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.
As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 3 Scene 2
The concrete pylons surveil me as I cross the causeway, sentinels on shore leave from a brutalist Easter Island: decaying teeth of the sea, chain of totems holding the island thurible at its proper arc from the mainland. I feel like I’m poised in the jaws of some primordial leviathan. And make no mistake, it’s a treacherous business crossing from one realm of place to another. I have genuine psychogeographer’s bruising to prove I only just survived the experience, flat on my back and the breath knocked out of me. Sometimes it’s the ground beneath your feet which drifts.
To the west, Eagle Rock eyes me from a safe distance on this early morning, its subterranean portal itching to open for me, but not today.
Casting a fond glance back at civilisation and Cramond village, I commit to the slippery march onwards. Time is the enemy here though, and there is a limited window of a few hours of low tide to explore and return high and dry to the mainland. Sometimes, for the unwary, fiction becomes fact.
The mile-long causeway is slick with seawater and the green of algae, the tide recently having receded to a safe distance. Cramond Island is one of only 17 that can be walked to—when sun and moon and gravity permit—from the Scottish shoreline. That number initially struck me as high until further digging told me there are almost 800 islands dotted around the coast of Scotland. But Cramond Island, which is really an islet since it’s just a third of a mile in length and about 19 acres in total area, is only properly an island at high tide with its northernmost part—the curiously-named The Binks—permanently within the waterline.
And that forbidding chain of stanchions chaperoning my crossing was installed as part of the Firth of Forth coastal defences during the Second World War, to stop small vessels passing to the south of the island. They were originally linked by concrete shutters which slid into grooves on each side, and the remains of some of these can be seen littered at the base of the stretched pyramids.
There were also anti-submarine measures, in the form of floating nets, deployed from the northern side of this island, to the island of Inchcolm, and from there to Charles Hill on the further Fife shore.
Tidal islands like this one are often attended by an innate sense of otherness or are somehow imbued with the sacred. Witness the grandeur of places like Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Whilst its scale is less imposing, Cramond Island has the feel of a place that has tasted the numinous in its millennia of existence. The air has the scent of another realm.
In 1941, while the Army were building the various defensive structures here, they apparently discovered an early Medieval long cist burial chamber on the west of the island, which would tend to suggest people had been living—and, of course, dying—here for hundreds of years. Regrettably, but perhaps unsurprisingly since they no doubt had other things on their minds, the soldiers failed to record where the burial chamber was found and its discovery was only reported second hand in 1957. Its location has never been known since.
What else lurks beneath the bracken and the soil in this place? What secrets might this relatively remote location be hiding? The air crackles with a hidden electricity as I pass from the realm of the obvious to that of the occluded.
Ahead lies the first structure to hit the visitor’s eye on the island.
This redbrick structure sitting atop an area known as the Knoll is one of a number of ruined and abandoned wartime enclosures on Cramond Island: a rather workaday looking gun emplacement. Down some steps behind the structure sits the housing for the searchlight which would have illuminated targets for the gun.
It’s apparent even from this early point in my exploration that the buildings of the island have become canvasses for graffiti artists of varying abilities.
Fighting off the wave of vertigo, I clamber down the steep steps to the searchlight enclosure. It feels like a Dantean descent to a fresh circle, with no idea of what or whom I’ll find.
Each time I enter one of these structures, peering into the dark corners, I expect to be accosted by—what?—the flickering, half-seen/half-unseen wraiths that guard them? It feels that way sometimes. The uninvited are also the unwelcome.
Despite its bijou size and rudimentary furnishings, you can’t knock the view.
I move on up the hill, a strange congregation of stones bidding me good day as I pass them. It’s difficult not to impute some significance to their placing in this location and their prominent view out over the Forth.
The mainland looks insignificant from up here, a thread of green on the verge of being swallowed by sand and sky.
From this point onwards, the going becomes rougher and a great deal muddier. I shake off the notion that Cramond Island submerges in its entirety when no one is paying attention, rising from the roiling waves afresh each morning like some inverse Atlantis.
I head east along a barely formed desire path that leads through the undergrowth towards the north of the island.
At the end of the path, I come across the first of the buildings installed by the British Army in 1941 on this northern part of the island.
This one still has some of its metal shutters, although they are eaten by rust and the vandals have done their worst on the fabric of the structure. The rooftop garden is lovely, though.
Inside, there are odd trenches cut into the concrete floor, as though some form of mechanism was housed here, and it’s likely this building was an engine house containing generators to power the searchlights, guns and other buildings on this section of the island.
I’m reminded a little of the images of Crowley’s ruined and ruinous Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, and wonder what doomed rituals have been conducted here since the place was abandoned.
The largest concentration of war defence buildings occurs on this northern portion of the island. And an acute sadness hangs in the air, whether from the overwhelming sense of abandonment or because of the brittle nature of a different reality, one in which the anxiety of invasion was paramount, is unclear. But it’s there all the same.
Further to the north are three scattered small, lozenge-shaped buildings that I learn later were searchlight emplacements. Originally, there were five of these, casting their rays out across the Forth. From a higher elevation they look like modernist sepulchres, their concrete surfaces decorated with the gauche art of the edgeland.
