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.
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.
When I was at high school, I did a lot of reading. I worked through the senior section of the school library and read some of the classics of the Scottish canon, including Sunset Song, The House of the Green Shutters, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I did it off my own back because I wanted to read, no other reason, becoming probably one of the few Scottish teenagers who wasn’t obliged to read Sunset Song while studying Higher English. (I didn’t anyway – I got The Great Gatsby when I did my Higher. Sunset Song is a beautiful book and every time I pass through the Mearns I think of it.) One book I read for the first time then was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, a thin volume but one filled with insight, wit and well-drawn characters. I remember when I read it, actually, after doing my Advanced Higher History prelim. My head was utterly mashed after the three-hour exam and as my brain raced, I got through The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in about an hour sitting in the sixth-year common room. I liked it a lot.
Every so often, I pick up a Muriel Spark novel. She wrote quite a few and I am nowhere near done. In fact I remember my excitement when a volume of Spark’s essays came out. I read it over a couple of days on the way to work. I almost cried out a few times with joy at some of the great phrases and sentiments expressed. That’s a common Spark reaction for me and I’ve had it a lot when reading her work, most recently the other day when reading The Finishing School. I bought a copy a month or two ago at the Edinburgh Book Festival, a nice reissue as part of Canongate’s Canon series, and it didn’t disappoint. The first page, which features a creative writing lecture, is great and it is worth the entrance money alone, as they say. A few pages later, one of the school’s students, Chris, is writing a historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, David Rizzio and Lord Darnley. He is asked why he writes and replies:
‘I want to see what I write.’
A sentiment I can certainly relate to.
I was told once that Muriel Spark’s books are a masterclass in creative writing, that they cover all the techniques, all the form that books should encompass and deploy if they should be successful. I tend to agree with that, with the best example A Far Cry From Kensington. I always get the title of that one confused, thinking it’s called Last Exit From Kensington, which would be funny if Muriel Spark had written the film script for Last Exit to Brooklyn. I do the same, I should point out, with the book I would take to a desert island, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, often having to describe it as ‘that brilliant book about the Cairngorms that I can’t remember what it’s called’.
Muriel Spark herself was an interesting person, with lots of drama and intrigue in her story. She is one of the many Scottish writers whose words have committed to the concrete in Lady Stair’s Close, outside the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, sponsored by the Muriel Spark Society. They read:
‘The transfiguration of the commonplace’
These were taken from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where in the future Sandy writes a book of psychology with that title. I think they neatly cover the worlds Muriel Spark created in her novels, finely drawn and worked with immense loads of detail dispensed with in a few pithy phrases. The other day I went into work and ordered pretty much our entire Muriel Spark stock and I’m looking forward to working through them in the coming weeks and months, celebrating Spark’s centenary as we should celebrate all writers, by opening a book and starting to read.
The other day I was in Dunbar. Remarkably it was my first visit to my home town in about six months, not out of avoiding the place but just life intervening. Earlier this year, I had received an e-mail from the Dunbar Shore Neighbourhood Group, or as I like to think of them ‘the Shories’ after I had written about the Creel Loaders sculpture which sits on Victoria Street. The Shories had furnished me with a press release about their project redeveloping Lamer Island or what I know as the Battery, which is at the other side of the new harbour. I had been planning a trip through anyway but I particularly wanted to see the Battery. I had seen photos of it on Facebook but wanted to see it in person.
Dunbar is famous for being the birthplace of the conservationist John Muir but it is also notable for being the site of the first Methodist church in Scotland and where Robert Wilson came from. Wilson came up with the screw propeller and a sculpture of a propeller sits on the way down to the harbour from the Pool. I’ve always liked it. Anyway, the harbour was fairly quiet save for a few folk working on their boats and some walkers. Since my last trip, the Harbour Trust had put up lots of information boards telling of the history, wildlife and what you can do at and around the harbour. My personal favourite was the one explaining about the numbers boats carry. For those uninitiated, fishing boats are required to display a number based on their port of registration, for example KY120, which indicates that the vessel was registered in Kirkcaldy. The nearest customs house to Dunbar is now Leith, however I gather that Glasgow is one too, though in my extensive harbour visiting experience, I haven’t see any GW boats.
The bridge was down so I walked over to the Battery, up a shiny new path which had various notable dates and events etched onto it. On the way back down, I tried to think of another event in each year and managed most of them. It’s a geek thing. The first thing I saw through the archway was a set of new wooden steps which bore the names of the various Sea Areas which appear on the Shipping Forecast, or at least those in the east of Britain. Anything after Portland (Plymouth, Biscay, FitzRoy, Trafalgar, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes and South East Iceland, incidentally) was nowhere to be seen, which is probably about right given Dunbar is quite firmly in the east. It didn’t stop me reciting the rest of them as I walked round to see the rest of the Battery. I began at the side where I found an interesting information pillar about the shipping disasters that had happened while there was a fever hospital on Lamer Island. Also present and correct was the inevitable quote from John Muir, an apposite one from the very beginning of The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, all about Muir’s very beginnings up the street.
