Our precious and precarious world

Numerous events went on in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference including demonstrations, protests and various get-togethers. I had hoped to take join some pilgrims who were walking from Dunbar to Glasgow on the John Muir Way. They were arriving in North Berwick and being accommodated in our church for the night. We had been given the option of joining them for the next stretch from North Berwick to Aberlady. I had my rucksack packed ready but did not sleep at all well the previous night and had to opt out. Most of the big events are a concern because of the pandemic: so many people are heading to Glasgow from all over the world. Hence the only thing I have been to is the art exhibition hosted by St Cuthbert’s Parish Church in Edinburgh. They hoped it would raise awareness of climate concerns, stimulate creative thinking and influence policy makers to act decisively in defence of our precious planet. Anyone could submit works for the exhibition and had we not been quite so busy recently; I might have had time to think about it. Drawings, paintings, sculptures, textiles, photographs or calligraphy were requested on the themes of

  • Climate change
  • Pollution
  • Recycling
  • The beauty and fragility of nature

Fortunately, we were in Edinburgh during the five days the exhibition was on and on the day we visited it was relatively quiet. Many local schools have contributed works including a couple of Polish ones, in addition to local artists, photographers and crafters. I did not take my camera as most exhibitions don’t allow you to take photographs but it turned out that this one did; so I used my phone. St Cuthbert’s church sits at the north end of Lothian Road on a site said to be on one of the earliest Christian sites in the city. The current building was designed by Hippolyte Blanc and constructed in 1894.

Various musical events have been held to open, during the evenings and to close the exhibition but we could not make any of those. Back home we have an electric car on order which we hope will arrive in the New Year and we are also awaiting the installation of solar panels and a power wall. Having moved from the countryside where we were several miles from the nearest shop and public transport to a town where many services are in walking distance and buses and trains are close by. I have joined the local Wildlife Gardening group and we are working towards linking up the Glen conservation area and the equivalent at Yellowcraigs on the other side of town with a network of gardens and wildlife-friendly areas.  

Exploring Eyemouth

Eyemouth is Scotland’s most south-eastern port, only five miles from the English Border. James had a vestry away-day meeting at St Ebba’s church there last week, so I used the time to explore the town. It lies where the Eye Water runs down from the Lammermuir Hills and meets the sea. The current population is around 5,000. In the 17th century it was one of the major Scottish centres of witchcraft. At least two dozen women and one man were found guilty. There was no jail in town, so they were kept in the ‘common pit’ until they were burnt at the stake. I began by walking down to the harbour

and then on to the beach. It was quiet with a few dog walkers and one birdwatcher. The tide was out leaving patterns on the wet sand.

I followed a section of the Coastal Path which runs from Berwick to St Abbs up to the headland where Eyemouth Fort was situated.

The first Trace Italienne Fortification in Britain was constructed by the English in 1547 as part of the Rough Wooing campaign which tried to force a marriage between Prince Edward and the infant Mary Queen of Scots. After the Treaty of Boulogne in 1550 the English troops withdrew from Scotland and the fort was demolished. In 1557 the Scots and their French allies began to rebuild it. However, a treaty in 1559 led to it being demolished. Today all that remains are some earthworks and these cannons.

There were views over Killiedraught Bay towards St Abbs Head.

After a coffee, I wandered over to the other side of town. The harbour was busy with boats bringing in their catches and repair works going on.

There is a regeneration project underway on the waterfront which should be complete by 2023. There was also a seal-feeding stall where children can buy fish to throw to them.

I crossed the swing bridge and walked along the other side of the harbour and up the slope to Gunsgreen House.

The house was designed by Robert Adam for a local merchant, John Nisbet who was also a smuggler. It contains the Smugglers’ House of Secrets Museum but this was closed on my visit. Nearby is Nisbet’s Tower which was a dove cote for Gunsgreen House that was restored in 2005 and is now a holiday cottage.

There is also the memorial to the 189 fishermen who died in the fishing disaster of 1881 when boats went out despite weather warnings. They encountered hurricane force winds which destroyed 26 of the town’s 46 fishing boats. Incoming tides washed wreckage, bodies and personal effects ashore for days afterwards. It took around 80 years for the population to return to the levels of 1881.

