Durham Cathedral

I know very few things. One of them is that good days should be cherished for who knows quite when you will need to remember them and hold them close. I am fortunate that I’ve had many good days in my life. About ten years ago, I was having a bit of a tough time. One Friday afternoon, with the next day free and no earthly idea of how to fill it, I was sitting just by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, in fact in the close that looks onto the MSPs offices, the ones with the thinking pods in the windows. I was thinking of one of my favourite books, Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson, and in particular the section about Durham. Bryson raved about Durham and I hadn’t been before. I thought and I marched straight up to Waverley Station to book a ticket. The next day, I was on the train, just about to get off, and I got my first glimpse of that Cathedral on the hill. I walked right up to it and straight in. On that bright May morning, I walked around the Cathedral, looking up at its ceilings, down at its marble floor, and I realised that things were going to be okay. They were, as it turns out. Ever since, Durham has been very special to me. I don’t get there as often as I used to; geography mostly to blame. Nearly a decade on, I can’t help feeling the same peace as I did then.

I am not religious. If I am anything, I prefer to be like Norman MacCaig and be a Zen Calvinist. Durham Cathedral is one of the most significant churches in the Church of England, not natural Zen Calvinist territory by any measure. It is certainty when the world, the universe and everything else is everything but. Maybe that’s why I like to go there and think. I’ve sat there in wooden pews and come away with grand plans to sort out my life, even if they don’t actually pan out the way I intended. These days, I’m happy just to think and to look. If I come away with any clarity, I’ve got lucky. When I was there recently, my abiding thought was that my backside was square and I couldn’t sit there any longer. So, I moved.

The Cathedral is a place which needs to be appreciated in different ways. On foot, on the move, it needs a couple of circuits to see the familiar haunts, to look and down at the right moments, the right windows and plaques, the zig-zags and pillars. Then I sit. Often for a while. Then I walk around again. I make sure I see St. Cuthbert’s Shrine, thinking of how he preferred the waves and solitude of Lindisfarne to more refined cares. I usually stop by the tomb of the Venerable Bede and think of the line I read in a book by Alan Bennett once, sung by Dame Maggie Smith in revue about how the Venerable Bede could hardly spell and barely read. Sometimes, like when I was last there, I sit in the cloisters, the only bit I take a photo in deference to the big signs, and think of Harry Potter, scenes of which were filmed there. I’m not awaiting my Hogwarts letter, it would just be nice to visit.

When I was last in the Cathedral, I was talking about the Battle of Dunbar, when the victorious Cromwellian forces marched 3,000 prisoners to Durham, some destined to die within its walls, others executed while some were transported to America as slaves. There’s a plaque in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. Nearby is my favourite window, the one dedicated to Archbishop Ramsey, the Transfiguration Window, brown with a shaft of light in the middle. I always like to find the sweet, self-reverential touch where the Cathedral appears in the window. The Millennium Window nearby, more modern with its images of northeastern life, reflects its colours on the stone on sunny days, like the ceiling above the nave where the light shines in on its curves.

As I said, I’ve been fortunate to have many bright days. Durham has factored in quite a few of them, like when I was there during the Lumiere Festival a few years back and images from the Lindisfarne Gospels were projected on the walls. Or when I was there during a heatwave at the end of March, walking by the river in shorts. I never fail to thrill at the sight of the Cathedral as I approach, even if lately I’ve come by road, which is almost as good. It’s the best building on Earth and I’m just glad I’ve been, on cold winter days and long summer ones, in all moods and hues, to sit under its ceiling and admire it, admire the world around, really, and live life just a wee bit brighter from having been there.

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Not the best castles in Scotland

VisitScotland recently released the results of a survey about castles. The headline figure was 49%, the percentage of people from the UK who haven’t been to a castle in Scotland. Of those who had been to a Scottish castle, Edinburgh was voted the most recognisable, closely followed by Balmoral. The best castle in Scotland is apparently Edinburgh, followed by Stirling then Urquhart. I’m only sharing this just so I can dismiss it. Edinburgh is a recognisable place, fine. A fair proportion of people in these islands have never been to Scotland. Probably even more haven’t been to a castle in Wales, for example, or even England. Big wowsers.

