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!

Andrew Humphrey, ‘Trick of the Light’ (Nightjar Press, 2020)

Readers of Ghosts & Scholars will be familiar with Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar Press, which publishes individual short stories in a uniform and very attractive signed and numbered chapbook format. Its authors frequently explore the territory of the unsettling and the uneasy, the nightjar being, of course, a bird of supernatural repute.

The cover photograph of Andrew Humphrey’s Trick of the Light features a 1970s era Penguin paperback of M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary lying atop an Ordnance Survey Landranger map—number 156, covering Saxmundham, Aldeburgh and Southwold. They might have spilled out from the glovebox of a car, and the front of the paperback is partly obscured, its cover image limited to a blaze of blurred light. And so, before the reader even has a chance to open Humphrey’s slim volume and step into its pages, she is offered a signpost to a familiar Jamesian territory which the tale might occupy. But does it?

At first blush, there are only a few parallels with “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, the story alluded to in the cover’s combination of map and browning paperback. This tale’s context is modern, mundanely so: a couple, on the brink of a breaking point in their relationship, spend a few days away at a cottage in Southwold. Gayle is an amateur digital photographer, while Dan is guilty of having an affair and responsible, it seems, for their drift apart. Humphrey alludes to the difficulties between them, and that very fact sets this quite far from the typical Jamesian set-up. The couple even clashes over the TV adaptations of the original story: Dan prefers Jonathan Miller’s 1968 version.

The prose is carefully honed and devoid of unnecessary ornamentation; its angularity heightens the tension across every page. “It’s after dark that the world switches off.” The couple’s clipped dialogue does little to defuse the oppressive mood of the piece. Within just a few pages, the reader begins to sense that this couple may be doomed, either in their future together or in any future altogether.

The story plays with the waymarkers of ‘Whistle’, too: Gayle translates “Who is this who is coming?” from the Latin, and Dan responds:

“’Indeed.’ I think of MR James’ quiet, unsparing prose. The words crawl across the flesh on my hands, my arms and up to the base of my neck. ‘Should be good,’ I say.”

That throwaway “Should be good” is a curious line, and one wonders if it’s Dan’s admonition of himself against straying further in their relationship (you really should be good—should be better—Dan) or merely his approval of Gayle’s intention to infuse her photography with some authentic Jamesian chill on a windswept and lonely beach. Or it could be something darker – that whatever approaches should be—for their sakes—something truly momentous, something to break the cycle one way or another.

Back at the cottage, the radio is playing a song by The Fall. The late Mark E. Smith, that group’s famously contrary svengali, was an aficionado of James, as well as writers like Machen and Lovecraft. There is a sense that Humphrey is toying with us, giving glimpses of reality through fractured glass: a traditional ghost story filtered through the prism of late twentieth and early twenty-first century angst and the trappings of supernatural literature that post-dates James.

Trick is not overly self-referential in Jamesian terms, but it is undoubtedly a homage and there are obvious nods to the master and in particular to aspects of one of his most celebrated, and most adapted, tales. Humphrey plays with the reader, hinting that for Gayle and Dan their fate might be to be trapped in a story within an older story: “They built the church inside the ruins of the old one.”

Trick of the Light appears at first to be a straightforward narrative, a story of a break- up and a possible redemption—until its closing paragraphs, at least—but it has deeper tendrils that run through the soil of James’s earlier story and take its ideas in radically different directions. In James, Parkins is saved, physically at least; for Gayle and Dan, the outcome is much less certain, and the story’s conclusion is deliciously Aickmanesque in all its possibilities. This is a fine tale to add to the canon of modern supernatural fiction, and Humphrey achieves a pleasing synthesis of the best visual and literary markers of the two TV adaptations, too, creating something that reaches the delightfully unexpected in its tone and ending. I will be looking out for more of his work on the strength of this one.

