I like photographs. Taking them and looking at them. There are places that are photographed a lot. Of the two thirds of a billion photos taken each year that aren’t selfies, a fair few of them must be of Edinburgh Castle or Stirling or the British Museum or even Dunbar. I was just choosing a photo to illustrate a post which will appear in December about my East Lothian accent and I chose one of the Victoria Harbour in Dunbar, a scene that appears on many a postcard of my home town. It seemed right for the post but it got me to thinking of how many places suffer from having the same photographs taken of them again and again. As a public service, here are a few photos I’ve taken of fairly well-known places. Hopefully they have only been taken a few hundred times, as opposed to a few million or whatever.
Trust me to miss some architectural wonder. I got home from this one and picked up the wonderful Look Up Glasgow by Adrian Searle and David Barbour, a book all about the best bits of Glasgow that are above our heads, and I missed ‘winged mythical creatures’ above Starbucks. To make matters worse, the carving by James Boucher dating from 1875 has a pithy description in the book that the creatures judge ‘you for getting whipped cream on your latte’. I had thought that a lot of the architectural interest on West Nile Street had been on the other side of the street and here I had missed something. Damn and blast.
I started this walk from the northern end near the bus station, first taking a proper look at the building that houses La Bonne Auberge and the Holiday Inn, which has the look of an old warehouse or alternatively a mill building. Then again right now I seem to think everything looks like a mill building. The contrast of the building’s cupola with the tall cinema behind it was quite striking.
West Nile Street is another of the city’s main thoroughfares, vertical on the grid like Renfield Street, Hope Street and Queen Street. I usually cover its length at a very good lick, since it is downhill, as invariably I am rushing from the bus station to catch a train. This day I wasn’t rushing, which was good since my Vans weren’t made for speed or much beyond decoration. Most of the interesting parts of the street were on my right, or the western side of the street, though there were some good points on the other side too, like the Glasgow Stamp Shop whose website is pennyred.com, a neat philatelic reference and straight to business even in their web address about what they actually sell. (Also agreeably cheesy is their slogan, the unbeatable ‘Where no-one is second class’.) It reminded me of Stephens the bakers, a Fife company based in Dunfermline, where I had just come from. Stephens are particularly renowned for their wonderful steak bridie. So renowned indeed are these particular delights that the company’s website is steakbridie.com. Despite not being a cyclist, I invariably look into the cycle shop on the left side of the street, usually marvelling at the breadth and depth of their wares.
Also of interest was the back of the new retail development on Buchanan Street which is sleek and modern with an older pillared section in the middle. A lot of the buildings on West Nile Street are older, more than Renfield Street, with a fair few of the old bank buildings with a high central atrium and offices above. Some of the modern office blocks up towards West George Street have also adopted this trend. The old bank buildings aren’t banks any more, though, with fancy burger shops in the two I could see. The one which houses Shilling Brewing Company is austere art deco, if there can be such a thing with a few floral flourishes above street level and some pillars between the high windows. Handmade Burger Company has some striking Greek-style sculpture above the high pillars. I like old bank buildings and Glasgow has a few crackers, the high atria and offices above reminding me a bit of the Bank of England in London, always a bonkers looking structure with pillars upon pillars.
Keeping up the food theme for ages I’ve admired the red sandstone building on the corner of West Nile Street and West George Street which houses the Nippon Kitchen Japanese restaurant. It just looks quintessentially Glaswegian, red sandstone, stylish without being over-the-top, though strangely right for housing a Japanese restaurant too.
This was another busy walk, undertaken on a busy Friday teatime, so I had to do my best to get photos without getting run over or in the road of folk just trying to get home. Glasgow is one of the loudest cities in the world and unlike many others, people actually talk in the street. Sometimes you hear more than you want, like from the group of students talking about their pal who lots of folk think is a bit mental but really isn’t. That’s a bit tame, though. I’ve sometimes hurtled down West Nile Street on Saturday nights in full swing with gaggles of drunken people about the place, me of course being entirely sober at the time. Being able to slow down and just look around without needing to hurry was glorious, even if I missed the grotesque creatures judging the punters in Starbucks.
