while, at least in paper form. I do read it, or parts of it, most days online, usually from links on Twitter. I might buy a copy once a year, perhaps if on a long train journey and it hasn’t changed much in a while. When I was a kid, it was a broadsheet while it has been a tabloid for quite a few years now. I never paid too much attention to its politics, which is probably for the best since when I read it regularly, it was a High Tory sort of paper. I would read it for the news, not bothering to stay for the views.
The stablemate of The Scotsman is the Edinburgh Evening News, or the ‘Evening Blues’ as I sometimes call it because it used to be exceedingly bloody miserable when I looked at it each day as it came into the library. Very often I buy a News if I am in Edinburgh, mainly to catch up with Hibs coverage. That stems back to a tradition of my boyhood. I got a taxi each day to school in Edinburgh and the driver and his wife always had a copy of the News, keeping aside the Monday sport supplement for me to read the latest affairs of Hibs over the weekend, catching up even if I happened to be at the game or indeed if I had read about it in the Pink on the Saturday night (blog post on that subject here). Courtesy of one of my relatives, I have a complete set of the News, including its special tribute edition, following Hibs winning the Scottish Cup last year. It felt right.
When I was a teenager, I used to read The Herald, an unusual move for any teenager or indeed someone living in the east of Scotland. I now see The Herald at work and it is a friendlier paper than its Edinburgh rival in typeface, design and even its history. Then for lots of years I read The Guardian each day until I realised I read more of it online than in print. At one point I read four papers on a Sunday and two on a Saturday, one on a weekday. Now I buy a paper at best once a month, sometimes on a Sunday, sometimes if I’m travelling. I read my news online, like most people, and again like most people I don’t pay for it. That does give me a moment’s pause but I am also employed to give people books for free so I like free knowledge.
The Scotsman is now produced in a drab office block on Queensferry Road in Edinburgh, to be fair with quite nice views across the north of the city. Its previous homes on North Bridge and Holyrood Road are both beautiful in their ways – the former dominates a fair bit of the city centre, stood high up on North Bridge and hitting the ground outside the station on Market Street, while the latter is a modern building in the shadow of Salisbury Crags. One is a hotel, the other, ironically, housing new media in the form of a video games company. Undoubtedly The Scotsman has seen better days. Whether it is on the right side of political opinion now, as it often was in the past, foremost in the campaign for Home Rule, who can say? Particularly in these times of Brexit and Donald Trump, we need a free press and we need The Scotsman, and every other paper, just as much as ever to keep the powers, princes and potentates honest, in Edinburgh and a lot further afield.
I wrote in the North Berwick post recently about Arthur’s Seat, the hill that dominates the Edinburgh skyline, and about how you see it varies according to where you are. Here are some photographs of Arthur’s Seat from different angles and distances:
Arthur’s Seat, featuring the Scottish Parliament and Dynamic Earth, from Calton Hill
Arthur’s Seat, the Pentlands and Leith from Morrison’s Haven, near Prestonpans.
Arthur’s Seat and Eastfield, from Fisherrow Harbour, Musselburgh.
Arthur’s Seat, Inchkeith, Edinburgh and the Pentlands from Dysart, near Kirkcaldy.
Astonishingly, Linlithgow has only been the subject of one post on this blog out of 220-odd, which surprises me given how it is one of my favourite places in the world. Tuesday afternoon was the last one I would have off before my new job started so instead of going home and falling onto my bed, as I often do on a Tuesday, I decided to go off on a train someplace. As I walked along Battlefield Road towards Mount Florida station, I had vague notions towards Carlisle or Linlithgow. Since it was just after 1, getting somewhere before it was dark and then it being at all meaningful meant it couldn’t be anywhere too far. The ticket machine soon spat out a return ticket to Linlithgow. Before too long I was on the train into Central and then another from Queen Street as the sky darkened.
My first impression of Linlithgow High Street was of more shops being shut than I remember. When I lived in Dunbar, I used to be envious of Linlithgow being a small town with excellent transport links and decent shops and amenities. It didn’t seem so this time. I walked up the street towards the fountain that sits just in front of the Burgh Halls, paying attention to its fine features. It is very easy to bring Linlithgow’s past to life, walking along the High Street and imagining life in years gone by. Before going to the Palace, I detoured down into the Peel, the park that surrounds the Palace and walked a little way by the loch, looking back at the Palace from different angles. Even on a dull day, the Palace is a fine building, mostly complete but even better since it’s a ruin, with something to offer from whatever angle you view it. The view as you approach Linlithgow on the train improves my mood every time, even by night, even when all you see is a silhouette.