A larger, round-fronted building has the remnants of its curved metals shutters strewn around it; this was the mechanism whereby its searchlight could be focussed on particular targets by sliding the shutters across the front of the enclosure. The Canmore site has an older picture, with the shutters still present on the front. In the distance, the caret mark sails of the new Queensferry Crossing suggest that something is missing here, something forgotten or erased in error.
On almost every available wall and ceiling space, the art brut of the graffiti artist holds dominion and various languages and non-languages are represented.
Down at the water’s edge, a line stretches into the waves. This is apparently the remnants of a jetty built using local stone, which sources on the internet suggest could be medieval in date.
I see it again through the searchlight window of one of the small tomb-like enclosures further into the main part of the island. Perhaps that mushroom-like metal endcap was connected with the anti-submarine nets which were in place during the Second World War from here across to the other islands. It certainly doesn’t look particularly medieval from this vantage point.
The searchlight buildings are again adorned internally with all the colours of the spraycan, and what appears to be a warning.
In one of the largest structures on the island, which is reached from a steep flight of steps, I can’t decide if the colourful walls lend a less oppressive air to the place, or just render the cowering spectres more Cormanesque in their aspect.
Again, there are odd trenches in the floor, signalling another engine house perhaps, but here they’re filled with stagnant, black water and I don’t venture too close. Something could be down there.
On the wall above, barely discernible amongst the babel of tags, is the legend Island of Junk. One can only speculate at its myriad possible meanings.
Looking out of the shadows of the interior, the Forth shimmers in the distance and I hasten out of the darkness into the light.
I’ve seen a couple of other people on my visit, but they don’t appear to have made it to this side of the island. Here, in the relative solitude, there’s an expectancy in the wind, and in the vegetation a brooding quality that’s ochre or rust coloured, a decay of the mundane that lets in the otherness. I have this overwhelming sensation of being watched, but all the searchlights are dim and I’m not singled out as a target. Nevertheless, I’m unnerved by the surrounding evidence of human manufacture combined with the absence of anyone to share my walk, and my scalp prickles with a sickly anticipation.
On the threshold of each of the wartime buildings, I pause, sometimes for minutes at a time. The quality of the air becomes heavier, denser, itself a formidable gateway to be pushed open. One of these thresholds I can’t even bring myself to cross: the claustrophobic enclosure beneath the northern gun emplacement.
Its door, half-open and half-closed, warns me back, backwards into the sunlight.
Peering through it, the guardians sigilised on its far wall are enough to persuade me that I don’t need to see inside this one any further than this point. Humans will / Human swill.
It’s not just the hands of the clock that are moving me, pushing me to retrace my steps and leave the island. The loneliness and pervading sense of watchfulness are quite oppressive. Odd to think of a place where, unless you decide to set up camp and stay overnight, a visitor is afforded only a brief, time-limited glimpse of the whole, a snapshot that fades as the hours progress.
I move around to the western side of this part of the island, but there’s little to be seen now. There used to be a garrison here for the troops stationed on Cramond Island but aside from some concrete remains it’s no more. And this ruined structure is the remnant of the Duck House, a tiny enclosure once used as a holiday shooting let.
Now it proudly proclaims its status as an outpost of a different empire, and soon its stones will crumble onto the rocks on the beach as nature plasters over the cracks and blemishes with her even hand.
Curious that you’d choose to advertise a novel in such an unpopulated spot…
With time against me, I never do find the ruined farmstead, abandoned since the 1930s, which has sat in the middle of the island since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. There’s always the next visit. It’s in the woods somewhere, waiting.
I decide it’s better to retrace my steps and head back the way I came, although some people, choosing alternative avenues of escape, clearly weren’t so cautious. I wonder if they made it.
I pick my feet more carefully back along the causeway this time, mindful of my earlier slipup. There are people everywhere now. A cyclist on the beach just below the gun emplacement and families and dog-walkers galore between here and the mainland.
Back on the mainland, an old friend, the gasholder at Granton, gestures to me from afar. Its Aegean Sea blue circumference signals the drift turning full circle. And those teeth behind me smile widely, in an only slightly less-than-beatific grin.
Further reading: the always excellent Canmore site, the online catalogue to Scotland’s archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage, has fairly extensive information and some older photographs of the coastal battery emplacements on Cramond Island.
What can I say, I’m a sucker for abandoned stuff, misplaced stuff, forgotten stuff, any old stuff which despite the light of progress and all that, still vanishes every day like shadows at noon, goings unheralded, passings unmourned, well, you get the drift.
Absolutely nothing visible to the eye provides a reason for or even evidence of those terrifying shifts which can in a matter of moments reconstitute a simple path into an extremely complicated one.
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
Turnhouse Road on the outskirts of Edinburgh posed questions. Who goes there now—would want to go there? What lies along its barren stretch?
On a rainy Sunday in July, Murdo Eason of the Fife Psychogeographical Collective and I set out to see what kind of curve balls this unnervingly straight road could throw at us. We have no preconceptions as to what we’ll find.
The edgelands of light industry quickly become hedgelands, as the leonine growl of the city abates and a spray of swifts shimmers over the fields. Nature takes over again, with a degree of painterly charm.