This review first appeared in Ghosts & Scholars,

Richard Skelton, ‘The Look Away’ (Xylem Books, 2018)

The Look Away is musician and poet Richard Skelton’s first lengthy work of fiction, a novella clothed in unconventional garb. Fleetingly available as a limited edition hardback from Corbel Stone Press earlier in the year, it now appears in paperback from new imprint Xylem Books, established by Skelton and Autumn Richardson to make some of their key publications more accessible.

The book has an intriguing structure. At first glance, the focus is its nameless narrator, a damaged man fleeing something unspoken—past violence and the dread of violence to come, it seems—the story revealing in anxious, often agitated fragments the inner monologue which punctuates his hermetic escape from the world. Wearing the mantle of the fugitive, he hides away in a shieling, the resonantly named Hollowscar, a tumbledown stone hut barely fit for human habitation. Although this is a fictional narrative, that place turns out to be a real location and an odd mid-19th century map of the area actually exists, preserved in the National Library of Scotland. The protagonist’s retreat might even be from life itself: “Are you come here to die?”, asks the woman who provides him with basic supplies in exchange for what money he has.

There are few characters besides this broken individual. Other human agents are glimpsed only from the corner of the eye or appear as uncertain figures dredged from memory. Those familiar with Skelton’s work won’t be surprised that landscape plays an integral part in the story, its sinews tightening around everything. It might be the book’s most solid and threatening presence. Significant also is the spectre of isolation, an antagonist as fearful as whatever has forced the man to seek shelter in Hollowscar on the boundaries of civilisation. “I am an island lost in an infinite sea.”

The animal world here is not the stuff of typical nature writing; clothed in the pelt of the supernatural, in the sense of being beyond the natural, it is strange and menacing. Death’s shadow looms large over both the man’s seclusion and the grey tracts of this undiscovered country. Prey to his own insignificance in the surrounding wildness and beset by nightmares of hunter and hunted, he is “heir to a land returned to nature,” a brutal inheritance that might engulf him forever.

The writing in The Look Away is striking and memorable. Each passage plays out note perfectly, descriptions given room to breathe on the page, empty space marking time between the narrator’s bouts of introspection. Cadences fall as in the quietly insistent coda to a requiem Mass, the strains filling the room. Phrases loop back on themselves in a fashion similar to the way Skelton’s music is constructed, evolving and building as the tension builds. Familiar refrains flow like a turbid river across the page, are reified in different configurations, their call and response helping to fashion a lattice on which the more linear aspects of the narrative are encouraged to grow. The author interpolates parts of the twenty-third psalm in the text in a remarkably unnerving way. Stripped back, these biblical excerpts find an uncanny significance in the narrator’s menaced inner torment: his cup may overflow, not with goodness or mercy, but with a cleansing flood which erases all trace of memory and existence.

As the book moves across its two distinct sections, fear of the man’s pursuers evolves into a terror of what surrounds and imprisons him. He longs to be discovered; his desire for a new escape becomes more palpable, but one realm of violence is replaced by another, a more ancient one. The imperative to look away, rooted in memory and a child’s awakening to the relentlessness of nature, becomes the central core of the book. He cannot turn from fate, because he is swallowed whole by it.

The Look Away is a bold, poetic meditation on the power of nature to forget, to erase the past, and to renew, even if that renewal is unforgiving and indiscriminate. I have rarely read anything so emotionally compelling in so unusual a form. Skelton has crafted an unsettling and finely-wrought tale of red-in-tooth-and-claw metonymy, and I hope there is much more of this to come from him.

[The original review for Caught By The River is here.]

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.

Mercury rising: into the underworld at Eagle Rock

It’s 16th June: Bloomsday. An appropriate day to embark on a walk, and to walk without an idea of endpoint (or endgame); just to see what happens on the fringes of perception. And as I get the notion, it occurs to me that Joyce would approve if there was a river running through it all.

