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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I pass beneath the railway bridge again, to explore the even more overgrown half of the cemetery.
At its southern boundary, the Water of Leith flows past, protected now by recently installed flood defences.
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.
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.
The sheer number of graves is overwhelming. How many more lie hidden amongst the leaves? A roll call is necessary.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WARNING As this book is a novel, one must begin on the first page and finish on the last. The Author
Prefatory note to La Doublure (1897), Raymond Roussel
I had been there before, on the threshold at least, had only seen the Cammo Estate’s unlikely tower from a distance, glimpsed briefly from a moving vehicle on so many occasions, and wondered at its original use—if indeed it had one and wasn’t just a Victorian folly sprouting like a weed in a farmer’s field.
This was not to be an easy beginning; not at all a straightforward walk at a straightforward juncture in the book of my life. Other, more mundane, more inane thoughts crowded out the parts of my conscience that wanted just to drift and to dream. There was a junction here—if not a full-blown crossroads—and the workaday concepts of choice and opportunity rattled around in me unhindered. Ultimately, the dreaming I wanted from this attempt at an excursion into the drift was not to be; I could see the bottom of that strange stairway but could not climb any higher.
A second attempt to walk this curious estate in splendid isolation is more successful than my first visit. That day, several weeks before today, I am disheartened to find the place overrun with people walking four-legged friends. A lone individual with a camera and a digital audio recorder looks uncomfortably out of place in such company; people stare suspiciously when they realise I am accompanied only by devices to capture sight and sound, neither of them on a lead, and reprehensibly absent of anything approaching the canine. That day, I turn on my heels and leave quietly.
I’d known of this place for some time and had been meaning to find an occasion to wander. Today, I ensure I arrive at an uncomfortably early hour and—almost—have the place to myself. The only other people I see as I start to explore are a couple of dogwalkers, happily away in the distance, and for all the attention they pay the ruins of the estate they might as well be walking in an empty field. One cannot drift with a dog, it seems.
Along the muddy avenue towards the first building I spy, there is a multitude of impressive, beautiful trees, both living and dead. Spring is beginning to catch in the crevices of older life and in dead spaces. It doesn’t surprise me to learn later that the whole estate is a nature reserve: without people, the place is a haven for local flora and fauna.
I had read that one of the oldest ash trees in the city grows here, but in my impatience to explore the ruins I forget about it. Another time, then. It has waited decades; I’m sure it can wait longer.
The first thing which catches my eye is the ruin of the stable block of Cammo House, which I learn afterwards dates from 1811. The original owners must have loved their horses: the footprint of the building is bigger, it seems, than that of the main house I encounter later, and it’s full of grand architectural gestures: classical archways, an octagonal tower which might have borne a clock at some point, multiple windows opening onto the surrounding countryside.
It’s an impressive structure, and even the warning signs don’t prevent me from having a snoop around. The building is crumbling and empty aside from graffiti, and there’s a lonely feeling here, something of the unloved. A blue heart drips its paint down one wall. A yellow tag enquires ‘Wot Is Up?’, but the only rational answer can be ‘the sky’, the stable’s roof being long gone.
From a room on the edge of the stables, I see the tower again, framed in solitude against the grey skies. Time to go and pay it a visit.
It’s an icon of dramaturgy, both from a distance and up close. As I get nearer, I hear the birds which now call it home. It appears they are legion.
The cavernous, resonant interior of what was the estate’s water tower is a tubular stone amplifier. As though to balance the avian atomic family within, dark-winged electrons circle the top of edifice.
I can’t resist recording from the sill of one of the ground floor windows of the tower, leaving the recorder there for a time and wandering away to see what a nearby hill with a grouping of trees atop it has to offer.
This copse reminds me of the memorable scene in the 1972 BBC adaptation by Lawrence Gordon Clark of M.R. James’s A Warning to the Curious. The late Peter Vaughn digs furiously in the clutching earth for a cursed crown. For my part, I refrain from breaking the soil, unwilling to release anything I’d rather not follow me home.
A path leads me through the trees on the hill.
From here, I see a curtain of smoke rise from what looks like an expansive refuse site at the edge of the estate. There’s the faint noise of a generator rumbling in the distance, too. In another direction, beyond the remains of a camp fire, the modern flats and houses of East Craigs interrupt the skyline.
