Tiny Boats

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,
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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)

Continuing the drift

Some of you will know that for several years I’ve operated a separate project (“Edinburgh Drift”) which has encompassed a sort of semi-fictional, semi-dreamlike notion of walking and wondering. And trying to put all of that into words as best I can.

This project will continue but I’ve decided to incorporate everything here, under my own name. The website edindrift.me will exist until it doesn’t, but any new work on the project will appear on this website, not the original Edinburgh Drift site.

Quite a number of people follow the original site, so if you get to read this and would like to follow this one instead, I’d be very grateful. On the right hand side of this page, there’s a WordPress follow button (if you use the WordPress reader) or you can also follow the site by email. Thanks!

Psammomancy booklet & CD

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Fine sand is poured from a pouch,
trickled onto a tray or table,
fingertips are used to find figures,
tracing, erasing, effacing, shaping . . .

The mysterious art of sand reading explored in text by Mark Valentine and music by Brian Lavelle, with black and white photography by Jo Valentine.

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This collaborative project is published in February 2018 by Seacliff Press, a small press Mark and I have established. There’s a Twitter account here for occasional news items.

Professionally printed 16 page booklet with professionally duplicated CD. Limited to 120 numbered copies, of which 100 only are for sale.


Psammomancy is available from Mark direct: contact markl [dot] valentine [at] btinternet [dot] com, removing spaces and replacing the words in brackets with characters.
(Note, the fifth character is the letter ell not the number one.)

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Warriston Cemetery: arise up and call

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (1849)

Sometimes death hides, and sometimes death is hidden from our view by other actors in the drama. In the case of Warriston Cemetery, which sits to the north of Edinburgh, Nature has woven her spell of entanglement on a litany of names etched in marble, reclaiming what was always hers long before the dead arrived to set up home.

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At first glance, the paths are clear and the graves well tended, but move deeper in and things become less certain, the way more troubled.

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This was Edinburgh’s first garden cemetery, established in 1843 from a design by David Cousin the previous year, and at approximately 14 acres in size it was a grand gesture for its time. Cousin went on to design Dean Cemetery (1845), Dalry and Rosebank Cemeteries (both 1846) and Newington Cemetery (1848).

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Compared to the many other, more recently constructed necropoleis in the city, Warriston’s scale is still impressive, but more than half of the cemetery is in need of renovation or, more fundamentally, urgent reclamation, with whole swathes of ground engorged by creeping vines and a groundswell of green.

The vigorous onrush of time has helped to engineer this exquisite memento mori, a dark, mouldering Victoriana that feels almost deliberate.

There is no commemoration here as outlandish as some of the examples in Dean Cemetery, but Warriston’s reach is longer, and decay has twisted its roots around stone and soil alike in a much more transformative way. What remains is an archipelago of half-drowned headstones in a sea of verdant waves, alive in the breeze.

Overgrown in the Undergrowth.

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Silence and solitude hold sway here. For the full duration of my three hour visit, I’m alone, apart from the ever-present rustle of leaves and the occasional, unnerving snap of branches.

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At times, I manage to convince myself I’m being followed or that someone is behind me on the pathway—watching—only to turn and spy a fox eyeing me warily from a distance, or glimpse the grey flash of a squirrel scampering from a tree.

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Warriston Cemetery is more alive than many others places I’ve visited in this city, but it’s a hidden life, secret, protected: an occulted world of birds and insects and small mammals, co-existing in the floodtide of decay and rebirth.

A tumulus rises ahead of me, barely perceptible on what is a sloping site anyway; on it, a pillared memorial or obelisk meshes with the trees, its colours their colours. This location feels different from what I’ve already encountered here. The ambience is different, too, and I pause awhile to reflect on the grandeur of the place, largely forgotten and all the more striking for that.

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The cemetery runs on, the darkness increasing as the tendrils of greenery clutch ever more tightly. I come upon the old Victorian railway bridge, sitting quite incongruously in the midst of the proceedings.

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Shortly after the cemetery opened, the Edinburgh Leith and Newhaven Railway scythed its way through the site dividing the grander northern part of the cemetery from its more modest southern end.

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It’s impossible to ascend from this spot to the level of the bridge itself, although once I suspect it would have been easy. The stairways and paths are choked and soon, if left unchecked, perhaps even the Gothic mouth of the tunnel itself will be smothered by emerald fingers.

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I can’t resist the odd acoustics of the tunnel itself and I set up the recorder again for a few minutes to capture the sound underneath. It feels unreal, and much more enclosed than the few feet of the arched space would suggest.