I became an Historic Scotland member in 2008, actually at Linlithgow Palace. I have renewed it every year since, though sadly in recent years I have used it steadily less. I still renew it and I have my card with me at all times, just in case there is an adventure to be had. By now I must have been to most of the HS staffed properties – just now I looked through the list of HS castles and it is easier to pick out those I haven’t been to. I have been to Linlithgow dozens of times and when I walked in this time, I cheerfully told the steward not to bother with the guidebook. I have a system for Linlithgow whereby I take each level in turn, starting in one corner and working my way around then going up and so on until I reach the top. I was in the place for well over an hour and didn’t see it all. Since my visit coincided with the ‘golden hour’ and the sun coming out, I stayed above ground throughout, not bothering with the numerous cellars and the pit prison this time.
Despite having been to the Palace a fair few times, I still managed to notice something new. In fact three new things, beginning by looking towards St. Michael’s Church. Above the exit of the Palace are spaces for statues, but on a smaller scale than those on the loch end. At the top of St. Margaret’s Tower, I had a rare sense of vertigo as I ascended the steps. The view covers a fair whack of central Scotland, towards the Pentlands, Cairnpapple Hill, Beecraigs and Falkirk, though I had never noticed before that you can also see towards the Forth Bridges, 9 miles away, with part of the Rail Bridge, one of the Road Bridge’s towers and the new Queensferry Crossing clearly visible over the fields. The last thing was near the tower nearest the Great Hall, with a curved section of wall where it didn’t necessarily need to be so, perhaps from an earlier iteration of the Palace.
Whenever I visit somewhere familiar, I go through lots of different sensations, depending on the day. There can be a danger of becoming blase. I find that an issue when I go to lots of places within a relatively short time or when I have been to one place loads of times. Linlithgow felt fine though it was undoubtedly improved by seeing it through new eyes, noticing new details that I can explore more next time. When I left, the steward said he had worked in the Palace for 15 years and he still got surprised by it. There are many people out there who are blase about their job. We all know them. Thankfully the steward at the Palace isn’t so kudos to him. When daytripping, the law of diminishing returns is a danger but I’ve tried not to let it be an issue for me. I get to Linlithgow once a year and it suits me fine. When I pass through on the train, it gives me a twinge, just enough each time until I get off there. I have never regretted it yet.
On this momentous day in history, I cannot help thinking of ‘The West Wing’, as I often do in many situations, and a quote from President Bartlet in the first of the two episodes showing his second inauguration. It is ‘Grace is but glory begun and glory is but grace perfected’, which is not in fact Biblical but the work of the 18th century Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards. There are not many things that are truly graceful. I am not one of them, I have to say, but for this week’s photo challenge, I have chosen a photograph that sums up graceful for me, calm, still, reflective and elegant. It was taken in the autumn of last year in Dysart in Fife and shows the harbour there looking out towards the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh beyond. The reflection of the clouds on the harbour water reminds me of clouds in Monet paintings. It is a beautiful place to be on any day, especially that one.
Three and a half years ago, I moved to Glasgow. I refer to my adopted home as the Greatest City in the World. I know many people disagree with me, indeed I know some of this blog’s regular readers disagree with me on that but this is my blog and I’ll write what I bloody well like. Here are six reasons why I think Glasgow is pure dead brilliant, a phrase no one except the city’s marketing people actually use:
Museums – Glasgow is blessed with loads of very fine museums, Kelvingrove, the People’s Palace and Riverside, to name but three. Kelvingrove combines a French art gallery with Scottish Colourists, Glasgow Boys, Roger the elephant, a bit about St. Kilda, Benin and crannogs, plus a silver nef, a McTaggart painting of the Paps of Jura and fine golden features. Riverside has an old street and the People’s Palace has Billy Connolly’s banana boots. And that’s just the collections owned by the citizens of this great city. We also have the Scottish Football Museum, bearing the Holy Grail in its collection, and quite a few other independent museums besides.