Source and further reading –
Searle, Adrian and Barbour, David, Look Up Glasgow, 2013, Glasgow: Freight Books
I haven’t written so much about my studies with the Open University recently. That is because I was on hiatus since the spring. I resumed my course in October, though, the same one I had to stop doing in March. The reason I did was due to a sudden change in my life. A positive change, since I started working full-time a couple of months after the course started. I tried to keep up with my work and my studying, doing a few very late nights to get TMAs done but by mid-March I was struggling and I looked into my options. The OU in Edinburgh have been wonderful, putting steps into place and allowing me to finish where I left off, complete with the results of the TMAs I had undertaken already still intact.
In effect, I have just two TMAs left to do, plus the exam. In practice, since I missed out a lot of work the first time, I am actually going to do the whole thing again, minus the other TMAs, working through each chapter in turn. It will help with the exam plus the course, A223 Early modern Europe, is actually very interesting and I didn’t get the chance to properly appreciate it before. I started back in the summer, reading over chapters to reacquaint myself and to build up slowly to studying properly. In fact on a recent day trip in the Borders, I sat by the river Tweed at Dryburgh Abbey (shown below), reading an OU chapter about Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries from my tablet.
The OU course materials are pretty much all online and downloadable. I have put the course books onto all of my devices, even onto my iPhone so I can read on the way to the football, as I did on the way to Kilmarnock the other night. The printed materials still get their use, usually when writing TMAs, in my experience, when searching for a reference is invariably easier flicking through book pages than searching digitally. But digital works best for me a lot of the time since I spend a lot of my life either working or travelling.
Generally speaking, my best day to get through the work will be a Sunday, Hibs fixtures notwithstanding. I tend to be up early on a Sunday and it is also usually my best writing day. In previous OU courses, I’ve been able to work through whole chapters on a Sunday and this one it might be necessary, plus of course reading on the move.
Being an OU student sometimes requires a little bit of dedication. Some might call it masochism, studying very often when you just don’t want to, after a long day’s work or when everyone else is having fun. It is worth it for the best days, though, when a good TMA mark comes back or when writing one of those assignments and you are on a roll. Or when what you read in the course books just makes you glad you picked this subject and this way of studying. It is best achieved sitting in a comfortable chair, even if it is in transit, and there is a progression each time a course book is opened, one step closer to the end of a chapter or a block or a module or even the degree. For me, the degree isn’t an end in itself – it is something I would like, sure, but it is a means to further ends. Not least actually learning and reading interesting things, which I hope to be doing again in the coming months.
I started October on annual leave so plenty of rovings to report this month, beginning with a Sunday sojourn down the coast. I had a notion to go somewhere and decided on a wee spin on the train. From my bit of Glasgow, there are direct trains to Wemyss Bay on a Sunday and I soon stepped out of a train in the beautiful glass station, taking in the Victorian architecture. I was tempted to walk down the boardwalk to the ferry to Rothesay but the weather was wild and windy and the decision was made easier just to keep on dry land. I was going to have a wander but with the wind I just took a few photos and scurried across for the bus to Largs. The road from Wemyss Bay to Largs is one of the best in the country, suitably dramatic with views to Cumbrae, Bute and Cowal, only better with the white-topped waves. As I walked in Largs, the wind and the rain nearly blew me off my feet so I only went a little way before retreating to a coffee shop then the train home.
The next day, for want of any better ideas, I went to Edinburgh. I hadn’t planned anything so just walked up Leith Walk with the hope that I would have a brainwave en route. Luckily I did and ended up on the bus to Portobello to walk along the prom there, the weather being sunnier and much nicer than the previous day. A few weeks previously, I had written a piece on old power stations (to appear here in due course) and mentioned the old power station in Portobello, now replaced by houses and five-a-side pitches. A photo I came across with the station’s demolition came to mind with King’s Road in the background and a massive crater where the station used to be.
That Wednesday I went to Perth, where I took in the ever braw Perth Museum and Fergusson Gallery. The Fergusson had a particularly intriguing exhibition of paintings and documents about Fergusson’s friendship with Charles Rennie Mackintosh. For those who will insist on asking me rather than utilising Google, it’s on until 29th January 2018. Perth Museum’s excellent exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Perthshire Society of Natural Science with very well-arranged stuffed huge animals is on until tomorrow, 4th November.
