The captain of the Hamnavoe, Captain Anderson, announces our crossing will have “moderate to rough seas”. I certainly feel it, and the 90 minute voyage from Scrabster to Stromness drags like a wet week.
I’m a poor traveller, and it seems I always will be.
But, on disembarking, I find that my mal de mer vanishes and I fall in love with this town. It was pre-ordained that I would, of course: George Mackay Brown spent most of his life in Stromness and he is one of the principal reasons I find myself here, a bit green around the gills, but contented to be here and to rest, even for a few precious days, in the town where he lived and wrote.
Within half an hour of walking the streets of the town, we have a fortuitous encounter.
It was meant to be. And this was the fourth cat we’d met as we strolled through the cobbled streets of the town. Good omens all of them. Fankle would approve.
Under the last, dead lamp When all the dancers and masks had gone inside His cold stare Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence.
George Mackay Brown, The Poet
Our home for the week is unusual, to say the least.
And there are more than a handful of GMB’s books on the shelves, so if I need any extra reading material, I’m sorted.
The afternoon brought a change of pace with a windswept walk around the Stones of Stenness…
…and the Ring of Brodgar
These extraordinary places humble us with their power and position in what is already an unreal and magical landscape. But they also rest in their innate uncertainty, content in their silence. There are atoms of the last five millennia in every crack and lichen-filled crevice on their unspeaking faces.
To have carved on the days of our vanity A sun A ship A star A cornstalk
Also a few marks From an ancient forgotten time A child may read
That not far from the stone A well Might open for wayfarers
Time is not a conflagration; it is a slow grave sequence of grassblade, fish, apple, star, snowflake.
George Mackay Brown, Greenvoe (1972)
Recently, for one reason or another, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. Or perhaps not about time as an idea, but its passage, the inexorable ebb and flow, sands trickling through the glass, itself a pure form of sand. Time as a flat circle, the clockface without hands. Life as the Great Repetition.
The photograph that opens this post was taken probably around the summer of 1976. Decades and lifetimes ago, anyway. This is the snaking, single-track road that leads from the town of Duirinish to the small crofting village of Drumbuie in the Scottish Highlands. You can barely make us out, but my mum holds me by the hand walking us down the road. I am three years old, nearly four: we are on holiday in the village. My sister Clare is yet to be born. My dad hangs back, taking the photograph as we amble on towards that simple settlement of whitewashed crofters’ cottages and into this future that we’ve fashioned for ourselves. At that very moment, I imagine I am my parents’ world and they are certainly mine alone. The smallest universe encased in an hourglass, where the upper measure of sand seems infinitely plentiful.
This scene on that road has stayed with me for such a long time. It carries the weight of so much personal meaning, and causes a lump in my throat whenever I see it now, whenever I think about its myriad implications. My parents were considerably younger then I am currently, my mum by some margin. And yet, as I edge unnervingly close to being 50, I don’t feel I will ever possess their grace or their wisdom or their settled outlook on life. That world, that black and white film world of the road to Drumbuie, might as well exist in imagination alone. What is there now to compare with how simple life must have been? What have I actually achieved in this endlessly burning building that is the third decade of the twenty first century? I can’t answer either question.
I’m not with my mum and dad today, of course. I will see them soon and we will talk, but not—probably—about what really matters: about what an inspiration they are, these wonderful, kind, gentle people who have made me who I am, and who I don’t tell often enough this one simple and unbreakable truth: I love you.
It was a day to venture into the grey, away from the news and away from my sadness and incomprehension at what’s happening in the world. Although I’m outside, alone, I’m also in my head, and also alone there. These landscapes—these thin places—exist perhaps only in my inner life and imaginings. I walk to escape, and I write about the walks to extend the escape into something else, a feeling of comfort reified beyond the mere memory of the escape.
All of these places exist, and none of them.
I am here, at Edinburgh Park, with time to kill, or at least sufficient to render it unconscious for a brief spell.
And so I walked for an hour or so, walking to nowhere, skirting the outskirts. I’d never explored here before; there was no need. This place leads nowhere and comes from nothing. It’s a business park and I have no business with it.
But in fact, as I soon discovered, I’d entered into a landscape of subtle, if awkward, poetry in the company of the poets themselves.
It seems a simple mechanism, although perhaps not everyone is so fortunate: one foot in front of the other foot. No destination, no expectation. Intuition as a guide. I’m more and more thankful for this kind of walking, for the desire and the need to walk, for the places and the spaces, both real and unreal, in which I can walk.