I consider first following the Water of Leith but decide I need to move further afield to find a more counter-tourist Anna Livia Plurabelle. As has become common, the call of the drift seems to drag me outwards, away from the centre of the city, away from people, to the margins of the urban and the place where the shore meets the sea to the north. The plan then: find an Edinburgh waterway that wends its way to its extinction in the greater pool of memory.

I’ve explored some of the coastline to the northeast of Edinburgh before, but on looking at my map I become intrigued by what lies out to the northwest, beyond the relatively tourist- and runner-clogged Cramond (a place I’ve already visited, in part at least—I feel there is certainly more to come from that location). Since I’ve never ventured west of the shore towards Dalmeny and the coastline above the estate, that settles it. Off we go.

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I begin at a location which seems to epitomise a synthesis of the natural and the man-made, a point at the base of the thundering four lane concrete and steel construction that spans the River Almond (Abhainn Amain)carrying traffic along the A90 away from Edinburgh to the Forth Bridge, and on towards Fife and the northeast.

It’s a muggy, overcast morning, the sky hovering in indecision between the threat of rain and a sickly sun scything through the clouds. The great bulk of this oppressive structure does nothing to dispel the sense of the heavens bearing down on me.

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Moving out of the bridge’s shadow, I’m struck by the realisation that the Almond, more than any other river, manifests as a twisting lifeline running across the palm of my existence, linking two equal parts of me.

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Stretching some 45 kilometres—I’ll turn 45 in a matter of weeks—it rises in Lanarkshire where I lived for the first half of my life and flows through West Lothian, ultimately draining into the Firth of Forth at Cramond. Edinburgh is my adopted home, the place I’ve spent the second half of my life. The Almond acts as a tether, an undulating rope that binds me to the past, my life reflected in its mirror. Today the water is relatively still and only the noise of traffic on the road bridge supplies a backdrop of white noise against which the birds chime and a plane passes overhead with muted roar.

Nearby, close to the east bank of the river, sit the ruins of an old cottage said to be the house of one Jock Howieson.

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In Tales of a Grandfather, Sir Walter Scott recounts a story of an attack on King James V as he crossed the old Cramond Brig. Howieson, a local tenant farmer, came to his aid and saw off the brigands. In return, the King rewarded him with a gift of the land he worked nearby. As part of this bargain, the King mandated that Howieson and his descendants be prepared to wash the monarch’s hands either at the Palace of Holyrood or whenever they crossed over the water here.

My route is away from the modern cantilevered structure carrying the flow of the A90; I head onto the old bridge.

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The Cramond Brig was originally built just before the turn of the sixteenth century and is made up of three wide and imposing arches spanning the Almond, at one time the demarcation between Edinburgh and West Lothian. It was rebuilt and sutured with fresh stone many times up to the mid nineteenth century and the dates of those surgical interventions, and the surgeons, are carved into the fabric of the bridge as a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Crossing the dark water, I pay a hidden toll and walk on.

Up a hill and down a lane in quick succession, I find myself on the John Muir Way and follow the road north in the direction of the coastline, skirting the edge of the Dalmeny Estate.

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The road runs for a mile or so through pristinely-kept, working farmland and a host of mature trees on the estate, its pathway gradually becoming rougher as it descends towards the sea.

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Very close to the water, I pause and enter the area of woodland containing Cats Craig.

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Hidden amongst the trees, and looking at first blush like a sinister old stone wall, Cats Craig is the outcrop of the thin upper leaf of a teschenite sill. It glowers at me from the shade of the foliage, brooding and quiet for now. In the dappled light of the woods I imagine this sill as that of a window, and feel sobered by thinking on who or what might be peering out at me from the realm of the Other.

Shaking off a shiver even in the cloudy June heat, I realise that the water awaits, and I walk on.

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The vista that confronts me as I emerge through the trees is quite something. The Forth shimmers in grey tones, the coast of Fife just visible on its distant shore, intoxicating in subtle shades.  Cramond Island rises in the centre, tethered at the end of its line of wartime defences forming an umbilical to the mainland. In the distance sits the crown on the horizon of Granton gasholder number 1.