Up the steps were a set of glass cubes, which reflected nicely on the grass. Their sculptor was Donald Urquhart, also behind the landing light pillars in Dysart, which I like a lot more to be honest. Over the wall was an incredible view towards St. Abbs Head. Rather wonderfuly, by the views to St. Abbs Head, the Bass Rock and the Isle of May was a plaque with a poetic or otherwise traditional quote about each place. My particular favourite was the one pointing towards the May, which read:
‘Boys come from the Bass Rock and girls from the Isle of May’
I hadn’t heard that one for years. I have been to the Isle of May but had forgotten that it was also where girls come from, not Venus.
The part of the Battery nearest the entrance had some hardy scrub with blocks bearing more interesting facts. I was very impressed by the job that had been done over there by the Shories, providing a good insight into the Battery as well as into the history and lore of Dunbar, with some interesting art thrown in for good measure. I hadn’t been over there for years but I was glad that while work had been done, the ruined nature of the Battery was still there, meaning it didn’t feel completely alien to a Dunbar escapee like myself who had grown up about ten minutes away. The harbour was looking good with a few folk dotting around even on a brisk October afternoon. We can never forget where we have come from, even while we may now live far away. Since I came from the Bass Rock, apparently, it’s only natural that, like its resident seabirds, I get called back now and then.
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.
Recently, the Guardian published an article featuring various writers spouting off on their favourite beach, including Irvine Welsh who wrote about Silverknowes beach in the north of Edinburgh. Irvine lives in Miami so perhaps might be writing with a wee tinge of nostalgia and relief that he doesn’t have to be there in November. I was there recently – read the Edinburgh’s promenade post for more on that walk – and it is fine, I have to say. The comments section of the article surprisingly didn’t descend into a whole lot of abuse as these things tend to do with readers instead talking about their favourite beaches, including a few I know well, Yellowcraig in East Lothian, Bamburgh in Northumberland and Prestwick down the watter in Ayrshire.
My favourite beach is Belhaven, not far from Dunbar where I grew up. I haven’t been for a wee while but it is a place where I feel most myself, letting the winds wash my spirit clean, as John Muir might have put it. Belhaven is to the west of Dunbar and when approaching from the town, the bay just opens up with views to Fife, the Bass Rock, North Berwick Law and the Isle of May, not to mention further inland to Traprain Law and the Hopetoun Monument near Haddington. The bridge to the beach is cut off twice a day by the tide and it is popularly known as the ‘bridge to nowhere’. Indeed I remember when shelving CDs when I worked at Langside Library in Glasgow discovering a CD, possibly by the Battlefield Band, with said bridge on the front. It is a popular place for photographers and those of us who are merely tickled by a bridge being rendered irrelevant twice a day.
I don’t get there so often any more, living at the other side of the country. Usually when I write about Dunbar, I tend to be there the next week so I’m sure that will be the case this time. I used to walk there fairly often, with family or a succession of dogs, or otherwise alone coming up with ideas for writing. One Saturday morning, I ended up on the beach and saw a seagull lying on the sand with its ribs exposed, sticking up like city cranes. The image stuck with me and I even saw something similar in a Salvador Dali painting in the Modern Art Gallery in Edinburgh.
Why do I love it? It is a place where I feel close to nature, close to home and to lost loved ones. It is a place of comfort, of stability and it has stayed consistent ever since I’ve known it. The view of the Bass Rock and the May is never the same twice, however. I’ve been there in all weathers, even in the fog where the Bass Rock was the only thing visible for miles. The waves make it all the more special, a calming, rhythmic spectacle, every few seconds a new one. Stormy days, or wintry ones, are the best, the gnarling cold compensated for by those waves and the ruffled sky above.
There are those places which are special to us and feel unique to us, even while many others may feel exactly the same about them. I am lucky enough to have quite a few special places, some urban, others much more wild. Belhaven falls into the latter category, though close to the town too. Even while I love Glasgow, it is to Belhaven that I go to take stock and catch up with myself. There are few places better on earth and if you haven’t been, I heartily encourage you to go.
Sometimes I am inspired to write posts by what I read. The other morning, I was catching up with a couple of months’ worth of entries from Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin and came across one of the many cracking, succinctly-phrased lines from that magnificent volume:
‘Every now and again you find yourself slipping into a little pocket, a little envelope, of country that is unknown to anyone else, which feels as though it is your own secret land’.
Connections sometimes emerge between different things I read and what I have read previously. One of my favourite poems is ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats and Roger’s words about secret lands remind me about that isle, being alone in a bee-loud glade and peace dropping slow. Then it occurred to me that Nan Shepherd had written in a similar vein in The Living Mountain, the book that rivals Notes From Walnut Tree Farm in being what I would take to a desert island. Nan Shepherd writes about a particular loch high in the Cairngorms and writes that its ‘inaccessibility…is part of its power…It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness’.