The big one for me is best castle. My favourite big castle in Scotland is Stirling. Edinburgh Castle (shown above, from Craigmillar) is busy and not really that interesting. Urquhart is perfectly fine but there are nicer lochs in Scotland than Loch Ness. There are certainly nicer castles. Instead of Edinburgh, go to Craigmillar; swap Stirling for Doune; instead of Urquhart, how about Inverlochy Castle? That’s without trying. Craigmillar has lots of ways round it. Doune has been in a Monty Python film and Outlander as well as being beautiful. Inverlochy sits in the shadow of Ben Nevis.

As a public service, here is a list of some amazing castles you should go to in Scotland instead of Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart:

Kilchurn

Tantallon

Dirleton

Hailes

St. Andrews

Castle Campbell

Lochleven

Bothwell

Caerlaverock

Dunnottar

These are of course ruined castles, the kind I like. Boring National Trust castles with scones and tartan tat and that, they are the kind that tend to be more popular. A lot of our ruined castles are also in nicer settings than a lot of the NTS ones, with the notable exception of Culzean, which is rather stunning.

Of the list I gave above, Caerlaverock (shown above) is probably my favourite, despite three of the others being in East Lothian. Caerlaverock just looks like a castle. It has loads of towers, different lodgings, interesting decorative architecture, a moat, an old bit in the woods. It’s not far south of Dumfries. It is quite reachable from most places in this country, especially from Englandshire. I’ve been there a few times, most recently in 2016. It is the closest castle in Scotland to something out of Disney, with the possible exception of Kilchurn or Eilean Donan.

Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart aren’t bad places. It’s just that there are better castles in Scotland, beyond the Central Belt and beyond the A9. Go out and see some. You’ll be glad you did.

The last train

Where I grew up, the last train home was often ridiculously early. On a Saturday night, the last train from Edinburgh to Dunbar used to be at 7pm. It’s now around 11pm, I believe, but when I went on day trips on Saturdays, I usually had to make sure I was back at Waverley Station for 7 or else I would be sitting on the bus going home the long way, stretching a 20-minute journey out to an hour and a half. Since I moved west, though, the last bus to Dunbar has also gone a bit later and takes less time. Bastard. All those nights willing the bus to go faster through Musselburgh, Wallyford and Tranent, all in vain.

Dunbar, by day

Being a late bedder, I prefer the last train to the first one. I’ve done that too, though. From Dunbar, the first train in the morning was to London, arriving nearer 11am. From where I stay now, the first train into town is around 6, except on a Sunday when it is just after 9. The first train means getting out of the house on time, The last train is easier to catch, since I’m out already. But in defence of getting up early, it is possible to see the city waking up at that time of day. It has a lot of the same qualities in that it is so often quiet and with fairly limited transport options.

Now, I live in suburban Glasgow. The last train home, six nights a week, is at ten to midnight. I am on it fairly often, usually heading back from a football match in Edinburgh. Glasgow is never, ever quiet. I’ve seen buskers singing Taylor Swift songs on Buchanan Street at half eleven at night. The last time I got the last train was the night before the new iPhone X came out. There were people queuing outside the Apple shop even at that hour. And the last train that night had a few guys who had been out on the piss and were much louder than they really had to be. Usually it is quiet, barely half-full with people as tired as I tend to be but more than once my music has been turned up to drown out folk.

Buchanan Street, by night

The last train leaves from Glasgow Central. There’s a few trains going out even as the clock nears midnight. My favourite, and I’ve managed to be on it a couple of times, is the Caledonian Sleeper down to London, arriving at breakfast time in the morning. More than once I’ve been tempted on my way home to buy a ticket and climb aboard, never quite succumbing, probably because my bed is stationary and four miles away. Most of the other trains are heading down the coast, including mine which ends up in Gourock. Others are bound for Ardrossan and the very last to Ayr. You can also go to Motherwell, if you really want.


The last train

The station usually has a few staff scattered around, maybe a police officer, some fellow travellers and only one shop open, Boots. Central is the busiest station in the country and I like being there that time of night with the feeling that things are beginning to wind down all around me. I get on the train and after 7 minutes, I’m off. Getting off the last train is usually just a relief, the end of a long day, right around midnight when it really feels like the night is slowing down. The last train pulls out of the station and away down the coast. Soon it will be morning but in the meantime I’m bound for bed, not sleeping immediately, but just glad to be home.

Before I go, I’ve revised and updated the most popular post on the blog, It’s a grand thing to get leave to live, which is about the RBS £5 note featuring Nan Shepherd. People seem to Google that a lot and that post seems to get read as a consequence. Have a wee read.