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I head west along the deserted beach in the direction of Eagle Rock which has the appearance of having charged quietly out of the trees to judder to a dead stop in the damp sand.

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The eastern side of the rock famously displays a carving which gives the feature its title, the more prosaic name being Hunter’s Craig.

The carving is reputed to date from the Roman occupation of the area, when a fort was constructed at Cramond around AD 140; it remained there until into the third century. The depiction on the rock is crude and long weathered, but this is not a fluke of nature: something has been deliberately carved into a deep niche in the face of the stone.

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Does it really portray an eagle? Some say it shows a human figure, perhaps a representation of Mercury, the Roman patron god of, amongst other things, poetry and travellers. It does seem to me to look more like a standing human figure than a raptor.

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Mercury also happens to be the keeper of boundaries and a guide of souls to the underworld. I haven’t met or even seen another person on this stretch of coastline in the time I’ve been here. Have they all been spirited away by Mercury? Am I being led astray myself, drawn to this boundary between land and sea by the music of a mythic lyre made of shell?

The god’s role as a custodian of boundaries is apt. I’ve realised it’s the margins which intrigue me more than other locations, those parts at the edges of the world most at risk of fraying and tearing. Places where the light or the dark leaks in, where conventional modes of transport inevitably falter and fail. It’s no surprise then that an unusually large proportion of my flights of fancy relates to the chthonic.

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The end of one cycle

The surface of the stone on Eagle Rock is warm on my palm as I touch it, that hulking tape-recorder of memory. A stream runs into the water nearby. More Lethbridge; always Lethbridge.

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I climb onto the summit via a narrow gorse-gripped path at the rear, and wonder, as I stare out—to the water, to the wading birds, to Cramond Island, to Fife—just what the Roman soldiers garrisoned near here saw and what they thought of it all as they stood atop the rock.

Did they make offerings to Mercury to lead them home, wherever home was, from this remote point at the edge of empire? Or, homesick and beset by weather they’d rather leave behind, did they pray for a portal to the underworld to open beneath them, clothe them in the rheumy drift of Hypnos and banish the dark, dank days forever?

Back to barracks.

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I speculate that the carving in the rock is a marker for some entity imprisoned in the giant stone box. Perhaps it’s a seal, a lock on what’s contained within; a warning. The figure is weathered and vandalised. What will happen when it’s gone completely? Will some thing—some rough beast—be set free again after two thousand years?

I move on around Eagle Rock towards the west, picking my feet carefully across squelching sandpools and copious swathes of bladderwrack. The coastline stretches on and on.

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Not everyone escapes unscathed.

Following the swerve of shore, I find the next cove filled with shells—if there are any spectres here, waiting to surprise me, my feet crunching on the iridescence will quickly have alerted them to my presence.

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Something signals a warning, nonetheless.  An opening to a gateway?

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And ahead, just on the bend of bay, rising out of the beach, is an unusual looking cuboid stone. It  resembles nothing more or less than a small altar. This seems to happen to me a lot. Introibo ad altare Dei.

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It feels appropriate to mark the presence of this curious platform somehow and, although there’s no human audience in attendance, I perform my own humble rite of improvisation on the altar with two strange-looking long stones I find lying on this beach; when it’s finished, I leave them there for someone else to continue the work. Or just to discard them—that, too, would be a suitable coda.

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Perhaps I’m not the first to have done this, to have come to this spot and played quiet musics for an audience of gulls and cormorants, accompanied only by the lapping of the waves. Others have certainly made their own marks here over time.

This beach has its unwelcome, modern paraphernalia, for sure…

…but it also boasts its secrets and a hidden beauty beyond the notion of holiday skylines and estuary cruises. The minutiae of the immediate and that which I never quite caught from the corner of an eye: a straggler from Mercury’s otherworld.

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