Cramond Island: between the teeth of the sea and the sand

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Despite its bijou size and rudimentary furnishings, you can’t knock the view.

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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.

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The mainland looks insignificant from up here, a thread of green on the verge of being swallowed by sand and sky.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The searchlight buildings are again adorned internally with all the colours of the spraycan, and what appears to be a warning.

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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.

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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.

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Looking out of the shadows of the interior, the Forth shimmers in the distance and I hasten out of the darkness into the light.

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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.

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Its door, half-open and half-closed, warns me back, backwards into the sunlight.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Curious that you’d choose to advertise a novel in such an unpopulated spot…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mercury rising: into the underworld at Eagle Rock

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Very close to the water, I pause and enter the area of woodland containing Cats Craig.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The end of one cycle

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.

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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.

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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.

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Not everyone escapes unscathed.

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.

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Something signals a warning, nonetheless.  An opening to a gateway?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The fort on the river

1516007It was not, in any sense of the phrase, a sun-kissed morning when I wandered to Cramond. I’d been planning on going somewhere else that day, but I discovered my original location, even at an early hour, was swarming with dog walkers and their four-legged friends. I left quickly.

Having resolved to go elsewhere, I found myself heading north to Cramond: Caer Amon, the fort on the river. I’ve known the village for a long time, probably close to 25 years now; the family of a friend I met at university lived there and I often visited her when she was home. I recall we walked particularly in the area around the kirk and towards the shore. I loved the fact that Cramond had Roman ruins.

Today, I’ve decided to stay away from the waterfront and its myriad runners, cyclists and families out enjoying the grey skies and haze of smirr on this early February day. It will be a quick visit, before the crowds descend.

Cramond has diverse connections, historical and cultural. One of them is Mr Lowther’s house in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is situated in Cramond and is a place to which the eponymous protagonist escapes at the weekends.

And if Cramond is the be-all-and-end-all as far as Brodie is concerned, other places fare less well. ‘You will end up as a Girl Guide leader in a suburb like Corstorphine,’ she warns one of the girls in the school. There is a mirroring irony for me in the warning because that suburb is where I now live. I’ve not yet attained the heights of appointment as a Girl Guide leader, but it’s surely only a matter of time.

The imposing Cramond Tower has always struck me as a haunted structure. It turns out—if you believe everything you read on the internet—to be the home of one of Scotland’s leading taxidermists, so it’s even more likely to be full of dead things than I’d previously imagined.

Cramond Tower, demesne of the taxidermist

The friend I mentioned earlier asked me if I had encountered the Green Lady at the Tower. I’m glad to tell her that I didn’t, nor any Roman soldiers passing through the Kirk. Everywhere, it seems, has its ghosts. On looking online, I find that Caroline Park, featured in a previous post, is also reputed to have its own Green Lady.

Cramond Kirk and its churchyard are quiet and peaceful, apparently empty of the living or the dead (at least above ground): a contemplative haven from the Lycra clad running cohort further down the hill.

I pause a while in the churchyard and contemplate the assorted variety of memento mori  amassed here.

And finally—escape?

Cramond’s high-end property prices and the millennia of history beneath its soil can’t silence the overhead white noise of air traffic on multiple flight paths to and from Edinburgh Airport. But it wouldn’t have been that way in the time of Miss Brodie.

Later, when I mention to my friend that I took a number of pictures at the overgrown and ruined walled garden close to the Kirk, she recalls that she ‘used to sprint that part of the route home after Brownies’ and that it was ‘particularly atmospheric on dark, wintry nights when the sea harr was down.’ I confess I didn’t stay there long myself, the trees and other vegetation tangled and broken, the stonework crumbling in around the place, the darkness encroaching on all sides.

Curiously, none of my walled garden pictures developed properly, but I suppose that’s probably just the result of a glitch in the film. Or something like that.

[The photographs in this post were taken with a former Soviet Union rangefinder, a 1974 Zorki-4K fitted with a Jupiter 8 lens, using (expired) Ilford FP4 Plus 125 black and white film.]