Libraries – There are 33 of them in the city (plus the Women’s Library) but the Mitchell is the largest public reference library in Europe with 1.6 million items. That’s good enough for me.
Architecture – We have some stunning buildings, including some designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, Robert Rowand Anderson and James Miller. We have a City Chambers with a mini Statue of Liberty, a statue of the Duke of Wellington bearing a permanent traffic cone and some incredible bridges.
A nippy accent – Bear with me here but when you are on a bus at 8am heading to work and you can’t keep awake, the Glasgow accent at the right pitch can be just as effective as caffeine. Same when you’re heading home and anxious you don’t miss your stop.
The views – The flagpole in the Queen’s Park, for a start. We are surrounded by hills. From many parts of our city, the biggest in Scotland, a massive sprawl, we can see Ben Lomond, the southernmost Munro, plus the Campsies. Or you can go to the Necropolis, the City of the Dead, and be surrounded by incredible monuments and tombs of the city’s great and good as you survey the city they built.
Many of the greatest experiences of my life have happened here – They include making good friends, growing personally and professionally and the Hibs going up to lift the Scottish Cup. Hibernian may hail from Leith but the Cup was won down Mount Florida way.
A few days ago, I was in Craster in Northumberland. I wrote a bit about it in the post Along the way, published on Tuesday, but I wanted to expand a bit. We arrived about 11am and left about 1.30. The weather, the light changed utterly in the space of that time. So did the sea. When we arrived, the sky was cloud-filled and grey. The sea was like slate. Barely an hour later, the sea was brighter because the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. Much of the sky was blue, light and pale since it was still January but it was blue nonetheless. It was stunning and an utter joy to be there.
Every morning, I look at Twitter and see a picture posted on the Sea Window Craster account. Seeing that sky and those waves usually sees me right for a while. To walk there and see it for real was even better. A screen is a poor substitute for real life. I know people who will post social media updates while they are away somewhere. I tend not to do that because I like to live first and tell the story later. Words are an impression. They cannot possibly encapsulate every single aspect of an experience. But we, I, spend a lot of time trying. A photograph inspires and makes you want to go back, even if the place you are looking at is 139 miles away, as Craster is from here.
Craster is beautiful and thus it is a very popular place. If you are there in the summer, getting a parking space is incredibly difficult. (Public transport rules!) Being an out-of-season sort of guy is useful only occasionally. A lot of the places I like are only open in the summer months. Craster in January was quiet with only a few non-locals, like us, about to share one of the finest places in these islands. It wasn’t particularly cold, not stormy unlike what it has become towards the end of the week. January is a good time to go places and it was certainly glorious to be in Northumberland over that time. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, not least in Craster with the light changing even as we were there for a short time.
I think I wrote the other night about the sculpture Couple in Newbiggin-by-Sea and how I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. I’m still not convinced but I am beginning to see the point of putting the sculptures there in the first place. Being by the sea actively invites contemplation and wider, deeper thoughts than often seem possible inland. I suspect people who go up mountains would disagree with that – that’s fine. When I am by the sea, I spend a lot of time looking out, whether at the waves or further afield, to land across the way or just to the horizon. In Craster, the gaze was drawn to the horizon or to Dunstanburgh Castle, just up the coast.
What I gained from the experience, as I did later in the day on Bamburgh beach, was a sense of calmness, gained from my surroundings and a quieter pace quite removed from the city life I live now. Right now it is there and all it needs is the right thought or looking at a photo to soothe and lower my heartrate. I’m like that with Belhaven a lot of the time, same with several places on the East Neuk of Fife. Prestwick Beach and Lochaber too. I hope this doesn’t go away too soon, even while the holiday mode is even now a distant memory.
Looking through my photos tonight, I came across this one, taken at Dunfermline Abbey back in August last year. The Abbey Nave in Dunfermline is a stunning space, created by the same masons as Durham Cathedral, albeit on a smaller scale. Even on a summer’s day, it has an aura and ambience all of its own, evoking our nation’s history and the events that happened within the walls of the Abbey too. Go there, if you can. Dunfermline has many fine qualities as a place, including Pittencrieff Park just across the road, the Andrew Carnegie museum and the steak bridies they serve at the football. I’ve written about it before here. But the Abbey Nave tops them all, even if the bridies come close.
