What can I say, I’m a sucker for abandoned stuff, misplaced stuff, forgotten stuff, any old stuff which despite the light of progress and all that, still vanishes every day like shadows at noon, goings unheralded, passings unmourned, well, you get the drift.
Absolutely nothing visible to the eye provides a reason for or even evidence of those terrifying shifts which can in a matter of moments reconstitute a simple path into an extremely complicated one.
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
Turnhouse Road on the outskirts of Edinburgh posed questions. Who goes there now—would want to go there? What lies along its barren stretch?
On a rainy Sunday in July, Murdo Eason of the Fife Psychogeographical Collective and I set out to see what kind of curve balls this unnervingly straight road could throw at us. We have no preconceptions as to what we’ll find.
The edgelands of light industry quickly become hedgelands, as the leonine growl of the city abates and a spray of swifts shimmers over the fields. Nature takes over again, with a degree of painterly charm.
It’s hard to believe that the city, with one of Scotland’s most polluting main roads at that—not to mention nearby Edinburgh airport—are all minutes away from where we’re walking now. A swathe of nettles makes sure that this wilderness of wildflowers and grasses remains unrivened by desire paths, and we pass on only as appreciative onlookers.
The notion and location of this road has intrigued me for a while, but I’ve never needed to come down it, on foot or otherwise. With the expansion of Edinburgh (formerly Turnhouse) Airport over the past couple of decades, and alternative, faster routes to and from it being required to meet increased traffic, Turnhouse Road itself has the feeling of a redundant artery leading away from the city’s heart. I find it’s often these nondescript, unassuming places that harbour most secrets. If a road could be introverted, this would be it.
The path is straight and true—until it’s not. Falsity and doubt enter the picture at the behest of these five sentinels, at the head of a lane leading off the main road.
I’m reminded of Nick Papadimitriou’s notion of premolded concrete pails acting as ‘storage vats of regional memory’, an idea that has always attracted me, like a mirror of the central conceit of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, itself a borrowing from the work of T.C. Lethbridge. But the memories stored here are dark and uncertain. These vats are arrayed to keep the curious out. Caution!, one of them exclaims as we approach, yet it—along with its brethren—keeps further counsel as we pass through the barrier. We’ve had our sole warning. The rest is on us.
Down this lane, beside an eerie boarded-up house at the road’s edge, stand two dilapidated railway carriages, rotting and open to the elements at one end. Their purpose here is unexplained. Someone has decorated the outsides, but the innards are untouched by the graffiti artist’s spraycan. They look like portals to another part of the zone, or grotesquely large kennels for creatures that roam abroad, unseen.
I cast a single, longing look back at Turnhouse Road and its five crouched, mocking sentinels. The trees seem to close in further as I watch.
We keep walking, but I am slightly further ahead on the now-disused lane than Murdo, who has lingered to take some more photographs, and I stop suddenly, horrified at the scene that begins to manifest in the distance.
Chaos has been abroad here. A churning, spiralling force has torn the insides of life out and cast them to the cardinal points for all to witness. The lights of these buildings have gone out, viscera turned in on themselves. And it feels like it happened only moments before: a congeries of vacuum cleaners, flat screen TVs, assorted white goods and packaging of every description, the buildings’ internal organs vaporised at the atomic level and their substance reconstituted in front of us.
The sense of oddness here is very acute, but the gate is open and we feel invited, maybe even compelled, to go in.
Someone—I like to imagine it was a kind-hearted soul—has left a talisman affixed to the open gate to protect us from whatever has caused this disruption to the fabric of reality.
According to the map, and a nearby bus-stop (presumably redundant now), this complex is Meadowfield Farm, all its windows and doors covered by steel shutters: a grouping of stone buildings brimful of foreboding. Once a substantial, attractive house at the heart of it all, what’s left now is a sickly, crippled shell, surrounded by the detritus of mundane existence.
There is no roof on the main part of the farmhouse; and from down here it looks like it has been gone for some time. Curiously, there is an almost brand new satellite dish affixed to a wall on the other side of the structure, so this place can’t have been empty for long—if it is empty. An expensive-looking bike lies abandoned in the courtyard of the steading, as though left there moments before. Is the back wheel turning on its axis, just ever so slightly? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just the effect of the wind.
