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.
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.
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.