In The Old Ways (2013), Robert MacFarlane coins the expression ‘xenotopia’ to mean an area of otherness, a place outside the normal. Since encountering the word, I’ve thought it apt for the Zone, that locus solus depicted in flat greys and muted shades in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979) while at the margins nature threatens to extrude itself into the narrative.
Xenotopia is a fitting description, too, for this thin slice of Edinburgh, the narrow edgeland of West Shore Road in Granton, an odd and uncared for stretch of roadway and its surrounding premises, both occupied and abandoned, which runs from Marine Drive past Gypsy Brae Park, along to West Harbour Road.
As a shorthand, I’ve come to think of the whole collection of these parts of the city simply as West Shore Road, a terse roadshow of shadow-restore, a conglomeration which exists only in my imagination. The area fascinates me for reasons I can’t quite explain: it’s unlovely and ugly, and brings to mind Giordano Bruno’s maxim ‘In filth, sublimity; in sublimity, filth.’
But there is poetry in this place just beneath the surface, if one only looks closely enough. I now can’t fail to see it; almost can’t see anything but metaphor. It’s the magic of the unloved and unseen, the vital, static-crackling of the ignored or overlooked.
Travelling that way in the early dark of a late Winter morning I see her, a raptor of some description. I’m not much of a spotter, but it still delights me to see birds I don’t often come across.
She perches, vigilant, poised on a streetlight, looking out and down to the rough grasses below. As I stare at her, past her, the sickly glow of the sodium lamp under her is doused by some blind local authority time-switch, but she doesn’t desert the lookout post, doesn’t even flinch. Her presence seems to me a good omen, as omens go.
Only the day before I had encountered another avian harbinger: a heron standing just off to the side of the road, a stately, slate-winged sentinel silhouetted against the gloom of the morning. Most of this area is within a stone’s thrown of the shoreline, but the place where I spied him—back some distance along Marine Drive, just beyond Muirhouse Mansion—is a little further from the water’s edge than I’d have thought he was comfortable with. He barely registers me as I pass.
Most walkers, if they do walk round here, take the beach path heading along the shore in the direction of Cramond rather than towards Granton; and most of them have dogs, the walk no more than an exercise in exercise for their four-legged chaperones. I opt for the road, not the path, in the direction of Granton, not Cramond. I don’t bring a dog; don’t have a dog. As if in answer to my choices, the road exudes beneficence, grateful for my patronage, and I sense it promise to reward me with sights—and sites—not shown to everyone.
It happens quickly. As I progress along Marine Drive past the Mansion, a leash of foxes crosses my path, skulking back and forth across the road. There are at least four of them: beautiful in the morning light, the horizontal gold of their tails burnishing the wet roadway with fire. I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the grouping, but this one stopped and stared at me for almost a minute from the trees:
I wander along West Shore Road to the furthest point I’ll go today. I have only a couple of things I do want to look at in this walk, and the rest will be wherever the Drift takes me.
First, I am keen to find out what these structures are?
The heavy iron gates leading in are permanently locked and the sign on the building on the left (the one in the first picture) is faded to near illegibility. They present as windowless blocks, although the peaked roof of the second does appear to be capped by a large area of glass panels. The area in front is ostensibly a small car park but no vehicle is ever in evidence. The whole place is one of the more lugubrious areas along this stretch of road.
A little further along, there is a recessed gate I’ve overlooked before and the mystery is solved, to an extent.
The buildings still possess an overwhelming air of abandonment, as attested by the moss and weed covered driveways and debris littered here and there. I wonder idly who it’s contemplated might need to avail themselves of the customer helpline whilst standing outside a waste water pumping station…
On the ground outside the main gates a motley assortment of objects is strewn. I stand and stare at them blankly, as though they’re the entrails of some long-forgotten animal from which I’m supposed to make a divination.
Time to move on. The second item on my itinerary today is this: a crumbling set of stone gateposts.
Whenever I’ve pass them in the car, I wonder what they formed part of originally. They rest now behind a crude, in parts makeshift, high fence, locked off from the road. The stone is patched and the pillars look uncomfortable in this setting.
I resolve to find out more and retrace my steps back along the pavement a little and then up off West Shore Road onto the ‘road-to-nowhere’, a carriageway that is blocked by concrete drums at the bottom, on its intersection with West Shore Road, and at the top by a line of trees. My idea is to get behind the area in which the gateposts sit and work out more from there. Walking up that left run, I am offered a splendid view of Granton’s majestic gasholder, a crown on the north shore skyline and visible from large parts of the city.
Construction on the gasholder number 1 started in 1898 and was part of a larger site comprising Granton gas works. It opened in 1903, ceasing operation in 1987, and has been unoccupied since then. Although it had been proposed for incorporation into the Waterfront development for many years now, that venture appears to have been unsuccessful as far as the gasholder is concerned. The whole site was put up for sale in 2016, although as the structure is also a listed building it’s unlikely to be going anywhere soon.
Leaving the exploration of the crumbling stone gateposts for a spell, I decide to go and explore the gasholder more closely.
It’s located off the commercial property developer’s dream of Waterfront Broadway, where the prison-like Scottish Gas building sits, a stone’s throw from the impressive 17th Century house Caroline Park which harks back to a different age. In contrast, the back of the office block is anonymous and corporate.
A property company’s board tells me the site is ‘For Sale to Restoring Purchaser – Gasholder and Site – B Listed Structure set in 1.3 Ha/3.2 Acres.’
