The John Muir Way is a long-distance footpath that runs across Scotland, from Helensburgh in the west to Muir’s birthplace, Dunbar, in the east. At either end of the Way are two benches, both bearing Muir quotes but separated by 134 miles. I think, personally, they are a very good match, almost bookends and reminding walkers of John Muir’s message and ideals.
The plan yesterday was to finish work a bit early in time to get through to Edinburgh and along to Easter Road to watch Hibs play Dunfermline. It was a late kick-off, since it was on BBC Alba (I’ve written about the Alba experience in the post Raw, published in November), and even though I could have watched it from the comfort of my own home, I also had a seat in the East Stand that would have been empty and that wouldn’t have done. In the end up, I arrived in Edinburgh just over two hours before kick-off but on the train through I had thought about going for a walk up Leith Walk. That was what I did but with an edge. Recently I wrote here about a project called Streets of Glasgow that I would like to work on, whereby I walk from one end of a notable city street to another and record what I find. I haven’t had the chance to do that yet, sadly, but I practised walking up Leith Walk, just being more aware of my surroundings and those around me. I looked into shop windows and paid attention to different accents and voices I heard. I heard one guy standing in a bookies’ doorway arguing with a woman who was walking speedily away from him. It was just generally excellent. Walking often has a nice meditative element, focusing on the steps one in front of another rather than anything else, and I felt better after just walking from one end of Leith Walk to another, thinking pretty much only about what was going on there where I was.
As I reached the Foot of the Walk, I still had loads of time to get to the ground so I went up Constitution Street, looking across to the South Leith Church’s pillared kirkyard, then turned right at Leith polis station to Leith Links, where I decided to cut across its northern edge, which was entirely new to me. There were smart offices in grand, old buildings and a cricket club as well as a community orchard. I found the start of the Restalrig Railway Path that went up onto a ramp – some point I will follow it – just as the Links ended just shy of Seafield Crematorium. Seafield is an unglamorous bit of the capital – it’s where Edinburgh’s sewage goes, for starters – though the houses at the edge of the Links were rather fine. Seafield is also where the Eastern General Hospital was, just at the other side of the cemetery, and it was where I was born. I didn’t linger to see if there was a plaque.
The game was frustrating, to put it mildly. Usually after a game, I walk down Easter Road and then along London Road towards the station. Since I had a little more time before the train home, I decided to cross London Road and head up Abbeyhill to Regent Road. I can’t remember if I’ve written about Regent Road before. It is one of the nicest throughfares in Edinburgh, with great views across Holyrood Park and much of the city, including to the city centre, which was certainly the case last night with the twinkly lights of Waverley and the city all in evidence. Regent Road also has the Burns Monument and the Royal High School, some of the city’s grandest architecture, and even in the eveningtime, there were tourists floating around. Our capital is a beautiful place and this is true even, and especially, of its more unsung parts. I never tire of being there even if I close my eyes and doze on the train home after another long day.
For a while, this blog had a spinoff on Tumblr, which I used quite like Twitter, as a place to share but more often to read what others have put on. I deleted it because keeping up with this blog was hard enough. Anyway, recently I was scrolling through Tumblr posts and encountered a few that featured particularly flattering photographs of Cambridge, a place I have now been to twice, in October 2015 and February 2016 – the posts about Cambridge are Bus stop sighting, Remembering, Sights, Books and that, More holiday thoughts – museums and Lighter side. The photographs, which featured Silver Street, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the area around King’s College and the River Cam, made me pine and want to go back again. It’s not the first time that has ever happened – I see photographs of many places and think ‘I need to be there as a matter of urgency’. Usually, it is a fleeting moment of thought. The place is either visited very promptly or about two years later. Cambridge probably won’t be visited too soon. It’s nothing personal against the place – it is beautiful and ancient and I would be back there in a heartbeat. It is a matter of practicality, Cambridge is 355 miles from here, reachable by air and train, certainly, but I can’t do trips down there every week or even every month, as I can with Edinburgh or wherever. Oxford is higher-up on the list despite being harder to reach because I have never been there before.
So, in the meantime, here are some photographs of Cambridge just to make me more keen to go back and to remind us of why it is such a cool place.
