If I could save just one of my books from a fire, it would probably be Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin. Deakin was a naturalist and writer who lived in Suffolk in a rambling old house he rebuilt many years ago. His books on wild swimming and trees, Waterlog and Wildwood, are beautiful and insightful in many respects, digressing only a wee bit with words that are well-chosen and incisive. Notes From Walnut Tree Farm was published not long after Deakin’s death in 2006 and is made up of his jottings and diary entries, broken down by month with thoughts on his surroundings and wanderings tinged with each season’s lights and darknesses. For quite a few years, I’ve tried to read a little bit every month, usually keeping a particular month’s chapter to read that month. This morning, on the way to work, I had three whole months to catch up with, January, February and March. I read up to mid-February and on a busy bus commuting, reading of Walnut Tree Farm and the moat and all that is utterly joyful. This passage from January sums up how I feel about this book:
‘Books are like seeds: they come to life when you read them, and grow spines and leaves. I need trees around me as I need books around me, so building bookshelves is something like planting trees.’
There are very few books I can pick up and know my spirits will lift as soon as I open them. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (as written about here) is one, another is the picture book I sometimes use for class visits It’s A Book by Lane Smith. When I sit down to read Roger, I know my day is about to get better. I’ve read him on trains and in train stations, lying on my bed or many miles away but the effect is always the same, of greater and reaffirmed life having once more grown spines and leaves.
Once a year, a news story appears which says in slightly different words than the year before that Edinburgh Castle is a popular place to visit and so are the National Museum of Scotland and Kelvingrove. This year’s appeared the other day. NMS is the most visited attraction in Scotland, with 1.8 million visitors last year, only a few thousand above Edinburgh Castle. I’ve written about NMS before and I’m not really fussed about the figures – they merely confirm what most Scottish folk know to be true. Why I’m writing about them is because of what appears lower down the story on the BBC News website, namely a list of Scottish visitor attractions that appear lower down the list of the most popular visitor attractions in the UK, and of those 47, I have been to all but five of them over the years. They are:
171. National Museum of Rural Life
181. Inverewe Gardens
184. Provand’s Lordship
223. Brodick Castle and Country Park
238. Glasgow Museums Resource Centre
At some point, I will write a bit about those places I have visited but of those five, three of them are not far from where I live, indeed one is about 3 miles from here. I think GMRC even follows me on Twitter, randomly, and I still haven’t been.
The National Museum of Rural Life is just outside East Kilbride, not far from Glasgow. I haven’t felt any great urge to go – farming doesn’t interest me hugely and I’m never sure whether EK and all its concrete is the best place for such a museum. Randomly I saw an advert for the museum on the telly tonight when I was eating my tea. The last time I passed, though, I did think vaguely about going but since it was on this list, I will jolly well have to.
Of the five, by far and away the hardest to get to is Inverewe Gardens, which is in Wester Ross, well up north. It looks a stunning place. I spent about twenty minutes yesterday planning a trip up there, realising that without a car it could be very, very hard since I gather Poolewe only gets buses from Inverness on a Monday and a Wednesday, making a day trip even from Inverness, let alone Glasgow, absolutely impossible. It was nice to try, though. The 70-odd miles from Inverness to Inverewe Gardens covers a great swathe of the country I’ve never been to before, including Assynt and Gairloch, which would be great to see. As it is, it might not happen any time soon. It’s nice to dream, though.
The Provand’s Lordship is the oldest building in Glasgow. It is open to the public, managed by Glasgow Museums. It sits across the road from St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art, a building I haven’t been in for a while, come to think of it. It is also very near Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis. I haven’t missed it out for any particular reason. Perhaps, like the National Museum of Rural Life, it is just that I’m not overly bothered but that isn’t true. I am fascinated by history and by this city’s past. It just hasn’t come high enough up my list. At the earliest opportunity, I will have to make it right, perhaps as part of a Streets of Glasgow walk down the High Street.
