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.
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.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi(1927)
A singular way to ensure you have the Scottish coastline to yourself is to venture there on a wet and windswept weekday at ‘just the worst time of the year’; more so if you visit a part of the shore of which few are aware.
Mid-morning on 6 January 2017, we arrive at Seacliff in East Lothian for the first time. By coincidence, our visit falls on the feast of the Epiphany, a day of revealings, the time when it’s said the Magi, the three wise kings of the gospel of Matthew—Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar—visited the newborn Jesus bearing gifts.
The location of this beach was revealed to us, in a manner of speaking, by our good friends Mark & Jo in Yorkshire. We’d never heard of it before then but they discovered it while exploring North Berwick and the surrounding area last year. Seacliff is hidden away at the end of a private road, a few houses dotted here and there, close to the village of Whitekirk and further east along the coast from North Berwick. You would hardly know it exists and that too might explain why it seems so quiet – eerily so, in fact.
We arrive at the ‘car park’ (more a muddy lay-by off a slightly less muddy track) sitting above the beach. The lay-by sits just shy of the maw of a cave in the cliff wall, an opening which doesn’t recede deeply into the rock, maybe only ten feet or so, but it’s dank and cold and I don’t feel like venturing in too far. I can almost feel the mass of the cliff above, thousands of tonnes of rock, bearing down on me as I peer inside. I quickly move out into the rain again. It turns out that this hole may have served as a refuge for the 8th century hermit, St. Baldred, of whom more later. Holes in stone became a theme on this walk, as we were soon to discover.
And so, the Epiphany: the word is from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) meaning a manifestation or appearance. In classical Greek it was used to denote the appearance of dawn, sometimes of an enemy in war, but especially of a manifestation of a deity to a worshiper (a theophany). It’s this last meaning which has such a resonance on this cold, grey day. What waits for us on this lonely stretch of sand? Time will tell, but I convince myself I won’t be blowing any ancient whistles I find amongst the dunes here.
We descend the rickety wooden steps to the beach, which is empty and rather lonely looking. In Eastern Europe and Russia, winter swimming is part of the celebration of the Epiphany. For a variety of sound reasons, we don’t partake of this today, although the rain ensures we’re cold and wet anyway, so perhaps this counts as an alternative method of celebrating the winter swim.
There is an oppressive atmosphere on the beach. It could just be my imagination or the effect of the weather (which is certainly not welcoming); it might just be the time of year, the post-festive January blues hanging heavy on us. But this shoreline is grey and quite forbidding. I’m reminded of T.C. Lethbridge’s observations at Ladram Bay, about fields of water acting as a form of tape recorder of strong (negative) emotion, that emotion remaining tied to the place, repeating like a recording and experienced by others who chance upon it: ‘As I stepped onto the beach, I passed into a kind of blanket, or fog, of depression, and, I think, fear.’ Something of the same feeling tugs at the edges of consciousness here.
As I look back at those remarks in Lethbridge’s ‘A Step in the Dark’ (1967), it’s unnerving to register that the topographical detail of Ladram Bay is very close to that of the bay at Seacliff. I try not to think about the similarity.
For those interested, Matthew Shaw and I (in the guise of Fougou) recorded a piece of music inspired by Lethbridge’s experiences at Ladram Bay. You can hear it here.
At times the rain is corybantic in its desire to soak us through, which only adds to the feeling of unease. There isn’t another soul here. At points I have the strong feeling that we’re not supposed—or permitted—to stand on this stretch of coastline, although later, we see two horses with riders at the far end of the beach; they quickly disappear up the hill into the dunes and we’re left alone again. Why didn’t they come to this end of the bay?
Combing the beach, more because our heads are down to shelter against the wind and rain, we find our our own holy trinity: three strange holed stones that call to us from the sand. I take them with me, washing them free of grit in a pool by the rocks: they make me feel safer here, on this antic stretch of the shoreline.
A tradition in Poland and German-speaking Catholic areas in Europe is the chalking of the three kings’ initials (C+M+B or C M B) above the main door of Catholic homes. This is a new year blessing for the occupants of the house and the letters may also represent the benediction Christus mansionem benedicat (‘May Christ bless this house’).
Combine C M B via comb to beachcombing: I’m calmer, and I’m glad we’ve found these stony faced allies.
One of them, Caspar, is rather amiable and ghostlike, as befits his name, although those eyes stare into me more than I’d like. I resolve to take him with me as a talisman on future explorations.
These are known in some quarters as hagstones or adder stones. A hagstone is no more than a stone with a natural hole through it, but in a folkloric context, these items have a magical aspect and are believed to protect the bearer from the dead, curses, witches, sickness and nightmares—amongst other things. They are also reputed to be windows into the Other and to grant the power of second sight, allowing the person who peers through the stone to see and—somewhat more dramatically—be seen by whatever entities inhabit that realm.
And over there, is that a figure in the distance, at the edge of the rocks, at the end of a sloping gradient on the promontory?
Standing or perhaps crouched, just below the line of the horizon; staring; waiting. Is it really a person? The weather makes it difficult to judge. He or she seems too still, too upright in the wind and rain, on what is surely the most exposed part of this headland. A spectral manifestation in an otherwise empty skyline. Quis est iste qui manet?
We approach the watching figure more closely now. Still no movement. What is this? A bead of sweat runs slowly down my temple. Or it might be rain.
