Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones. Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (1849)
Sometimes death hides, and sometimes death is hidden from our view by other actors in the drama. In the case of Warriston Cemetery, which sits to the north of Edinburgh, Nature has woven her spell of entanglement on a litany of names etched in marble, reclaiming what was always hers long before the dead arrived to set up home.
At first glance, the paths are clear and the graves well tended, but move deeper in and things become less certain, the way more troubled.
This was Edinburgh’s first garden cemetery, established in 1843 from a design by David Cousin the previous year, and at approximately 14 acres in size it was a grand gesture for its time. Cousin went on to design Dean Cemetery (1845), Dalry and Rosebank Cemeteries (both 1846) and Newington Cemetery (1848).
Compared to the many other, more recently constructed necropoleis in the city, Warriston’s scale is still impressive, but more than half of the cemetery is in need of renovation or, more fundamentally, urgent reclamation, with whole swathes of ground engorged by creeping vines and a groundswell of green.
The vigorous onrush of time has helped to engineer this exquisite memento mori, a dark, mouldering Victoriana that feels almost deliberate.
There is no commemoration here as outlandish as some of the examples in Dean Cemetery, but Warriston’s reach is longer, and decay has twisted its roots around stone and soil alike in a much more transformative way. What remains is an archipelago of half-drowned headstones in a sea of verdant waves, alive in the breeze.
Overgrown in the Undergrowth.
Silence and solitude hold sway here. For the full duration of my three hour visit, I’m alone, apart from the ever-present rustle of leaves and the occasional, unnerving snap of branches.
At times, I manage to convince myself I’m being followed or that someone is behind me on the pathway—watching—only to turn and spy a fox eyeing me warily from a distance, or glimpse the grey flash of a squirrel scampering from a tree.
Warriston Cemetery is more alive than many others places I’ve visited in this city, but it’s a hidden life, secret, protected: an occulted world of birds and insects and small mammals, co-existing in the floodtide of decay and rebirth.
A tumulus rises ahead of me, barely perceptible on what is a sloping site anyway; on it, a pillared memorial or obelisk meshes with the trees, its colours their colours. This location feels different from what I’ve already encountered here. The ambience is different, too, and I pause awhile to reflect on the grandeur of the place, largely forgotten and all the more striking for that.
The cemetery runs on, the darkness increasing as the tendrils of greenery clutch ever more tightly. I come upon the old Victorian railway bridge, sitting quite incongruously in the midst of the proceedings.
Shortly after the cemetery opened, the Edinburgh Leith and Newhaven Railway scythed its way through the site dividing the grander northern part of the cemetery from its more modest southern end.
It’s impossible to ascend from this spot to the level of the bridge itself, although once I suspect it would have been easy. The stairways and paths are choked and soon, if left unchecked, perhaps even the Gothic mouth of the tunnel itself will be smothered by emerald fingers.
I can’t resist the odd acoustics of the tunnel itself and I set up the recorder again for a few minutes to capture the sound underneath. It feels unreal, and much more enclosed than the few feet of the arched space would suggest.
Atop the old bridge, an occasional cyclist flashes past, as though flitting into existence from some future timeline and then winking out of the frame forever. Nearby is a set of grand steps that take me up to a level adjacent to the top of the bridge, although, I find, not actually onto it.
Up here, the light sits differently somehow and, at first blush, I see that Nature doesn’t appear to dominate as readily as below. I feel like an interloper as people wander over the bridge, now used as a public walkway following the closure of the railway line. None of them sees me, or maybe they think I’m a revenant peering out of the gloom of the undergrowth. I am my own ghost for a few moments. And in this place, it’s curiously fitting.
There is still a war being raged even up here; gravestones and tombs battle against a sea of green that appears to be winning. The residents of Hilldrop Crescent can only watch and wait.
And books haunt me even here.
I stop awhile at the long terrace of catacombs that sits silently brooding in the midst of the cemetery. Once, a small chapel sat atop these tombs but it has gone completely.
Again, the sound here is strange and my eye is caught by the holes in the walls: surely, only bats and birds use these as portals of ingress and egress.
An inky darkness seeps out to enclose the silence and—unless my imagination is getting the better of me—to bolster it. I leave the recorder running and wander away for a few minutes.
I pass beneath the railway bridge again, to explore the even more overgrown half of the cemetery.
At its southern boundary, the Water of Leith flows past, protected now by recently installed flood defences.
As I crouch down to look through the trees to the water, feeling as though I’m gazing out at a new civilisation from the darkness of an ancient forest, I see him: no more than a few metres away, a heron making his stately way along the river, unhurried, stopping for food as he goes.
I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a heron eat anything other than fish before, but he doesn’t seem to be objecting to the fare on offer—as the short film below shows. Choice pickings from the riverbank.
There is almost too much to take in here and the overgrown nature of the tombs and graves means that surprises wait around most corners; that is, if one can even make out what lies beneath the grassy mounds.
The sheer number of graves is overwhelming. How many more lie hidden amongst the leaves? A roll call is necessary.
Near the modern part of the cemetery, closest to the main gate, sat the Robertson mortuary chapel, erected in 1865 for Mary Ann Robertson (1826–58), daughter of Brigadier-General Manson of the Bombay Artillery.
This white marble shrine contained a sculpture of a reclining female figure, visible from the outside, the whole being topped with a ruby glass roof with glass sides which led to locals christening this the ‘Tomb of the Red Lady’ because of the rosy light cast on the figure within.
Sadly, the shrine was badly vandalised over the years and had to be demolished in the late 1980s. All that’s left now are the foundations and the recumbent sculpture, fittingly set in a bed of red flowers, but there are some fascinating older images of how the sepulchre looked here. The interior must have been very eerie in its day.
I end the walk close to this part of the cemetery; there are still interments being made here in this modern section but even these are suffused with a bitter melancholy.
As the light begins to fade, I make my way out of the gate and back into the land of the living, but all the more energised by this striking landscape of contemplative decay.
Further reading: the Friends of Warriston Cemetery have an excellent page that describes their sterling work in trying to bring the cemetery back from the brink.
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.
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.
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.