… It’s always the same / I’m running towards nothing
The Cure, A Forest (1980)
If the rain comes / They run and hide their heads …
The Beatles, Rain (1966)
For a long time, I’ve had a fascination with woods and forests and the sense of quiet and stasis they can offer. That moment of being alone in the trees, directionless; light and sound are different, muted, but at the same time amplified in subtle ways I’ve never been able to explain.
It’s both humbling and compelling to stand in the realm of these dwellers of the canopy. For these moments, we can become as nothing, unidentified in the midst of the grandeur.
Today, I wanted to get away from the city, from people and cars, from the unkindnesses of strangers. I braved the weather and went to walk for the first time in the woods in the lee of Dechmont Law. It rained.
It rained a lot.
The rain came in sheets and Dechmont Law was a spectre in the mist, the sky above it a wet-on-wet grouping of greys. I didn’t climb the hill, though; I had come here for the trees and whatever they contained, the seen and the unseen.
Winter is almost over but not the rain. It falls and falls in a seemingly infinite haze. There would have been more people here, probably, had it not been for the weather; I’m grateful, albeit soaked. My feet are tiny boats in the undulating waterway of the path.
The wood is waking, gradually, but the signs are there. A slow reveille sounds in the trickle of the burn. The black and white and indigo blur of a magpie c(r)ackles in the distance.
I can’t help but be drawn in by an avenue of trees like the one here. I find them so mesmeric and powerful. A similar scene features on the cover of my 2008 CD Supernaturalist, the sun breaking through the uprights.
That cover picture was taken a hundred or so miles north of Dechmont Woods, and here, today, there is no sun.
But other things choose to break through, signs and signifiers of a visitation of one sort or another.
Things decay but the woods, as a single unity, as an entity, do not decay. Fallen trunks are the separators between passages of time in the book of this moment.
And of course, within the woodland I feel an aura of the uncanny. That green, the colour of safety and permission (“go now, quickly, before the red returns”), the chlorophyll mantle that swathes the ground and the treebark: it creates for me a sense of unreality. Haunted by trees, by the spaces between them and by the vacuum they create. A kind of Stendhal Syndrome in response to the natural world. My mind swoons a little at nature’s painterly strokes on a never-drying canvas.
Go back more than four decades: it’s 9 November 1979, around the time perhaps that The Cure are recording their seminal song A Forest in a studio hundreds of miles from here. Robert Taylor, a forestry worker with the local Livingston Development Corporation, is walking his dog in the woods at Dechmont. These woods. He has an experience, an encounter with what he described as “a flying dome” constructed of “a dark metallic material with a rough texture like sandpaper” featuring an outer rim “set with small propellers”. According to Taylor, it was about 20 feet in diameter and there was an odour like burning car brakes. He maintained that two smaller spheres, something like sea mines with protrusions on their surface, grasped him and dragged him towards the main object. He had a period of unconsciousness and apparently came to 20 minutes later, by which point the objects were gone, and he walked home with minor injuries and his clothes torn, his truck having failed to start.
Bob Taylor died in 2007, but he maintained up to his death that he saw what he saw. No one seems to doubt that conviction. There are a number of theories as to what happened but no real conclusions. Because of his injuries, the matter was investigated by the police who, it’s reported, found unexplained indentations in the ground where the incident is said to have occurred. Many have speculated that what Taylor thought he experienced was the effect of a seizure brought on by temporal lobe epilepsy, which would explain the burning smell and the hallucinations, as well as the period of unconsciousness.
The area where the encounter apparently took place is marked with a metal plaque (above) and by this information board, installed by the local council.
Whatever the explanation for what happened, I can’t shake the feeling that the presence of these lurid information boards, with their declamatory Top Secret! trappings, only detract from the sense of alien wonderment I get from being here.
UFO or not, these are beautiful woods, woods to get lost in, to lose yourself in, to become unidentified amid the leaves and the greys (not the Greys) of the February or November rain.
Perhaps that’s what happened to Bob Taylor.
There’s no need for visitations when we can all experience these small incursions of the extraordinary amid the unwelcome clamour of the everyday.
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.
rising through leaves and shadow the imputed form of the trunk
the attributes held by the attribution
Thomas A. Clark, from The Hundred Thousand Places (2009)
The early Greeks saw manifestations of the divine in every outward facet of the natural world: rivers and springs, caves, trees and forests, and mountains, all of these appeared to be imbued with the essence of godhood. Much like the Roman concept of the genius loci, these beings were typically tied to a physical place.
The Alsêïdes, Holêôroi, Aulôniades and Napaiai—the various nymphs of forests, groves and glens—were thought to appear to and frighten solitary travellers. These nymphs of trees—known variously as Dryades, Hamadruades or Hadryades—were believed to come into existence with the birth of their own trees. While the tree was alive, so too were they. And they died together with the trees in which they had resided when life left the roots and trunk and branches.
I fear the dryads are dying all around us.
Walking off the side of Marine Drive close to Muirhouse and Granton, I see a pathway through the trees and make a decision to follow it, as much to get away from the traffic as anything else. Water-logged wooden steps lead down, and I descend a little, feet sliding and shifting anxiously on the muddy track. But, almost with relief, I see this incline continues downwards to the shoreline and it is too precarious. The woodland holds me for now.
I move further along the topmost path and something dark rises up out of the way ahead, an upturned bulk and limbs ascending.
And as I get close, there it is: awful, terrible, majestic. The woods are alive and dead all at once: lignum vitae and lignum mortis colliding in a fusion of inverted roots, bursting upwards to seize the light from the sky.
I stand for a moment and the dryads pluck at me with twig-forked fingers, pulling me onwards.
The ‘tree-capitated’ platform, almost an altar, is grotesque and beautiful at the same time. Its appearance is bizarre, and I sense its age and prime position atop this incline, an outlook allowing it to survey the other denizens of the wood with a critical eye. The dead tree gives no shelter—or quarter.
What rites have played out here in the distant past, what chthonic gatherings? Of course, there are the signs of illicit campfires and tossed-aside cans of drink and beer bottles, the paraphernalia of disaffected youth, but before that: 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years?
I pause awhile and try to discern the dryads in the spaces between trunk and branches, in the growth rings of the altar. But in vain; as always they are too quick for the naked eye or camera lens.
I’m grateful to have found this place on what seemed at first to be a whim, but I don’t think I need to return here again.
Prayers offered up to the split bark and surrounding azure silence, I move towards the road home, now empty and expectant.