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.
The deafening sounds of an empty house. Void of content, of contentment. How dizzying the waveform of this roofless, rotting edifice. How defining.
Mavisbank House stands, although only just, on a hill overlooking its former policies near the village of Polton in Midlothian. It yawns and pitches and crumbles imperceptibly as I approach. I gaze up at it from outside the high metal fence which is both perimeter and prison.
Encircled by trees, the area where the house sits has already conjured for me an aura of menace and desolation. Others have gone in and filmed “inside”, and you’ll find a number of rather uninspired and shaky camera examples of this on YouTube. There’s also some overhead footage from drones, and those videos more than anything else show the remarkable symmetry and splendour of this once great building.
But I didn’t want to go any further than the fence…
… and I wasn’t possessed of the necessary papers.
Designed by William Adam as a Palladian mansion with Baroque features, and constructed in the 1720s, Mavisbank remained a family home until it was utilised in the mid-nineteenth century as a lunatic asylum which remained its fate for more than 75 years. Neglected after the hospital closed and gutted by a fire in the 1970s, it’s in a very sorry state.
Today, it appears that the house has no legal owner, a somewhat uncommon and difficult proposition in Scots law. The Mavisbank Trust has made valiant efforts over the last two decades to find funding to restore the property and its policies, but so far there’s been no great windfall to help secure the future of the house and bring it back to something of its former glory (see the gallery of images on the Trust’s site here).
This might be an icehouse, but I didn’t venture inside. It was already cold enough.
Perhaps it was the greyness of the morning, perhaps that I was alone and hadn’t seen a soul since I left the village to walk here, but the overall feeling around the house was strange and unnerving. A murder of crows watched me from the trees, occasionally disturbed from their rest to patrol the buildings. These dark custodians didn’t lighten the mood any.
After an hour or so wandering round the house and grounds, I knew it was time to say a quiet farewell to Mavisbank.
And so, almost 300 years after it was built, how does it sound?
I pose the question: does the knowledge of the location of this recording affect the listener’s perception?
Imagine yourself motionless there, poised under grey skies, a hint of moisture in the surrounding air. Imagine the feel of the grass under your feet, a sense of ill-defined scratchings from the undergrowth. Imagine there is no other person close by. Probably. Imagine that house of windowless eyes watching you, whichever way you turn.
Does desolation have a waveform? I believe it does.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite its bijou size and rudimentary furnishings, you can’t knock the view.
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.
The mainland looks insignificant from up here, a thread of green on the verge of being swallowed by sand and sky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The searchlight buildings are again adorned internally with all the colours of the spraycan, and what appears to be a warning.
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.
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.
Looking out of the shadows of the interior, the Forth shimmers in the distance and I hasten out of the darkness into the light.
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.
Its door, half-open and half-closed, warns me back, backwards into the sunlight.
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.
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.
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.
Curious that you’d choose to advertise a novel in such an unpopulated spot…
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.
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.
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.
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.
What can I say, I’m a sucker for abandoned stuff, misplaced stuff, forgotten stuff, any old stuff which despite the light of progress and all that, still vanishes every day like shadows at noon, goings unheralded, passings unmourned, well, you get the drift.
Absolutely nothing visible to the eye provides a reason for or even evidence of those terrifying shifts which can in a matter of moments reconstitute a simple path into an extremely complicated one.
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
Turnhouse Road on the outskirts of Edinburgh posed questions. Who goes there now—would want to go there? What lies along its barren stretch?
On a rainy Sunday in July, Murdo Eason of the Fife Psychogeographical Collective and I set out to see what kind of curve balls this unnervingly straight road could throw at us. We have no preconceptions as to what we’ll find.
The edgelands of light industry quickly become hedgelands, as the leonine growl of the city abates and a spray of swifts shimmers over the fields. Nature takes over again, with a degree of painterly charm.
It’s hard to believe that the city, with one of Scotland’s most polluting main roads at that—not to mention nearby Edinburgh airport—are all minutes away from where we’re walking now. A swathe of nettles makes sure that this wilderness of wildflowers and grasses remains unrivened by desire paths, and we pass on only as appreciative onlookers.
The notion and location of this road has intrigued me for a while, but I’ve never needed to come down it, on foot or otherwise. With the expansion of Edinburgh (formerly Turnhouse) Airport over the past couple of decades, and alternative, faster routes to and from it being required to meet increased traffic, Turnhouse Road itself has the feeling of a redundant artery leading away from the city’s heart. I find it’s often these nondescript, unassuming places that harbour most secrets. If a road could be introverted, this would be it.
The path is straight and true—until it’s not. Falsity and doubt enter the picture at the behest of these five sentinels, at the head of a lane leading off the main road.
I’m reminded of Nick Papadimitriou’s notion of premolded concrete pails acting as ‘storage vats of regional memory’, an idea that has always attracted me, like a mirror of the central conceit of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, itself a borrowing from the work of T.C. Lethbridge. But the memories stored here are dark and uncertain. These vats are arrayed to keep the curious out. Caution!, one of them exclaims as we approach, yet it—along with its brethren—keeps further counsel as we pass through the barrier. We’ve had our sole warning. The rest is on us.