I return from my hilltop circuit to the flat again, and go to pick up the recorder.
Later, when I listen back, I hear the birds in all their discordant glory: the belligerent cries, their screeching, the movement of air as they beat their wings, jockeying for position in select spots around the inside of the tower.
But there’s another sound which occurs at a few points in the recording, a heavy sonorous knocking that unnerves me. I would swear there was no one else in the vicinity of the tower and the gate at the bottom remained firmly locked, although admittedly its placement meant it was hidden for the whole time I was there.
Atop the hill, I was out of sight for two, maybe three minutes at most. It’s all very odd and not a little unsettling when I listen in the relative safety of home. It’s as though the knocking sound started just as I reached the furthest point from the tower on the diversion, atop that hillock.
I envision a figure dressed in black stirring in the depths of the structure, moving slowly past windows across the shadows of floors long crumbled to dust. It sounds like something I’ve disturbed, something trying to get out.
I move away from the tower and back to the main part of the estate, oblivious for now as to the notion there is something other than birds within that structure.
Even at this early part of the walk, the estate appears utterly sprawling and I quickly come across other ruined structures in even worse repair than the stables. These stones also sit on the edge of the estate, looking out to the tower, watching it; in turn being watched in all their tumbledown sadness. This might be the ruins of the ha-ha I’ve read about, although I can’t find anything else to substantiate this. It seems an unlikely location for it. This looks more like a ruined house.
A feeling of absolute solitude seeps out of the walls here too, catching at my throat. Although the estate is large and quite open, at least here, there’s also a feeling of claustrophobia nagging at me. I have to move on, although I start to get the impression I’m going about this walk the wrong way, that this should be the end, and not the beginning. As though I’m reading the last page of a novel to see who the killer was: the big reveal, disclosed at the start and spoiling the whole show.
Walking further up the path beside these ruins, I see that ahead lies a grandiose entrance to a walled garden.
Inside, it’s a riot of snowdrops, carpeting the ground.
There’s a slightly warmer feeling here, even if the garden is overgrown and the trees toppled, a quietude that slowly blankets my earlier feeling of being here alone. I can’t see anyone else here with me. Only the birds sing in the winter-stripped branches.
What ancient gardeners walked within these walls; do they still come here? The place is broken, but benign. They have their work cut out for them, certainly.
At the far end of the path, a doorway leads into relative darkness, but it’s the only way to make progress, so I pass through it, leaving the peace of the garden behind.
Just outside its confines I encounter a lignified serpent against the wall, perhaps banished from that place for no doubt unspeakable crimes. Its tail is its head and vice versa; in vain it tries to get into the enclosure just as it strives to escape it. The ouroborosiancircle turns again and turns again: the endless knot making the endless not.
There’s nothing for it but to keep going, to follow the path and see where it might lead, but that feeling of choices being made for me, of me not quite being in control, still lingers uncomfortably here. At other times, I think of this as a benefit of the drift, but not today. Something is different here today, or somehow I am different.
Throughout this walk, I have a sensation I’ve been going about things topsy-turvy, that I’ve not started properly at the beginning, that somehow this–whatever this is–would all fall into place and make some manner of sense if I had the sequence right. Real life has an unfortunate habit of intruding when it’s not wanted, and it seems there are intruders behind every tree.
I’ve not begun at the first page, and it’s now too late to turn back to the opening chapter. Everything feels skewed, splintered. There are reminders everywhere.
Moving on again, I come to what looks like a more formal part of the estate. A notice tells me this large area is the pinetum. Here, to the north of the ruined house lies is an old grove of ancient yews alongside a collection of exotic conifers from around the world: monkey puzzle (araucaria araucana), giant redwood (sequionadendron giganteum), Japanese umbrella pine (sciadopytis verticulata), arolla pine (pinus cembra), deodar cedar (cedrus deodara), western red cedar (thuya plicata) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menzisiesii). A cosmopolite’s attempt to bring the world closer to Edinburgh.
Close to the pinetum is the remnant of an ornamental canal, currently looking rather bedraggled, although I discover later it’s in the process of being renovated to its former glory. In its heyday, it must have been quite the focus of the estate.
