rising through leaves and shadow the imputed form of the trunk
the attributes held by the attribution
Thomas A. Clark, from The Hundred Thousand Places (2009)
The early Greeks saw manifestations of the divine in every outward facet of the natural world: rivers and springs, caves, trees and forests, and mountains, all of these appeared to be imbued with the essence of godhood. Much like the Roman concept of the genius loci, these beings were typically tied to a physical place.
The Alsêïdes, Holêôroi, Aulôniades and Napaiai—the various nymphs of forests, groves and glens—were thought to appear to and frighten solitary travellers. These nymphs of trees—known variously as Dryades, Hamadruades or Hadryades—were believed to come into existence with the birth of their own trees. While the tree was alive, so too were they. And they died together with the trees in which they had resided when life left the roots and trunk and branches.
I fear the dryads are dying all around us.
Walking off the side of Marine Drive close to Muirhouse and Granton, I see a pathway through the trees and make a decision to follow it, as much to get away from the traffic as anything else. Water-logged wooden steps lead down, and I descend a little, feet sliding and shifting anxiously on the muddy track. But, almost with relief, I see this incline continues downwards to the shoreline and it is too precarious. The woodland holds me for now.
I move further along the topmost path and something dark rises up out of the way ahead, an upturned bulk and limbs ascending.
And as I get close, there it is: awful, terrible, majestic. The woods are alive and dead all at once: lignum vitae and lignum mortis colliding in a fusion of inverted roots, bursting upwards to seize the light from the sky.
I stand for a moment and the dryads pluck at me with twig-forked fingers, pulling me onwards.
The ‘tree-capitated’ platform, almost an altar, is grotesque and beautiful at the same time. Its appearance is bizarre, and I sense its age and prime position atop this incline, an outlook allowing it to survey the other denizens of the wood with a critical eye. The dead tree gives no shelter—or quarter.
What rites have played out here in the distant past, what chthonic gatherings? Of course, there are the signs of illicit campfires and tossed-aside cans of drink and beer bottles, the paraphernalia of disaffected youth, but before that: 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years?
I pause awhile and try to discern the dryads in the spaces between trunk and branches, in the growth rings of the altar. But in vain; as always they are too quick for the naked eye or camera lens.
I’m grateful to have found this place on what seemed at first to be a whim, but I don’t think I need to return here again.
Prayers offered up to the split bark and surrounding azure silence, I move towards the road home, now empty and expectant.
It was not, in any sense of the phrase, a sun-kissed morning when I wandered to Cramond. I’d been planning on going somewhere else that day, but I discovered my original location, even at an early hour, was swarming with dog walkers and their four-legged friends. I left quickly.
Having resolved to go elsewhere, I found myself heading north to Cramond: Caer Amon, the fort on the river. I’ve known the village for a long time, probably close to 25 years now; the family of a friend I met at university lived there and I often visited her when she was home. I recall we walked particularly in the area around the kirk and towards the shore. I loved the fact that Cramond had Roman ruins.
Today, I’ve decided to stay away from the waterfront and its myriad runners, cyclists and families out enjoying the grey skies and haze of smirr on this early February day. It will be a quick visit, before the crowds descend.
Cramond has diverse connections, historical and cultural. One of them is Mr Lowther’s house in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is situated in Cramond and is a place to which the eponymous protagonist escapes at the weekends.
And if Cramond is the be-all-and-end-all as far as Brodie is concerned, other places fare less well. ‘You will end up as a Girl Guide leader in a suburb like Corstorphine,’ she warns one of the girls in the school. There is a mirroring irony for me in the warning because that suburb is where I now live. I’ve not yet attained the heights of appointment as a Girl Guide leader, but it’s surely only a matter of time.
The imposing Cramond Tower has always struck me as a haunted structure. It turns out—if you believe everything you read on the internet—to be the home of one of Scotland’s leading taxidermists, so it’s even more likely to be full of dead things than I’d previously imagined.
The friend I mentioned earlier asked me if I had encountered the Green Lady at the Tower. I’m glad to tell her that I didn’t, nor any Roman soldiers passing through the Kirk. Everywhere, it seems, has its ghosts. On looking online, I find that Caroline Park, featured in a previous post, is also reputed to have its own Green Lady.
Cramond Kirk and its churchyard are quiet and peaceful, apparently empty of the living or the dead (at least above ground): a contemplative haven from the Lycra clad running cohort further down the hill.
I pause a while in the churchyard and contemplate the assorted variety of memento mori amassed here.
Cramond’s high-end property prices and the millennia of history beneath its soil can’t silence the overhead white noise of air traffic on multiple flight paths to and from Edinburgh Airport. But it wouldn’t have been that way in the time of Miss Brodie.