The town museum has a moving exhibition about the disaster and lots of other information about the town. It is in the Auld Kirk – the bell still rang on the hours while I was in it. Afterwards, I re-joined James and the others for lunch.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

We have been members of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for several years and visit it frequently. It began in 1670 when two doctors, Andrew Balfour and Robert Sibbald set up a small 180 square yard plot containing 800-900 plants as a physic garden near Holyrood. This became too small after a few years and in 1682 an area at the end of the Nor Loch where Waverley Station is now situated, was planted with 2,000 plants and shrubs. It was close to Trinity Hospital and was later extended into Trinity College Kirkyard.

In 1763 a new site for the Botanic Garden was found in Leith Walk. It moved to its present home in Inverleith in 1820; a process taking two years to transfer all the plants and trees. The Botanical Society of Edinburgh was instituted in 1836. Over the next century and more, the garden evolved into the one we know today with plants from all over the world and buildings which house the visitors centre, exhibition spaces and places for the staff to work.

Events are organised and in 2017 we visited the Christmas Lights display they have most years in December.

The glasshouses are currently closed for refurbishment. An article in yesterday’s Times Scotland said that they were having to cut down a 220-year-old sabal palm tree which had to be moved in order to do the work and as it was 50 feet high, could not be moved intact. It had been in the Leith Walk garden before being moved to its current place. They have grown some seedlings.

The garden has the largest collection of Chinese plants outside China including many wild ones from mountains. The RGBE botanists are working with the Kuming Institute of Botany to develop a botanical garden and a mountain field station.

I enjoyed looking at some of the interesting trees

and the alpine garden.

As it is early autumn, some leaves were beginning to turn and seed heads were appearing.

Autumn crocuses are in bloom.

After wandering around the grounds we visited the exhibition of botanical photography of Levison Biss which covered fruits and seeds from the Herbarium Collection. I must try and get the book which was sold out in the botanic garden shop. It might inspire me to do some more macro photography.

A wander around Dunbar

Having to leave the campervan to be cleaned meant that we had three hours to kill in Dunbar. Following Spott Road in towards the town centre we first had a short walk on the East Beach although the tide was in. There were a few dog walkers out but otherwise it was very quiet.

Cromwell harbour had a few people working on boats. The first harbour was constructed in 1100 at what is now known as Belhaven. The next was stone-built nearer to the castle in the 16th century. After storm damage in the 1650s, Cromwell repaired it to enable English ships to supply his army. Herring fishing was important; In 1819, 280 boats with 2000 men and in bumper years some 700-800 boats would arrive. In the 18th century merchants traded with Europe and in 1828, 203,276 gallons of whisky were exported from Dunbar. The heyday for oyster fishing was from 1770 to 1790 and whaling was undertaken from 1751 to 1802.

The Castle ruins stand beside the harbour. It was built on the site of a Pictish fortress, the first stone castle being constructed in 1071. There were numerous attacks and rebuilding over the centuries and Mary Queen of Scots visited on several occasions. The ruins now provide a cliff-like place for gulls to nest on.

In 1844 a new harbour entrance was blasted through the remaining castle ruins and Victoria Harbour was built by the engineer David Stevenson. We walked around the walls watched by a pair of gulls.

In the 19th century potatoes were taken to London by sea. This continued until 1914 when Lincolnshire began to grow large crops of potatoes. In the 20th century lobster and crab catching increased to supply the demand from local, Edinburgh and London hotels. More recent work on the harbour in 1988 revealed the Harbour Vaults. From the items found in the underground passages, it is assumed they were related to the whaling industry.

In the High Street we found a coffee shop with comfortable sofas and had our first coffee in a cafe for several months. Opposite was the town house museum – the first home of John Muir.

The west end and Belhaven Bay will need to be explored on another day as our three hours had gone and it was time to collect the van.

Discovering North Berwick

Having moved last autumn before the last lockdown and only recently been able to go beyond our local council area meant that in addition to settling into our new home, we have at least had time to explore the area. East Lothian is relatively flat, mostly arable land with the Lammermuir Hills and Traprain Law to the south and the Pentlands to the west. Like Edinburgh, there are volcanic mounds including the Law

the Bass Rock.

Fidra,

Criagleith

And the Lamb.

There is evidence of early settlers in the area to the south of the Law including 18 hut circles, middens and a field system dating back 2,000 years. The first record of the town being referred to as North Berwick (to distinguish it from South Berwick as Berwick on Tweed was known as) was in 1250. The town developed a place on the pilgrim trail much earlier; a ferry to Earlsferry in Fife being established in 950AD for those heading to St Andrews. The pilgrimages continued until the mid-16th century. St Andrew’s Auld Kirk is situated down by the harbour on what was a tidal island. It was reduced to ruins by a storm in 1656.