I am not a mountain climber. One day I would like to but it hasn’t happened yet. The last time I was in a place and felt I was in a secret land was when I was walking in the John Muir Country Park near Dunbar a month or two ago. I was amidst the trees and was back in the midst of my childhood, feeling entirely at peace in this place. Being alone there wasn’t a bad thing because I could think free about my time there long ago without being confined by words or sharing the experience with someone else. I spend a lot of my life putting things into words but sometimes there’s times when words aren’t needed. John Muir wrote once that ‘writing is a cold medium for heart-hot ideas’ and it’s true a lot of the time. Putting this idea into words has been harder than thinking it but that’s true most of the time, I think. Hedderwick isn’t a secret place. It’s near the A1 and many people walk there every single day. Some kids had a party to celebrate their exams finishing the other week. There is still a resonance and meaning there that is unique to me, for no one else has my particular set of life experiences and filters to see them through. It still felt like a secret land, particularly for much of the time I was there when I was alone with my thoughts in the dunes between the trees.
There is a major difference between being lonely and being alone. I have known both. Being with someone else doesn’t mean you can’t fully appreciate a particular place. Indeed a shared thought can build a better insight. Being alone helps me recharge. That walk in John Muir was brilliant, in no small part because I was alone and able to think for hours, to be where I was, to enjoy that and process the last few months since I was last in Dunbar. I always think better when I’m a wee bit removed from life and being in a perpetual place only made it better that particular day. I can’t arise now and go, unfortunately, since I have a life and work and stuff like that. But I can do what Norman MacCaig did. He lived most of the year in Edinburgh but spent his long summer holidays in Assynt. When he reached Assynt, he ‘fattened his camel’s hump’ with inspiration and ideas to fill his poems for the rest of the year. I do the same whenever I travel and particularly when I am back in East Lothian. Even a glance across the Forth from Fife or on a webcam can satisfy any yearnings if my stores are low. It isn’t quite a secret land but it will do for me.
I didn’t know until recently that the Ailsa Craig, a big hunk of granite in the middle of the Firth of Clyde, is twelve times the area and three times as high as the Bass Rock, its doppelganger in the Forth. Having grown up in Dunbar, I am considerably more familiar with the Bass and so I always think of the Ailsa Craig as being the lesser relation, even though I now know the western version is much, much larger. Things always have to be bigger and better through here, eh? Anyway, it got me thinking about Ayrshire. Going down there is always exciting to me. I grew up at the other side of the country so the rolling coastline south of Ayr and Girvan is exotic, with an unfamiliar vista to the Ailsa Craig and beyond on a good day to Arran, Kintyre and Northern Ireland. The first time I went was when I was a kid and there was a brief stopover at Girvan en route somewhere else. I was entranced by the Ailsa Craig and bought a postcard of it to take home. (My main memory of that particular trip, though, was getting a can of Mango and Mandarin Lilt, which was my favourite and can never be found anywhere.) Ever since, I love being in that part of the country. When I went to Northern Ireland last year, I thought all the way down to the ferry at Cairnryan that even this journey was enough to see me for a while, let alone the trip across the North Channel. (For posts on that particular trip, please see (North) Channel crossing, Ulster Museum, Trains and that.)
The Bass Rock is far more familiar to me. When I see it, I have a similar response to when I clap eyes on the Ailsa Craig: I just smile, sigh and relax. I may have written before about how it looks different from different angles, whereas the Ailsa Craig looks remarkably similar from wherever you happen to see it. From Dunbar, the Bass looks craggy and intimidating while from North Berwick it is more of an island affair. Across the Forth in Crail, Cellardyke and Anstruther the Bass looks more like a tooth, a monolith as opposed to the bumpy land just beyond it in East Lothian. I’ve never actually been though I have been close. When I was a teenager we went out on a fishing boat and went quite close to the Bass, if not right up to it. It is one of the largest seabird colonies in the world and in the summer there can be thousands of gannets on it, turning the rock a bright white. I gather that the Ailsa Craig has quite a few gannets on it too but I’ve never quite seen that shade of bright, glossy white anywhere else.
Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a poem which began ‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?’ Our country is a multiform and that is particularly evident when thinking of our coastline. Both sides of the country are rugged with lots of jagged edges that Slartibartfast of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be very proud of. Scotland isn’t very symmetrical but the Ailsa Craig and the Bass Rock make up for it, two lumps of rock in the sea at either side of the country, at either side of the Lowland Fault. For a Dunbar boy like me, the Ailsa Craig is still a tribute act, even if it is far bigger than I realised before.
Sources and further reading –
Haswell-Smith, Hamish, An Island Odyssey, 2014, Edinburgh: Canongate
MacDiarmid, Hugh, ‘Scotland small?’, accessible via http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/scotland-small