Later, when I mention to my friend that I took a number of pictures at the overgrown and ruined walled garden close to the Kirk, she recalls that she ‘used to sprint that part of the route home after Brownies’ and that it was ‘particularly atmospheric on dark, wintry nights when the sea harr was down.’ I confess I didn’t stay there long myself, the trees and other vegetation tangled and broken, the stonework crumbling in around the place, the darkness encroaching on all sides.
Curiously, none of my walled garden pictures developed properly, but I suppose that’s probably just the result of a glitch in the film. Or something like that.
[The photographs in this post were taken with a former Soviet Union rangefinder, a 1974 Zorki-4K fitted with a Jupiter 8 lens, using (expired) Ilford FP4 Plus 125 black and white film.]
In The Old Ways (2013), Robert MacFarlane coins the expression ‘xenotopia’ to mean an area of otherness, a place outside the normal. Since encountering the word, I’ve thought it apt for the Zone, that locus solus depicted in flat greys and muted shades in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979) while at the margins nature threatens to extrude itself into the narrative.
Xenotopia is a fitting description, too, for this thin slice of Edinburgh, the narrow edgeland of West Shore Road in Granton, an odd and uncared for stretch of roadway and its surrounding premises, both occupied and abandoned, which runs from Marine Drive past Gypsy Brae Park, along to West Harbour Road.
As a shorthand, I’ve come to think of the whole collection of these parts of the city simply as West Shore Road, a terse roadshow of shadow-restore, a conglomeration which exists only in my imagination. The area fascinates me for reasons I can’t quite explain: it’s unlovely and ugly, and brings to mind Giordano Bruno’s maxim ‘In filth, sublimity; in sublimity, filth.’
But there is poetry in this place just beneath the surface, if one only looks closely enough. I now can’t fail to see it; almost can’t see anything but metaphor. It’s the magic of the unloved and unseen, the vital, static-crackling of the ignored or overlooked.
Travelling that way in the early dark of a late Winter morning I see her, a raptor of some description. I’m not much of a spotter, but it still delights me to see birds I don’t often come across.
She perches, vigilant, poised on a streetlight, looking out and down to the rough grasses below. As I stare at her, past her, the sickly glow of the sodium lamp under her is doused by some blind local authority time-switch, but she doesn’t desert the lookout post, doesn’t even flinch. Her presence seems to me a good omen, as omens go.
Only the day before I had encountered another avian harbinger: a heron standing just off to the side of the road, a stately, slate-winged sentinel silhouetted against the gloom of the morning. Most of this area is within a stone’s thrown of the shoreline, but the place where I spied him—back some distance along Marine Drive, just beyond Muirhouse Mansion—is a little further from the water’s edge than I’d have thought he was comfortable with. He barely registers me as I pass.
Most walkers, if they do walk round here, take the beach path heading along the shore in the direction of Cramond rather than towards Granton; and most of them have dogs, the walk no more than an exercise in exercise for their four-legged chaperones. I opt for the road, not the path, in the direction of Granton, not Cramond. I don’t bring a dog; don’t have a dog. As if in answer to my choices, the road exudes beneficence, grateful for my patronage, and I sense it promise to reward me with sights—and sites—not shown to everyone.
It happens quickly. As I progress along Marine Drive past the Mansion, a leash of foxes crosses my path, skulking back and forth across the road. There are at least four of them: beautiful in the morning light, the horizontal gold of their tails burnishing the wet roadway with fire. I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the grouping, but this one stopped and stared at me for almost a minute from the trees:
I wander along West Shore Road to the furthest point I’ll go today. I have only a couple of things I do want to look at in this walk, and the rest will be wherever the Drift takes me.
First, I am keen to find out what these structures are?
The heavy iron gates leading in are permanently locked and the sign on the building on the left (the one in the first picture) is faded to near illegibility. They present as windowless blocks, although the peaked roof of the second does appear to be capped by a large area of glass panels. The area in front is ostensibly a small car park but no vehicle is ever in evidence. The whole place is one of the more lugubrious areas along this stretch of road.
A little further along, there is a recessed gate I’ve overlooked before and the mystery is solved, to an extent.
The buildings still possess an overwhelming air of abandonment, as attested by the moss and weed covered driveways and debris littered here and there. I wonder idly who it’s contemplated might need to avail themselves of the customer helpline whilst standing outside a waste water pumping station…
On the ground outside the main gates a motley assortment of objects is strewn. I stand and stare at them blankly, as though they’re the entrails of some long-forgotten animal from which I’m supposed to make a divination.
Time to move on. The second item on my itinerary today is this: a crumbling set of stone gateposts.
Whenever I’ve pass them in the car, I wonder what they formed part of originally. They rest now behind a crude, in parts makeshift, high fence, locked off from the road. The stone is patched and the pillars look uncomfortable in this setting.