Atop the old bridge, an occasional cyclist flashes past, as though flitting into existence from some future timeline and then winking out of the frame forever. Nearby is a set of grand steps that take me up to a level adjacent to the top of the bridge, although, I find, not actually onto it.

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Up here, the light sits differently somehow and, at first blush, I see that Nature doesn’t appear to dominate as readily as below. I feel like an interloper as people wander over the bridge, now used as a public walkway following the closure of the railway line. None of them sees me, or maybe they think I’m a revenant peering out of the gloom of the undergrowth. I am my own ghost for a few moments. And in this place, it’s curiously fitting.

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There is still a war being raged even up here; gravestones and tombs battle against a sea of green that appears to be winning. The residents of Hilldrop Crescent can only watch and wait.

And books haunt me even here.

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I stop awhile at the long terrace of catacombs that sits silently brooding in the midst of the cemetery. Once, a small chapel sat atop these tombs but it has gone completely.

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Again, the sound here is strange and my eye is caught by the holes in the walls: surely, only bats and birds use these as portals of ingress and egress.

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An inky darkness seeps out to enclose the silence and—unless my imagination is getting the better of me—to bolster it. I leave the recorder running and wander away for a few minutes.

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I pass beneath the railway bridge again, to explore the even more overgrown half of the cemetery.

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At its southern boundary, the Water of Leith flows past, protected now by recently installed flood defences.

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As I crouch down to look through the trees to the water, feeling as though I’m gazing out at a new civilisation from the darkness of an ancient forest, I see him: no more than a few metres away, a heron making his stately way along the river, unhurried, stopping for food as he goes.

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I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a heron eat anything other than fish before, but he doesn’t seem to be objecting to the fare on offer—as the short film below shows. Choice pickings from the riverbank.

There is almost too much to take in here and the overgrown nature of the tombs and graves means that surprises wait around most corners; that is, if one can even make out what lies beneath the grassy mounds.

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The sheer number of graves is overwhelming. How many more lie hidden amongst the leaves? A roll call is necessary.

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Near the modern part of the cemetery, closest to the main gate, sat the Robertson mortuary chapel, erected in 1865 for Mary Ann Robertson (1826–58), daughter of Brigadier-General Manson of the Bombay Artillery.

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This white marble shrine contained a sculpture of a reclining female figure, visible from the outside, the whole being topped with a ruby glass roof with glass sides which led to locals christening this the ‘Tomb of the Red Lady’ because of the rosy light cast on the figure within.

Sadly, the shrine was badly vandalised over the years and had to be demolished in the late 1980s. All that’s left now are the foundations and the recumbent sculpture, fittingly set in a bed of red flowers, but there are some fascinating older images of how the sepulchre looked here. The interior must have been very eerie in its day.

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I end the walk close to this part of the cemetery; there are still interments being made here in this modern section but even these are suffused with a bitter melancholy.

As the light begins to fade, I make my way out of the gate and back into the land of the living, but all the more energised by this striking landscape of contemplative decay.

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Further reading: the Friends of Warriston Cemetery have an excellent page that describes their sterling work in trying to bring the cemetery back from the brink.

Language of Objects book & CD

Language of Objects - front coverLanguage of Objects: a new book and CD by Murdo Eason of the Fife Psychogeographical Collective and me, Brian Lavelle.

Language of Objects: a 58 page professionally printed book in full colour inside and out, accompanied by a glass mastered CD with a separate download code. Text and images are by Murdo; sound by me; cover design by Vincent Pacheco. The CD contains a new 28 minute composition—Sullen Charybdis, the Blue of Scarabs—which is my response to the imagery in the book.

Language of Objects: published on 14 September 2017 by Blind Roads Press, our collaborative imprint.

The book/CD is available for £10.99 plus postage and can be ordered here.

 

Technical details
Paperback, 58pp, full colour, 148 x 210mm, perfect bound
300gsm cover, 120gsm interior
Glass mastered CD
Edition of 100 copies
Published 14 September 2017
ISBN 978-1-9997718-0-5

Cramond Island: between the teeth of the sea and the sand

As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 3 Scene 2

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The concrete pylons surveil me as I cross the causeway, sentinels on shore leave from a brutalist Easter Island: decaying teeth of the sea, chain of totems holding the island thurible at its proper arc from the mainland. I feel like I’m poised in the jaws of some primordial leviathan. And make no mistake, it’s a treacherous business crossing from one realm of place to another. I have genuine psychogeographer’s bruising to prove I only just survived the experience, flat on my back and the breath knocked out of me. Sometimes it’s the ground beneath your feet which drifts.