Invariably the programmes I want to watch on TV aren’t on when I can watch them. That used to be a problem but not so much when the iPlayer and other catch-up apps exist. I download programmes to watch either in dinner breaks or just in bed or on the move. While I was on holiday in Northumberland, I caught up with two episodes of the Great British Railway Journeys, the Michael Portillo train travelling yarn, travelling through my native East Lothian as well as County Durham and Edinburgh. Portillo was also in Craster about a mile from where I was sitting at the time. He is a ham actor par excellence and some of what he gets up to (and wears) makes you cringe. But they are compulsive viewing, especially when the places he’s in are so familiar. Indeed some of the people on them were familiar too, including my first boss, interviewed in the Glebe in Dunbar.
Craster was an unexpected surprise, one of the most beautiful places anywhere and seeing Portillo sitting on a bench looking across the harbour made me smile and want to be there. He went to visit the smokehouse across the road from where I had lunch on Monday. The smokehouse smelt beautiful, incidentally.
Dunbar was the main interest. As well as learning about John Muir, he also fannied about on a coracle in the Biel Burn, just as it passes the dump road in its haste to join the sea in Belhaven Bay. He was assisted by Junior Rangers, teenagers who assist the park rangers, but not even they could stop him acting like a choob and nearly falling in.
He also went to Haddington, East Lothian’s county town, and learned about Samuel Smiles, born in the High Street, who coined the term ‘self-help’ and wrote about it in the fine Victorian tradition. Portillo stood on the Victoria Bridge on the way to my dad’s house and then on the Nungate Bridge by St. Mary’s talking about Samuel Smiles. Luckily he got a beautiful day, showing off Haddington and the fine kirk of St. Mary’s to best effect.
I am hardly a fan of Michael Portillo’s politics. His programmes, though, are easy watching and don’t delve too much into specifics but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If they encourage people to look beyond the end of their noses and go out into the world then I’m a happy guy. So, go watch them. They are on the iPlayer for the next three weeks or so. Then get out a map or a computer and plan a trip someplace. If you want to go to East Lothian, wonderful. Ask for recommendations. Right after this, I’m going to plan a trip myself. Not sure where, all I know is a train will be involved, if not a galoot in pink breeks and a yellow blazer.
Just about every article, every word written about how to be a writer contains the advice to always carry a notebook. Unlike most advice it tends to be true as you never know what ideas you’ll have and when. I normally have at least one notebook with me, though two currently nestle in my backpack. One is my story notebook (currently featuring a map of the London Underground on the front) and the other is my general notebook, which bears various maps of towns of Scotland on its front. Some of the most recent jottings in the general notebook (a great title of a military man or woman, I have to say) relate to my break in Northumberland over the weekend, some just a few words to build into something bigger at some point, thoughts to inform the larger blog post, ‘Along the way‘, published last night. The top of the page bears two words, inspired by walking along the beach at Embleton. They are ‘building wave’.
I love waves. What I miss about being by the sea can be broken down to missing seeing and hearing waves, from being far away from their crashing to the shore. As much as I enjoy that appearance, that swirl of surf, what I also enjoy is seeing the swell of a wave beginning, often ripples and several at once as the tide gets closer and closer to the shore. I often try to predict just how big and beautiful the wave will be from the buildup, sometimes getting it right, more often getting it wrong, but that isn’t the point. As I walked along the beach at Embleton on Saturday, I turned back every few yards to look at the view to Dunstanburgh but also to watch the waves. At Tynemouth on Sunday, our eyrie in the Priory gave an incredible perspective over King Edward Bay and also of the waves queuing in their haste to hit the sand. As I write about them, once more far from the sea though still hearing the wind rattle outside the house, I feel a thrill and a deep contentment every bit as acute as I did the other day when seeing that sea in the flesh, feeling the cold and the spray on my face and in my soul. It is a powerful reminder that this world isn’t really ours, that we are at the mercy of the sea and the elements, not the other way around. Being by the sea provides an incredible sense of perspective, just like looking up at the stars but without need for a telescope. You just need to look, to hear, to feel.