I resolve to find out more and retrace my steps back along the pavement a little and then up off West Shore Road onto the ‘road-to-nowhere’, a carriageway that is blocked by concrete drums at the bottom, on its intersection with West Shore Road, and at the top by a line of trees. My idea is to get behind the area in which the gateposts sit and work out more from there. Walking up that left run, I am offered a splendid view of Granton’s majestic gasholder, a crown on the north shore skyline and visible from large parts of the city.
Construction on the gasholder number 1 started in 1898 and was part of a larger site comprising Granton gas works. It opened in 1903, ceasing operation in 1987, and has been unoccupied since then. Although it had been proposed for incorporation into the Waterfront development for many years now, that venture appears to have been unsuccessful as far as the gasholder is concerned. The whole site was put up for sale in 2016, although as the structure is also a listed building it’s unlikely to be going anywhere soon.
Leaving the exploration of the crumbling stone gateposts for a spell, I decide to go and explore the gasholder more closely.
It’s located off the commercial property developer’s dream of Waterfront Broadway, where the prison-like Scottish Gas building sits, a stone’s throw from the impressive 17th Century house Caroline Park which harks back to a different age. In contrast, the back of the office block is anonymous and corporate.
A property company’s board tells me the site is ‘For Sale to Restoring Purchaser – Gasholder and Site – B Listed Structure set in 1.3 Ha/3.2 Acres.’
I’m sorely tempted.
A crow on the fencing around the site eyes me suspiciously, caws out as if to say ‘Go back, you’ve seen too much; you’ve strayed too far from West Shore Road. Back!’
But the temptation is genuine: I am in awe of this lidless iris pointed skyward, surrounded by its segmented, soaring corona of azure-painted steel. The gates are host to a panoply of primary coloured signs which warn of 24 hour security, PPE to be worn on site, no smoking or naked lights, ‘Danger – deep water’ and even a somewhat redundant ‘No unauthorised signage,’ there really being no spare space to set up another sign, authorised or not. The deep water aspect is particularly dreamlike. Apparently the gasholder sits above a brick lined pit 37 feet deep. The notion that the pit may have become water filled—a man-made pool of inky blackness—causes my stomach to lurch uncomfortably.
Up closer, the meniscus of the gasholder is like a 1950s era flying saucer, its surface scorched and abraded by countless light years of hyperspatial travel. I know many people won’t share my view on this but I find it all quite breathtaking.
Later, when back at home, I find some aerial pictures of this beautiful structure on the Canmore webpages, which also features an array of other entries for archaeological sites, buildings, industry and maritime heritage across Scotland. If nothing else, if you don’t see the sublimity in this skyblue giant, then these images demonstrate the impact this piece of late 19th century engineering had on the turn of the 20th century landscape. The Granton history website records this observation by the its designer: ‘the gas holder has proved to be much more prominent for many miles around Edinburgh than I had any conception at the time.’
I wander back down past the mansion at Caroline Park. The mystery of those crumbling gateposts isn’t going to solve itself.
But I decide to have another look at that big house nearby. And I wish the fresh sandstone pepperpots in the photograph below had already crumbled: they strike me as wholly out of character for this fine house, although they do blend in well with the faceless Waterfront development onto which the driveway now looks out. I consider for a second whether or not they might be a modern response to those dilapidated pillars further down the hillside, but dismiss the idea.
The house itself is a sight to behold, incongruous because it looks as though it and its surrounding gardens have been dropped at random slap bang into the middle of this industrialised zone. In fact, it’s the reverse, because the house existed long before industry made its way here, encircling Caroline Park like a pack of wolves. For years it was left to ruin, but has recently been restored and is now in private ownership.
Regrettably, I discover that the same zeal for restoration and preservation couldn’t save Granton Castle, which lay very close to Caroline Park just a few dozen yards away down the hill to the northwest. Of course, those ramshackle stone pillars, the ones that have taunted me for years, belonged to the castle; they formed its northern entrance onto the shoreline.
The castle, built by the Melville family in 1544, consisted of an ‘L plan’ fortified house with a circular stair-tower, which with its outbuildings and a curtain wall formed a small courtyard. The buildings were set in a strong defensive position on an outcrop of rock. The castle was a ruin by the mid 18th century and was eventually entirely swallowed up by the encroaching quarry in the late 1920s, and then demolished so that the owners of the quarry could get at what was beneath it. Ironic that its original strength ultimately sounded its death knell: a sad end for what was clearly a fine-looking house.
All that really remains here are some fragments of wall and what appears to be a stepped dovecot, oddly emblazoned on both sides by the legend ‘Beware Dogs’.
There’s also an ancient walled garden which has its modern day supporters: the Friends of Granton Castle Garden, a group of volunteers keen to preserve the history of this long-neglected place and bring it back to something of its former glory. They have recently announced that the garden is to live again hopefully as a community market garden. Currently, there’s no access to the garden by the public.