The day when the trains stop

Every few minutes, my house shakes. I don’t live in an earthquake zone or anything. I understand we get them every so often but the authorities require special equipment for anyone to notice them. I live very close to a busy train line in suburban Glasgow and it is very busy, with most trains whirring straight past in haste for the city or the coast. If we can’t hear that then there is the constant hum of cars on the M8 just beyond the railway. There is of course one day a year when all this stops. The trains just don’t run. There are much less cars. There aren’t even any buses to be found anywhere in the greater Glasgow area. I spent that day within 200 yards of my house and I was the only person around me who noticed. I am writing this the day after, Boxing Day, and since I started writing, at least two trains have passed, plus a plane overhead bound for Glasgow Airport.

The majority of trains in Scotland don’t run on Boxing Day either. If I wanted to go on a day trip today, and I don’t, incidentally, the furthest I could get by train is Croy, in North Lanarkshire. I’ve been there before and I wouldn’t encourage it. The buses are on, though, on a Sunday service and I could go use the Subway but frankly I don’t want to.

Where I grew up is strangely well connected on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. East Lothian Council subsidises buses to run over the festive period. Unlike where I live now, Dunbar is served by hourly buses on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The Edinburgh area is considerably blessed with buses too. No trains either, mind, but still something.

Everything is constant in our society. There is no let up. It is good, however, to realise that things can just stop, even for a few hours, even in the biggest city in the country, and there is simply no place to go. That’s okay, at least until the 27th.

Digest: December 2017

December gets forgotten as a month in the whole whirl of Christmas. I myself was focused on getting done with work. Still I managed to be out in the world a wee bit over the time, even with the ice, with a few rovings shoehorned into an otherwise busy existence.

Friday 1st December I went to see a friend who was over in Edinburgh for the weekend. We’ve had many good adventures over the years, usually involving loads of good chat too, and this time was no exception. We went to the Portrait Gallery, a good favourite place of both of ours, and there was a nice exhibition of portraits of modern Scots, including a fair few writers, poets and folks of all backgrounds. The Portrait Gallery cafe also does good cake. We also headed out to Portobello where we had lunch, went to a few shops and wandered along the Prom. After we parted, I went on a long urban ramble from the Botanics to Waverley Station via Leith.

The following day Hibs were playing at Partick Thistle, only a few miles across the river from the house. I didn’t have to leave until 1, getting the bus to Dumbarton Road then walking up Byres Road from there. It was a nice sunny afternoon so I dawdled the mile or so to Firhill, stopping on Queen Margaret Drive to look up and down the Kelvin. I also paused not far from the ground to look at one of the Stalled Spaces that have emerged to try and make artworks or gardens out of forgotten corners of our cities and towns.

That Sunday, instead of staying in bed like a sensible person, I was to be found on my way to Kirkcaldy to my favourite art gallery. It felt like an art gallery sort of day and I wandered around my favourite rooms and sat by my favourite paintings. I also took a few minutes to walk down to the sea and felt refreshed after being witness to the stunning sunset over the Forth, particularly looking towards Edinburgh. That day I also undertook two Streets of Glasgow walks, which will appear here later in January, I think, Hope Street and Nelson Mandela Place, the latter in the dark.

The following Sunday Hibs were playing Celtic at Easter Road. It was cold, very cold. After the game, which was at lunchtime for the benefit of those watching in the pub or their hoose, I walked along the Water of Leith as far as Canonmills. The Water was frozen over at several points, including by the Shore in Leith. It was a beautiful walk all the same, all the better, due to the cold. I took a bus across town from Canonmills to George IV Bridge, managing to get a sneaky peek at the new Muriel Spark exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, which was marvellous, arranged chronologically telling the story of Spark’s life through manuscripts, images and text. NLS also had a cracking display of documents out relating to the Reformation.

That Wednesday Hibs were playing The Rangers, again at Easter Road. I took the scenic route to the capital, travelling from Central via Shotts and Livingston rather than the usual Queen Street via Falkirk and Linlithgow route. I like a change of scenery. This one was notable for a delay getting into the East Stand at Easter Road due to ice. Apparently Hibs, Edinburgh City Cooncil and the polis had forgotten that the slope that leads from Hawkhill Avenue to the stand would be very icy. So, those of us who get to the football early were treated to a formation of Edinburgh’s finest with shovels and salt bags in their hands gritting the slope. It was a formation, something that wouldn’t have gone amiss on a battlefield. Better than the football, as it turns out.

That Friday I was in Edinburgh again. On my way back from my shopping, I walked up Regent Road and in the low winter sun the view across Edinburgh city centre was gorgeous.