The skies slid a little as I wandered, from a colour the taste of ashes to a fuller, duller slate. Brooding skies. Did they move because I walked? As in many transformative tales, I reached a crossroads, of sorts. I crossed over, looked right, looked left. Only a vivid emptiness toward the tramlines’ vanishing point.
Blocks of buildings, empty offices, a tram with no passengers. It’s a supremely functional landscape, although it’s not functioning today.
But then I’m surprised to find a man-made loch in the middle of this deserted business park, a mirror in and of the silence at large here. More of an ornamental lochan, Loch Ross is quiet, its waters still and dark on this gloomy Saturday. If the Monday to Friday working week is the daytime of this place, perhaps the weekend is its nightscape. This all does feel a little dreamlike, but it’s probably just because I didn’t expect it, didn’t anticipate the strange juxtaposition of what is to come next.
At least there are safety measures in case the silence gets too much.
Please do not feed the waterfowl.
I do not feed the waterfowl.
The waterfowl are, it seems, in hiding.
The poets are not in hiding.
I didn’t feed them either.
Dotted around this lochan are a number of bronze busts of Scottish poets. I first stumble on the herm of W. S. Graham as I move down the path; he looks young, serious and oxidised to a verdant shimmer. Graham is a favourite, and it makes me grin to find him here so unexpectedly. It feels like a good omen. Then I spy the other disembodied heads punctuating this body of water’s whispered imperative: walk, here, Brian, in this most constructed of spaces.
Or maybe, surely, of course we never know What we have said, what lonely meanings are read Into the space we make. And yet I say This silence here for in it I might hear you.
I say this silence or, better, construct this space So that somehow something may move across The caught habits of language to you and me.
W. S. Graham, from The Constructed Space
I wander away from the loch and further out into this zone of dream. Here it feels like some kind of a launchpad or threshold. I feel watched and yet completely alone. The subtle gaze of the poets is gone, but something else remains, hanging in the air and undispelled by winds. A sense of incompletion, a never-reaching, older than any of the structures here.
The beech hedges are brittle and a signal that Spring is still some way off. Under that sky it’s hard to believe it will ever arrive.
An underground car park entrance stands out amid so many cuboid structures, dropped like stray bricks on the greenbelt. It feels almost like part of a ship, listing in the concrete swell.
The light does not shift. The skies don’t change from their roiling greys.
Even now, new forms are emerging in this place. Plazas, buildings, sculpture—unfinished, they don’t exist on the map yet, but they are nonetheless rising from the soil and the rubble. Not so much growth as an awkward emanation, the weeds of late capitalism and a “vision” for liminal living. Green space devoured, with these tokens of public art as the reward. The sculpture on the right in the picture above is Dancer after Degas II by William Tucker. Later I realise I’ve missed seeing The Vulcan by Eduardo Paolozzi, and undertake to go back at some point to make his acquaintance.
All the pathways go on towards that vanishing point again. I look back at the poets and their herms around the diminutive Loch Ross: of the twelve women and men represented there, only Edwin Morgan wrote a poem specifically for his sculpture; it seems fitting to end with it:
A human head would never do under the mists and rains or tugged by ruthless winds or whipped with leaves from raving trees. But who is he in bronze, who is the moveless one? The poet laughed, it isn’t me. It’s nearly me, but I am free to dodge the showers or revel in them, to walk the alleys under the stars or waken where the blackbirds are. Some day my veins will turn to bronze and I can’t hear, or make, a song. Then indeed I shall be my head staring ahead, or so it seems, but you may find me watching you, dear traveller, or wheeling round into your dreams.
Still bent to make some port he knows not where, Still standing for some false impossible shore. And sterner comes the roar Of sea and wind; and through the deepening gloom Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom, And he too disappears, and comes no more.
Matthew Arnold, excerpt from A Summer Night (1852)
These photographs were taken on a walk with Murdo Eason in Leith on 13 July 2019, a million lifetimes ago.
… It’s always the same / I’m running towards nothing
The Cure, A Forest (1980)
If the rain comes / They run and hide their heads …
The Beatles, Rain (1966)
For a long time, I’ve had a fascination with woods and forests and the sense of quiet and stasis they can offer. That moment of being alone in the trees, directionless; light and sound are different, muted, but at the same time amplified in subtle ways I’ve never been able to explain.
It’s both humbling and compelling to stand in the realm of these dwellers of the canopy. For these moments, we can become as nothing, unidentified in the midst of the grandeur.
Today, I wanted to get away from the city, from people and cars, from the unkindnesses of strangers. I braved the weather and went to walk for the first time in the woods in the lee of Dechmont Law. It rained.
It rained a lot.