Our house is situated alongside the southern edge of the Glen. There was originally a Mill Pond at the entrance to the Glen and now a culvert passes under the road. Lochbridge Road got its name from the bridge over the reservoir. The water was controlled by a sluice gate and provided power for the three mills which were situated there. Now only the ruins remain. The first path through the Glen was opened in 1856.

The burn flows into what was known as the Mill Sea which later became Milsey Bay and is our nearest beach.

I have been looking at Canmore maps online. The 19th century ones show an iron foundry established in 1821 in the East Bay. Coo’s Green or the East Links where golf was played before 1798 was where the burgesses could graze their animals for a fee until the popularity of golf increased.

Our house is situated on what was part of Rhodes Farm. It also had limekilns and employed several men. In 1904, Abbot’s Croft House was built along with the lodge. In the 1930s Lime Grove social housing was built on some of the land to the east. In 1993 some of the land surrounding Abbot’s Croft was sold to build two houses on each side. Ours is one of the two on the west side, abutting the Glen. Two further housing estates were built on the farmland: Rhodes Park and Ben Sayers Park.  The Lochridge Toll bar at the foot of Heugh Road was installed in 1805 but townspeople did not have to pay tolls. There is now a small roundabout there at the junction with Tantallon Road.

I have also been looking at some of the older buildings in town. St Andrew’s Kirk sits behind the High Street. It was built between 1665 and 1664 to replace the older church.

By 1873 the congregation had overgrown it and in the 1880s moved to St Andrew Blackadder’s Church in the High Street. The Lodge, a group of whitewashed buildings sit in grounds at the bottom of Quality Street.

They were built in the 17th century and originally owned by the Dalrymple family. The tower behind is said to be where St Andrew’s well was. The buildings are now apartments, and the grounds are a public park and gardens.

In 1889 the first reference to the town being called ‘The Biarritz of the North’ was by Edmund Yates, editor of ‘The World’ a weekly society journal. By this time, large numbers of people were visiting on the trains including golfers. Robert Stevenson’s family, including his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson used to spend summers in North Berwick in the 1860s. During the pandemic the town has been very quiet but no doubt that will change when it is over.

East Lothian Beaches: Seacliff

Only three miles from our house, Seacliff Beach is accessible via a private road. Car drivers must pay £3 to open the barrier. On the path down to the west end of the beach, the ruins of Auldhame Castle, 16th century tower house are visible through the trees.

At low tide it is possible to walk around the cliffs to see Tantallon castle which is a little further along the coast.

The harbour, known as the Gegan was carved from the Ghegan Rock (which means Churchman’s Haven) and constructed in 1890. It is said to be the smallest harbour in Scotland but was empty when we visited on a cold January day. In summer the beach is popular with dog walkers, riders (there are a number of horses on the estate) surfers and picnickers.

The rocky outcrop which projects into the bay is known as St Baldred’s Boat and has a stone beacon with a cross on at the end.

St Baldred’s Cave is at the foot of the cliffs. He is said to have lived there from time to time. In 1831 a stone altar and bones of both humans and animals were discovered. They were thought to date from the Iron Age and to be the remnants of a sect which undertook human sacrifice.

At low tide there is an expanse of sandy beach to walk along. It was completely deserted on our winter visit.

The exit road out climbs up past the ruins of Seacliff House, a mid-19th century building constructed on the site of an earlier 18th century house and was destroyed by a fire in 1907. The owner did not survive. The road passes through an arch in the surrounding wall.

Various outbuildings on the estate were used as a secret naval base in World War II which focussed on navigation training and U-boat defence. They are now private homes. Troops were also stationed here to prevent landings during the Napoleonic War in 1798. Like most of the beaches on this portion of the coast, there are views towards the Bass Rock.

It is said that the rocks and the coastline here were the inspiration for Robert Stevenson’s story ‘The Wreckers’. Our first trip here for many years will not be our last now that we are living close by.

East Lothian Beaches: Yellowcraig to Canty Bay

Road trips and long journeys are in abeyance so in the last few weeks, weather permitting, we have been exploring our local area. Our nearest beach, only a short walk down the Glen is Milsey Bay.

In the other direction is the West Beach close to town which we walked to on a December afternoon.