The following day, Hibs were playing at lunchtime in Aberdeen. Aberdeen. ABERDEEN. Yep. I was there. I left Glasgow at an agriculturally early hour and made it to the frozen north in time to slide across the ice to Pittodrie in time to see Hibs get absolutely gubbed. The pies were decent, though. Rather than hang about, owing to the cold, ice and foulness of my mood, I went to buy a bus ticket straight home. I have never been happier to see Glasgow. I have nothing particular against Aberdeen as a place. It was just baltic, beautifully so as you will see below, and my faith in my fellow humanity had been shaken just a bit too.

I wasn’t well for much of the end of December. My first trip out, besides work and Christmas family stuff, was a spur-of-the-moment trip for a wander at Fisherrow Harbour. On the way back through, I went the long way, via the Forth Road Bridge and Dunfermline, bopping around on buses, just watching the world go by.

On Saturday 30th, Hibs played Kilmarnock. I was there. Before going to the game, I walked via the New Town, down Dublin Street and along East London Street to Gayfield Square, a nice saunter through the lesser-spotted bit of the New Town.

In blog business, I had three spurts in numbers in December. The Streets of Glasgow posts about Ingram Street and Edmiston Drive were particularly popular in December, as was the Books of 2017 post, which ignited a fair bit of interest. Nearer Christmas, the Best of 2017 post got shared a bit owing to its mention of the Glasgow Women’s Library.

So, that’s the December digest. I have a post backlog again so Wednesday will be a two-post day too. The morning one will be about natural light this time of year, the evening one about the trains stopping but one day a year. It’s nice to be back.

Posts this month –

Digest: November 2017

Streets of Glasgow: Edmiston Drive

Paisley!

Why the south side is the best side

Clearing out my inbox

Books of 2017

The turn of the year

The places you end up caring about

Power

Ice, ice baby

The Living Mountain

The Harbour

Best of 2017

2018

Happy New Year!

It’s New Year’s Day. I personally couldn’t give a hoop about that but hey ho, it’s a public holiday and they are fundamentally good things.

The New Year can be stressful for many people. There are some who find this time of year difficult purely because it can be a powerful reminder of how little we think we’ve achieved during the previous year. I’ve felt like that before though this year it seems to be less of an issue.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. They are made to be broken. Any aspirations I have aren’t just for January, they are for all year. I would rather go down the route that Claire Eastham, the blogger behind ‘We’re All Mad Here’, went down the other day and consider what makes me happy and what makes me sad, coming up with two lists. I’ll share some of my happy list.

Perversely, I can’t do one of the main things that makes me happy today since the buses and the trains are off. I can’t go on a day trip, as much as I would like to. Luckily I have one planned for tomorrow when more trains and buses will be on. And the Internet is still on so I can plan, which is often better than the journey being planned.

The football is currently on a winter shutdown and the Hibees aren’t playing for three weeks, eliminating another happy thing. There’s always Hibs TV highlights I can use.

I have lots of books so I can, thankfully, read after all the family stuff. Travelling to and from the football the other day, I read a wonderful biography of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock called Into The Mountain. I still have it to finish.

I also have a laptop, notebooks and pens so I can write, again, family stuff permitting. I write something every single day, though this past Christmas Day I only wrote a grand total of 12 words, a neat close to a story I had been writing the day before.

The family stuff involves being with people I like, which is an undoubted bonus.

I had a lie in this morning, another thing which makes me very happy. Not being the best sleeper, a lie in is a small mercy.

Listening to good music is also high on the Zen score. The last good music I heard was a concert by Skipinnish broadcast on BBC Alba recently.

I have a bit of a Netflix habit and luckily I will find time to cuddle up with my iPad and watch some shows I’ve downloaded.

That’s just a few of the things which make me happy. No doubt you will have your own list. This year I hope to find time for each and every one of these, for Moments of Zen each and every day, even if I might have to be creative to find time for them.

This will be one of two posts today, since I am in the happy position of having loads of posts ready to go. Tonight, the December digest will appear here. We also have a suggestion for the 400th post. If anyone has any others, please send them my way, either by e-mail or commenting below.