It’s hard to believe that the city, with one of Scotland’s most polluting main roads at that—not to mention nearby Edinburgh airport—are all minutes away from where we’re walking now. A swathe of nettles makes sure that this wilderness of wildflowers and grasses remains unrivened by desire paths, and we pass on only as appreciative onlookers.
The notion and location of this road has intrigued me for a while, but I’ve never needed to come down it, on foot or otherwise. With the expansion of Edinburgh (formerly Turnhouse) Airport over the past couple of decades, and alternative, faster routes to and from it being required to meet increased traffic, Turnhouse Road itself has the feeling of a redundant artery leading away from the city’s heart. I find it’s often these nondescript, unassuming places that harbour most secrets. If a road could be introverted, this would be it.
The path is straight and true—until it’s not. Falsity and doubt enter the picture at the behest of these five sentinels, at the head of a lane leading off the main road.
I’m reminded of Nick Papadimitriou’s notion of premolded concrete pails acting as ‘storage vats of regional memory’, an idea that has always attracted me, like a mirror of the central conceit of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, itself a borrowing from the work of T.C. Lethbridge. But the memories stored here are dark and uncertain. These vats are arrayed to keep the curious out. Caution!, one of them exclaims as we approach, yet it—along with its brethren—keeps further counsel as we pass through the barrier. We’ve had our sole warning. The rest is on us.
Down this lane, beside an eerie boarded-up house at the road’s edge, stand two dilapidated railway carriages, rotting and open to the elements at one end. Their purpose here is unexplained. Someone has decorated the outsides, but the innards are untouched by the graffiti artist’s spraycan. They look like portals to another part of the zone, or grotesquely large kennels for creatures that roam abroad, unseen.
I cast a single, longing look back at Turnhouse Road and its five crouched, mocking sentinels. The trees seem to close in further as I watch.
We keep walking, but I am slightly further ahead on the now-disused lane than Murdo, who has lingered to take some more photographs, and I stop suddenly, horrified at the scene that begins to manifest in the distance.
Chaos has been abroad here. A churning, spiralling force has torn the insides of life out and cast them to the cardinal points for all to witness. The lights of these buildings have gone out, viscera turned in on themselves. And it feels like it happened only moments before: a congeries of vacuum cleaners, flat screen TVs, assorted white goods and packaging of every description, the buildings’ internal organs vaporised at the atomic level and their substance reconstituted in front of us.
The sense of oddness here is very acute, but the gate is open and we feel invited, maybe even compelled, to go in.
Someone—I like to imagine it was a kind-hearted soul—has left a talisman affixed to the open gate to protect us from whatever has caused this disruption to the fabric of reality.
According to the map, and a nearby bus-stop (presumably redundant now), this complex is Meadowfield Farm, all its windows and doors covered by steel shutters: a grouping of stone buildings brimful of foreboding. Once a substantial, attractive house at the heart of it all, what’s left now is a sickly, crippled shell, surrounded by the detritus of mundane existence.
There is no roof on the main part of the farmhouse; and from down here it looks like it has been gone for some time. Curiously, there is an almost brand new satellite dish affixed to a wall on the other side of the structure, so this place can’t have been empty for long—if it is empty. An expensive-looking bike lies abandoned in the courtyard of the steading, as though left there moments before. Is the back wheel turning on its axis, just ever so slightly? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just the effect of the wind.
The rusting inner skin of the burnt out car in the back garden picks up the russet tones of dead foliage on the other side of this area. It may be that in time each will become the other, and nature will take everything cast out here back into the earth.
‘The site lies at the foot of Lennie Hill on the western edge of Edinburgh adjacent to the south-eastern end of Edinburgh Airport. The steading would appear to date to the first half of the 19th century (though a late 18th century date cannot be ruled out) and is depicted on the first Edition OS map of the area dated 1853. The steading which contained a threshing mill in its northern range appears to have been little altered in plan since this date. The name Meadowfield first appears in 1424 (Harris S, Place names of Edinburgh) and it is likely that a farm has been situated on and off since this date. Laurie’s 1763 map of the area depicts the current farm, though it is not shown on Bleau’s early 17th century map of the Lothians.’
A threshing mill? It’s the stuff of the cinema of the supernatural, laid out before us like a film set, although this scene is more post-apocalyptic than rural folk horror in tone. Six hundred years is a long time for history to have taken its toll on this place, for the stones of the house, and the stones on which those stones are built, to have recorded the gamut of emotions and incident.
As Murdo says while we survey the wreckage, it’s hard not to construct our own stories around all of this. I suspect these can’t be stories of the good news variety; nothing here has goodness at its core now. There’s only abandonment, loss, corruption, the circling of the vultures of metaphor, and an overwhelming sense of trespass beyond the veil. A house turned inside out, eviscerated and left to decay by poltergeists with scant regard for any of us. And if the insides of the house are now utterly stripped of the paraphernalia of human existence, what else has made its home within the walls?
When I check online later for more details of this farm, it’s hard to believe the evidence of a recent Google Maps satellite view which shows the house and steading in rude health.