The rain came in sheets and Dechmont Law was a spectre in the mist, the sky above it a wet-on-wet grouping of greys. I didn’t climb the hill, though; I had come here for the trees and whatever they contained, the seen and the unseen.
Winter is almost over but not the rain. It falls and falls in a seemingly infinite haze. There would have been more people here, probably, had it not been for the weather; I’m grateful, albeit soaked. My feet are tiny boats in the undulating waterway of the path.
The wood is waking, gradually, but the signs are there. A slow reveille sounds in the trickle of the burn. The black and white and indigo blur of a magpie c(r)ackles in the distance.
I can’t help but be drawn in by an avenue of trees like the one here. I find them so mesmeric and powerful. A similar scene features on the cover of my 2008 CD Supernaturalist, the sun breaking through the uprights.
That cover picture was taken a hundred or so miles north of Dechmont Woods, and here, today, there is no sun.
But other things choose to break through, signs and signifiers of a visitation of one sort or another.
Things decay but the woods, as a single unity, as an entity, do not decay. Fallen trunks are the separators between passages of time in the book of this moment.
And of course, within the woodland I feel an aura of the uncanny. That green, the colour of safety and permission (“go now, quickly, before the red returns”), the chlorophyll mantle that swathes the ground and the treebark: it creates for me a sense of unreality. Haunted by trees, by the spaces between them and by the vacuum they create. A kind of Stendhal Syndrome in response to the natural world. My mind swoons a little at nature’s painterly strokes on a never-drying canvas.
Go back more than four decades: it’s 9 November 1979, around the time perhaps that The Cure are recording their seminal song A Forest in a studio hundreds of miles from here. Robert Taylor, a forestry worker with the local Livingston Development Corporation, is walking his dog in the woods at Dechmont. These woods. He has an experience, an encounter with what he described as “a flying dome” constructed of “a dark metallic material with a rough texture like sandpaper” featuring an outer rim “set with small propellers”. According to Taylor, it was about 20 feet in diameter and there was an odour like burning car brakes. He maintained that two smaller spheres, something like sea mines with protrusions on their surface, grasped him and dragged him towards the main object. He had a period of unconsciousness and apparently came to 20 minutes later, by which point the objects were gone, and he walked home with minor injuries and his clothes torn, his truck having failed to start.
Bob Taylor died in 2007, but he maintained up to his death that he saw what he saw. No one seems to doubt that conviction. There are a number of theories as to what happened but no real conclusions. Because of his injuries, the matter was investigated by the police who, it’s reported, found unexplained indentations in the ground where the incident is said to have occurred. Many have speculated that what Taylor thought he experienced was the effect of a seizure brought on by temporal lobe epilepsy, which would explain the burning smell and the hallucinations, as well as the period of unconsciousness.
The area where the encounter apparently took place is marked with a metal plaque (above) and by this information board, installed by the local council.
Whatever the explanation for what happened, I can’t shake the feeling that the presence of these lurid information boards, with their declamatory Top Secret! trappings, only detract from the sense of alien wonderment I get from being here.
UFO or not, these are beautiful woods, woods to get lost in, to lose yourself in, to become unidentified amid the leaves and the greys (not the Greys) of the February or November rain.
Perhaps that’s what happened to Bob Taylor.
There’s no need for visitations when we can all experience these small incursions of the extraordinary amid the unwelcome clamour of the everyday.
The deafening sounds of an empty house. Void of content, of contentment. How dizzying the waveform of this roofless, rotting edifice. How defining.
Mavisbank House stands, although only just, on a hill overlooking its former policies near the village of Polton in Midlothian. It yawns and pitches and crumbles imperceptibly as I approach. I gaze up at it from outside the high metal fence which is both perimeter and prison.
Encircled by trees, the area where the house sits has already conjured for me an aura of menace and desolation. Others have gone in and filmed “inside”, and you’ll find a number of rather uninspired and shaky camera examples of this on YouTube. There’s also some overhead footage from drones, and those videos more than anything else show the remarkable symmetry and splendour of this once great building.
But I didn’t want to go any further than the fence…
… and I wasn’t possessed of the necessary papers.
Designed by William Adam as a Palladian mansion with Baroque features, and constructed in the 1720s, Mavisbank remained a family home until it was utilised in the mid-nineteenth century as a lunatic asylum which remained its fate for more than 75 years. Neglected after the hospital closed and gutted by a fire in the 1970s, it’s in a very sorry state.