Best of 2017


Yay, it’s Christmas time! In this time of repeats and newspapers full of filler material, here’s a blog post written a fair bit ahead of time with the highlights of my year travelling around this fine land. Like last year and the year before, this post sums up my 2017 with some awards for the best experiences I’ve had this year. There are eight categories:

Best museum

Best art gallery

Best historic place

Best library

Best place to watch football

Best fish supper

Best park

Best beach

2016 was a very busy year for me. I also covered more ground than this year. I went to England a lot more and also to Ireland. This year I haven’t been that far. Far enough but not enough to earn Airmiles, if such a thing still exists. I have been very busy with work. I now work full-time. I am also studying and writing a lot. In between all that, I go to the football and try to live a rich and full life, occasionally succeeding in that regard. This year has been a consolidation of those things I am and enjoying those places I love, occasionally getting to new ones along the way.

Best museum –

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh –


The National Museum of Scotland is a place I know very well, having visited regularly since I was a kid. I’ve been known to slag it off but my recent visits have brought me back in love with the place and its great and varied exhibits. I am always due a return visit but that’s always the case, even if I’ve only been there the previous day or week.

Runner-up –

McManus Galleries, Dundee –


A very fine place. It has art in it too but I think of it more as a museum. Very fine it is too, with a clear sense of Dundee and its place in the world as well as giving a broad appreciation of its local area, in its history, science and nature. The hall upstairs with artefacts from various societies is glorious, while the room downstairs about the modern history of Dundee is excellent, with the cases on local politics a particular highlight. Go to the McManus, if only for the cafe and of course the architecture.

Best art gallery –

Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy, Fife –


My favourite gallery on the planet. I have that in common with Jack Vettriano, the Leven-born artist who lists his two favourite art galleries as the Uffizi in Florence, and Kirkcaldy.  I went there on my birthday this year. I tend to get there at least three or four times a year, never getting sick of the 19th and 20th century art in its rooms, including the glorious McTaggart paintings and those by the Colourists and Glasgow Boys. McTaggart’s wave painting is endlessly soothing, while those of Iona take me back to that wonderful island. The Glasgow Boys exhibition at Kirkcaldy this year was excellent too, a selection of Fife’s own collection, creatively put together.

Runner-up –

Fergusson Gallery, Perth –

The Fergusson is always a favourite, even just for its building, an old water tower by the river Tay. It is like Kirkcaldy in that it is clear the curators are on the ball, putting together each exhibition with a great deal of thought and care. I was there a few weeks ago and enjoyed the exhibition about Fergusson and his friend, the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Best historic place –

The Battery, Victoria Harbour, Dunbar, East Lothian –


This was the hardest category this time. It could have been about three different castles or the walls at Berwick. In the end I picked the Battery because it is a place at the heart of my own history as well as being steeped in the history of where I grew up. The Dunbar Shore Neighbourhood Group has done an excellent job developing the Battery, putting in some apposite and beautiful art installations as well as interpretation boards about the surrounding harbour, sea and history. It was truly brilliant to be there and I long to be back again.

Runner-up –

Dryburgh Abbey, near St. Boswells, Scottish Borders –


I tend to get to Dryburgh once a year and usually it is on a beautiful summer’s day. This year’s certainly was and I loved just wandering around the stunning ruins and sitting awhile by the Tweed, reading and pondering. Scottish and British history intertwine at Dryburgh with the Abbey being the burial place of both Sir Walter Scott and Earl Haig. Even without the history, it is one of the great places of Scotland. Thank goodness it is a wee bit hidden away and it isn’t more crowded. Plus it sells ice cream.

Honourable mention –

Seton Collegiate Church, near Longniddry, East Lothian –


A return visit to Seton, which I had only been to once previously. Worth it for the peace, architecture, book-stuffed cludgie and little, apposite quotes dotted around the site.

Best library –

Glasgow Women’s Library –


Libraries are sacred places and the GWL particularly so. It nestles in a fine Carnegie library building in Bridgeton, recently restored, and houses a considerable archive and museum collection, in addition to a fair few books into the bargain. A truly amazing place, plus they offer you a cup of tea when you walk in.

Runner-up –

The National Library of Scotland –

Purely for the exhibitions. NLS do good exhibitions, most recently the one about the Antarctic. It’s always worth going to the Treasures gallery, usually housing manuscripts and books about authors, including Hugh MacDiarmid recently.

Honourable mention –

Any library I work in –

Well, obviously. The people make the place, ken.

Best place to watch football –

Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh –


No Scottish Cup Finals this year. I just have to settle for the two derby victories I had the pleasure of witnessing from my very lovely seat high up in the East Stand.

Runner-up –

East End Park, Dunfermline –

Purely for the steak bridies. Never mind the football.