The back garden looks neat and well-manicured. There is no rubbish strewn around. Fire has not opened the roofs of the buildings to the sky and the birds. The fly-tippers have not desecrated the emptiness. The ghosts have yet to manifest, at least in any material sense, or to infest the stones and roofspaces. ‘Walking’ the lane on Google Maps shows a fine house at the start, where it meets Turnhouse Road, then another stone cottage, inhabited, further up the lane and finally the farm itself and its outbuildings all intact and, apparently, in use.
It’s clear we need a new taxonomy of ruins, to allow us to think laterally about shunned places like Meadowfield, to index and catalogue the spectre-sown disarray that can occur in a few short months or years. The present order is the disorder of the future, as the stones say, but it’s a future frighteningly close at hand as Meadowfield attests.
Even fire, it seems, hasn’t completely cleansed this place of its sickness, the buildings’ shades having vomited their innards uncontrollably into every available space. A heave and roil of liquefied contents, undulations of detritus.
It’s sad to see such substantial old properties left in such a sorry state. They would once have been proud, defiant against the march of time. Now, inexpicably, even the graffiti artists have avoided the blank canvasses of their walls.
We’ve been here long enough, the full extent of Turnhouse Road barely contemplated thanks to this intoxicating diversion into the unreal and the sense of being unwelcome visitors has grown with every heavy minute we linger.
Further along the road, my spirits lift because I see a glimpse of what looks like some welcome civilisation: a cottage hidden behind a splay of trees. But as we get closer we see that it too is dead, as are the other houses in this little row. I find myself casting around to see if we’re being watched from a distance. Interlopers, busybodies, up to no good. Leave the deceased to their eternal rest, these steel shutter shriek at us.
Why does no one live here, in any of these places? There must be five or six houses in the space of a few hundred yards, all secured with the same steel shutters and padlocked doors. What is wrong with them, the dwellings? They are fine houses, these examples anyway. Meadowfield is probably past redemption. It’s like a Ballardian sitcom, or at the very least something out of the fertile imagination of John Wyndham.
Still, Edinburgh is close at hand: only 5 miles. But even the comfort of this ancient waymarker does little to dispel the interzone feel we’re experiencing in this part of the city.
Still further ahead, some normality is restored, if a golf course can be considered an indicator of normality. Ironically, this is further from the city and the zone of exclusion that is Meadowfield, when one might have anticipated that abandoned properties would sit on the most peripheral edge of the capital’s reach.
Nearby, an attractive row of well-maintained cottages sits at the junction of Craigs Road…
…and another old waymarker presents its legend, almost obscured by the hedge’s greenery.
GLASGOW AND STIRLING BY KIRKLISTON STIRLING AND FALKIRK
A more contemporary metal sign lies on the ground, knocked from its pole, almost as though the locals don’t want anyone to be able to orientate themselves except by use of the old signage. I check for curtain-twitching in that row of cottages: nothing.
We move on, against the pall of rain and the sense of isolation from the city, the airport a constant visual and aural presence at the edges of perception. I imagined we’d hear more planes landing and taking off, but that’s not the case. It’s really quite peaceful out here, if one can forget the desolation we’ve just left behind.
Past a tiny used car showroom we go (current stock: two vehicles, with space for a third; by appointment only – who would be window-shopping along here anyway?), and past logistics companies and other anonymous-looking businesses, until we reach a set of crested gateposts: the way into what was RAF Turnhouse, closed finally in 1996.
Turnhouse Aerodrome was the most northerly British air defence base in the First World War used by the Royal Flying Corps. In 1918, after the formation of the Royal Air Force, the airfield was renamed RAF Turnhouse and the land’s ownership transferred to the Ministry of Defence.
This was also the location for the ROC (Royal Observers Corps) 24 Group HQ, which closed in 1992. Much to my regret, the Cold War ‘semi-sunken two level bunker with a brick built administration block alongside’ which used to be sited here has been demolished and nothing now remains of it. Originally opened in 1964, it received, analysed and distributed information from the ROC’s monitoring posts of nuclear blast and fallout data from East Central Scotland and the Borders. The end of the Cold War brought about its own demise.
Ownership of the main airport site passed to the British Airports Authority in 1971 and there’s a charming little film from that year, showing scenes of the old control tower and radar, here. A lot has changed in the last 45 years.
The gates to RAF Turnhouse, which closed for good in 1996, are in fact wide open today but it looks like no one is home, nor have they been for a while. A contractor’s compound sits at the far end of the drive, but there is no sign of any life, possibly because it’s a Sunday. We venture in, at least for a few yards.
Three buildings are immediately obvious as we go through the gates: Falcon House, Merlin House and Osprey House.
Two things are striking. The exterior walls of Osprey House have a curious grassy-green covering, like some kind of moss or lichen; it doesn’t look like paint. As a result, the structure, although not the roof, blends in with the surrounding trees quite convincingly. It seems as if it’s on the verge of being swallowed up by the vegetation. Neither of the other buildings is so favoured by camouflage but, by way of compensation, Merlin House has a full-length mirror hanging outside its main door, the purpose of which is a mystery, to the two of us anyway. Might it be for a final check of one’s uniform before entering to see a higher-ranking officer? Perhaps someone more knowledgeable will tell us.