The whole site has the look and feel of a haunted place and I discover later, from a planning application to convert the farm steading, that there has been a farm here in some shape or form since the early part of the 15th century:
‘The site lies at the foot of Lennie Hill on the western edge of Edinburgh adjacent to the south-eastern end of Edinburgh Airport. The steading would appear to date to the first half of the 19th century (though a late 18th century date cannot be ruled out) and is depicted on the first Edition OS map of the area dated 1853. The steading which contained a threshing mill in its northern range appears to have been little altered in plan since this date. The name Meadowfield first appears in 1424 (Harris S, Place names of Edinburgh) and it is likely that a farm has been situated on and off since this date. Laurie’s 1763 map of the area depicts the current farm, though it is not shown on Bleau’s early 17th century map of the Lothians.’
A threshing mill? It’s the stuff of the cinema of the supernatural, laid out before us like a film set, although this scene is more post-apocalyptic than rural folk horror in tone. Six hundred years is a long time for history to have taken its toll on this place, for the stones of the house, and the stones on which those stones are built, to have recorded the gamut of emotions and incident.
As Murdo says while we survey the wreckage, it’s hard not to construct our own stories around all of this. I suspect these can’t be stories of the good news variety; nothing here has goodness at its core now. There’s only abandonment, loss, corruption, the circling of the vultures of metaphor, and an overwhelming sense of trespass beyond the veil. A house turned inside out, eviscerated and left to decay by poltergeists with scant regard for any of us. And if the insides of the house are now utterly stripped of the paraphernalia of human existence, what else has made its home within the walls?
When I check online later for more details of this farm, it’s hard to believe the evidence of a recent Google Maps satellite view which shows the house and steading in rude health.
The back garden looks neat and well-manicured. There is no rubbish strewn around. Fire has not opened the roofs of the buildings to the sky and the birds. The fly-tippers have not desecrated the emptiness. The ghosts have yet to manifest, at least in any material sense, or to infest the stones and roofspaces. ‘Walking’ the lane on Google Maps shows a fine house at the start, where it meets Turnhouse Road, then another stone cottage, inhabited, further up the lane and finally the farm itself and its outbuildings all intact and, apparently, in use.
It’s clear we need a new taxonomy of ruins, to allow us to think laterally about shunned places like Meadowfield, to index and catalogue the spectre-sown disarray that can occur in a few short months or years. The present order is the disorder of the future, as the stones say, but it’s a future frighteningly close at hand as Meadowfield attests.
Even fire, it seems, hasn’t completely cleansed this place of its sickness, the buildings’ shades having vomited their innards uncontrollably into every available space. A heave and roil of liquefied contents, undulations of detritus.
It’s sad to see such substantial old properties left in such a sorry state. They would once have been proud, defiant against the march of time. Now, inexpicably, even the graffiti artists have avoided the blank canvasses of their walls.
We’ve been here long enough, the full extent of Turnhouse Road barely contemplated thanks to this intoxicating diversion into the unreal and the sense of being unwelcome visitors has grown with every heavy minute we linger.
Further along the road, my spirits lift because I see a glimpse of what looks like some welcome civilisation: a cottage hidden behind a splay of trees. But as we get closer we see that it too is dead, as are the other houses in this little row. I find myself casting around to see if we’re being watched from a distance. Interlopers, busybodies, up to no good. Leave the deceased to their eternal rest, these steel shutter shriek at us.
Why does no one live here, in any of these places? There must be five or six houses in the space of a few hundred yards, all secured with the same steel shutters and padlocked doors. What is wrong with them, the dwellings? They are fine houses, these examples anyway. Meadowfield is probably past redemption. It’s like a Ballardian sitcom, or at the very least something out of the fertile imagination of John Wyndham.
Still, Edinburgh is close at hand: only 5 miles. But even the comfort of this ancient waymarker does little to dispel the interzone feel we’re experiencing in this part of the city.
Still further ahead, some normality is restored, if a golf course can be considered an indicator of normality. Ironically, this is further from the city and the zone of exclusion that is Meadowfield, when one might have anticipated that abandoned properties would sit on the most peripheral edge of the capital’s reach.