To the west, Eagle Rock eyes me from a safe distance on this early morning, its subterranean portal itching to open for me, but not today.

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Casting a fond glance back at civilisation and Cramond village, I commit to the slippery march onwards. Time is the enemy here though, and there is a limited window of a few hours of low tide to explore and return high and dry to the mainland. Sometimes, for the unwary, fiction becomes fact.

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The mile-long causeway is slick with seawater and the green of algae, the tide recently having receded to a safe distance. Cramond Island is one of only 17 that can be walked to—when sun and moon and gravity permit—from the Scottish shoreline. That number initially struck me as high until further digging told me there are almost 800 islands dotted around the coast of Scotland. But Cramond Island, which is really an islet since it’s just a third of a mile in length and about 19 acres in total area, is only properly an island at high tide with its northernmost part—the curiously-named The Binks—permanently within the waterline.

And that forbidding chain of stanchions chaperoning my crossing was installed as part of the Firth of Forth coastal defences during the Second World War, to stop small vessels passing to the south of the island. They were originally linked by concrete shutters which slid into grooves on each side, and the remains of some of these can be seen littered at the base of the stretched pyramids.

There were also anti-submarine measures, in the form of floating nets, deployed from the northern side of this island, to the island of Inchcolm, and from there to Charles Hill on the further Fife shore.

Tidal islands like this one are often attended by an innate sense of otherness or are somehow imbued with the sacred. Witness the grandeur of places like Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.  Whilst its scale is less imposing, Cramond Island has the feel of a place that has tasted the numinous in its millennia of existence. The air has the scent of another realm.

In 1941, while the Army were building the various defensive structures here, they apparently discovered an early Medieval long cist burial chamber on the west of the island, which would tend to suggest people had been living—and, of course, dying—here for hundreds of years. Regrettably, but perhaps unsurprisingly since they no doubt had other things on their minds, the soldiers failed to record where the burial chamber was found and its discovery was only reported second hand in 1957. Its location has never been known since.

What else lurks beneath the bracken and the soil in this place? What secrets might this relatively remote location be hiding? The air crackles with a hidden electricity as I pass from the realm of the obvious to that of the occluded.

Ahead lies the first structure to hit the visitor’s eye on the island.

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This redbrick structure sitting atop an area known as the Knoll is one of a number of ruined and abandoned wartime enclosures on Cramond Island: a rather workaday looking gun emplacement. Down some steps behind the structure sits the housing for the searchlight which would have illuminated targets for the gun.

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It’s apparent even from this early point in my exploration that the buildings of the island have become canvasses for graffiti artists of varying abilities.

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Fighting off the wave of vertigo, I clamber down the steep steps to the searchlight enclosure. It feels like a Dantean descent to a fresh circle, with no idea of what or whom I’ll find.

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Each time I enter one of these structures, peering into the dark corners, I expect to be accosted by—what?—the flickering, half-seen/half-unseen wraiths that guard them? It feels that way sometimes. The uninvited are also the unwelcome.

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Despite its bijou size and rudimentary furnishings, you can’t knock the view.

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I move on up the hill, a strange congregation of stones bidding me good day as I pass them. It’s difficult not to impute some significance to their placing in this location and their prominent view out over the Forth.

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The mainland looks insignificant from up here, a thread of green on the verge of being swallowed by sand and sky.

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From this point onwards, the going becomes rougher and a great deal muddier. I shake off the notion that Cramond Island submerges in its entirety when no one is paying attention, rising from the roiling waves afresh each morning like some inverse Atlantis.

I head east along a barely formed desire path that leads through the undergrowth towards the north of the island.

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At the end of the path, I come across the first of the buildings installed by the British Army in 1941 on this northern part of the island.

This one still has some of its metal shutters, although they are eaten by rust and the vandals have done their worst on the fabric of the structure. The rooftop garden is lovely, though.

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Inside, there are odd trenches cut into the concrete floor, as though some form of mechanism was housed here, and it’s likely this building was an engine house containing generators to power the searchlights, guns and other buildings on this section of the island.

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I’m reminded a little of the images of Crowley’s ruined and ruinous Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, and wonder what doomed rituals have been conducted here since the place was abandoned.

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The largest concentration of war defence buildings occurs on this northern portion of the island. And an acute sadness hangs in the air, whether from the overwhelming sense of abandonment or because of the brittle nature of a different reality, one in which the anxiety of invasion was paramount, is unclear. But it’s there all the same.