The buildings here are a little forlorn and melancholy and the site has the air of somewhere that was once proud and well cared for, but is no longer. It’s hard to shake the desolate feeling here. It’s a similar, if less intense, atmosphere as that around Meadowfield, although at least the vigilant raptors watching over these houses have protected them from the febrile explosion of contents we saw earlier.
Even though the RAF are no longer here, we’re paranoid that somewhere someone is watching us on CCTV, so we move on again, further ahead to the main airport.
The rain starts to bite as we reach the end of the road and the airport’s runways hove into view. Cameras are put away before the worsening weather gets to them and we continue as far as the road will go at Lennie Hill, until we loop around past Old Lennie Schoolhouse, which now appears to be a (very) private house. I say appears because there are some ridiculously over-the-top and questionably legal signs around the perimeter of this house which warn of intruders being subject to personal injury or death should they dare to enter. Whether the threat comes from the myriad arrangement of fake animals and other tacky ‘sculpture’ in the garden or some more human agency is hard to tell. The garish paint job on the outside of the stone walls is perhaps an integral component of the house’s defences: Mediterranean orange and pastel pink, utterly anomalous at this endpoint of a dead end road with only the working parts of the airport.
On reflection, I think I’ll take my chances with the ghosts of Meadowfield. Their mystery is altogether more worthy of contemplation.
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.
To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms;
And like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood. Shakespeare, Hamlet, IV.5
The way upward and downward are one and the same. Heraclitus of Ephesus
Excelsior: the word is inscribed on a plinth marking the grave of one of the many illustrious residents of the Dean Cemetery. I wandered in that place on a cold afternoon burnished with the most remarkable Winter sunlight, my feet cracking on the frostbitten paths as though crunching on boneways sintered from the marrow of innumerable torchbearers of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Fraxinus excelsior, the ash tree, the Dreamin’ Tree, offspring of Yggdrasil. There are some of them here, and they tap curiously against the gravestones, their trunks hollowed out and brimful of fearsome arachnids and worse. Or so my imagination teases me, in this city of the dead devoid of any other visitors.
Excelsior. Ever upward, and onward. Or downward. Into the loam, into the worms and the darkness, into memory and imagination. As above, so below; and death the kraken waits to drown us in the sea of earth.
Opened in 1846, the cemetery’s official site records that it established itself as the most sought after burial place in Edinburgh and one of its most secure—safe, no doubt, from those who would seek to prise apart the soil’s suffocating grip, for whatever Resurrectionist or grave-robbing purpose. The reputation of those laid to their eternal rest here certainly vouches for the cemetery’s fashionability: the list of interments is impressive, at least in the context of 19th Century Edinburgh.
Alongside physicians, lawyers—including many judges and prominent advocates of the day—politicians and the Edinburgh gentlefolk and cognoscenti (the western wall of the cemetery is designated Lords’ Row), I encounter some other, more curious burials.
Here is Lt. John Irving of HMS Terror, one of the ships which set out on the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Lost out there, his body is said to have been discovered some 30 years later and brought back to Edinburgh to rest in the cemetery.
The circumstances surrounding the recovery operation are worthy of note. Frederick Schwatka, leader of the expedition to discover what befell those on the Franklin Expedition, found what he thought was the grave of Irving on King William Island. But this burial site was a little different, constructed as a ring of stones and more elaborate than other graves already found by those in the search party.
The body was only connected to Irving because of a single, somewhat tenuous reason: a commemorative medal, awarded for the seaman’s acumen in mathematics, was found near the grave and the remains automatically assumed to be his. One academic suggests the body may not have been that of Irving at all.
The monument, which bears a striking frieze of the ships and men involved in the search for the Northwest Passage, is an ugly, incongruous Celtic cross. It rises skyward, perched atop a jumbled mound of rough rocks with a temporary look about it, its rockery of a plinth quite out of keeping next to to the expensively designed lines and cut stone of other grave markers here.
And who can tell? Perhaps the superstitious masons of the time—unconvinced that Lt. Irving truly rested beneath the pathway here—felt he might somehow make his way back to Edinburgh, at a moment when the rain, borne in from the sea, smashes against the walls of the cemetery and the waves on the Forth are at their fiercest. The revenant would need a point of easy ingress, through the tumbledown rocks, to take his place beneath the cross. A fanciful suggestion, I’m sure. And the present recumbent, what of him then, cast out after decades of sleep and forced to roam the pathways of the cemetery, skeletal feet rapping and tapping on paths that snake through the yews and ash trees? Will he cast off his grave pall, hastily throwing it over another headstone here? Will he in turn seek out Schwatka’s shade to call him to answer?
Scattered among the great and the good here are also the Scottish Colourists, Samuel Bough, Francis Cadell and JD Ferguson, as is one of photography’s first exponents, David Octavius Hill. Much has been written about all of them.
But it’s this grandiose, esoteric wonder which catches my wandering gaze. In an otherwise Christian cemetery, it can’t help but stand out—and stand up.
The monument marks the resting place of one John Leishman (a Writer to the Signet who died in 1861) and its upper section is a soaring pillar encircled by a spiral of stony ivy, the top surmounted by a sizeable crucible. I close my eyes and see this granite bowl, as night falls, burning with a fragrant oil, its smoke rising upward beyond the reach of the trees and seeping little by little into the dreams of the living in the surrounding city.