I feel rather satisfied that I’ve uncovered all of this today: things which have puzzled me for a long time no longer do, and I feel that West Shore Road has heaped gifts upon me. What have I done to deserve it?
It has already been a very good walk, but on my way back, I pause at some of the other oddities along the road. Here is a strange enclosure that looks like it once held a caged animal.
Whatever it contained has long since burst free and lurches and capers perhaps within the ruined walls of Granton Castle by darkness. I can see it now, silhouetted against the night sky on the topmost point of the gas holder’s dome, baying at a moon which tries to shelter behind the clouds.
Slightly further along the road towards Gypsy Brae Park is an abandoned chemical waste site, which would make a good location for a post-apocalyptic genre film. Set in Granton.
The gate is rusted and disused and there seems very little to see within, despite the warning signs.
I move on again, feeling the cold now from the short flurries of snow that have coloured this otherwise still morning; back past the end of West Shore Road and onto Marine Drive. Something catches my eye in the trees on the right and I head over there.
I pause for a while to make some field recordings.
While I do this—and you can make it out clearly on the recording—I hear a group of young men cheering, apparently happy with their lot in life. It all seems to make sense in that moment. Perhaps they too have received gifts from West Shore Road and are giving praise.
As I head away from West Shore Road and Granton, towards Silverknowes, my mind turns to one of my oldest friends whose family home, when I first came to know her more than 20 years ago, was also in that part of Edinburgh. Her father, Fred, was the Minister in one of the churches in Silverknowes for a long time, and latterly was the celebrant at our wedding. Shortly after I get home that morning, I receive a message out of the blue telling me that Fred has passed away earlier in the week—the death notice is in today’s paper—and a profound sadness takes hold of me.
These walks, these drifts into oneiric and xenotopian realms, our feeble attempts to escape the mundane and make some sense of the pavement cracks and ochre glyphs of rusting fences: they provide only a temporary, breathless reprieve from the great march of time which stamps over us all in the end.
To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms;
And like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood. Shakespeare, Hamlet, IV.5
The way upward and downward are one and the same. Heraclitus of Ephesus
Excelsior: the word is inscribed on a plinth marking the grave of one of the many illustrious residents of the Dean Cemetery. I wandered in that place on a cold afternoon burnished with the most remarkable Winter sunlight, my feet cracking on the frostbitten paths as though crunching on boneways sintered from the marrow of innumerable torchbearers of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Fraxinus excelsior, the ash tree, the Dreamin’ Tree, offspring of Yggdrasil. There are some of them here, and they tap curiously against the gravestones, their trunks hollowed out and brimful of fearsome arachnids and worse. Or so my imagination teases me, in this city of the dead devoid of any other visitors.
Excelsior. Ever upward, and onward. Or downward. Into the loam, into the worms and the darkness, into memory and imagination. As above, so below; and death the kraken waits to drown us in the sea of earth.
Opened in 1846, the cemetery’s official site records that it established itself as the most sought after burial place in Edinburgh and one of its most secure—safe, no doubt, from those who would seek to prise apart the soil’s suffocating grip, for whatever Resurrectionist or grave-robbing purpose. The reputation of those laid to their eternal rest here certainly vouches for the cemetery’s fashionability: the list of interments is impressive, at least in the context of 19th Century Edinburgh.
Alongside physicians, lawyers—including many judges and prominent advocates of the day—politicians and the Edinburgh gentlefolk and cognoscenti (the western wall of the cemetery is designated Lords’ Row), I encounter some other, more curious burials.
Here is Lt. John Irving of HMS Terror, one of the ships which set out on the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Lost out there, his body is said to have been discovered some 30 years later and brought back to Edinburgh to rest in the cemetery.
The circumstances surrounding the recovery operation are worthy of note. Frederick Schwatka, leader of the expedition to discover what befell those on the Franklin Expedition, found what he thought was the grave of Irving on King William Island. But this burial site was a little different, constructed as a ring of stones and more elaborate than other graves already found by those in the search party.
The body was only connected to Irving because of a single, somewhat tenuous reason: a commemorative medal, awarded for the seaman’s acumen in mathematics, was found near the grave and the remains automatically assumed to be his. One academic suggests the body may not have been that of Irving at all.
The monument, which bears a striking frieze of the ships and men involved in the search for the Northwest Passage, is an ugly, incongruous Celtic cross. It rises skyward, perched atop a jumbled mound of rough rocks with a temporary look about it, its rockery of a plinth quite out of keeping next to to the expensively designed lines and cut stone of other grave markers here.
And who can tell? Perhaps the superstitious masons of the time—unconvinced that Lt. Irving truly rested beneath the pathway here—felt he might somehow make his way back to Edinburgh, at a moment when the rain, borne in from the sea, smashes against the walls of the cemetery and the waves on the Forth are at their fiercest. The revenant would need a point of easy ingress, through the tumbledown rocks, to take his place beneath the cross. A fanciful suggestion, I’m sure. And the present recumbent, what of him then, cast out after decades of sleep and forced to roam the pathways of the cemetery, skeletal feet rapping and tapping on paths that snake through the yews and ash trees? Will he cast off his grave pall, hastily throwing it over another headstone here? Will he in turn seek out Schwatka’s shade to call him to answer?