Unwinding after a hard day library assisting or daytripping is not always easy, especially when my brain is often whirring with thoughts, feelings or yearnings. For years, I’ve been a devotee of podcasts and for a while I fell asleep to a specially selected selection of them, usually Desert Island Discs, until I turned back to my radio and the tried and tested news and Shipping Forecast combination which does me most nights. Desert Island Discs has been one of my favourite programmes for many years. I like conversation and long-form interviewing, while it isn’t a true conversation as at least one side is prepared, often gives a real insight into one or both parties. Kirsty Young, who presents Desert Island Discs, has an excellent informal style and the guests chosen can vary from politicians, scientists, academics, celebrities and many others besides. Recently featured was the Makar, Jackie Kay, one of my favourite poets, and listening to the podcast was braw, like lying in a hot, soapy bath in how tingly and good it made me feel after. Bruce Springsteen was also on recently, which was excellent. When I was on holiday in Northern Ireland a few months ago, I downloaded loads of podcasts to listen to while I was away and more than a few of them were from the DID archive, including Nicola Sturgeon, Louise Richardson (the vice chancellor of Oxford University who is also a leading academic authority on terrorism), Val McDermid and possibly some others. I occasionally entertain notions of being a writer but there is more than a little bit of me that would love to be gainfully employed presenting Desert Island Discs or as an interviewer, probably on radio and probably not about politics since politicians aren’t always that interesting. I am incurably nosy and would like nothing more than to spend my days having conversations with people and sharing their stories with a wider audience.
Lately, though, I have discovered some other podcasts that I tend to binge-listen to. Two current favourites are The West Wing Weekly and Fitba Hacks. They couldn’t be more different but cater to different bits of my personality, the former for my love of American politics and witty writing, the latter for the less witty but more primal parts I am, as I probably mention here with some frequency, a Hibs fan and I have been interested for a long time in football, particularly the mechanics of it, football management, stadium architecture and the role of the press. The Fitba Hacks podcast is presented by Jonny McFarlane, who is a Rangers fan but we won’t hold that against him as he is even-handed in his interviews with various journalists and media figures from the world of Scottish football, even if his inaugural interview with Keith Jackson of the Daily Record nearly made me want to hurl something at my tablet to shut Mr Jackson up. Particular favourites in the series are the interviews with Simon Pia, a Hibs fan who has written a great deal about the Cabbage but was also, for his sins, an adviser to Johann Lamont when she led the Scottish Labour Party, as well as with Tam McManus, former Hibs striker who has since turned his hand to an insightful blog and radio commentating for Sportsound, Jim Spence who was for many years the Dundonian branch of BBC Scotland, and Jonathan Northcott, who writes for the Sunday Times, who was particularly interesting talking about his dealings with Sir Alex Ferguson.
What Fitba Hacks and The West Wing Weekly have in common is that they go into specifics, that they look into how things have been made. The West Wing Weekly is a weekly discussion of episodes of The West Wing, possibly the finest series of television yet devised, created by Aaron Sorkin and set in a fictional White House. The podcast features Josh Malina, who played Will Bailey in The West Wing, and music producer Hrishi Hirway, discussing each and every episode of the series from the beginning, occasionally with actors from the series or others who can shed some insight into whatever the episode was about. I am currently a few episodes behind the latest episode, in the early days of Season 2. So far, they have already covered one of my favourite episodes, ‘Let Bartlet Be Bartlet’ from Series 1, and I am particularly looking forward to them getting later into Season 2, including the episodes where it is revealed to the public that Bartlet has MS. The West Wing has been a constant favourite for years and years, since I used to tape episodes off Channel 4 and watch them again and again. I’m not the only one; indeed, to link back to Desert Island Discs, David Tennant elected to take as his luxury a DVD player with all seven seasons of The West Wing, another thing that endears me to the former Time Lord right after his choice of the wonderful ‘Over And Done With’ by the Proclaimers as his first track to take to his desert island.