Further to the north are three scattered small, lozenge-shaped buildings that I learn later were searchlight emplacements. Originally, there were five of these, casting their rays out across the Forth. From a higher elevation they look like modernist sepulchres, their concrete surfaces decorated with the gauche art of the edgeland.

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A larger, round-fronted building has the remnants of its curved metals shutters strewn around it; this was the mechanism whereby its searchlight could be focussed on particular targets by sliding the shutters across the front of the enclosure. The Canmore site has an older picture, with the shutters still present on the front. In the distance, the caret mark sails of the new Queensferry Crossing suggest that something is missing here, something forgotten or erased in error.

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On almost every available wall and ceiling space, the art brut of the graffiti artist holds dominion and various languages and non-languages are represented.

Down at the water’s edge, a line stretches into the waves. This is apparently the remnants of a jetty built using local stone, which sources on the internet suggest could be medieval in date.

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I see it again through the searchlight window of one of the small tomb-like enclosures further into the main part of the island. Perhaps that mushroom-like metal endcap was connected with the anti-submarine nets which were in place during the Second World War from here across to the other islands. It certainly doesn’t look particularly medieval from this vantage point.

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The searchlight buildings are again adorned internally with all the colours of the spraycan, and what appears to be a warning.

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In one of the largest structures on the island, which is reached from a steep flight of steps, I can’t decide if the colourful walls lend a less oppressive air to the place, or just render the cowering spectres more Cormanesque in their aspect.

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Again, there are odd trenches in the floor, signalling another engine house perhaps, but here they’re filled with stagnant, black water and I don’t venture too close. Something could be down there.

On the wall above, barely discernible amongst the babel of tags, is the legend Island of Junk. One can only speculate at its myriad possible meanings.

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Looking out of the shadows of the interior, the Forth shimmers in the distance and I hasten out of the darkness into the light.

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I’ve seen a couple of other people on my visit, but they don’t appear to have made it to this side of the island. Here, in the relative solitude, there’s an expectancy in the wind, and in the vegetation a brooding quality that’s ochre or rust coloured, a decay of the mundane that lets in the otherness. I have this overwhelming sensation of being watched, but all the searchlights are dim and I’m not singled out as a target. Nevertheless, I’m unnerved by the surrounding evidence of human manufacture combined with the absence of anyone to share my walk, and my scalp prickles with a sickly anticipation.

On the threshold of each of the wartime buildings, I pause, sometimes for minutes at a time. The quality of the air becomes heavier, denser, itself a formidable gateway to be pushed open. One of these thresholds I can’t even bring myself to cross: the claustrophobic enclosure beneath the northern gun emplacement.

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Its door, half-open and half-closed, warns me back, backwards into the sunlight.

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Peering through it, the guardians sigilised on its far wall are enough to persuade me that I don’t need to see inside this one any further than this point. Humans will / Human swill.

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It’s not just the hands of the clock that are moving me, pushing me to retrace my steps and leave the island. The loneliness and pervading sense of watchfulness are quite oppressive. Odd to think of a place where, unless you decide to set up camp and stay overnight, a visitor is afforded only a brief, time-limited glimpse of the whole, a snapshot that fades as the hours progress.

I move around to the western side of this part of the island, but there’s little to be seen now. There used to be a garrison here for the troops stationed on Cramond Island but aside from some concrete remains it’s no more. And this ruined structure is the remnant of the Duck House, a tiny enclosure once used as a holiday shooting let.

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Now it proudly proclaims its status as an outpost of a different empire, and soon its stones will crumble onto the rocks on the beach as nature plasters over the cracks and blemishes with her even hand.

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Curious that you’d choose to advertise a novel in such an unpopulated spot…

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With time against me, I never do find the ruined farmstead, abandoned since the 1930s, which has sat in the middle of the island since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. There’s always the next visit. It’s in the woods somewhere, waiting.

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I decide it’s better to retrace my steps and head back the way I came, although some people, choosing alternative avenues of escape, clearly weren’t so cautious. I wonder if they made it.

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I pick my feet more carefully back along the causeway this time, mindful of my earlier slipup. There are people everywhere now. A cyclist on the beach just below the gun emplacement and families and dog-walkers galore between here and the mainland.

Back on the mainland, an old friend, the gasholder at Granton, gestures to me from afar. Its Aegean Sea blue circumference signals the drift turning full circle. And those teeth behind me smile widely, in an only slightly less-than-beatific grin.

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Further reading: the always excellent Canmore site, the online catalogue to Scotland’s archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage, has fairly extensive information and some older photographs of the coastal battery emplacements on Cramond Island.