Scattered among the great and the good here are also the Scottish Colourists, Samuel Bough, Francis Cadell and JD Ferguson, as is one of photography’s first exponents, David Octavius Hill. Much has been written about all of them.
But it’s this grandiose, esoteric wonder which catches my wandering gaze. In an otherwise Christian cemetery, it can’t help but stand out—and stand up.
The monument marks the resting place of one John Leishman (a Writer to the Signet who died in 1861) and its upper section is a soaring pillar encircled by a spiral of stony ivy, the top surmounted by a sizeable crucible. I close my eyes and see this granite bowl, as night falls, burning with a fragrant oil, its smoke rising upward beyond the reach of the trees and seeping little by little into the dreams of the living in the surrounding city.
Below, on an ornate pedestal, three pelicans keep vigil above a trinity of all-seeing winged lions, staring out across the angles of the graveyard. The Pelican, a Christian symbol of atonement and of the Redeemer, was believed to pierce its own breast to feed its young with its blood. And the lions could be intended to represent the evangelist St. Mark (why three of them? an odd symmetry), but what if they signify a Babylonian lion from the apocalyptic Book of Daniel? An avatar of all that is pagan in this God-fearing city. What then?
The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings. I watched till its wings were plucked off; and it was lifted up from the earth and made to stand on two feet like a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. (Daniel, 7:4).
I am about to leave the place, by a door that leads to the back of the Dean Gallery, when I see it. In startling pink Peterhead granite, a pyramid pierces the ground against the western wall of the cemetery.
The gloss on its polished stone facing gives it an air of being a recent addition (or more likely a recent arrival from another dimension), but the pyramid has, I learn, rested on this spot for more than 150 years. The inscription on the bronze plaque, the oxidised letters aching with a sadness quite out of keeping with the outré and yet austere presentation of the structure, reads:
CONTRA VOTUM SUPERSTES
[‘Andrew Rutherfurd, surviving against his will, placed this tomb in mourning to his most beloved wife, and to himself, 1852‘.]
Rutherfurd was born in Edinburgh in 1791, the son of a Church of Scotland minister in the High Kirk who it’s said was acquainted with Robert Burns. (This is Burns Night, of course). He was well educated, first at the Royal High School and then Edinburgh University, and was called to the bar, eventually being appointed as Solicitor General and latterly Lord Advocate. In 1851, the year before his wife’s death, he was installed as a Senator of the College of Justice, that is, a judge in both the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary. He survived only one more year after this (contra votum superstes!) and is also buried in or under the pyramid.
The tomb was devised, doubtless at great expense to Rutherfurd, by the noted architect William Playfair, another pillar of the Scottish establishment. Who else could suffice to be designer of the final resting place of one of the city’s most prominent families?
But the outlandish monument is primarily a memorial to Sophia Rutherfurd. That et sibi—’and to himself’—feels like an afterthought. And as memorials go, in a picture perfect Victorian cemetery, it’s really something. Not for her a Christian cross in traditional stone, as one might expect of the wife of one of 19th Century Edinburgh’s most honoured establishment figures and the daughter-in-law of a man who became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; instead, Sophia—even her name evokes distant lands far from the staid and ordered streets of Playfair’s New Town—lies within a tomb fit for a pagan queen or an empress.
Perhaps this was Rutherfurd’s intention, a final attestation of his adoration for Sophia, elevating her to the realms of goddess-hood. Surviving against his wishes: did Rutherfurd think he could bring Sophia back? Toby Wilkinson, in his Before The Pyramids (2004), posits a suggestion that the function of the (Egyptian) Step pyramid was ‘that it was a resurrection machine designed to propel its royal owner, Horus, to the pre-eminent place among the undying stars.’
But Andrew Rutherfurd was not really a Rutherfurd at all. His father was the Reverend William Greenfield, another pillar of the community—that is, until 1784, only two years after he became Moderator of the General Assembly. For in that year, it was discovered he had been ‘indulging in unnatural lusts’ with university students who were lodging in the manse. Despite, or more likely because of, his prominent place in Edinburgh society, the scandal was covered up and Greenfield effectively driven out of the city, forced to live in the north of England under the surname of his wife: Rutherfurd. His son’s lofty place in Victorian society—and that of his wife—is testament to the ebbing of memory in a less probing and cynical age. In this time of information excess, I feel a sadness creep upon me that his father’s shame casts as long a shadow now as the bereft Rutherfurd’s love for his wife.