Today, it appears that the house has no legal owner, a somewhat uncommon and difficult proposition in Scots law. The Mavisbank Trust has made valiant efforts over the last two decades to find funding to restore the property and its policies, but so far there’s been no great windfall to help secure the future of the house and bring it back to something of its former glory (see the gallery of images on the Trust’s site here).
This might be an icehouse, but I didn’t venture inside. It was already cold enough.
Perhaps it was the greyness of the morning, perhaps that I was alone and hadn’t seen a soul since I left the village to walk here, but the overall feeling around the house was strange and unnerving. A murder of crows watched me from the trees, occasionally disturbed from their rest to patrol the buildings. These dark custodians didn’t lighten the mood any.
After an hour or so wandering round the house and grounds, I knew it was time to say a quiet farewell to Mavisbank.
And so, almost 300 years after it was built, how does it sound?
I pose the question: does the knowledge of the location of this recording affect the listener’s perception?
Imagine yourself motionless there, poised under grey skies, a hint of moisture in the surrounding air. Imagine the feel of the grass under your feet, a sense of ill-defined scratchings from the undergrowth. Imagine there is no other person close by. Probably. Imagine that house of windowless eyes watching you, whichever way you turn.
Does desolation have a waveform? I believe it does.
Hic sunt canales. Straight paths and slight bends, bridges over water, the hiss of the M8 motorway, stone waymarkers, decay on the fringes, a yellowhammer in winter branches. Forgive the dog Latin. This is the wave of translation.
An index of the ordinary, with too many entries to keep in my head till the return home. Yet I don’t stop walking to take out my notebook and write; I don’t record any voice memos to remind myself of what I’ve just seen: “Brian, remember not to forget to mention the eerie, abandoned landing area in front of the big house.”
KEEP OFF LANDING UNSAFE
“Brian, remember not to forget to record that feeling of intense vertigo on the Scott Russell Aqueduct.”
The A720, the infamous Edinburgh City Bypass, grumbles below.
“Brian, remember not to forget to find out who Scott Russell actually was.”
The photographs help (I took over a hundred shots), but looking back I’m on a different outing, or I was. The actual and the remembered rendered as a synthesised whole, not quite real but not entirely imagined. It’s always this way. After I stop walking, the walk continues, in my head and on the page.
even those who stumble move forward
The bridges create a kind of rhythm, a pulse along the waterway. The ducks’ periodic dives beneath the waves are jazzy drum-fills. Union Canal blueskyblues.
And there’s always the giddy anticipation of a cyclist’s bell as you round the lip of each underbridge where the path is at its most narrow. Some say hello, others say thank you as I step aside, some don’t acknowledge I exist beyond ringing the bell. On the imagined walk, I erase them all.
As always, there are curiosities along the way, small surprises.
O, the travails of the graffiti artist, what suffering they bear with such noble grace.
Where there’s water, there’s rust, unsleeping.
And the colours. Those colours.
Even the numbers have a certain poetry, their significance unimportant. A countdown or a reckoning? It probably doesn’t matter at this point.
And I only walk so far before I have to retrace my steps, back along the same path I’ve already tramped. A palindrome with creased edges. This loop is linear, a flat circle. But I do at least learn later about John Scott Russell, the nineteenth century Scottish civil engineer and shipbuilder, and and his work on the solitary wave phenomenon.
This is Bridge 11, the unassuming spot where Scott Russell discovered the soliton wave in 1834.
I’ll leave you with his own words, the significance of which seems fitting for this walk that continued after I had finished it and the exact nature of which I “lost … in the windings of the channel.”
I was observing the motion of a boat which was rapidly drawn along a narrow channel by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped—not so the mass of water in the channel which it had put in motion; it accumulated round the prow of the vessel in a state of violent agitation, then suddenly leaving it behind, rolled forward with great velocity, assuming the form of a large solitary elevation, a rounded, smooth and well-defined heap of water, which continued its course along the channel apparently without change of form or diminution of speed. I followed it on horseback, and overtook it still rolling on at a rate of some eight or nine miles an hour, preserving its original figure some thirty feet long and a foot to a foot and a half in height. Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel. Such, in the month of August 1834, was my first chance interview with that singular and beautiful phenomenon which I have called the Wave of Translation.
A dead puffin on the path to the shore, steep. It’s a dry kind of moment in this unreal autumn, not knowing whether to mourn or be curious about the colours.
The shingle, a shell’s span of time: the brittle crunch beneath my feet. One tiny boat, handmade, handpainted, LV426 run aground on a driftwood trunk, another further on, a steamboat, its painted funnel an exclamation in black, in red, faint shout across the sound to a safer haven.
Edinburgh, October 2020 (Following a walk to the beach at Eagle Rock)