Before I went to Perth, I had time to kill so undertook a Streets of Glasgow walk along Renfield Street.
The following day I took a train to Berwick, loving walking the walls in the sunshine. I particularly relished being able to look in the distance to Lindisfarne and Bamburgh. As I walked, I tried to decide where I would head for next, down south or up north, eventually settling on Dunbar. I bought an Ordnance Survey map since unaccountably I had left the relevant sheets in the house and because I had notions to go to Dunglass Collegiate Church and the waterfall at Bilsdean, both close by each other up the coast nearer Dunbar. Sadly bus times were against me so I headed straight for Dunbar instead, soon avoiding high waves as I walked along the prom to the East Links. I hadn’t been in my home town for about six months and being on familiar turf was really what I needed. I hadn’t been to the Battery on Lamer Island for a while and was glad to be there to see the new art installations and interpretative boards around it. Looking out to the North Sea, St. Abbs Head, the Isle of May and the Bass was particularly good on that bright sunny day. My visit also included a walk along the Prom, where my spirit was washed a little cleaner.
It is mandatory when visiting Dunfermline (or Kirkcaldy) that I do my utmost to sample some of those lovely steak bridies from Stephens the bakers, regardless of the result. Thus it was that Friday that I was sat in Pittencrieff Park in Dunfermline with two bridies, ensuring they were swiftly polished off. Dunfermline is a very easy place to reach from Glasgow and my plan was to take in the new Carnegie Library and Galleries, one of those all-purpose cultural buildings that spring up all over the place. It’s excellent, with a branch library and archives as well as museum and gallery space. Since I was on leave and I thus didn’t want to linger amidst the books, most of my visit concentrated on the stunning views to the Abbey as well as the art and museum objects. There was an exhibition of some of Fife’s considerable art collection, including a few Colourists and Glasgow Boys (and Girls) works familiar from trips to Kirkcaldy. Another highlight was the video of archive footage of gala days and the like soundtracked by Dunfermline musicians, namely the Skids, Big Country and Barbara Dickson, quite an eclectic mix. Honestly, it’s better than it sounds.
On the way back, I did a Streets of Glasgow walk on West Nile Street in the city centre.
Over that weekend, I went to watch Hibs lose to Aberdeen then on the Sunday I went to Cathkin Park, particularly liking being in that fine place in the midst of autumn leaves. Another Streets of Glasgow walk resulted, this time on Union Street in the town.
The following Saturday, Hibs played Celtic in the League Cup semi at Hampden. The unexpected pleasure of a comfortable leather seat only slightly mitigated the horror of losing to the lesser greens. I have a sort-of tradition of walking home from Hampden after semi finals and that was what I did, covering nearly five miles from Mount Florida to Cardonald. Luckily the sun had come out by that point and the autumn colours again made it a nice walk, soothing a brow furrowed by the football just witnessed at the National Stadium.
That Tuesday I was in the capital for the derby. Beforehand, I got there a bit early so had a psychogeographic wander around the New Town.
Last Friday, I was in Partick. After doing my business over there, I went to Kelvingrove, paying particular attention to my favourite painting, the Paps of Jura by William MacTaggart.
On Sunday, I went to Dundee with my dad. We headed first to Broughty Ferry where we lunched on a bench watching the local sailing club in action on the Tay. Broughty Castle with its art and natural history was very fine, though of course I proceeded to slip on the stairs, right in front of the bemused museum assistant who proceeded to ask if I was all right. It happens enough that I don’t even get that embarrassed any more. After Broughty Ferry, we headed into Dundee city centre to visit the mighty McManus Galleries. The Diam slices in the cafe are outstanding. We had a walk by the Tay quickly before it got dark.
So, that’s October. The clocks have gone back and the nights are fair drawing in. I never used to like autumn though we have been lucky that it has been quite mild here in the west. Lots of good adventures this month. Plus I’m back studying too and even still ahead of the course calendar. Hopefully there will be more adventures (and ticks off the course calendar) to come in November.
Thanks as ever to all readers and followers. I am particularly proud of October’s posts, particularly ‘Scotland by museums’ and ‘Muriel Spark’, and I hoped you enjoyed reading them. The next post here will be on Sunday. It was going to be about Platform 9 3/4, delving slightly into Harry Potter, but instead it will be about studying. Often even more magical.