Nearby, an attractive row of well-maintained cottages sits at the junction of Craigs Road…
…and another old waymarker presents its legend, almost obscured by the hedge’s greenery.
A more contemporary metal sign lies on the ground, knocked from its pole, almost as though the locals don’t want anyone to be able to orientate themselves except by use of the old signage. I check for curtain-twitching in that row of cottages: nothing.
We move on, against the pall of rain and the sense of isolation from the city, the airport a constant visual and aural presence at the edges of perception. I imagined we’d hear more planes landing and taking off, but that’s not the case. It’s really quite peaceful out here, if one can forget the desolation we’ve just left behind.
Past a tiny used car showroom we go (current stock: two vehicles, with space for a third; by appointment only – who would be window-shopping along here anyway?), and past logistics companies and other anonymous-looking businesses, until we reach a set of crested gateposts: the way into what was RAF Turnhouse, closed finally in 1996.
Turnhouse Aerodrome was the most northerly British air defence base in the First World War used by the Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, after the formation of the Royal Air Force, the airfield was renamed RAF Turnhouse and the land’s ownership transferred to the Ministry of Defence.
This was also the location for the ROC (Royal Observers Corps) 24 Group HQ, which closed in 1992. Much to my regret, the Cold War ‘semi-sunken two level bunker with a brick built administration block alongside’ which used to be sited here has been demolished and nothing now remains of it. Originally opened in 1964, it received, analysed and distributed information from the ROC’s monitoring posts of nuclear blast and fallout data from East Central Scotland and the Borders. The end of the Cold War brought about its own demise.
Ownership of the main airport site passed to the British Airports Authority in 1971 and there’s a charming little film from that year, showing scenes of the old control tower and radar, here. A lot has changed in the last 45 years.
The gates to RAF Turnhouse, which closed for good in 1996, are in fact wide open today but it looks like no one is home, nor have they been for a while. A contractor’s compound sits at the far end of the drive, but there is no sign of any life, possibly because it’s a Sunday. We venture in, at least for a few yards.
Three buildings are immediately obvious as we go through the gates: Falcon House, Merlin House and Osprey House.
Two things are striking. The exterior walls of Osprey House have a curious grassy-green covering, like some kind of moss or lichen; it doesn’t look like paint. As a result, the structure, although not the roof, blends in with the surrounding trees quite convincingly. It seems as if it’s on the verge of being swallowed up by the vegetation. Neither of the other buildings is so favoured by camouflage but, by way of compensation, Merlin House has a full-length mirror hanging outside its main door, the purpose of which is a mystery, to the two of us anyway. Might it be for a final check of one’s uniform before entering to see a higher-ranking officer? Perhaps someone more knowledgeable will tell us.
The buildings here are a little forlorn and melancholy and the site has the air of somewhere that was once proud and well cared for, but is no longer. It’s hard to shake the desolate feeling here. It’s a similar, if less intense, atmosphere as that around Meadowfield, although at least the vigilant raptors watching over these houses have protected them from the febrile explosion of contents we saw earlier.
Even though the RAF are no longer here, we’re paranoid that somewhere someone is watching us on CCTV, so we move on again, further ahead to the main airport.
The rain starts to bite as we reach the end of the road and the airport’s runways hove into view. Cameras are put away before the worsening weather gets to them and we continue as far as the road will go at Lennie Hill, until we loop around past Old Lennie Schoolhouse, which now appears to be a (very) private house. I say appears because there are some ridiculously over-the-top and questionably legal signs around the perimeter of this house which warn of intruders being subject to personal injury or death should they dare to enter. Whether the threat comes from the myriad arrangement of fake animals and other tacky ‘sculpture’ in the garden or some more human agency is hard to tell. The garish paint job on the outside of the stone walls is perhaps an integral component of the house’s defences: Mediterranean orange and pastel pink, utterly anomalous at this endpoint of a dead end road with only the working parts of the airport.
On reflection, I think I’ll take my chances with the ghosts of Meadowfield. Their mystery is altogether more worthy of contemplation.