It’s at this point that I remember what Mark has told us about Seacliff harbour. As we get nearer, I see our solitary watcher is only some form of antiquated winch mechanism, balanced precariously on the edge of the cut stone walls.
The rocks are slick with rain and seawater, algae and tendrils of sea-greenery, making the going treacherous even with rugged footwear. But the layers of rock are beautiful in an altogether alien way and I wish I knew more about them.
Seacliff harbour is remarkable, compelling, but also—for me, at least—horribly vertiginous and I feel giddy at the margins of its stone walls, themselves slippery. Although it’s at a relatively high level for now, the water would, I imagine, be unforgiving; but it presents as an attractive shade of blue-green even on this grey day. In the background, Tantallon Castle watches us dolefully, as if waiting for my inevitable tumble into the cold.
This tiny harbour is no more than 35 feet on its longest side, and the narrow entrance is barely six feet across. It was constructed in 1890 by Andrew Laidley, the laird and then owner of the Seacliff Estate, using a steam engine and compressed air to slice into the stone to create this unique hole in the landscape, a tiny missing jigsaw piece in the map. The whole structure is blasted out of a geological feature known as the Ghegan Rock (the ‘Churchman’s Haven’); it must have been an astonishing feat of engineering and perseverance, out here on the exposed coast.
According to the ports.org.uk site, the harbour is currently used ‘by a local crab fisherman. His boat, the Secret Garden is usually moored there, on a system of pulleys and weights to prevent it from hitting the vertical sides of the harbour in the ever-present swell. Its unique position, away from the main shoreline, ensures that it never dries out. Indeed, at high tide, there is more than six metres depth of water in the harbour.’
My mind, the embers of vertigo fizzling into life, becomes dizzy thinking of the sheer drop. Other pictures available online show the water level low in the harbour and I can scarcely bring myself to look at them. The scale of the tiny cut-out shape, its minuscule size, only seems to increase the endlessness of the plunge.
This is yet another hole in the rock today that seems to possess something more than meets the eye. But there is no boat there when we visit and, aside from a few ropes and a ladder descending ominously into the water, no evidence that anyone ever uses the place. But the absence of evidence is not, so they say, the evidence of absence
On our way back across the rocks, gratefully leaving the model village harbour behind us, we come across a brick set in the sand with the words PRESTON GRANGE stamped into it. Prestongrange was a local mine and brickworks, about 20 miles away, the brickmaking part of which closed in the 1970s. Curious though an old brick is in this place, it’s not hugely surprising to see debris on a lonely beach, except that this brick appears to be anchored there, almost as though it’s been cemented into the surrounding stone.
It looks odd here, anomalous, as though it should be covered over by the sand but has recently become exposed. I start to imagine a vast network of tunnels and vaulted rooms arrayed beneath the beach, stretching out under the shoreline, this brick the only hint at what lies hidden beneath our feet. Perhaps, when the tide is out far enough and the water in the harbour is at its lowest, one can see and enter the tiny doorway in the stone walls there which leads to the network of tunnels under the Prestongrange brick and the whole of Seacliff. But possibly, it’s just a washed up piece of old tidal defences as one blogger has suggested elsewhere.
We move further up the hill where a ruin towers above us.
This is Auldhame Castle, although there’s little left of the 16th century structure today. Attempts to reconstruct the castle might take some time…
It’s said Baldred of Tyninghame was based at times in Auldhame, and founded a church at the local hamlet of Scoughall. As though to strengthen that claim, a number of geographical features bear his name, including the cave we saw earlier. There is also a stretch of rocks at the eastern end of the beach extending north into the water to form St. Baldred’s Boat, a vessel of stone and spray on which a stern minimalist beacon sits surmounted by a cross. The Churchman’s Haven, the Ghegan Rock into which the harbour is cut, likely also refers to the local saint.
Following Baldred’s death on the site of the chapel on the Bass Rock, the three parishes of Auldhame, Tyninghame and Prestonkirk all argued they were entitled to the hermit’s remains. It’s reported that after the parishes spent a night in prayer, three identical bodies were found the next morning, each wrapped in a burial sheet as though ready to be lowered into the grave. Perhaps our three hagstone kings are manifestations or reminders of the saint’s trinity of corpses.
The estates of Seacliff, Scoughall and Auldhame are owned by the Dale family. Robert Louis Stevenson was related to that family and spent time at Scoughall as a boy. It was here that the young Stevenson first heard about how the so-called Pagans of Scoughall lured ships onto the rocks on storm-torn nights. Their method was to tie a horse’s neck to its knee with rope and attach a lantern, then drive the horse slowly along the cliffs so that ships further out to sea would mistake it for a vessel riding at anchor and come in, only to be splintered on the jagged rocks known as the Great Car. The Pagans would then mercilessly plunder their remains. Stevenson was undoubtedly inspired by this tale for his story ‘The Wreckers’.
But there is another ruined house here: to the south of the shore lies the broken edifice of Seacliff House, hidden in the trees and, on a day like today, something you could easily miss.
The house was originally built in 1750, was then rebuilt in 1841 and finally extended in the 1850s. It burned down in 1907 and has remained a ruin ever since. The slope up to the house looks unforgiving and, with the rain not showing any sign of abating, we resolve to return to Seacliff sooner or later.
Caspar continues to smile as we make our way back to the cave mouth and the car, not once looking behind us.