Best fish supper –

Tailend, St. Andrews or Edinburgh –

The Tailend is one of the finest chip shops in the nation and they have two branches, one in St. Andrews, the other on Leith Walk in the capital. A very decent fish supper can be had there, best consumed on a bench nearby.

Runner-up –

Giacopazzi’s, Eyemouth, Scottish Borders –

One from my youth. I’ve been there a couple of times this year and they do a very decent fish supper, best consumed looking over the harbour.

Best park –

John Muir Country Park, near Dunbar, East Lothian –


I had a particularly good walk in this dear, familiar place in April, ending up at Hedderwick before turning back towards Dunbar. The walk was varied, with views across the Tyne towards Tyninghame, the Bass and the May, as well as old WWII-era bunkers and of course loads of trees. It washed my spirit clean, in the best possible sense.

Runner-up –

Benmore Botanic Garden, near Dunoon, Argyll –


I was there in the rain but it was still amazing. The walk amidst the sequoias is braw.

Honourable mention –

Lochend Park, Edinburgh –

I often sit in Lochend Park before Hibs matches, most recently a few weeks ago working through a book with a fly often thwarting my progress. It is an urban park but one with a view to Arthur’s Seat and of course the Holy Ground.

Best beach –

Embleton Beach, near Embleton, Northumberland –


I was there in January. The beach is in a beautiful setting, overlooked by Dunstanburgh Castle. The path goes on for a fair few miles, running along the beach from Low Newton eventually to Craster. It is hard to successfully encapsulate how wonderful a place Embleton is. Go. Look at a photograph if you can’t go. It is one of those places.

Runner-up –

Bamburgh Beach, near Bamburgh, Northumberland –


Again, there in January, overlooked by a castle, though with incredible views to Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands. Cold, very bright day, blessed in that baltic afternoon to be alive.

Honourable mention –

Belhaven Beach, near Dunbar, East Lothian –


Where else? My favourite place on the planet. I couldn’t not mention it here.

So, that’s 2017. After I wrote the historic place section, I realised I didn’t mention two of the best places I’ve been to this year, namely Kilchurn Castle in Argyll and Dunnottar Castle, near Stonehaven. Both in very dramatic settings and with fascinating histories. Of those places I hoped to get to in 2015 and 2016, I managed to get to Dunnottar and Tantallon this year, still not to Oxford, Bristol and Stornoway. In 2018, I hope just to be able to travel anywhere. In an ideal world, I would love to get back to Northumberland but also finally to make it to Shetland. This year has been a rollercoaster ride, busy but worth it for the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met.

As ever, many thanks to all readers and followers for reading, commenting and everything else. It has been a privilege. If you celebrate, a very Merry Christmas, the best of wishes if you don’t, and a very peaceful and prosperous New Year when it comes. See you in January.

Power

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Prestongrange

In 1174 the monks of Newbattle Abbey got a charter from King David I to dig for coal at Prestongrange. History doesn’t record if the monks dug for the coal personally but for the next 800 years or so that part of East Lothian, around Tranent, Prestonpans and inland towards Musselburgh and Midlothian, was built on coal. Bricks forged from the clay that came with the coal went to build the town houses of Edinburgh’s New Town and even to Jamaica. Until recently, coal still played a crucial part in the economy of East Lothian, right until Cockenzie Power Station closed in 2013. By then, it was one of only two coal-fired power stations left in Scotland, the other, Longannet, just up the Forth near Kincardine, closed in 2016. For two years, the chimneys of Cockenzie still stood high against the landscape until eventually they were levelled in the summer of 2015. They had been a familiar part of my life for as long as I could remember, passed twice a day as I went from where I lived in Dunbar to primary school in Edinburgh. Even after I moved to Glasgow and coursed down the A1 or sat on a train as it speeded by, the chimneys at Cockenzie were still there. The chimneys seemed like they could be seen from space. They certainly could be seen from all around, from Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh to Gullane, even from the Fife coast at the other side of the Forth. Then one day they were gone. They fell with an embrace and then swiftly to earth in a hail of rubble and smoke.

