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.
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.