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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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.

Walking on the waves

Every so often, maybe every three months or so, I have a hankering to go back to Dunbar. I can’t quite explain it, it’s just a deep, lingering emotional attachment to where I grew up that puts me on a train now and then. The Dunbar notion came up just before Christmas and it didn’t quite happen over the festive period, mainly because I wasn’t up early enough to get the right train and spend enough time there before it got dark. Finally, yesterday I managed to be up and out early enough to finally make it happen, on a Hibs-free Saturday due to the winter shutdown, and I was soon stood by the door as the train approached Dunbar, taking the traditional look across to the Bass Rock on approach, only with a different view with houses being built in the field between Belhaven Toll and West Barns, finally eroding any sort of boundary between Dunbar and the village. I would have kept a wall at least.

I got off the train and walked down to the new harbour, hoping I might get another look at the development on the Battery, which I saw on my last visit in October. Alas, the bridge was up but I had noticed coming into Dunbar that the sea was particularly intense, with a whole lot of waves. Ideal for a wave lover like myself. I ended up walking around to the side of the Castle and watched the waves there as they billowed and splashed through the arches. Standing there, I looked at the different bits of ruined castle scattered on the rocks, the more prominent bits on the rock facing the harbour, others with gun holes nearer the town. I imagined, not for the first time, the castle in its pomp as one of the most prominent fortifications in the country, at least until it was demolished in 1568 by order of the Scots Parliament of the day and its stone successively plundered to build the houses up the street.

Under the Glebe, the water was white with waves and foam, particularly closest to the shoreline but a fair bit out. I’ve often wondered on days like those just how wave power isn’t utilised more, given the sheer force of water crashing against the shore. Maybe the electricity companies, based in big city office blocks, need to go down to the coast now and then. Anyway, I walked around the Prom to Belhaven, and it was a proper, authentic biting wind, the kind that goes through you and it had only grown colder since I had stepped off the train.

As I came closer to Belhaven, based on a conversation I had a few days before, I decided to get a few photographs of the bridge, popularly known as the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’, owing to its being cut off when the tide’s in. The tide was going out, luckily, as I walked across to the bridge, the steps just as steep as they seemed when I was a kid, the feeling still just as momentarily uneasy as I tried not to look through the grille between me and the burn below. I walked across the tightly-packed sand towards the waves, across the foam line on the sand a little way from where the water started. There were tiers of waves blotting out much of the Bass Rock and I got a few photos, at least until I had to hastily step back as the waves came closer. The sand looked like a Mediterranean taverna as the water slowly ebbed out of it.

The walk through Winterfield was eerie, with the Pavilion having been demolished a year or so ago. Winterfield Park is a place I know very well, having learned to ride a bike there, played touch rugby there, lost toys walking across it in the dark, amongst many other things. When I used to go out running, it was usually where I stopped and stretched half way through. It just seemed a bit empty, a little bereft.

I have a route when I go to Dunbar and I made sure that I beat the rapidly advancing darkness to get to the East Links and look back towards the town and across the still formidable waves. I had a fleeting notion to go south to Berwick to get a train home that way – it was still baltic – but it wouldn’t work. I ended up walking back along to the Old Harbour, somewhere I hadn’t been in absolutely ages, paying particular attention to the barometer recently restored. The harbour was full of yachts sheltering from the tide, having been moved from the new harbour into the more sheltered haven of the old. The waves were coming over the walls at this point, steadily stronger than they had been a few hours earlier. Through the low, blue twilight, I could still see the Barns Ness lighthouse tower and St. Abbs Head behind, the hulking mass of Torness never to be missed either. Over at the new harbour, the waves were making a waterfall across the three tiers of the harbour wall, from the top walkway to the middle and down into the harbour basin.

As I stepped onto the train home, I made sure I got a photo of the sunset, a low blue, dark grey clouds etched across, with a pastel orange nearer the horizon, the kind John Houston would have painted. The sky is always a reason to come to Dunbar, always wider than in much of the country. The waves yesterday were that bit higher and more dramatic. Sometimes we need space and time to reflect, to be in a place which doesn’t ask much but gives a lot in perspective and familiarity. Yesterday did the stuff good and proper. I’m good for a while.

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

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.

The Harbour

Dunbar’s Victoria Harbour was built in 1842. The New Harbour, as it is still known, was hewn out of the Castle rock and it is still used for a small number of fishing boats and a fair few yachts. The Battery was recently redeveloped with some nice interpretation boards and art installations. For more information, please see these posts from earlier in the year. It is a place I know well, having lived a couple of streets away as a kid.

I like harbours. The harbour mouth is an opening to the world. The mouth of the New Harbour has a great view not only across the Forth to the Bass Rock and the Isle of May and also much closer to the remaining ruins of Dunbar Castle, once one of the great castles of Scotland. It was where Mary, Queen of Scots fled to after the Battle of Carberry Hill in 1567. It was demolished by order of the Scots Parliament the following year. The stones from the castle helped to build the harbour and many of the houses on the High Street.

These were taken the last time I was in Dunbar, back in October. I hadn’t been to the harbour for a good few years. I was glad I went, if only to see the familiar from another angle, as if at sea.

A bit of blog business before I go. In a few weeks time, I will be posting here for the 400th time. To celebrate that, like with the 300th, I’m opening it up to suggestions. The 300th was about library carpets and the scarcity of public toilets, incidentally. Feel free to put a comment below or send an email.

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

Non-obvious photographs of places

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.

British Museum
Marischal College, Aberdeen
Tantallon Castle
Dunbar
Bamburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
General Post Office, Dublin
Linlithgow Palace

Digest: October 2017

The Battery, Dunbar
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.

Wemyss Bay
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.

Portobello with East Lothian in the background
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.

Perth Museum
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.

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Berwick
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.

Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries
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.

Broughty Castle Museum
McManus Galleries
V and A under construction next to the RRS Discovery in Dundee
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 –

Fidget

Thinking about a wander

Murals in Paisley

Digest: September 2017

Down the harbour 

Wemyss Bay/Largs

Streets of Glasgow: Renfield Street

Scotland by museums

Cathkin Park

Road from Hampden

Stations

Muriel Spark

Photographs