I occasionally listen to other podcasts and I am always open to suggestions. For a while, I was into the archive of RTE Radio 1, from Ireland, with Seascapes, the weekly programme about maritime matters always a particular highlight, if only for its jaunty theme music. I also listened for years to Off The Ball, the Scottish football blether show, but had to swear off Radio Scotland for a while after the Scottish Cup Final as it raised my blood pressure. Fortunately less conducive to blood boiling is the excellent Scotland Outdoors podcast, also produced by Radio Scotland, which features stories and features about walking and nature in Scotland, including a cracking show a few years ago where the presenters Mark Stephen and Ewan McIllwraith cycled the full route of the John Muir Way from Helensburgh to Dunbar over three days. On dark nights like this one, sometimes we can only travel through our ears if not our eyes and the rest of us.
Yesterday I went to watch Hibs play Raith Rovers in Kirkcaldy. Hibs were mince but hopefully they will raise their game in a significant way for Hearts on Wednesday and more importantly for the league beginning with Dunfermline at home on Saturday. I was in Kirkcaldy for the football, really, but combined it with a few minutes in the art gallery too. The last time I was there was the day I got offered my job so emotionally I was over the place and didn’t really pay much attention to the art. Yesterday I managed to actually see the pictures. I particularly enjoyed the McTaggart paintings. They really cheered me up. Not that I was particularly unhappy, the experience of being myself in an art gallery elsewhere hasn’t been one I have had lately, if I’m honest, and it was good to be out in the world outside the west in a place I like doing something I like.
I walked to Stark’s Park after that. On previous visits, I had sat lower down the stand though this time I was right at the back. I prefer to be higher up anyway when I watch football but the McDermid Stand has the added bonus of a smashing view across the Forth to East Lothian. I was there early so immediately after eating my pies I spent a while looking across the Forth trying to place what I was seeing. Without a pair of binoculars, I couldn’t be sure and it wasn’t the clearest day but I think I was seeing the Hopetoun Monument, Aberlady Bay, Port Seton and the Lammermuir Hills. I have written here before about the fine views the Fife coastline has towards East Lothian, particularly at Dysart and along the East Neuk, and when the game was boring I chanced a look across the Forth and it made a frustrating game all the better.
Kirkcaldy is a two-hour bus ride from Glasgow and on the way there and back I read and chilled out. On the bus ride back, I was sitting in front of two Raith Rovers fans who had just been at the game I was at and were rather happier with the result than I was. I couldn’t help hearing what they were blethering on about. One of them had been going to watch Raith for 52 years and had seen some great games in his time. He still went despite being elderly and needing care a lot of the time. It reminded me of an article I had read on the way over to Kirkcaldy by Peter Ross about the dedicated fans that lower-league teams in Scotland have, those who go week-in, week-out, very often with little reward. Even as I was discontented about my own team’s fortunes, there are always people worse off than me. Still, there have been worse trips and it was good to be away.
Last weekend I went for a walk along the Ayrshire Coastal Path from Maidens to Culzean Castle, overlooking the Firth of Clyde. The views are stunning along there towards Arran and the Ailsa Craig and it was life-affirming to be there on quite a few levels. Anyway, for this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge, I wanted to post a photo of what looks like a sculpture near Culzean. I’m not sure what I think of it. It is an unlikely thing in an unlikely place, for sure, though.
I’ve written here before about my love of maps. The other day I went for a walk along the Ayrshire Coastal Path between Maidens and Culzean. It was a great walk on a beautiful but bitingly cold day. Anyway, the following day I was looking at the Ordnance Survey map for that particular locale. I spent ages visualising the area as my eyes darted across the map, giving language and putting names to my visual impressions and memories. That particular part of Ayrshire isn’t one I know well. Indeed I hadn’t been to Maidens before but I had been to Culzean a couple of times. It helped to solve little mysteries of what that headland was or what that interesting ruined building used to be.
