Disappear into the vanishing point

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.

Edwin Morgan, A human head…

Shoreswerve or shoresweave: a waterlogged alphabet

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)
ANAMNESIS
BARRIERS
CONTRARIAN
DISSOLUTION
ENDURING
FICTIONS
GUNMETAL
HEADSTRONG
INDENT
JOUISSANCE
KOMPROMAT
LUDIC
MEMORIAL
NOOSPHERE
OBFUSCATION
PERPETUAL
QUISLINGS
RECRUDESCENCE
SOLITARY
THALASSOCRACY
ULLULATIONS
VAGARY
WESTERNMOST
XANTHOUS
YESTERYEAR
ZEUGMA

These photographs were taken on a walk with Murdo Eason in Leith on 13 July 2019, a million lifetimes ago.

A man, a plan, a canal

Hic sunt canales. Straight paths and slight bends, bridges over water, the hiss of the M8 motorway, stone waymarkers, decay on the fringes, a yellowhammer in winter branches. Forgive the dog Latin. This is the wave of translation.

An index of the ordinary, with too many entries to keep in my head till the return home. Yet I don’t stop walking to take out my notebook and write; I don’t record any voice memos to remind myself of what I’ve just seen: “Brian, remember not to forget to mention the eerie, abandoned landing area in front of the big house.”

KEEP OFF
LANDING
UNSAFE

…or…

“Brian, remember not to forget to record that feeling of intense vertigo on the Scott Russell Aqueduct.”

The A720, the infamous Edinburgh City Bypass, grumbles below.

…or…

“Brian, remember not to forget to find out who Scott Russell actually was.”

The photographs help (I took over a hundred shots), but looking back I’m on a different outing, or I was. The actual and the remembered rendered as a synthesised whole, not quite real but not entirely imagined. It’s always this way. After I stop walking, the walk continues, in my head and on the page.


25½ 6

or

even
those who
stumble
move forward


The bridges create a kind of rhythm, a pulse along the waterway. The ducks’ periodic dives beneath the waves are jazzy drum-fills. Union Canal blueskyblues.

And there’s always the giddy anticipation of a cyclist’s bell as you round the lip of each underbridge where the path is at its most narrow. Some say hello, others say thank you as I step aside, some don’t acknowledge I exist beyond ringing the bell. On the imagined walk, I erase them all.

As always, there are curiosities along the way, small surprises.

O, the travails of the graffiti artist, what suffering they bear with such noble grace.

Where there’s water, there’s rust, unsleeping.

And the colours. Those colours.

Even the numbers have a certain poetry, their significance unimportant. A countdown or a reckoning? It probably doesn’t matter at this point.

And I only walk so far before I have to retrace my steps, back along the same path I’ve already tramped. A palindrome with creased edges. This loop is linear, a flat circle. But I do at least learn later about John Scott Russell, the nineteenth century Scottish civil engineer and shipbuilder, and and his work on the solitary wave phenomenon.

This is Bridge 11, the unassuming spot where Scott Russell discovered the soliton wave in 1834.

I’ll leave you with his own words, the significance of which seems fitting for this walk that continued after I had finished it and the exact nature of which I “lost … in the windings of the channel.”

I was observing the motion of a boat which was rapidly drawn along a narrow channel by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped—not so the mass of water in the channel which it had put in motion; it accumulated round the prow of the vessel in a state of violent agitation, then suddenly leaving it behind, rolled forward with great velocity, assuming the form of a large solitary elevation, a rounded, smooth and well-defined heap of water, which continued its course along the channel apparently without change of form or diminution of speed. I followed it on horseback, and overtook it still rolling on at a rate of some eight or nine miles an hour, preserving its original figure some thirty feet long and a foot to a foot and a half in height. Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel. Such, in the month of August 1834, was my first chance interview with that singular and beautiful phenomenon which I have called the Wave of Translation.

Russell, J. Scott (1845). “Report on Waves”. Report of the fourteenth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, York, September 1844 (PDF). London: John Murray. 311–390, Plates XLVII–LVII.

Happy new year

This morning, as the year turned, I too turned and returned to West Shore Road. It greeted me like an old friend, casting its sun on turbid waters.

Everywhere, small reminders of emptiness and calm. Long shadows proliferate.

The gasholder glared, an eye of silence in the haze.

Happy new year, everyone. I hope 2022 is a safe and creative year, full of kindness and quiet moments, for all of you out there.

Tiny Boats

A dead puffin on the path
to the shore, steep.
It’s a dry kind of moment
in this unreal autumn, not knowing
whether to mourn or be curious
about the colours.

The shingle, a shell’s span
of time: the brittle crunch
beneath my feet. One tiny boat,
handmade, handpainted,
LV426
run aground on a driftwood trunk,
another further on,
a steamboat, its painted funnel
an exclamation in black, in red,
faint shout across the sound
to a safer haven.

Edinburgh, October 2020
(Following a walk to the beach at Eagle Rock)

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.

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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