Below, on an ornate pedestal, three pelicans keep vigil above a trinity of all-seeing winged lions, staring out across the angles of the graveyard. The Pelican, a Christian symbol of atonement and of the Redeemer, was believed to pierce its own breast to feed its young with its blood. And the lions could be intended to represent the evangelist St. Mark (why three of them? an odd symmetry), but what if they signify a Babylonian lion from the apocalyptic Book of Daniel? An avatar of all that is pagan in this God-fearing city. What then?
The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings. I watched till its wings were plucked off; and it was lifted up from the earth and made to stand on two feet like a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. (Daniel, 7:4).
I am about to leave the place, by a door that leads to the back of the Dean Gallery, when I see it. In startling pink Peterhead granite, a pyramid pierces the ground against the western wall of the cemetery.
The gloss on its polished stone facing gives it an air of being a recent addition (or more likely a recent arrival from another dimension), but the pyramid has, I learn, rested on this spot for more than 150 years. The inscription on the bronze plaque, the oxidised letters aching with a sadness quite out of keeping with the outré and yet austere presentation of the structure, reads:
CONTRA VOTUM SUPERSTES
[‘Andrew Rutherfurd, surviving against his will, placed this tomb in mourning to his most beloved wife, and to himself, 1852‘.]
Rutherfurd was born in Edinburgh in 1791, the son of a Church of Scotland minister in the High Kirk who it’s said was acquainted with Robert Burns. (This is Burns Night, of course). He was well educated, first at the Royal High School and then Edinburgh University, and was called to the bar, eventually being appointed as Solicitor General and latterly Lord Advocate. In 1851, the year before his wife’s death, he was installed as a Senator of the College of Justice, that is, a judge in both the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary. He survived only one more year after this (contra votum superstes!) and is also buried in or under the pyramid.
The tomb was devised, doubtless at great expense to Rutherfurd, by the noted architect William Playfair, another pillar of the Scottish establishment. Who else could suffice to be designer of the final resting place of one of the city’s most prominent families?
But the outlandish monument is primarily a memorial to Sophia Rutherfurd. That et sibi—’and to himself’—feels like an afterthought. And as memorials go, in a picture perfect Victorian cemetery, it’s really something. Not for her a Christian cross in traditional stone, as one might expect of the wife of one of 19th Century Edinburgh’s most honoured establishment figures and the daughter-in-law of a man who became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; instead, Sophia—even her name evokes distant lands far from the staid and ordered streets of Playfair’s New Town—lies within a tomb fit for a pagan queen or an empress.
Perhaps this was Rutherfurd’s intention, a final attestation of his adoration for Sophia, elevating her to the realms of goddess-hood. Surviving against his wishes: did Rutherfurd think he could bring Sophia back? Toby Wilkinson, in his Before The Pyramids (2004), posits a suggestion that the function of the (Egyptian) Step pyramid was ‘that it was a resurrection machine designed to propel its royal owner, Horus, to the pre-eminent place among the undying stars.’
But Andrew Rutherfurd was not really a Rutherfurd at all. His father was the Reverend William Greenfield, another pillar of the community—that is, until 1784, only two years after he became Moderator of the General Assembly. For in that year, it was discovered he had been ‘indulging in unnatural lusts’ with university students who were lodging in the manse. Despite, or more likely because of, his prominent place in Edinburgh society, the scandal was covered up and Greenfield effectively driven out of the city, forced to live in the north of England under the surname of his wife: Rutherfurd. His son’s lofty place in Victorian society—and that of his wife—is testament to the ebbing of memory in a less probing and cynical age. In this time of information excess, I feel a sadness creep upon me that his father’s shame casts as long a shadow now as the bereft Rutherfurd’s love for his wife.
The sun is beginning to set now and I should think about leaving this place of shades and neutral tones, where I like to think that not everything is what it seems. Even those who guard the graves become weary with the weight of the years, as the shadows lengthen on the ground.
It’s Winter, and dusk is here, at the door. It’s time to make my escape and so I wind my way past the Rutherfurd pyramid and out into the area behind what was the Dean Gallery. It’s now known as Modern Two, but I can’t quite make that bland name stick in my memory.
The always challenging work of Scottish revolutionary garden poet Ian Hamilton Finlay adorns the wall of the car park: hidden, unassuming, a surprise for the passerby. The world has indeed been empty since the Romans, but the cemetery is full.
And further along the path, as though to underline or even undermine my dérive into the very soil of the nearby cemetery, I come upon Eduardo Paolozzi’s magnificent, Blakean bronze, Master of the Universe (1989).
A Newton with the eyes of Michelangelo’s David, he points down into the earth with his right hand. Beneath the fingers of his left hand, as though in mockery of Andrew Rutherfurd and his failed resurrection machine, stands a diminutive pyramid in two lifeless dimensions.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi(1927)
A singular way to ensure you have the Scottish coastline to yourself is to venture there on a wet and windswept weekday at ‘just the worst time of the year’; more so if you visit a part of the shore of which few are aware.