Down this lane, beside an eerie boarded-up house at the road’s edge, stand two dilapidated railway carriages, rotting and open to the elements at one end. Their purpose here is unexplained. Someone has decorated the outsides, but the innards are untouched by the graffiti artist’s spraycan. They look like portals to another part of the zone, or grotesquely large kennels for creatures that roam abroad, unseen.
I cast a single, longing look back at Turnhouse Road and its five crouched, mocking sentinels. The trees seem to close in further as I watch.
We keep walking, but I am slightly further ahead on the now-disused lane than Murdo, who has lingered to take some more photographs, and I stop suddenly, horrified at the scene that begins to manifest in the distance.
Chaos has been abroad here. A churning, spiralling force has torn the insides of life out and cast them to the cardinal points for all to witness. The lights of these buildings have gone out, viscera turned in on themselves. And it feels like it happened only moments before: a congeries of vacuum cleaners, flat screen TVs, assorted white goods and packaging of every description, the buildings’ internal organs vaporised at the atomic level and their substance reconstituted in front of us.
The sense of oddness here is very acute, but the gate is open and we feel invited, maybe even compelled, to go in.
Someone—I like to imagine it was a kind-hearted soul—has left a talisman affixed to the open gate to protect us from whatever has caused this disruption to the fabric of reality.
According to the map, and a nearby bus-stop (presumably redundant now), this complex is Meadowfield Farm, all its windows and doors covered by steel shutters: a grouping of stone buildings brimful of foreboding. Once a substantial, attractive house at the heart of it all, what’s left now is a sickly, crippled shell, surrounded by the detritus of mundane existence.
There is no roof on the main part of the farmhouse; and from down here it looks like it has been gone for some time. Curiously, there is an almost brand new satellite dish affixed to a wall on the other side of the structure, so this place can’t have been empty for long—if it is empty. An expensive-looking bike lies abandoned in the courtyard of the steading, as though left there moments before. Is the back wheel turning on its axis, just ever so slightly? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just the effect of the wind.
The rusting inner skin of the burnt out car in the back garden picks up the russet tones of dead foliage on the other side of this area. It may be that in time each will become the other, and nature will take everything cast out here back into the earth.
‘The site lies at the foot of Lennie Hill on the western edge of Edinburgh adjacent to the south-eastern end of Edinburgh Airport. The steading would appear to date to the first half of the 19th century (though a late 18th century date cannot be ruled out) and is depicted on the first Edition OS map of the area dated 1853. The steading which contained a threshing mill in its northern range appears to have been little altered in plan since this date. The name Meadowfield first appears in 1424 (Harris S, Place names of Edinburgh) and it is likely that a farm has been situated on and off since this date. Laurie’s 1763 map of the area depicts the current farm, though it is not shown on Bleau’s early 17th century map of the Lothians.’
A threshing mill? It’s the stuff of the cinema of the supernatural, laid out before us like a film set, although this scene is more post-apocalyptic than rural folk horror in tone. Six hundred years is a long time for history to have taken its toll on this place, for the stones of the house, and the stones on which those stones are built, to have recorded the gamut of emotions and incident.
As Murdo says while we survey the wreckage, it’s hard not to construct our own stories around all of this. I suspect these can’t be stories of the good news variety; nothing here has goodness at its core now. There’s only abandonment, loss, corruption, the circling of the vultures of metaphor, and an overwhelming sense of trespass beyond the veil. A house turned inside out, eviscerated and left to decay by poltergeists with scant regard for any of us. And if the insides of the house are now utterly stripped of the paraphernalia of human existence, what else has made its home within the walls?
When I check online later for more details of this farm, it’s hard to believe the evidence of a recent Google Maps satellite view which shows the house and steading in rude health.
The back garden looks neat and well-manicured. There is no rubbish strewn around. Fire has not opened the roofs of the buildings to the sky and the birds. The fly-tippers have not desecrated the emptiness. The ghosts have yet to manifest, at least in any material sense, or to infest the stones and roofspaces. ‘Walking’ the lane on Google Maps shows a fine house at the start, where it meets Turnhouse Road, then another stone cottage, inhabited, further up the lane and finally the farm itself and its outbuildings all intact and, apparently, in use.
It’s clear we need a new taxonomy of ruins, to allow us to think laterally about shunned places like Meadowfield, to index and catalogue the spectre-sown disarray that can occur in a few short months or years. The present order is the disorder of the future, as the stones say, but it’s a future frighteningly close at hand as Meadowfield attests.
Even fire, it seems, hasn’t completely cleansed this place of its sickness, the buildings’ shades having vomited their innards uncontrollably into every available space. A heave and roil of liquefied contents, undulations of detritus.
It’s sad to see such substantial old properties left in such a sorry state. They would once have been proud, defiant against the march of time. Now, inexpicably, even the graffiti artists have avoided the blank canvasses of their walls.
We’ve been here long enough, the full extent of Turnhouse Road barely contemplated thanks to this intoxicating diversion into the unreal and the sense of being unwelcome visitors has grown with every heavy minute we linger.