On my bedroom wall is the OS Landranger map for Duns, Dunbar and Eyemouth, covering from North Berwick and the border as well as most of the Lammermuir Hills. Every so often I spend a while looking at it, putting names to places and visualising those dear, familiar locations too. It also springs ideas of places to get to next time I’m in the east. One that’s percolating in my mind is the waterfall at Bilsdean, not far from Dunglass Collegiate Church, which I visited just before Christmas. Bilsdean is a quietly lovely, twinkly, dingly dell sort of place, usually deserted despite its beauty and being within 300 yards of the A1. It’s also not so many miles from a road I often follow on the map, the moor road from Coldingham that ends up high on the cliffs over Pease Bay with that view to Torness, the Bass Rock, the May and Fife beyond. I was just thinking about it the other day since the road from Culzean to Dunure is very similar with its dramatic views towards Arran and the Ailsa Craig. Sometimes it’s good to think back to those places you’ve been and like in Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Two men at once’, cut:
‘the pack of memories
and [turn] up ace after ace after ace’.
I went to primary school in Edinburgh. When we went out and about in the city, we invariably took the bus, more often than not a double-decker bus in colours of deepest maroon operated by Lothian Buses. I always liked to sit on the top deck of the bus and normally at the front, not just to see the view to wherever we were going but also to look down the periscope. In those days before CCTV was widespread on public transport, the driver could look up to a mirror strategically located at the front of the top deck to see if anyone was causing bother. I liked to look down and see what was happening even if it wasn’t that exciting: usually it was the top of the driver’s head, invariably flecked with grey if it wasn’t bald. Often that was more exciting, though, than what was passing the windows.
To this day, if I am on a double-decker bus, I tend to opt for the front of the top deck. I am a fan of what Patrick Geddes called the ‘synoptic view’, and the best all-encompassing views you tend to get are on high. When you can’t go up a hill or in a hot-air balloon or whatever, then a bus just has to do. If I can’t get the front, I usually try for the first seat behind the stairs, which also tends to have more generous leg room so it is possible both to see what’s going on and do so without one’s knees grazing one’s chin.
Edinburgh is a great city to explore by bus. It has an excellent and widespread bus network and not all of the buses are maroon, thankfully. I have seen some strange sights from its buses, though, including flat dwellers sunbathing on the ledges outside their residences in high summer, two floors up. I’m an advocate of ‘whatever works’ as a life strategy but there are limits. I seem to remember that was in Tollcross, near the Cameo cinema.
Glasgow is also a fine place to explore by bus. I don’t know if I have written here before about the 90 bus, which goes absolutely everywhere, or at least from Braehead to Partick, a couple of miles as the crow flies but via Govan, Battlefield, Rutherglen, Parkhead, Springburn and Maryhill. I covered part of its route on the road to the Scottish Cup, just before Hibs went on to win it last May – post here. The 3, which stops about 200 yards from here, covers a similarly epic route, from Govan to Drumchapel via Cardonald, Crookston, Pollok, Pollokshaws, Shawlands, the city centre, Partick and Scotstoun, though I have noticed that it is being served increasingly by double-decker buses. Happy days.
Sadly a lot of the buses I use are single-decker buses, low and unassuming, not to mention without much of a decent view. My last, decent double-decker journey was just after the New Year, down from Edinburgh to Prestongrange, a journey covered many times in my life en route to work there. Like so many times before, I stepped to the front of the bus on the way back just in time to get that view across Morrison’s Haven towards Fife and Edinburgh just as the sun began to set, just another perk of being up high.
Incidentally, this post was inspired by an article in the Edinburgh Evening News, entitled ‘10 Things Everyone Who Grew Up In Edinburgh Will Remember‘. I also remember going to the UCI Cinema and for a pic ‘n’ mix at Woolies, though in Musselburgh.
I started out to write something a bit longer just now and ended up writing a little bit about the sun setting out of my window:
The sun’s setting just now. The tree’s branches and prickles are just a silhouette as is the telly aerial on the roof on the next street, the skylights glinting slightly. The clouds are an angry scoring out of grey, over only a small part of the sky that is a lighter, almost white blue by the roof but getting steadily darker as I tilt my head slightly towards the top of the tree, a darker blue but still with enough light to make a difference. Even in the few moments it’s taken to type this, the clouds have banded together and the branches have stilled slightly. A moment in time is all it takes.
Shadows fall. This particular shadow is my own, taken on a freezing November afternoon on the Prom in Dunbar. It was about 3pm so in the midst of the golden hour as the light rapidly faded. I think this particular silhouette makes me look like the Stig from Top Gear, with the folded arms and that.