The sun is beginning to set now and I should think about leaving this place of shades and neutral tones, where I like to think that not everything is what it seems. Even those who guard the graves become weary with the weight of the years, as the shadows lengthen on the ground.
It’s Winter, and dusk is here, at the door. It’s time to make my escape and so I wind my way past the Rutherfurd pyramid and out into the area behind what was the Dean Gallery. It’s now known as Modern Two, but I can’t quite make that bland name stick in my memory.
The always challenging work of Scottish revolutionary garden poet Ian Hamilton Finlay adorns the wall of the car park: hidden, unassuming, a surprise for the passerby. The world has indeed been empty since the Romans, but the cemetery is full.
And further along the path, as though to underline or even undermine my dérive into the very soil of the nearby cemetery, I come upon Eduardo Paolozzi’s magnificent, Blakean bronze, Master of the Universe (1989).
A Newton with the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, he points down into the earth with his right hand. Beneath the fingers of his left hand, as though in mockery of Andrew Rutherfurd and his failed resurrection machine, stands a diminutive pyramid in two lifeless dimensions.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi(1927)
A singular way to ensure you have the Scottish coastline to yourself is to venture there on a wet and windswept weekday at ‘just the worst time of the year’; more so if you visit a part of the shore of which few are aware.
Mid-morning on 6 January 2017, we arrive at Seacliff in East Lothian for the first time. By coincidence, our visit falls on the feast of the Epiphany, a day of revealings, the time when it’s said the Magi, the three wise kings of the gospel of Matthew—Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar—visited the newborn Jesus bearing gifts.
The location of this beach was revealed to us, in a manner of speaking, by our good friends Mark & Jo in Yorkshire. We’d never heard of it before then but they discovered it while exploring North Berwick and the surrounding area last year. Seacliff is hidden away at the end of a private road, a few houses dotted here and there, close to the village of Whitekirk and further east along the coast from North Berwick. You would hardly know it exists and that too might explain why it seems so quiet – eerily so, in fact.
We arrive at the ‘car park’ (more a muddy lay-by off a slightly less muddy track) sitting above the beach. The lay-by sits just shy of the maw of a cave in the cliff wall, an opening which doesn’t recede deeply into the rock, maybe only ten feet or so, but it’s dank and cold and I don’t feel like venturing in too far. I can almost feel the mass of the cliff above, thousands of tonnes of rock, bearing down on me as I peer inside. I quickly move out into the rain again. It turns out that this hole may have served as a refuge for the 8th century hermit, St. Baldred, of whom more later. Holes in stone became a theme on this walk, as we were soon to discover.
And so, the Epiphany: the word is from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) meaning a manifestation or appearance. In classical Greek it was used to denote the appearance of dawn, sometimes of an enemy in war, but especially of a manifestation of a deity to a worshiper (a theophany). It’s this last meaning which has such a resonance on this cold, grey day. What waits for us on this lonely stretch of sand? Time will tell, but I convince myself I won’t be blowing any ancient whistles I find amongst the dunes here.
We descend the rickety wooden steps to the beach, which is empty and rather lonely looking. In Eastern Europe and Russia, winter swimming is part of the celebration of the Epiphany. For a variety of sound reasons, we don’t partake of this today, although the rain ensures we’re cold and wet anyway, so perhaps this counts as an alternative method of celebrating the winter swim.
There is an oppressive atmosphere on the beach. It could just be my imagination or the effect of the weather (which is certainly not welcoming); it might just be the time of year, the post-festive January blues hanging heavy on us. But this shoreline is grey and quite forbidding. I’m reminded of T.C. Lethbridge’s observations at Ladram Bay, about fields of water acting as a form of tape recorder of strong (negative) emotion, that emotion remaining tied to the place, repeating like a recording and experienced by others who chance upon it: ‘As I stepped onto the beach, I passed into a kind of blanket, or fog, of depression, and, I think, fear.’ Something of the same feeling tugs at the edges of consciousness here.
As I look back at those remarks in Lethbridge’s ‘A Step in the Dark’ (1967), it’s unnerving to register that the topographical detail of Ladram Bay is very close to that of the bay at Seacliff. I try not to think about the similarity.
For those interested, Matthew Shaw and I (in the guise of Fougou) recorded a piece of music inspired by Lethbridge’s experiences at Ladram Bay. You can hear it here.
At times the rain is corybantic in its desire to soak us through, which only adds to the feeling of unease. There isn’t another soul here. At points I have the strong feeling that we’re not supposed—or permitted—to stand on this stretch of coastline, although later, we see two horses with riders at the far end of the beach; they quickly disappear up the hill into the dunes and we’re left alone again. Why didn’t they come to this end of the bay?
Combing the beach, more because our heads are down to shelter against the wind and rain, we find our our own holy trinity: three strange holed stones that call to us from the sand. I take them with me, washing them free of grit in a pool by the rocks: they make me feel safer here, on this antic stretch of the shoreline.