I walked by there recently. I hadn’t been to Cockenzie for a few years though I liked to visit the harbour there and Port Seton along the way. The space where the Power Station once stood is now a vast crater, fenced off with dire warnings for safety and security pinned to the barriers. The only part that still survives, being worked at by demolition crews, is a turbine building. There have been talks about using the site for a combined cycle gas turbine station or for a cruise ship terminal, to tap into new technologies or just the tourism industry that increasingly fuels our country’s economy. As I walked along the coast road that day, it just felt eerie. It also felt sad. Cockenzie was a coal-fired power station and it was one of the major polluters of Scotland. It was also a major employer and people lost their jobs in an already quite deprived area. A place that bustled with activity now had just a handful of workers. It had reinvented itself before, though. The power station had been built on the site of Prestonlinks Colliery, one of two collieries at either side of Prestonpans at one point. It will certainly do so again if Scottish Power get their way and the combined cycle gas turbine station emerges.

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Dunbar. I don’t have a picture of Torness. Torness is to the south or over the hill.

The East Lothian coastline, like that of the Forth more generally, was dotted with power stations. One functioning power station remains, Torness, near Dunbar. The stories and memories remain of others that once dominated the landscape. I remember being at a Jack Vettriano exhibition at Kelvingrove a few years ago, standing in front of a painting that depicted a courting couple standing by a power station’s chimneys, Methil in Fife, now also demolished. The painting’s label noted that this painting was an historical record of a place that was no longer there, with couples having to go elsewhere to satisfy their yearnings. Portobello in Edinburgh is now seen as being a trendy seaside enclave within the capital with house prices to match. It once had a power station, though, looming high above the flats and businesses of Seafield, Porty and Joppa. Apparently its chimney was a landmark that reminded Edinburgh folk they were close to the beach. There’s a photo on Canmore, Historic Environment Scotland’s website, from 1980 when the power station’s demolition was in progress, of the shell of the building standing in front of the tenements of King’s Road, with rubble all around the foreground. Today it is all houses and a five-a-side football complex. There is a restored pottery kiln nearby, a reminder of an even earlier past of textiles traded across seas. But not much trace of the power station that once powered the homes of the city beyond.

Torness Power Station is hard to love, regardless one’s feelings about nuclear power. It is boxy and stands starkly on fields close to the North Sea, still in East Lothian but close to Berwickshire. Torness is in a stunning setting. From the surrounding walkway, part of the John Muir Link from Dunbar to the start of the Southern Upland Way at Cockburnspath, it is possible to see for miles and miles, to the Isle of May and Fife, to St. Abbs Head and Siccar Point, all from a vast concrete sea wall. Torness can also be seen from afar and when it is passed, be that on the A1 or the train, it is, like Cockenzie was, a landmark that home is near, even if my home is now further away than just the few miles to Dunbar.

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Soutra
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Soutra towards Edinburgh

The Lammermuir Hills sit above Torness, separating East Lothian from the Scottish Borders. Recently I stood at Soutra, at the western end of the Lammermuirs overlooking East Lothian and Edinburgh. Soutra was once a medieval hospital, run by an Augustinian order. I looked towards Cockenzie and of course the chimneys were gone. The many pylons remain. In those hills are not gold but wind turbines, an ever more familiar part of the landscape today. There is very little historical about wind turbines. They are controversial, aesthetically and for their effect on wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem. Most power generation is. Cockenzie, like Longannet, like Methil, was on the list of the top 10 polluters in Scotland. Torness harnesses nuclear power and that has its great share of dangers. In 1174, coal was the answer. Now, it isn’t so certain. The skyline has changed considerably over that time with power stations having sprung up and been demolished all along the Forth, mines dug low into the earth and millions of tons of coal brought up to fuel homes and factories. Walking around today, there are still some traces of this, even if now they are mostly just memories growing more vague with each passing day.

Source and further reading –

Canmore (Historic Environment Scotland), Portobello Power Station, view during demolition, accessed via https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1308748

Platform 9 3/4

Hey,

Just a friendly reminder before I get down to business that the Nourish eBook comes out tomorrow from the Scottish Book Trust website or your local library’s eBook downloading service, if you live in Scotland. It’s good, I promise, dipping in quality around page 65 but getting better again after that.

I’ve been into Harry Potter for years and years. (Previous posts on that subject are 20 years on from the Philosopher’s StoneHarry Potter and David Gray and London). The first books came out when I was a kid. I read the first when I was 10 and the last when I was 18. My birthday is not only close to Harry Potter’s but also to Daniel Radcliffe’s, who is about a week older than I am. The films are nowhere near as good as the books – the sole exception to that rule, incidentally is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, where Kristin Scott Thomas and Loch Laggan proceed to steal the show in the film – but the movies were constant companions, one most years with Harry and the gang dealing with the pressures of teenage years like I was in the Muggle world.