What conversations have taken place here in the 300 years that have passed? What stories begun or ended? What silences broken or repaired? The sound of skaters in the nineteenth century on the frozen water, their delighted laughter. There is a stillness in this place, punctuated by the birds alone. I sense I’m being watched, but there is no one else around me. I passed a couple of others out walking (dogs in tow), but at this point I think I am the only living person in the vicinity of the canal.
To take my mind off these feelings, I decide to stop a while and record a short video, but the stillness soon closes in on me and I feel the need to keep moving.
And all at once, I come upon the house, or what remains of it. Largely destroyed by multiple fires set by vandals in 1977, this once great house is now a very humble ruin, its partial facade nestling at the head of the long South Avenue of oak trees.
Cammo House is now rather a sorry sight, and although I walk through the main door and stand in what would have been the front part of the original house, I don’t tarry long. That feeling of claustrophobia, of distant observation, is here too. The remnants of the house are a little disappointing. I can’t really explain why, but if I had expected to be overwhelmed by them, I am anything but.
From the impoverished stones left standing here in a battered shell, I can’t imagine what the original house must have looked like. Archival pictures online—at the Canmore site—show a substantial villa, originally built in 1693. Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, 2nd Baronet, landscaped the gardens in the early part of the eighteenth century and very grand they must have been. Afterwards, I find out that, as with my Seacliff expedition, there is a Robert Louis Stevenson connection here, too. He is said to have based Kidnapped‘s House of Shaws on Cammo House.
But, as I will read later, it’s the stories about the Maitland-Tennants which are even more akin to the work of Gothic fiction. The last occupants of Cammo House were Mrs Margaret Maitland-Tennant and her son, Percival. When she and her husband, who had bought the house in the late nineteenth century and were then Mr and Mrs Clark, divorced in 1909, she adopted the surname Maitland-Tennant. A year or so later, it’s reported that she dismissed most of the staff, continuing to live on in the house until her death in 1955. Before that point, it’s said she was known locally as the “Black Widow” only ever being seen dressed in black, being driven in a black Hudson car with curtains in the windows from the estate to the local bank in Davidson’s Mains.
Her son, Percival, lived at Cammo for another 20 years, finally moving into a mock Tudor style cottage on the estate and apparently turning the main house itself, with its many paintings and antiques, into a grand kennel for his dogs. He became known as “the hermit”, apparently only comfortable in the company of his animals. Reports say that he allowed as many as 20 dogs to live in the house, its rooms encrusted with their ancient faeces and urine. It all seems remarkably Dickensian and there is an utterly fascinating—not to say terrifying—account by an ex-policeman turned photographer here, about a visit to see Percy Tennant in an official capacity in 1969. I am glad I hadn’t read it before walking here.
Local reminiscences found online maintain the rumour that before she died the Black Widow used an air rifle to take potshots at the golfers on the nearby golf course, and later that she was buried in the garden and still haunts the estate. There is said to be a ring of daffodils to the west of the main house and it’s there that the Black Widow is buried. Peter is said to have visited her grave every day until his death. When I read this later, I have the uncomfortable sensation that I walked on or very near that spot.
It all seems a fitting end to what has been an unusual walk.
But before I leave, I decide to walk back around the hill and over to the area of the industrial site I’d seen earlier in the day; somewhat ironically it borders the trim greens of the golf course which the Black Widow used for target practice. The pungent odour of methane from the site hits me before I get close to it, and the sounds of generators or other unseen industrial equipment assault the ears as I walk the line between the refuse tip and the golf course. A couple of golfers, dressed as you can imagine, eye me suspiciously.
Their suspicion is likely well-founded. There is waste strewn everywhere here, as though it has escaped the confines of the tip in an attempt to forge a better life nearer the golf course. Why would anyone want to walk here? I ask myself that question as I press on, the noise of the machinery becoming more oppressive and the stench worsening.
And of course, here—on this walk which has always felt like a succession of false starts, wrong turns and dead ends—is this very final of final doorways, set into the ground as though it’s the most natural thing in all the world.
There is no sign on the door, nothing to suggest ‘By Appointment Only’. But I know I am invited to enter, to pass within and under, to escape the broken paths and reversed endings of the Cammo Estate.