Brodick is on the island of Arran, in the middle of the Firth of Clyde. The castle sits a little way out of Brodick, which is also the island’s main ferry port from the Scottish mainland. I have only been to Arran once, a few years ago on a beautiful and sunny Easter Sunday when we walked along the coast a little way, sitting for a while on a harbour not so far from the castle. The castle still eludes me though I am a member of the National Trust of Scotland who own it so I have less excuse as I wouldn’t have to pay £12.50 to get in. I gather, however, that only external tours will operate at Brodick Castle this summer but I am overdue a trip across to Arran so I might just go anyway, if only to get a picture of a RBS £20 note (which bears a picture of Brodick Castle) with the real thing.
Last but not least Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, also run by Glasgow Museums. Clue is in the title. They operate tours of the museum stores every day of the week, usually themed around a particular topic. GMRC is in a warehouse in Nitshill, an unglamorous part of the city about 3 miles from here, It really isn’t difficult to get to, a bus then a wee bit of a walk, but as ever other places have taken precedence. I will keep an eye on the tours and see if there’s one that strikes my fancy. I have been in a few museum stores in my time and I have not met one I haven’t liked or wanted to spend my life exploring. This being Glasgow, GMRC will no doubt be bigger and better than any other.
Writing posts like these makes me want to get out and explore, even if I am writing them (as tonight) after hours. I am off in a couple of weeks for about 10 days so I will hopefully see one of them, at the very least. Stay tuned.
I’ve written here before about Cathkin Park, a former football ground in the south side of Glasgow where the terracing is now blending into the landscape. Now I don’t work in that part of the city any more, I don’t get there as often as I used to. The other day I went across and spent a few minutes walking around the perimeter before crossing the pitch itself, walking from one side to another, pausing briefly to stand and stare from the centre circle. I thought as usual about what it would be like if my club was no longer but also about what if Cathkin was still a functioning league ground. Instead of Scotland hosting a friendly with Canada at a not even half full Easter Road last week, it might have been held at Cathkin instead, a ground much smaller than Hampden just over the hill. I stood behind the goal and imagined modern boxy stands instead of open terracing. I know there are plans to redevelop Cathkin but probably not to that extent. As this recent article rightly says, it still smells and feels just like a football ground. That’s why I like it.
The first was taken on a warm summer’s day last year at my old work, Prestongrange Museum, in a wildflower meadow on the site of an old glassworks.
The second is another field of green, albeit a field of seats, taken from my own seat at Easter Road Stadium, home of Hibernian FC, before a game against Raith Rovers at the end of last year. We drew that game when we should have won it, proving Kermit the Frog’s adage that it isn’t easy being green.
As part of an occasional series of ‘what else you see at football grounds’ posts, I thought I would share what else I can see from my seat at Easter Road, that is, of course, apart from the holders of the Scottish Cup. For those who don’t know, Easter Road is in the east of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. The ground is made up of four large, modern stands. I sit in the newest of them, the East, built in 2010, and it’s a fine place to watch the game, affording an excellent view across the whole pitch, high enough up to see everything that’s going on without being able to actually distinguish which players are which. I just paid a considerable sum to be able to sit there next season too, hopefully watching Premiership football every other Saturday. Can’t wait.
Anyway, the main view from the centre of my universe is provided through gaps between the stands. To the south the Pentlands are in view as well as David Hume Tower, part of the University, and the church just up from the Meadows. Between the West and the Famous Five, it is mainly chimney pots and Corstorphine Hill in the distance, though I only noticed on Saturday that also prominent on the landscape is the tower of Fettes College, one of Scotland’s more elite private schools and alma mater of one Tony Blair. Less said about him the better, except Fettes is probably more of a rugger sort of place since after all it breeds the right sort of chap. Aye, right. Reminding us it comes to us all eventually, though, is the nearby chimney of the Western General Hospital.
On my way to the ground on Saturday, I proceeded to take the longer route since, as ever, I was running early, walking the full length of Leith Walk. At the Foot, I was still well ahead of time and considered either walking down to the Water of Leith or along to Trinity House, choosing the latter option as it was only the other side of the New Kirkgate centre. Trinity House is a maritime museum, managed by Historic Environment Scotland though it’s only open by appointment. It was shut as I came up to it though hopefully I will get there soon. It’s been on my radar for years – someone I used to know worked there – but not quite encountered yet. It’s a very fine mercantile sort of building, a very pleasant contrast from the concrete shopping precinct that surrounds it.