I’m sorely tempted.
A crow on the fencing around the site eyes me suspiciously, caws out as if to say ‘Go back, you’ve seen too much; you’ve strayed too far from West Shore Road. Back!’
But the temptation is genuine: I am in awe of this lidless iris pointed skyward, surrounded by its segmented, soaring corona of azure-painted steel. The gates are host to a panoply of primary coloured signs which warn of 24 hour security, PPE to be worn on site, no smoking or naked lights, ‘Danger – deep water’ and even a somewhat redundant ‘No unauthorised signage,’ there really being no spare space to set up another sign, authorised or not. The deep water aspect is particularly dreamlike. Apparently the gasholder sits above a brick lined pit 37 feet deep. The notion that the pit may have become water filled—a man-made pool of inky blackness—causes my stomach to lurch uncomfortably.
Up closer, the meniscus of the gasholder is like a 1950s era flying saucer, its surface scorched and abraded by countless light years of hyperspatial travel. I know many people won’t share my view on this but I find it all quite breathtaking.
Later, when back at home, I find some aerial pictures of this beautiful structure on the Canmore webpages, which also features an array of other entries for archaeological sites, buildings, industry and maritime heritage across Scotland. If nothing else, if you don’t see the sublimity in this skyblue giant, then these images demonstrate the impact this piece of late 19th century engineering had on the turn of the 20th century landscape. The Granton history website records this observation by the its designer: ‘the gas holder has proved to be much more prominent for many miles around Edinburgh than I had any conception at the time.’
I wander back down past the mansion at Caroline Park. The mystery of those crumbling gateposts isn’t going to solve itself.
But I decide to have another look at that big house nearby. And I wish the fresh sandstone pepperpots in the photograph below had already crumbled: they strike me as wholly out of character for this fine house, although they do blend in well with the faceless Waterfront development onto which the driveway now looks out. I consider for a second whether or not they might be a modern response to those dilapidated pillars further down the hillside, but dismiss the idea.
The house itself is a sight to behold, incongruous because it looks as though it and its surrounding gardens have been dropped at random slap bang into the middle of this industrialised zone. In fact, it’s the reverse, because the house existed long before industry made its way here, encircling Caroline Park like a pack of wolves. For years it was left to ruin, but has recently been restored and is now in private ownership.
Regrettably, I discover that the same zeal for restoration and preservation couldn’t save Granton Castle, which lay very close to Caroline Park just a few dozen yards away down the hill to the northwest. Of course, those ramshackle stone pillars, the ones that have taunted me for years, belonged to the castle; they formed its northern entrance onto the shoreline.
The castle, built by the Melville family in 1544, consisted of an ‘L plan’ fortified house with a circular stair-tower, which with its outbuildings and a curtain wall formed a small courtyard. The buildings were set in a strong defensive position on an outcrop of rock. The castle was a ruin by the mid 18th century and was eventually entirely swallowed up by the encroaching quarry in the late 1920s, and then demolished so that the owners of the quarry could get at what was beneath it. Ironic that its original strength ultimately sounded its death knell: a sad end for what was clearly a fine-looking house.
All that really remains here are some fragments of wall and what appears to be a stepped dovecot, oddly emblazoned on both sides by the legend ‘Beware Dogs’.
There’s also an ancient walled garden which has its modern day supporters: the Friends of Granton Castle Garden, a group of volunteers keen to preserve the history of this long-neglected place and bring it back to something of its former glory. They have recently announced that the garden is to live again hopefully as a community market garden. Currently, there’s no access to the garden by the public.
I feel rather satisfied that I’ve uncovered all of this today: things which have puzzled me for a long time no longer do, and I feel that West Shore Road has heaped gifts upon me. What have I done to deserve it?
It has already been a very good walk, but on my way back, I pause at some of the other oddities along the road. Here is a strange enclosure that looks like it once held a caged animal.
Whatever it contained has long since burst free and lurches and capers perhaps within the ruined walls of Granton Castle by darkness. I can see it now, silhouetted against the night sky on the topmost point of the gas holder’s dome, baying at a moon which tries to shelter behind the clouds.
Slightly further along the road towards Gypsy Brae Park is an abandoned chemical waste site, which would make a good location for a post-apocalyptic genre film. Set in Granton.
The gate is rusted and disused and there seems very little to see within, despite the warning signs.
I move on again, feeling the cold now from the short flurries of snow that have coloured this otherwise still morning; back past the end of West Shore Road and onto Marine Drive. Something catches my eye in the trees on the right and I head over there.
I pause for a while to make some field recordings.
While I do this—and you can make it out clearly on the recording—I hear a group of young men cheering, apparently happy with their lot in life. It all seems to make sense in that moment. Perhaps they too have received gifts from West Shore Road and are giving praise.
As I head away from West Shore Road and Granton, towards Silverknowes, my mind turns to one of my oldest friends whose family home, when I first came to know her more than 20 years ago, was also in that part of Edinburgh. Her father, Fred, was the Minister in one of the churches in Silverknowes for a long time, and latterly was the celebrant at our wedding. Shortly after I get home that morning, I receive a message out of the blue telling me that Fred has passed away earlier in the week—the death notice is in today’s paper—and a profound sadness takes hold of me.
These walks, these drifts into oneiric and xenotopian realms, our feeble attempts to escape the mundane and make some sense of the pavement cracks and ochre glyphs of rusting fences: they provide only a temporary, breathless reprieve from the great march of time which stamps over us all in the end.