Mid-morning on 6 January 2017, we arrive at Seacliff in East Lothian for the first time. By coincidence, our visit falls on the feast of the Epiphany, a day of revealings, the time when it’s said the Magi, the three wise kings of the gospel of Matthew—Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar—visited the newborn Jesus bearing gifts.
The location of this beach was revealed to us, in a manner of speaking, by our good friends Mark & Jo in Yorkshire. We’d never heard of it before then but they discovered it while exploring North Berwick and the surrounding area last year. Seacliff is hidden away at the end of a private road, a few houses dotted here and there, close to the village of Whitekirk and further east along the coast from North Berwick. You would hardly know it exists and that too might explain why it seems so quiet – eerily so, in fact.
We arrive at the ‘car park’ (more a muddy lay-by off a slightly less muddy track) sitting above the beach. The lay-by sits just shy of the maw of a cave in the cliff wall, an opening which doesn’t recede deeply into the rock, maybe only ten feet or so, but it’s dank and cold and I don’t feel like venturing in too far. I can almost feel the mass of the cliff above, thousands of tonnes of rock, bearing down on me as I peer inside. I quickly move out into the rain again. It turns out that this hole may have served as a refuge for the 8th century hermit, St. Baldred, of whom more later. Holes in stone became a theme on this walk, as we were soon to discover.
And so, the Epiphany: the word is from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) meaning a manifestation or appearance. In classical Greek it was used to denote the appearance of dawn, sometimes of an enemy in war, but especially of a manifestation of a deity to a worshiper (a theophany). It’s this last meaning which has such a resonance on this cold, grey day. What waits for us on this lonely stretch of sand? Time will tell, but I convince myself I won’t be blowing any ancient whistles I find amongst the dunes here.
We descend the rickety wooden steps to the beach, which is empty and rather lonely looking. In Eastern Europe and Russia, winter swimming is part of the celebration of the Epiphany. For a variety of sound reasons, we don’t partake of this today, although the rain ensures we’re cold and wet anyway, so perhaps this counts as an alternative method of celebrating the winter swim.
There is an oppressive atmosphere on the beach. It could just be my imagination or the effect of the weather (which is certainly not welcoming); it might just be the time of year, the post-festive January blues hanging heavy on us. But this shoreline is grey and quite forbidding. I’m reminded of T.C. Lethbridge’s observations at Ladram Bay, about fields of water acting as a form of tape recorder of strong (negative) emotion, that emotion remaining tied to the place, repeating like a recording and experienced by others who chance upon it: ‘As I stepped onto the beach, I passed into a kind of blanket, or fog, of depression, and, I think, fear.’ Something of the same feeling tugs at the edges of consciousness here.
As I look back at those remarks in Lethbridge’s ‘A Step in the Dark’ (1967), it’s unnerving to register that the topographical detail of Ladram Bay is very close to that of the bay at Seacliff. I try not to think about the similarity.
For those interested, Matthew Shaw and I (in the guise of Fougou) recorded a piece of music inspired by Lethbridge’s experiences at Ladram Bay. You can hear it here.
At times the rain is corybantic in its desire to soak us through, which only adds to the feeling of unease. There isn’t another soul here. At points I have the strong feeling that we’re not supposed—or permitted—to stand on this stretch of coastline, although later, we see two horses with riders at the far end of the beach; they quickly disappear up the hill into the dunes and we’re left alone again. Why didn’t they come to this end of the bay?
Combing the beach, more because our heads are down to shelter against the wind and rain, we find our our own holy trinity: three strange holed stones that call to us from the sand. I take them with me, washing them free of grit in a pool by the rocks: they make me feel safer here, on this antic stretch of the shoreline.
A tradition in Poland and German-speaking Catholic areas in Europe is the chalking of the three kings’ initials (C+M+B or C M B) above the main door of Catholic homes. This is a new year blessing for the occupants of the house and the letters may also represent the benediction Christus mansionem benedicat (‘May Christ bless this house’).
Combine C M B via comb to beachcombing: I’m calmer, and I’m glad we’ve found these stony faced allies.
One of them, Caspar, is rather amiable and ghostlike, as befits his name, although those eyes stare into me more than I’d like. I resolve to take him with me as a talisman on future explorations.
These are known in some quarters as hagstones or adder stones. A hagstone is no more than a stone with a natural hole through it, but in a folkloric context, these items have a magical aspect and are believed to protect the bearer from the dead, curses, witches, sickness and nightmares—amongst other things. They are also reputed to be windows into the Other and to grant the power of second sight, allowing the person who peers through the stone to see and—somewhat more dramatically—be seen by whatever entities inhabit that realm.
And over there, is that a figure in the distance, at the edge of the rocks, at the end of a sloping gradient on the promontory?
Standing or perhaps crouched, just below the line of the horizon; staring; waiting. Is it really a person? The weather makes it difficult to judge. He or she seems too still, too upright in the wind and rain, on what is surely the most exposed part of this headland. A spectral manifestation in an otherwise empty skyline. Quis est iste qui manet?
We approach the watching figure more closely now. Still no movement. What is this? A bead of sweat runs slowly down my temple. Or it might be rain.
It’s at this point that I remember what Mark has told us about Seacliff harbour. As we get nearer, I see our solitary watcher is only some form of antiquated winch mechanism, balanced precariously on the edge of the cut stone walls.