Further along the road, my spirits lift because I see a glimpse of what looks like some welcome civilisation: a cottage hidden behind a splay of trees. But as we get closer we see that it too is dead, as are the other houses in this little row. I find myself casting around to see if we’re being watched from a distance. Interlopers, busybodies, up to no good. Leave the deceased to their eternal rest, these steel shutter shriek at us.
Why does no one live here, in any of these places? There must be five or six houses in the space of a few hundred yards, all secured with the same steel shutters and padlocked doors. What is wrong with them, the dwellings? They are fine houses, these examples anyway. Meadowfield is probably past redemption. It’s like a Ballardian sitcom, or at the very least something out of the fertile imagination of John Wyndham.
Still, Edinburgh is close at hand: only 5 miles. But even the comfort of this ancient waymarker does little to dispel the interzone feel we’re experiencing in this part of the city.
Still further ahead, some normality is restored, if a golf course can be considered an indicator of normality. Ironically, this is further from the city and the zone of exclusion that is Meadowfield, when one might have anticipated that abandoned properties would sit on the most peripheral edge of the capital’s reach.
Nearby, an attractive row of well-maintained cottages sits at the junction of Craigs Road…
…and another old waymarker presents its legend, almost obscured by the hedge’s greenery.
GLASGOW AND STIRLING BY KIRKLISTON STIRLING AND FALKIRK
A more contemporary metal sign lies on the ground, knocked from its pole, almost as though the locals don’t want anyone to be able to orientate themselves except by use of the old signage. I check for curtain-twitching in that row of cottages: nothing.
We move on, against the pall of rain and the sense of isolation from the city, the airport a constant visual and aural presence at the edges of perception. I imagined we’d hear more planes landing and taking off, but that’s not the case. It’s really quite peaceful out here, if one can forget the desolation we’ve just left behind.
Past a tiny used car showroom we go (current stock: two vehicles, with space for a third; by appointment only – who would be window-shopping along here anyway?), and past logistics companies and other anonymous-looking businesses, until we reach a set of crested gateposts: the way into what was RAF Turnhouse, closed finally in 1996.
Turnhouse Aerodrome was the most northerly British air defence base in the First World War used by the Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, after the formation of the Royal Air Force, the airfield was renamed RAF Turnhouse and the land’s ownership transferred to the Ministry of Defence.
This was also the location for the ROC (Royal Observers Corps) 24 Group HQ, which closed in 1992. Much to my regret, the Cold War ‘semi-sunken two level bunker with a brick built administration block alongside’ which used to be sited here has been demolished and nothing now remains of it. Originally opened in 1964, it received, analysed and distributed information from the ROC’s monitoring posts of nuclear blast and fallout data from East Central Scotland and the Borders. The end of the Cold War brought about its own demise.
Ownership of the main airport site passed to the British Airports Authority in 1971 and there’s a charming little film from that year, showing scenes of the old control tower and radar, here. A lot has changed in the last 45 years.
The gates to RAF Turnhouse, which closed for good in 1996, are in fact wide open today but it looks like no one is home, nor have they been for a while. A contractor’s compound sits at the far end of the drive, but there is no sign of any life, possibly because it’s a Sunday. We venture in, at least for a few yards.
Three buildings are immediately obvious as we go through the gates: Falcon House, Merlin House and Osprey House.
Two things are striking. The exterior walls of Osprey House have a curious grassy-green covering, like some kind of moss or lichen; it doesn’t look like paint. As a result, the structure, although not the roof, blends in with the surrounding trees quite convincingly. It seems as if it’s on the verge of being swallowed up by the vegetation. Neither of the other buildings is so favoured by camouflage but, by way of compensation, Merlin House has a full-length mirror hanging outside its main door, the purpose of which is a mystery, to the two of us anyway. Might it be for a final check of one’s uniform before entering to see a higher-ranking officer? Perhaps someone more knowledgeable will tell us.
The buildings here are a little forlorn and melancholy and the site has the air of somewhere that was once proud and well cared for, but is no longer. It’s hard to shake the desolate feeling here. It’s a similar, if less intense, atmosphere as that around Meadowfield, although at least the vigilant raptors watching over these houses have protected them from the febrile explosion of contents we saw earlier.
Even though the RAF are no longer here, we’re paranoid that somewhere someone is watching us on CCTV, so we move on again, further ahead to the main airport.
The rain starts to bite as we reach the end of the road and the airport’s runways hove into view. Cameras are put away before the worsening weather gets to them and we continue as far as the road will go at Lennie Hill, until we loop around past Old Lennie Schoolhouse, which now appears to be a (very) private house. I say appears because there are some ridiculously over-the-top and questionably legal signs around the perimeter of this house which warn of intruders being subject to personal injury or death should they dare to enter. Whether the threat comes from the myriad arrangement of fake animals and other tacky ‘sculpture’ in the garden or some more human agency is hard to tell. The garish paint job on the outside of the stone walls is perhaps an integral component of the house’s defences: Mediterranean orange and pastel pink, utterly anomalous at this endpoint of a dead end road with only the working parts of the airport.
On reflection, I think I’ll take my chances with the ghosts of Meadowfield. Their mystery is altogether more worthy of contemplation.