Posts this month –
Back in this blog’s early days, I was told that one thing that would improve it was photos. They would break up the text. Ever since I’ve kept to that and indeed I often take photos specifically for the blog, sometimes on spec for a potential future post. I would like to share some of my favourite photos from the blog over the last couple of years, giving some of the context behind them.
This first one was taken at the Science Museum in London, with what might be the Rocket in the centre of the shot and a lighthouse lamp from the Western Isles to the right of it. The Science Museum is excellent and it is stunningly arranged.
This was taken in the old Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow during a tour just before the current works to turn it into flats. You can almost see the nurses, doctors and patients moving along.
This is the old Winterfield Pavilion in Dunbar, now demolished. It stood abandoned for most of my lifetime though previously it was used variously as a performance space and public toilets. I suspect my interest in abandoned structures may have started there.
This is Kev’s Beach, not far from St. Abbs Head in Berwickshire. It is a little cove with a pebbly beach just off the path. It does have a name on the OS map but it felt like my own discovery, hence its unofficial moniker.
Dryburgh Abbey is a stunning place just by the Tweed in the Borders. I’ve only ever been there on gloriously sunny days, including this summer when I sat a while by the river and read. Blessed in that dawn to be alive.
This is the back of the old James Dunbar lemonade works, behind Easter Road Stadium in Edinburgh. The South Stand at Easter Road is still referred to as the Dunbar End, not because it is in the general direction of Dunbar, which it isn’t, but for the works.
Last one is Cathkin Park, taken a couple of weeks ago, a beautiful autumn day just to ponder and wander.
Some of these were taken with my camera, which is a Nikon Coolpix L340, though most of the more recent ones were taken with an iPhone 7. The last two definitely were. I haven’t taken my camera out all that often recently but since it has been a gorgeous autumn, I may just have to change that.
The journalist Simon Jenkins recently published a book called Britain’s Best 100 Railway Stations, rating those stations on their architectural and other merits. Ten of those hundred – Aviemore, Edinburgh Waverley, Glasgow Central, Gleneagles, Glenfinnan, Pitlochry, Perth, Rannoch, Stirling, Wemyss Bay – are in Scotland, with the beautiful station at Wemyss Bay pictured on the cover. Of these ten, I have spent time in five of them, passed through Aviemore, Gleneagles and Pitlochry, and one day I would like to get to Glenfinnan and Rannoch.
My own top 10 would probably include Waverley, Central, Perth, Stirling and Wemyss Bay though I might add to the list Glasgow Queen Street, Leuchars, Linlithgow, Paisley Gilmour Street and Prestonpans, off the top of my head. On the subs bench would be Arbroath and Dingwall, probably Dunbar since it’s the station I’ve spent the most time on in my life. Haymarket’s recent revamp is rather fine too, managing to work in the handsome station house to the sleek modern glass and chrome affair that makes up the rest of the station. I’ve written about Waverley fairly recently – in Edinburgh Waverley – and Glasgow Central in the Streets of Glasgow post about Gordon Street. The others I’ve been to a fair bit, except Dingwall, which I’ve only been to once.
Perth Station is formed of two distinct sections, the shed I know best where the trains to Inverness and Edinburgh leave from while there are two bay platforms at the far end for trains to Dundee and Glasgow which I have come to know better in recent years. While Perth is huge, empty and rattly now, it strikes me as a place which has been bustly over time and it is quite atmospheric, resonant of past journeys and feeling far from anywhere else. The approach from Dundee is the best, passing across the Tay and Moncrieffe (or Friarton) Island along a bridge two storeys above street level into the station. It also passes near the Fergusson Gallery, which is situated in an old water tower right by the river.
Stirling is one of the few Scottish stations that appear in art, namely ‘Stirling Station’ by the Glasgow Boy William Kennedy, which currently resides in Kelvingrove. Stirling is smaller than Perth but quite pleasant in its way. The nicest feature is the main concourse with a curved glass roof sort of like the one at Wemyss Bay, though the main entrance with the jagged gable end is quite fine too.
