Ten thousand raindrops Take their gray courses down the window pane, With gentle pulsings, With small music on the stones outside.
George Mackay Brown, Rain
Kirkwall: the torrent of waters slides at us horizontally and the winds with it. It’s not exactly April showers and so we look for shelter and for safer (drier) havens.
The crimson sandstone of St. Magnus Cathedral pierces the leaden skies and we make for the vaulted doorway beneath its mass of red.
The sheer size of the building is startling, even if Kirkwall is Orkney’s largest community (although I think it has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants).
Hanging from a pillar in the left aisle of the Nave is a 17th century Mort Brod, a wooden death notice commemorating Robert Nicholson, a Kirkwall glazier. This is noted to be one of the oldest of its kind in Scotland and shows the shrouded figure of Death holding an hourglass and spade.
A casket of bones, thought to be those of St. Magnus, murdered on the isle of Egilsay, were discovered here in 1911 during restoration works on the walls of the Choir.
In the Chapel at the eastern end of the cathedral are many commemorations of more recently departed Orkney souls.
George Mackay Brown’s requiem mass, on 16 April 1996, the feast day of St. Magnus, was the first Catholic service in the cathedral since the Reformation.
I felt humbled again today, three times, in three different places. The first was at Skara Brae.
The site at Skara Brae is 5,000 years old. A village, a community, their houses, their possessions, their ways of life. It is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids at Giza.
It’s hard to take it all in, to take in this sense of shared space and shared love, their lives and deaths, hard not to get excited at the tantalising notion that there are probably other houses hidden under the peat and the earth here and in the surrounding area.
There’s a very good visitor centre and knowledgable, enthusiastic guides, but perhaps all you need is a few moments of silence to stand and look down into these closely gathered houses and contemplate everything that has gone before and everything that is yet to be.
In the last of the snow A great one died. He lies In that stone hollow in the east. A winter sunset Will touch his mouth. He carries A cairngorm on his cold finger To the country of the dead.
George Mackay Brown, Skara Brae
The second place of interest today is the Italian Chapel built by prisoners of war at Lamb Holm during the 1940s. They were brought here to build the Churchill Barriers as a defence against German submarines at Scapa Flow. While there, they were allowed to build a Roman Catholic Church, forged from two Nissen huts and just about anything they could find.
It’s a work of extraordinary beauty and a triumph of the human spirit.
Once again, it’s almost impossible to describe the feeling of standing here in the quiet glow of the fragile painted walls and ceilings. The words don’t come, but they don’t need to: I just look at this small but perfect refuge from life, a hymn to life itself.
The last and most personal journey today is a search, in a blistering cold wind, for the grave of George Mackay Brown in Warbeth Cemetery just outside Stromness.
The cemetery occupies a stunning and, today anyway, quite forbidding place in the landscape. Hoy Sound is a battleship grey mirror of cold in the late afternoon and the island of Hoy itself looms large in the background.
I find the poet’s resting place, eventually: a shy and unassuming block of sandstone among more ostentatious marble markers. It seems an altogether fitting stone for this quiet, gentle man.
Around the edge of the weathered headstone rest the final words from one of his last poems, A Work for Poets:
Carve the runes Then be content with silence.
I stand here in the cold, the wind circling like wolves, and I say nothing.
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.
Set in his native Merseyside, Adam Scovell’s third novel, Nettles, is a story centred on childhood rituals and pacts with the landscape, whether real or imagined. These rituals, invoked at a turning point in a boy’s life, when he feels he has nowhere left to hide, are depicted all the more powerfully for being situated in the edgelands of a post-industrial landscape: the concrete underbelly of a motorway, scrubland with distant pylons, the roar of the rails and the roadway. At the heart of the book is a tale of a boy bullied mercilessly and what he ultimately does, or what he thinks he has done, to escape and restore some sort of bearable, natural order in his life.
As a result of its subject matter, the main narrative isn’t a comfortable read: descriptions of the claustrophobic and isolating nature of the bullying are dealt with realistically and in fairly unflinching terms. But Nettles is more a tale of sacrifice than any sort of brutal, coming-of-age novel, although the brutality is there. We don’t particularly sense the main character maturing and overcoming adversity during the narrative in the way these things normally play out; instead the reader is drawn back and forth 20 years between childhood and adulthood, connections are made in a deliberating fleeting way, and there are strange, and slightly jarring, interludes about a local climber which eventually resolve at the novel’s conclusion.
Both the narrator and his tormentor remain unnamed, although Scovell uses the curious literary device of capitalisation of Him and He for the boy’s antagonist. This reverential use of pronouns suggests that what exists beyond a sense of fear and hatred is some kind of god-like awe at the bully’s power and his consequent hold over the main character and others in the school.
There are many instances of sacrifice in the story, both large and small. The book suggests that children believe they make such sacrifices all the time and perhaps they do. The perennial question of cause and effect is left unresolved, but that doesn’t make the story’s conclusion any less haunting and uncertain.
Scovell is most convincing when he deals with the place setting of the story, its otherness and the protagonist’s unclear role in it all. Landscape, as it often turns out to be, is a very unreliable narrator here. I got the sense that the locations were written with such a deft touch because they are well known to the author or at least versions of them are. Indeed, much of the story seems drawn, in some cases perhaps worryingly so, from semi-autobiographical events in Scovell’s own life. The protagonist’s return to his childhood home after 20 years, passages of which are woven throughout the book, is punctuated with blurry Polaroids of meaningful places in both the then and the now. This may be a nod to the conceit used by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and other works, and while the pictures are nice to see, I didn’t feel they were necessary to give more flavour to an already well-conjured landscape.
I enjoyed this novel and the resonance of its imagery, particularly that of the landscape in which the story unfolds. There is a finely-written ambiguity in the bearing of the modern-day protagonist, which leads the reader to question exactly what effect the childhood trauma has had on him and what really happened two decades earlier. Scovell’s work seems to get better and better and Nettles is probably his most satisfying work yet.
Nettles is published in April 2022 by Influx Press and is available to preorder now.