A tradition in Poland and German-speaking Catholic areas in Europe is the chalking of the three kings’ initials (C+M+B or C M B) above the main door of Catholic homes. This is a new year blessing for the occupants of the house and the letters may also represent the benediction Christus mansionem benedicat (‘May Christ bless this house’).
Combine C M B via comb to beachcombing: I’m calmer, and I’m glad we’ve found these stony faced allies.
One of them, Caspar, is rather amiable and ghostlike, as befits his name, although those eyes stare into me more than I’d like. I resolve to take him with me as a talisman on future explorations.
These are known in some quarters as hagstones or adder stones. A hagstone is no more than a stone with a natural hole through it, but in a folkloric context, these items have a magical aspect and are believed to protect the bearer from the dead, curses, witches, sickness and nightmares—amongst other things. They are also reputed to be windows into the Other and to grant the power of second sight, allowing the person who peers through the stone to see and—somewhat more dramatically—be seen by whatever entities inhabit that realm.
And over there, is that a figure in the distance, at the edge of the rocks, at the end of a sloping gradient on the promontory?
Standing or perhaps crouched, just below the line of the horizon; staring; waiting. Is it really a person? The weather makes it difficult to judge. He or she seems too still, too upright in the wind and rain, on what is surely the most exposed part of this headland. A spectral manifestation in an otherwise empty skyline. Quis est iste qui manet?
We approach the watching figure more closely now. Still no movement. What is this? A bead of sweat runs slowly down my temple. Or it might be rain.
It’s at this point that I remember what Mark has told us about Seacliff harbour. As we get nearer, I see our solitary watcher is only some form of antiquated winch mechanism, balanced precariously on the edge of the cut stone walls.
The rocks are slick with rain and seawater, algae and tendrils of sea-greenery, making the going treacherous even with rugged footwear. But the layers of rock are beautiful in an altogether alien way and I wish I knew more about them.
Seacliff harbour is remarkable, compelling, but also—for me, at least—horribly vertiginous and I feel giddy at the margins of its stone walls, themselves slippery. Although it’s at a relatively high level for now, the water would, I imagine, be unforgiving; but it presents as an attractive shade of blue-green even on this grey day. In the background, Tantallon Castle watches us dolefully, as if waiting for my inevitable tumble into the cold.
This tiny harbour is no more than 35 feet on its longest side, and the narrow entrance is barely six feet across. It was constructed in 1890 by Andrew Laidley, the laird and then owner of the Seacliff Estate, using a steam engine and compressed air to slice into the stone to create this unique hole in the landscape, a tiny missing jigsaw piece in the map. The whole structure is blasted out of a geological feature known as the Ghegan Rock (the ‘Churchman’s Haven’); it must have been an astonishing feat of engineering and perseverance, out here on the exposed coast.
According to the ports.org.uk site, the harbour is currently used ‘by a local crab fisherman. His boat, the Secret Garden is usually moored there, on a system of pulleys and weights to prevent it from hitting the vertical sides of the harbour in the ever-present swell. Its unique position, away from the main shoreline, ensures that it never dries out. Indeed, at high tide, there is more than six metres depth of water in the harbour.’
My mind, the embers of vertigo fizzling into life, becomes dizzy thinking of the sheer drop. Other pictures available online show the water level low in the harbour and I can scarcely bring myself to look at them. The scale of the tiny cut-out shape, its minuscule size, only seems to increase the endlessness of the plunge.
This is yet another hole in the rock today that seems to possess something more than meets the eye. But there is no boat there when we visit and, aside from a few ropes and a ladder descending ominously into the water, no evidence that anyone ever uses the place. But the absence of evidence is not, so they say, the evidence of absence
On our way back across the rocks, gratefully leaving the model village harbour behind us, we come across a brick set in the sand with the words PRESTON GRANGE stamped into it. Prestongrange was a local mine and brickworks, about 20 miles away, the brickmaking part of which closed in the 1970s. Curious though an old brick is in this place, it’s not hugely surprising to see debris on a lonely beach, except that this brick appears to be anchored there, almost as though it’s been cemented into the surrounding stone.
It looks odd here, anomalous, as though it should be covered over by the sand but has recently become exposed. I start to imagine a vast network of tunnels and vaulted rooms arrayed beneath the beach, stretching out under the shoreline, this brick the only hint at what lies hidden beneath our feet. Perhaps, when the tide is out far enough and the water in the harbour is at its lowest, one can see and enter the tiny doorway in the stone walls there which leads to the network of tunnels under the Prestongrange brick and the whole of Seacliff. But possibly, it’s just a washed up piece of old tidal defences as one blogger has suggested elsewhere.
We move further up the hill where a ruin towers above us.