Wemyss Bay is gorgeous, particularly the glass roof and its curves, the wooden curved walkway down to the ferry and the view outside. It’s well-tended and every time I’m there it feels like an adventure.
Glasgow Queen Street is in the midst of a refurbishment so it isn’t looking its best at the moment. I still always feel excited as I walk up the platform to the train, feeling palpably content under that elegant roof and walking on that polished floor.
Leuchars is an underrated pleasure. It is not on a direct route to Glasgow so I haven’t been there for a while. It has a single island platform sitting in the middle of a field, albeit one facing an army base. I’ve spent a fair bit of time there sitting looking out watching the world go by.
Linlithgow isn’t the most beautiful station but it has a great view from its platforms towards the Palace and St. Michael’s Church, particularly as the sun sets as it casts silhouettes.
Paisley Gilmour Street looks like a castle from the outside. It is fabulous for people watching. It is also an elegant big train shed, a bit like Perth, with trains to destinations across western Scotland coming in and out every few minutes. The new mural in the walkway is beautiful, fitting with Paisley’s hopes to become City of Culture in 2021.
Prestonpans is probably the least likely addition to this list. I like the murals painted on the outside of the old station buildings, including an image of Prestongrange’s Beam Engine and other allusions to the Pans’ considerable history including salt and brewing. There is also a very fine view across the fields to Bankton House.
The best bit of train travel is the travel itself, being on the train and seeing what is passed by on the way somewhere else. Stations make the whole experience better, well, some of the time and we are lucky in Scotland to have some very fine stations indeed. Writing this has encouraged me to spend some time this autumn exploring some of them, perhaps beginning with a return to Wemyss Bay and Perth. To the trains.
Now, this isn’t a League of Gentlemen thing, all about ‘local museums for local people’. In my years, I’ve been to more than a few museums, some big ones, the massive kind in big cities with security guards and Rosetta Stones and that, as well as smaller museums, the ones that fit into one room and have displays that might not have been updated in the last couple of decades. I try to take each one as I find them, seeking to be open-minded and curious even while I may not have much affinity with the place or with what is being displayed. Most towns and cities in Scotland have a museum, some, like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, have quite a few. The National Museums and Glasgow Museums get enough limelight. As much as I like traipsing around NMS, Kelvingrove, Riverside and the rest, I generally prefer the museums to be found outside of the Central Belt, even just outside Glasgow and Edinburgh. They tend to be less familiar and so have more to actually learn and absorb.
Every so often, a new local museum springs up. When I was off recently, I took a trip to Dunfermline, an old haunt of mine, to go to the brand new Carnegie Library and Galleries. Dunfermline already has a museum all about Andrew Carnegie, who was born in the town, and it is quite fine. Since Carnegie donated money to build libraries all over the place, including a fair few here in Glasgow, it was only natural that he bunged his home town a few quid to build a library, which opened in 1883. That building was refurbished and enlarged over the last few years with a suitably grand Victorian exterior on Abbot Street and a more modern wood, glass and boxy affair looking onto the garden and the Abbey beyond. Inside it is stunning. The library is agreeably old-fashioned looking with wooden shelving and the archive bit manages to combine wooden shelves and looking quite swish with a mezzanine level. It was filled with light and lots of gaps to see the light and the rest of the building at different points. The museum and gallery spaces were much more modern and the tone was set by the entrance to the building, which housed panels, some audio-visual, with images of Dunfermline and its prominent citizens and pursuits over the centuries, as well as a Vespa scooter. Not sure quite why but I liked it all the same. What tickled me was that the museum featured photos of well-kent folk from Dunfermline, including Jim Leishman, who is perhaps best known as a football manager for Dunfermline and Livingston, amongst others, as well as occasionally scribbling doggerel poems to inspire his teams. Referred to as the ‘Lochgelly Messiah’ in Ron Ferguson’s Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil, Leishman is now a Labour councillor and the Provost of Fife, no less, and there is a plaque by the reception saying that he officially opened the place, as well as featuring in the exhibits. Legend. Another highlight was the video featuring local scenes, probably from the Scottish Screen Archive, though it featured a soundtrack of music by local musicians, including Barbara Dickson, Big Country and, wonderfully, Into The Valley by the Skids. I’ve written here before about one of the highlights of watching a game at East End Park in Dunfermline being the steak bridies made by Stephens. Another is hearing the Skids belted out at full volume as the teams come out. The video in the museum was originally playing in the background though cleverly it got louder as I walked towards it, sitting down in front of it on a comfy cinema-style seat. I could have sat there all afternoon, to be honest. The museum didn’t suffer from being quite bitty and thematic, as so many museums tend to be nowadays, going into some topics but not following a strict linear chronology. The architecture of the building, inside and out, was cracking and I just liked walking around it, looking out the window and down and up and through the place.