The rocks are slick with rain and seawater, algae and tendrils of sea-greenery, making the going treacherous even with rugged footwear. But the layers of rock are beautiful in an altogether alien way and I wish I knew more about them.
Seacliff harbour is remarkable, compelling, but also—for me, at least—horribly vertiginous and I feel giddy at the margins of its stone walls, themselves slippery. Although it’s at a relatively high level for now, the water would, I imagine, be unforgiving; but it presents as an attractive shade of blue-green even on this grey day. In the background, Tantallon Castle watches us dolefully, as if waiting for my inevitable tumble into the cold.
This tiny harbour is no more than 35 feet on its longest side, and the narrow entrance is barely six feet across. It was constructed in 1890 by Andrew Laidley, the laird and then owner of the Seacliff Estate, using a steam engine and compressed air to slice into the stone to create this unique hole in the landscape, a tiny missing jigsaw piece in the map. The whole structure is blasted out of a geological feature known as the Ghegan Rock (the ‘Churchman’s Haven’); it must have been an astonishing feat of engineering and perseverance, out here on the exposed coast.
According to the ports.org.uk site, the harbour is currently used ‘by a local crab fisherman. His boat, the Secret Garden is usually moored there, on a system of pulleys and weights to prevent it from hitting the vertical sides of the harbour in the ever-present swell. Its unique position, away from the main shoreline, ensures that it never dries out. Indeed, at high tide, there is more than six metres depth of water in the harbour.’
My mind, the embers of vertigo fizzling into life, becomes dizzy thinking of the sheer drop. Other pictures available online show the water level low in the harbour and I can scarcely bring myself to look at them. The scale of the tiny cut-out shape, its minuscule size, only seems to increase the endlessness of the plunge.
This is yet another hole in the rock today that seems to possess something more than meets the eye. But there is no boat there when we visit and, aside from a few ropes and a ladder descending ominously into the water, no evidence that anyone ever uses the place. But the absence of evidence is not, so they say, the evidence of absence
On our way back across the rocks, gratefully leaving the model village harbour behind us, we come across a brick set in the sand with the words PRESTON GRANGE stamped into it. Prestongrange was a local mine and brickworks, about 20 miles away, the brickmaking part of which closed in the 1970s. Curious though an old brick is in this place, it’s not hugely surprising to see debris on a lonely beach, except that this brick appears to be anchored there, almost as though it’s been cemented into the surrounding stone.
It looks odd here, anomalous, as though it should be covered over by the sand but has recently become exposed. I start to imagine a vast network of tunnels and vaulted rooms arrayed beneath the beach, stretching out under the shoreline, this brick the only hint at what lies hidden beneath our feet. Perhaps, when the tide is out far enough and the water in the harbour is at its lowest, one can see and enter the tiny doorway in the stone walls there which leads to the network of tunnels under the Prestongrange brick and the whole of Seacliff. But possibly, it’s just a washed up piece of old tidal defences as one blogger has suggested elsewhere.
We move further up the hill where a ruin towers above us.
This is Auldhame Castle, although there’s little left of the 16th century structure today. Attempts to reconstruct the castle might take some time…
It’s said Baldred of Tyninghame was based at times in Auldhame, and founded a church at the local hamlet of Scoughall. As though to strengthen that claim, a number of geographical features bear his name, including the cave we saw earlier. There is also a stretch of rocks at the eastern end of the beach extending north into the water to form St. Baldred’s Boat, a vessel of stone and spray on which a stern minimalist beacon sits surmounted by a cross. The Churchman’s Haven, the Ghegan Rock into which the harbour is cut, likely also refers to the local saint.
Following Baldred’s death on the site of the chapel on the Bass Rock, the three parishes of Auldhame, Tyninghame and Prestonkirk all argued they were entitled to the hermit’s remains. It’s reported that after the parishes spent a night in prayer, three identical bodies were found the next morning, each wrapped in a burial sheet as though ready to be lowered into the grave. Perhaps our three hagstone kings are manifestations or reminders of the saint’s trinity of corpses.
The estates of Seacliff, Scoughall and Auldhame are owned by the Dale family. Robert Louis Stevenson was related to that family and spent time at Scoughall as a boy. It was here that the young Stevenson first heard about how the so-called Pagans of Scoughall lured ships onto the rocks on storm-torn nights. Their method was to tie a horse’s neck to its knee with rope and attach a lantern, then drive the horse slowly along the cliffs so that ships further out to sea would mistake it for a vessel riding at anchor and come in, only to be splintered on the jagged rocks known as the Great Car. The Pagans would then mercilessly plunder their remains. Stevenson was undoubtedly inspired by this tale for his story ‘The Wreckers’.
But there is another ruined house here: to the south of the shore lies the broken edifice of Seacliff House, hidden in the trees and, on a day like today, something you could easily miss.
The house was originally built in 1750, was then rebuilt in 1841 and finally extended in the 1850s. It burned down in 1907 and has remained a ruin ever since. The slope up to the house looks unforgiving and, with the rain not showing any sign of abating, we resolve to return to Seacliff sooner or later.
Caspar continues to smile as we make our way back to the cave mouth and the car, not once looking behind us.