This is Auldhame Castle, although there’s little left of the 16th century structure today. Attempts to reconstruct the castle might take some time…
It’s said Baldred of Tyninghame was based at times in Auldhame, and founded a church at the local hamlet of Scoughall. As though to strengthen that claim, a number of geographical features bear his name, including the cave we saw earlier. There is also a stretch of rocks at the eastern end of the beach extending north into the water to form St. Baldred’s Boat, a vessel of stone and spray on which a stern minimalist beacon sits surmounted by a cross. The Churchman’s Haven, the Ghegan Rock into which the harbour is cut, likely also refers to the local saint.
Following Baldred’s death on the site of the chapel on the Bass Rock, the three parishes of Auldhame, Tyninghame and Prestonkirk all argued they were entitled to the hermit’s remains. It’s reported that after the parishes spent a night in prayer, three identical bodies were found the next morning, each wrapped in a burial sheet as though ready to be lowered into the grave. Perhaps our three hagstone kings are manifestations or reminders of the saint’s trinity of corpses.
The estates of Seacliff, Scoughall and Auldhame are owned by the Dale family. Robert Louis Stevenson was related to that family and spent time at Scoughall as a boy. It was here that the young Stevenson first heard about how the so-called Pagans of Scoughall lured ships onto the rocks on storm-torn nights. Their method was to tie a horse’s neck to its knee with rope and attach a lantern, then drive the horse slowly along the cliffs so that ships further out to sea would mistake it for a vessel riding at anchor and come in, only to be splintered on the jagged rocks known as the Great Car. The Pagans would then mercilessly plunder their remains. Stevenson was undoubtedly inspired by this tale for his story ‘The Wreckers’.
But there is another ruined house here: to the south of the shore lies the broken edifice of Seacliff House, hidden in the trees and, on a day like today, something you could easily miss.
The house was originally built in 1750, was then rebuilt in 1841 and finally extended in the 1850s. It burned down in 1907 and has remained a ruin ever since. The slope up to the house looks unforgiving and, with the rain not showing any sign of abating, we resolve to return to Seacliff sooner or later.
Caspar continues to smile as we make our way back to the cave mouth and the car, not once looking behind us.
This blog opens with a post about the site of Corstorphine’s ancient physic well, and what is – and isn’t – there to see.
My hope is that this site will explore more of these residual ideas in this area and its environs: curiosities etched into stone and memory.
The remains of the well are located behind Dunsmuir Court, an unassuming small estate of flatted houses just off Ladywell Road, west of the old High Street of Corstorphine. The lady of Ladywell is undoubtedly connected with this well – but whether she is the biblical mother of Jesus or some earlier pagan association I’ve not been able to uncover. Sadly, there is no information at the site of the well to set any of this in context.
We took a walk just after New Year, on a cold bright morning when the grass was just slightly encrusted with frost in places and the sun was dazzling.
The commemorative plaque for the physic well is located at the bottom, northern end of Dunsmuir Court, and is now fenced in with what looks like a relatively new set of metal railings. They are slightly incongruous, but perhaps they help to protect the stones and plaque from damage. Earlier pictures I’ve seen have the stones open to the edge of the grass. This site and the surrounding area is part of the conversation area covering the old town of Corstorphine, so that might explain why it’s been enclosed in this way.
The physic well itself isn’t located exactly where these large stones are laid: instead it lies (or rather lay) about 40 yards to the east (in this picture, off to the left beyond the two large trees). The plaque inset into the stones explains this in more detail:
Up close, you can read: ‘Much prized in the Eighteenth Century for its medicinal waters this well was on the southside of the Stank Burn & some 40 yards east of this spot where its well head was rebuilt in 1972 when the burn was culverted.’
The well itself has been completely covered over and no doubt destroyed by drainage works in the early 1970s. The Stank Burn was apparently a drainage ditch, perhaps to take water away from marshy ground in the neighbouring lands. This marshland could be quite treacherous, it seems. I’m reminded of the story about an unusual little niche in the wall of Corstorphine Old Parish Church: above the great east window of the chancel, the niche houses a lamp on the outside of the stone wall. In medieval times the light from this lamp guided travellers along the side of the loch and safely through the marshes to Corstorphine. The light still shines today, guiding revellers home through the graveyard.
According to an entry on the Megalithic Portal site, the medicinal nature of the well’s water ‘was highly reputed in the eighteenth century, so much so that a coach ran 8-9 times each weekday from Edinburgh. The well was to the west of the High Street, on what is now Dunsmuir, and houses were built to accommodate those who came for a course of the waters.’
A large house further along Corstorphine High Street, the Mansion House, built around the middle of the eighteenth century, is said to have been a hotel or lodging house for those who came to the village to take the waters of the Physic Well in the hope their maladies would be cured. The house was demolished in the middle of the twentieth century, to make more room for the local primary school.
Sources and further reading:
The Megalithic Portal [link]
Geoff Holder, The Little Book of Edinburgh (The History Press, 2013)