The fact I know Dunfermline fairly well probably affected my response to its museum. If it had been a place I know less well, the museum may not have resonated as much with me. A couple of days previously, I was in Perth. I like Perth – it’s a douce, prim sort of town, a traditional market sort of place. Its highlights for me are the Fergusson Gallery, dedicated to the work of Colourist artist JD Fergusson, and Huntingtower Castle, which sits just at the other side of the A9 at the edge of the city. This time I went to the Fergusson, where there was a good exhibition linking Fergusson to Charles Rennie Mackintosh (on until 29th January 2018, incidentally) and for a daunder along the Tay. On the way back, I hit Perth Museum and Art Gallery, which sits in an elegant building with pillars and an atrium just up from the river. The first time I went to Perth Museum was a few years ago and I remember being struck by how dated its displays were. Some of the displays about the local area were produced in 1990. This was well into the noughties. I was born in 1989 and at that point I could vote and everything. Thankfully, it has been spruced up since then though it is about to shut for a refurb again. The natural history and geology bit, which is much the same age as I am, was fine though it was hard to get into. It was a lot of reading, which is fine, though not knowing Perthshire very well or much about its geography or wildlife, I was a bit lost. The current exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Perthshire Society of Natural Science (on until 4th November) was great, with lots of taxidermy on show as well as good, absorbing exhibition panels about the society’s activities. I go to enough exhibitions to know when a curator has had fun putting an exhibition together and the curator at Perth had clearly been loving their work, displaying all these stuffed animals in such a way that really stood out.
Scotland is far more than Edinburgh and Glasgow. Or indeed more than Loch Ness or Stirling Castle. It is those places that aren’t always obvious. One of the best museums in the country is the Signal Tower Museum in Arbroath, another is Broughty Castle Museum in Broughty Ferry, just outside Dundee. The other day I was thinking about being at the opening of the museum in Musselburgh a few years ago, which manages to combine a whole lot of the history of that fine burgh in a space about the size of a newsagents. There are still loads I haven’t seen. For years, I’ve been meaning to go to the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright, which is apparently from a bygone age, and indeed to the Dumfries Museum and Camera Obscura. It’s a fairly difficult part of the world to get to, Dumfries and Galloway – as written about a wee while ago in Awkward – so it will probably be a while until I get there. I still haven’t been to Eyemouth Museum, which has a good collection about fishing, despite it being fairly close to Dunbar, where I grew up.
This is why I am in no particular hurry to travel abroad. Where I live, or near to it, is interesting enough already. The museums especially.
Another archive post tonight, this time from 26th April this year, about walking in a dear, perpetual place. Thursday’s couldn’t be more different, a post written on the hoof about Paisley.
The very first post on this blog, way back in August 2015, was a dwam about vivid memories of places that occur to you seemingly without warning:
‘I was just thinking about a place near where I grew up in East Lothian. Just outside Dunbar is the John Muir Country Park, stretching from Dunbar Castle to Tyninghame. It is a very varied place, encompassing golf courses, beaches and an animal park. I spent a lot of time there as a kid. Anyway, the particular part of the park that came to mind a few minutes ago is at the far end of the dump road, where it meets the Biel Burn near West Barns. There is a bridge there, leading towards the sand dunes or the firs, what is locally known as ‘John Muir’, and I was just thinking of walking there. It is nearly always muddy and usually smells rank (there is a water treatment works nearby) but the path leads to good places, whichever way you take.’