Across the way from Trinity House is South Leith Parish Church. I’m not usually a fan of cemeteries – the last one I was in was Glasgow’s Necropolis, which is beautiful in its way – but I enjoyed the few brief minutes I spent in the kirkyard, reading some of the grave inscriptions, and realising that it’s now spring judging by the crocuses and daffodils shooting up. There was also a nice bit of sculpture and a plaque commemorating all those buried in Leith without a marker or a gravestone to distinguish them.
From there I headed for the ground though I took care as I headed down Easter Road towards Albion Road to look towards Salisbury Crags, one of Arthur’s Seat’s peaks, as it rises high above the old Abbeyhill school and the city streets below. Often the football, particularly when drawing against Dumbarton, becomes secondary to what’s around you and the walk definitely becomes the main event.
Yesterday I was looking at some photographs I took on the beach at Bamburgh back in January. It was a clear, cold day, all the better to fully appreciate the coastline, the wind and the last of the day beginning to seep away into night. January light is rare and to be cherished as there’s never very much of it, the sunlight delicate even if there’s any force behind it.
The poet Norman MacCaig used to go to Assynt every summer for his holidays, swapping school desks and city streets for Suilven, dramatic scenery and winding roads. He talked about fattening his camel’s hump, loading up ideas into his brain ready for the year ahead. My trip to Northumberland was one of those experiences when my own brain was stocked up with fresh insights and thoughts even if some of them have proven to be slow-burning and only came out when spring has sprung.
Northumberland is easily one of my favourite places on the planet. One reason why is its scenery, often best viewed from a height. When I used to go to Berwick, I liked to stand on the Walls, near the Royal Border Bridge, and see two great castles in the distance, Bamburgh high and mighty to the left, Lindisfarne looking for all the world like a sandcastle to the right. They always beckoned for future adventures, playing to my almost constant urge to see what’s over the next horizon. On the beach at Bamburgh that day, the Castle even higher above the dunes, the Farne Islands lay so close the lighthouse could nearly be touched. The sand was gentle, far enough from a tide not to be sodden, as we put one foot before another, almost entirely alone as the sun beat a steady retreat and everything once more would be still, except of course for the waves going ever on.
The cover of the Proclaimers’ album Sunshine on Leith shows Charlie and Craig standing with their backs to the camera looking out over a cityscape. The photo was taken on Calton Hill, one of Edinburgh’s hills ‘stretching out like seven cats’ as Norman MacCaig said. To quote the Proclaimers themselves, there are times when being on Calton Hill feels like you are ‘sitting on top of the world’.
From the top of Calton Hill, there are excellent views across the north and east of the capital, to the Forth Bridges, Fife and East Lothian, to the Forth islands and pretty much to where the Forth joins the North Sea. The photograph above shows Leith, including Ocean Terminal, as well as Inchkeith and the Fife coast beyond. To the left of the photograph you can see Kirkcaldy in the distance, as shown by the flats to the east of the Lang Toun.
The photograph was taken in November last year, on a day when I just felt like coming to Edinburgh and walking. Never a bad thing, especially atop Calton Hill.
Regular readers may have noticed that posts lately have tended towards essays about life, the universe and everything rather than tales of my travels up and down the highways and byways of Scotland. So far this year the vast majority of the times I’ve been out of Glasgow have been to watch Hibs and while accounts of the trials and tribulations of the Scottish Cup holders (and still Ladbrokes Championship leaders) have their drama, I usually go to watch the game then go home. I haven’t been anywhere else, really, save my few days in Northumberland in January and a very pleasant if cold day along the Ayrshire coast about a month ago. I have itchy feet in a major way and it’s why I decided to take the scenic route to Dundee on Friday. I was going to watch Hibs but this time I would squeeze some roving into the day too.