On 1st September this year, in the Harry Potter universe, Harry and Ginny’s son, Albus Severus Potter, went to Hogwarts for the first time, the subsequent events forming the basis for the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child currently playing in London’s West End and soon to shift to Broadway. Surreally, a large crowd of people, many of them suitably attired assembled in the (real) main concourse of King’s Cross Station in London, right by the barrier to Platform 9 3/4 and counted down until 11 when the Hogwarts Express was due to leave. That’s dedication to the cause. It’s why I was a wee bit concerned recently when I was in Inverness and came across a phone box bearing the legend ‘To get to Platform 9 3/4 run directly at this sign.’ The people from the TV channel Dave tend to do quite droll and off-the-wall advertising but I rather fear that these signs will cause accidents among the considerable section of the population who still eagerly await their Hogwarts letter. There haven’t been many mishaps, as far as I’m aware, but there’s potential nevertheless, not least because Inverness is nowhere near King’s Cross to start with. I know it’s not real and all a figment of JK Rowling’s imagination but as Dumbledore says:

‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’

Zines

Just occasionally cliches end up being true. One is that every day is a school day. A couple of months ago, I was at a conference. It wasn’t that useful, as it turns out, with the main benefit being able to catch up with a friend. At one point in the proceedings, I chummed my friend outside so she could get a cigarette break and I could get a sensory break. There were others outside the building getting their nicotine fix but sadly no others just getting a straight hit of being out of the room like I was. I don’t promote smoking but a lot of times the best conversations end up happening when folk are having a cigarette break. This was a library conference and the conversation turned to zines. At that point, I didn’t know what zines were and out of ignorance I asked what they were.

Glasgow Women’s Library

A zine is a self-published, often handwritten or generally low-tech publication on any topic under the sun. They have become more popular in recent years with zine libraries emerging in Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as London. The Glasgow Women’s Library, which hosted the conference I was at, does a lot of work with zines and zine making. I think they have a fair collection of them.

A zine seems to be quite similar to a fanzine, particularly popular in the 1980s and 1990s and often about music or football. Indeed my first encounters with fanzines came at the football. When I was a kid, I went to the football with my auntie and she usually had the latest copy of the now sadly defunct Mass Hibsteria (Hibs Monthly), the riotously funny, irreverent Hibs fanzine. Some of its contributors, like Ted Brack and Sandy Macnair, have since written books about the Cabbage. The last issue was a special one published around the time of the League Cup Final in 2016, which I bought a copy of outside Easter Road before a home game around the time. I just unearthed it and on the front is a photo of Jason Cummings, who now plays for Nottingham Forest, giving a ‘Come on then’ gesture to Hearts supporters after just scoring against them, with the legend ‘The Angel of the East’. Nutmeg magazine, the Scottish football periodical, featured a fanzine special in its fourth issue, with articles by former fanzine contributors who had gone on to become sports journalists, like Alan Pattullo of The Scotsman. Most clubs had a fanzine or several in the case of Dundee and Aberdeen in particular, most now gone and replaced by fan message boards and the like. One notable survivor is When Saturday Comes magazine, which doesn’t have much about Scottish football but nevertheless covers the football experience well, tending to miss out the big clubs and corporate mess that characterises our game.

When I was in my late teens, I was incredibly interested in comedy writing, particularly for television. I read a lot about American talk shows and also how The Simpsons was written. One of the most influential Simpsons writers, George Meyer, had been hired partly for a magazine he had produced with a few friends in the 1980s, more like a fanzine than anything else with a few photocopied pages circulated in a samizdat style, called Army Man. I produced a sort-of similar magazine called Daydream, with a few similar sort-of one-liner jokes, typed on Microsoft Word in Courier New font, but didn’t do anything with it. No trace survives. I did write a blog based on it, now long deleted, at a point when comedy writing felt like something I maybe wanted to do. I don’t any more.

I like the idea of producing a zine. Writing a blog is sort-of similar but coming out with something tangible and printed appeals to me. The thing is I’m not sure what to do. I was thinking just now about a short psychogeographical zine, about a walk or a journey, with pictures glued on like a scrapbook. Something came to mind there from an Ian Rankin novel. One of the main characters, Siobhan Clarke, had a line in one of them whereby she doubted there would be a magazine for her, covering music, Hibs and murders. For me, travels around cities might work, maybe beaches, waterfalls or museums. If I come up with an idea, I will let you all know, perhaps offering it up here. At this stage, it’s just an idea, a wee sideline. We’ll see.