I hadn’t been there in years, in fact well before I moved to Glasgow. When I was in Dunbar recently, I hadn’t planned to be out there at all but when I was walking around the Prom, I looked across Belhaven Bay and saw the trees. I didn’t plan to walk so far, though, across what the map calls the Hedderwick Plantation but what I know as ‘John Muir’. I did because I was just enjoying setting one foot before another. I haven’t been there in quite a few years – I now live at the other side of the country, I have done many jobs since – but as soon as I got past the Linkfield car park, my feet guided me through the woods as if I had just been there the day before, feeling utterly at home, recognising paths leading this way and that. Even the smells were familiar, tree smells and from the beach across the dunes. There were a few folk in the woods but not nearly as many as were across the way in the East Links farm park looking at llamas and that. It was their loss. After a few minutes, I was alone and I felt utterly content, thrilled to be in a place where I spent a lot of time as a kid and finding it had changed not a bit in the intervening decade.
I soon reached the bridge. I had seen a photo of it a few days ago on Facebook and it must have stuck in my brain. I have long thought that if ever I get a memorial bench, by that bridge would be where it would go. It is a very secluded place, at the back of Hedderwick, right by the mouth of the river Tyne, looking across towards Tyninghame Links and up into East Lothian, with Traprain Law, Pencraig Hill and the Hopetoun Monument. It was remarkably still when I was there, save some runners and a guy walking his dogs, and I loved being there, especially because they have plonked a bench there, randomly as part of the Legacy 2014 project following the Commonwealth Games. I live in the big city and there are times when I feel overwhelmed by that, the noise, hustle, bustle and all round madness. Sitting right there I felt very far from all that, with the bird noises and the Isle of May out in the distance across the dunes. I rested my feet and looked at my OS map, wondering for a moment about whether I could walk the 4 miles more to East Linton. In the end, I decided against it, wanting to enjoy the rest of the long loop around the edge of the trees and walk back along the dump road to the Prom and back to the train. Eventually, I set off again, once more letting my feet guide me, stopping to look at the tank traps and old huts from the Second World War and generally letting my mind wander further.
I walked back to Dunbar station, another few miles, some of them rainy, naturally smack dab in the middle of the golf course at Winterfield. The dump road I wrote about in this blog’s first post was on the route and I stopped a minute looking across Seafield Pond towards the old Battleblent Hotel and West Barns. On the way along, there was a heron on the pond. As I was reaching for my phone to get a photo, the heron got up and flew over the wall, a clear lesson as to why sometimes you should just capture the scene in your mind’s eye. When I reached the Prom it was wet but I didn’t really care. I had loved the walk, with not so many thoughts but a song going through my head (‘Clash Of The Ash’ by Runrig, incidentally, which I have just learned is about shinty) and stopping now and then for a photo.
Sometimes memories are difficult to live up to. Places you once liked, that had resonance, don’t rise to the expectations placed on them. I was glad just to be there, for a step out of my life and for the walk to be so deeply familiar, those paths ingrained in my memory, not just in my mind but almost in my feet as I was led on almost without conscious thought into a place I knew so well.
I grew up not far from the A1. For those unfamiliar with that particular highway, it goes from Edinburgh to London with a few points in between when it becomes a motorway. At Dunbar, north was signposted as Edinburgh, south Berwick, both about 30 miles away. South of Berwick was Alnwick then Newcastle then Durham, if memory serves. Journeys were always bigger when the signs changed and far-off places not only appeared on signs and mile markers but were reached and passed by en route. To this day, I still get excited by the inklings of long journeys on road signs and train departure boards. They are a tantalising glimpse of what lies over the next horizon, even if the reality is much more prosaic than first imagined.
I am writing this on the way back from watching Hibs play Ross County in Dingwall. I’ve been to Inverness before but great swathes of the country north and west of Inverness are unknown territory. My sole trip north of the Kessock Bridge before today was about five or six years ago, a bus trip to Orkney (post here and Islands) which left Inverness at an agriculturally early hour and returned well after dark. The bus hugged the coast road until John o’Groats where we got the ferry to Orkney. Apart from that, it’s unknown, which was why I was childishly excited that my train to Dingwall was going on to Kyle of Lochalsh, a line which becomes a lot more rugged with lots of little stations with long, complex Gaelic names. Recently I’ve been into a YouTube series called All The Stations, where a London couple, Geoff Marshall and Vicki Pipe, filmed their endeavours to reach all 2,563 stations on the rail network. Some of their videos took in the Far North Line I found myself on earlier, including one filmed at Beauly, which has one of the shortest platforms in Britain. Watch it, if you can. There’s a fair few adventures percolating around my head as a result. The football was worth not going further to Kyle and Skye, even while I was tempted.