I rocked up to the bus station around lunchtime. I had hoped to get a wee while in Anstruther and Cellardyke, possibly getting the bus to Kirkcaldy and then another along the East Neuk, but time got the better of me. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that. Instead I went with the old day trip backup, the mighty X24 to St. Andrews, crossing the country in a two-and-a-half-hour journey passing through Cumbernauld, Kincardine, Dunfermline, Glenrothes and Cupar. Disgracefully, I hadn’t been on it in yonks, for nearly a year, I think, though once it seemed I was in St. Andrews at least once a month. That journey is brilliant for catching up with yourself, watching the world go by or reading and drowning that world out with good music. Friday’s journey was busier than normal with a few students heading for the delights of St. Andrews. My earphones couldn’t quite block out their box-stacking techno shitey tunes or their chat but it wasn’t that bad, merely mildly irritating. It was cloudy and dull for most of the journey, though we had soon lost the rain that fell back in Glasgow.
When I go to St. Andrews, I tend to be there for about an hour so I have a fairly well-defined walk: along South Street and past the shops to the Younger Hall, up to the Castle and down to the pier. From there I double back along the Scores to the Martyr’s Monument then back up the road to the bus station then home. That’s normally what happens but I lingered a bit longer this time, gazing out to sea and pondering as I plonked myself on various benches and for a while at the end of the pier.
For a while I’ve wondered if I’m invisible. That’s not always a bad thing – fitting into the crowd makes life easier on occasion – but it was apparent as I sat on the harbour wall and two students, a guy and a girl, talked right by me, standing at the landing light just above where I sat, entirely oblivious as they gabbed on. I think they might be in the first throes of a relationship. Good luck to them. I’m clearly either invisible or just not a threat. Either way is fine. I wasn’t really listening – I was watching the horizon towards the Angus coast or gazing at a tree branch drifting out to sea or to the seagulls swooping low over the foreshore.
As I got on the bus to Dundee, I looked around me and had the sudden realisation that I was at least five years older than the majority of folk on the bus, mainly students on their way to Leuchars and the trains that would whisk them far and wide. I was inwardly thankful when an old guy came on and sat down but then again a white beard might be the latest hipster trend so he might not have been so venerable.
The bus was soon crossing the Tay Road Bridge, less dramatic and more functional than its counterparts across the Forth, with Dundee looming towards you with the bus’s every bound. Dundee is all hills and over one of them, I could see the evening’s destination, Tannadice, with United’s rivals’ home, Dens Park, only a few yards away. To get to the bus station, the 99 went around the city centre, giving a good view of progress of the new V and A museum plus the building up of the city’s commuter traffic. I’m not usually a fan of hulking monolithic architecture but the new V and A (I know it doesn’t look right but I can’t stand the ampersand or & symbol) makes it work as it looks like a ship setting off from the river and one in dock from the land. There is also an inspired comic strip all around the edge of the construction site alluding to Dundee and Scotland’s design traditions – if you’re ever in Dundee, go have a look. It was cloudy but with tinges of sunlight hitting the Tay as I walked by the river. The tide was out so I got a glimpse of the stumps that remain of the old Rail Bridge.
As I walked back towards the city centre for some scran, I passed the train station – itself in the process of construction – where the first Hibees were streaming out and already in full flow, enlightening the City of Discovery’s commuters of the result of last year’s Scottish Cup Final, reminding any Hearts fans there present of its veracity and inviting them just where to put any discussions of 1902, all in one neat little ditty. (Look up ‘We Are Hibs’ on YouTube.)
After I ate, I took a slow walk up to Tannadice, detouring past the DC Thomson building on Albert Square, which I’ve always liked for its elegance and how it could fit in with the skylines of New York, Liverpool or even Glasgow. It looks even better without the scaffolding. Across the road is the McManus, which I’ve written about before so won’t repeat myself except to say it was looking good with its lights. Dundee was once known for the jute industry – indeed it is often referred to as the city of the three j’s, jute, jam and journalism – and many of the city’s buildings were once mills, some derelict and a few now converted into flats. As I walked up Dens Road, there are at least three old mill buildings, plus markers on some of the walls showing where mills once stood. If it wasnae for the weavers, where would we be, eh?
