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.
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
“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.
“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.
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.
Language of Objects: a 58 page professionally printed book in full colour inside and out, accompanied by a glass mastered CD with a separate download code. Text and images are by Murdo; sound by me; cover design by Vincent Pacheco. The CD contains a new 28 minute composition—Sullen Charybdis, the Blue of Scarabs—which is my response to the imagery in the book.
Language of Objects: published on 14 September 2017 by Blind Roads Press, our collaborative imprint.
The book/CD is available for £10.99 plus postage and can be ordered here.
Paperback, 58pp, full colour, 148 x 210mm, perfect bound
300gsm cover, 120gsm interior
Glass mastered CD
Edition of 100 copies
Published 14 September 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Very close to the water, I pause and enter the area of woodland containing Cats Craig.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Something signals a warning, nonetheless. An opening to a gateway?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.