On the bus back, the road from Dingwall soon reached the A9. There was a road sign pointing left to Thurso and Wick, a good 100 miles up the road. Serious temptation and I may need to yield to it sometime. Even better was a sign I spied in Inverness city centre pointing towards Ullapool, Wick, Aberdeen and Perth, much of the country encapsulated and dismissed by a single road sign pointing left. Such a sign suggests possibilities. I know Aberdeen and Perth well enough that I’ve never been to Ullapool and there can be found ferries to the islands and palm trees. Wick I’ve been through so I can comfortably say I’m not overly fussed about returning. It’s still a possibility. It’s like the sign on the front in Oban pointing towards Campbeltown, which is about 80 miles away but still in Argyll and Bute. A trip to Campbeltown isn’t something I would actively encourage, incidentally, but there are beautiful places on the way, like Tarbert and Machrihanish.
There’s something exciting about just picking up and going as far as you can go. I live in Glasgow so the furthest I can go in a single journey by train varies from Mallaig, Oban and Inverness to the north and London, Bristol and Penzance to the south. I’ve done Oban, Inverness and London so far, though the others elude me as yet. The problem is getting to these places and realising they have untold possibilities of their own, just waiting to be explored. Thankfully for my energy levels not to mention my bank balance, there are only so many hours in the day. There’s always another horizon, though, and a way to cross it, even if it might take longer to come back, even if I might never actually reach it. Very often wonder is good enough.
The island of Iona has always felt very far away, especially as I write this with the sound of passing cars and air conditioning prominent in the background. Iona is a little island to the west of Mull, not quite as far as you can go in Scotland but far enough to be going with. I’ve been twice, both very briefly but long enough to have a deep and lasting affection for the place. Before I ever went there, I saw it through paintings and read of it in the history books, of monks and sacred books once made there as well as golden beaches and clear waters crashing on them. The first time I was there it was grey, cloudy and not massively warm despite it being high summer. What I remember, though, was sitting on the end of the pier, or on the dock of the bay to quote Otis Redding, and looking down into the water lapping against the harbour. It was beautiful and clear, a phosphorescent light upon the sea there with only a wee bit of seaweed, kelp mostly, to reduce the view to the seabed.
My second visit was more memorable. I had moved to Glasgow by that point and I had learned of the connection between Govan, not too far from where I live now, to the formation of the Iona Community in 1938. It was also the day when we got absolutely soaked walking from one end of the island to another, with no protection or shelter from the elements. All we could do was trudge on and get wetter. Nearly four years on, I still don’t think I’m fully dry. I had never encountered rain like that. In towns and cities, you are never far from some form of shelter. Iona is an island with nothing between it and the Atlantic. It, therefore, doesn’t have a lot of trees. Neither does it have bus shelters since it isn’t on a bus route. It was raining incredibly heavily for about 15 minutes as we looked for a path and gaps in fences to get towards the Abbey, our clothes heavier by the minute and yet our spirits not dimmed. I certainly remember feeling more alive, in the best traditions of mindfulness deeply, powerfully and inextricably linked to where I was at that particular moment of time. I couldn’t have cared just then. It was a sensation of ‘this is happening. You are here. Deal with it’, and a reminder of the transience of our lives, that nothing, no weather or anything else, is permanent, even if it sometimes seems so.
By the time we reached the Abbey, dripping, sodden, waterlogged, the sun had come out. I remember making a beeline for the cloisters, which had been sculpted in the restoration of the Abbey with swans and birds on each of the pillars. I also recall walking around the quiet, monumental kirkyard, where numerous Kings of Scots are buried as well as the late Labour leader John Smith. The Abbey itself is a grey church inside, more interesting for where it is than what’s inside. Iona is one of those places where being outside is best, though, even when it rains, especially when it rains, really. Sitting on the dock of the bay is a good, vivid memory and even while I’m far from it, to slightly misquote W.B. Yeats, I feel it in the deep heart’s core.