Since I was still too early, I took a turn around the block. Tannadice is only a few yards from Dens Park where Dundee play. Dundee United, like Hibs for the moment, are in the Championship while Dundee are in the Premiership. I have never watched a game at Dens though hopefully I will next season. There’s a quirky little tradition that due to the distance, the players walk to their rivals’ ground and, I understand that they might even change into their kit before they go. Anyway, I decided to do a recce, past the Archibald Leitch-designed main stand that sits on an angle on Sandeman Street, then around the back of the Derry End, which I gather is where the more lively Dundee supporters sit. Two of the stands at Dens are modern, boxy things but the Derry End is a terracing with a roof on it, more traditional and more interesting. Through the gates I could see staircases leading up into the stand all eerie and empty in the dull twilight.
On the way back down from Tannadice, I spotted the Tayside Islamic Centre, which is on Victoria Road in what looks like an old church. I’ll have to look into that one – I like buildings getting reused in new and imaginative ways.
The bus back to Glasgow was uneventful, rolling through the night, the bus about half full. As it pulled off the M8 and through Cowcaddens, my iPod struck up with ‘Midnight’ by Ray Charles, probably one of my Desert Island Discs if I’m ever asked and entirely appropriate since it was indeed just after the midnight hour and all was quite still, chilled out, mellow after another win and a day like the old days, wandering along the shore and amidst history, recent and not so recent.
Sometimes I struggle for ideas. I wish for a good idea and the right words but they just don’t happen. When I don’t really have the time to write, then the words come. In this, and other things, other people are the source of ideas, through conversation and their works as encountered around the world. We do, as Isaac Newton said, ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’. This photograph was taken by the site of the new Victoria and Albert Design Museum in Dundee, where a comic strip surrounds the building works inspiring new wishes and encapsulating old ones for many.
Every time I go to the flagpole in Queen’s Park, I like to sit for ages looking all around, across the city, picking out landmarks and generally letting my eyes race up and down familiar streets far faster than any traffic actually on them. It’s a habit I picked up on Calton Hill in Edinburgh and it’s travelled along the M8. I like to think that every time I’m there, I pick out something new and in some small way gain a greater appreciation of my home city even if I can’t quite define it at the time.
Despite living in an urban area, it is relatively easy to encounter quieter places, even if they are at a distance. The photograph above shows a city scene, certainly, with the University competing with the Squinty Bridge, churches, offices and tower blocks for the light in this particular golden hour shot, but behind all that stuff is a Munro, Ben Lomond, and the Kilpatrick Hills. As I walked home from the shop earlier, those Kilpatrick Hills had snow on them, which I could see from miles away. I can see them as I head for the bus to work every day. Yesterday I started at lunchtime and as I walked over the flyover, with the ever-fast, ever-flowing M8 below, I stood for a moment and looked towards Ben Lomond, the Kilpatrick Hills and even towards Bellahouston Park, only a couple of miles away. With a sweep of my head, I could see hills in Argyll, a Munro, shipyard cranes, Glasgow University, Ibrox Stadium, Bellahouston Park and quite a lot of city besides, plus the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital just over the road. When you live in a city, there can be a danger of forgetting that there’s a world out there beyond it, to keep looking in the middle distance. Even heading for the bus yesterday, it was possible to see beyond the here and now of car noise and urban bustle.
Glasgow is a great city for looking up as well as across. Recently I was heading into the city and got off the bus on Hope Street, heading towards Buchanan Galleries. I crossed at either West Nile Street or Renfield Street and looked up to the rooftops as I reached the pavement. There are so many finials and features above ground in Glasgow that are ignored by the thousands of folk who pass them every day. Part of the reason I want to do the ‘Streets of Glasgow‘ idea to walk up and down city streets is to see the supposedly familiar in a new way. Our city centre has some gorgeous architecture and it is at every turn. Even going along Gordon Street and up Buchanan Street between train stations is enough to see a whole other version of this city, above street level. You don’t need to be Spiderman to see it, just pause and look up.
I don’t think I write about Glasgow enough here. This is post 250, a milestone, and so this post hopes to rectify that imbalance. There are lots of places I like. I grew up in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. Many posts have been written about Dunbar but it is my past now. Glasgow is my present and my future. I discover new things about it almost every day by just looking around and seeing what happens. It can be on a bus, especially the top deck, or by walking across a flyover and looking from the city out to the world.