While much of the country was covered in snow on 30th December, we woke to a cold but clear day. As it was James’s birthday, the original plan had been to meet up with some friends in the town to have a meal at a local restaurant. The post-Christmas lockdown meant plans had to be changed so we met up for a walk. Our friends live at the other side of town so we met at Milsey Bay.

From the east end of the beach, a path winds around the headland alongside The Glen Golf Course. This was created at the end of the 19th century when the council acquired the land from Rhodes Farm. The walk must be done at low tide as much would be impassable at other times. There are various rocks including the Leithies which are offshore at high tide; the Yellow Man island with a nearby rock shelter where heavy rain in 1905 washed down human remains from the field above and Leckmoram Ness where a bronze brooch from the 5th century AD was found in 1973. The Bass Rock is in view from many spots.

Just before Horseshoe Point are the remains of an old rusty fence which is referred to as the Old Fence on the 1888 Ordnance Survey Map so it certainly is old.

The west beach on Canty Bay is also known as Quarrel Sand.

Up the steep and rather slippery side of the headland you reach the Drift Café on the top with Ragged Rock just off the foot of the cliff. The café was developed by the Castleton farm and is constructed from wooden-clad shipping containers. During lockdown only the take-away trailer is operating but at least it was sunny enough to sit outside. The same farmer is now trying to obtain planning permission for a retirement village nearby but there is much objection.

The east beach at Canty Bay is not accessible by vehicles and can be reached on foot down the steep path on the other side of the headland. Its name means Bay of the Little Head, derived from Gaelic. It currently houses the Evans Trust: a Christian Residential and Activity Centre for young people. The Scouts occupy some of the old fishermen’s cottages. We will explore that side of the Bay another time.

Yellowcraig also known as Broad Sands is a coastal area of forest (planted in the 1960s), beach and grassland. Part of it is within the Firth of Forth Site of Special Scientific Interest and plenty of wildlife can be seen.

The John Muir Way trail passes through and Yellowcraig is three miles from town. On New Year’s Day the Sea Buckthorn berries were very prominent.

Lots of people were there and I am not sure how many were local. The annual Loony Dook usually takes place at South Queensferry where people jump in the very cold river and raise money for charity. This was of course, cancelled but police had to disperse a crowd at Portobello Beach. We saw two people in the sea at Yellowcraig.

Several others were drying off having been in the very cold water. Fidra lighthouse, built in 1885 by some of his relatives; is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

There are more beaches to explore in either direction, weather permitting.

North Berwick Law

Volcanic activity created many of the hills in central and south-eastern Scotland including those with Edinburgh and Stirling Castles on, the Wallace Monument, Arthur’s Seat, Traprain Law and the Bass Rock. North Berwick Law’s conical shape makes it conspicuous on the rather flat lands around it and identifies its origin as being the remains of a larval volcanic plug from over 300 million years ago. It sits on the south side of town and we decided to walk up it with some friends on the one dry day last week. The Law is 187m high and the path we took is a short walk from our house.

The John Muir Way runs around the west side of the lower slopes. It is said that John Muir used to climb it during his childhood in Dunbar. On the south side there was a quarry where the red sandstone that many of the buildings are constructed from was obtained. In the mid 20th century shells, animal bones, food refuse and prehistoric pottery suggested date of human occupation around the time of the Roman occupation. There are also the remains of Iron Age settlements on the southern slopes. Later, Berwick Law was owned by the Cistercian Convent and used as a lookout to warn of approaching enemies. It is said that a nun lit a beacon on the summit in 1544 to warn of the approaching English ships. It was one of several signal stations in East Lothian in the early 19th century when Napoleon was threatening Britain and the ruins of a building constructed in 1803 remains on the summit.

There has been a whale bone on the summit since 1709. The original one had been replaced in around 1789. This blew down in a gale in 1935 and its replacement became dangerous in 2005. A fibreglass cast was made and installed in 2008. There are 360-degree views all around:

Towards the town centre and Craigleith,
the west end of town and Fidra
Towards Milsey Bay and the Bass Rock
Edinburgh the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat in the background,
and all the new housing being built on the edge of town.

There is an interesting message on the trig point

The Law was also used in both World Wars as an observation post and the remains of those buildings are on the slopes. In World War 2, Dig for Victory allotments were created on the slopes and lasted until the 1970s. A bonfire was held on the summit for the 1953 coronation and a beacon lit for the 2012 Diamond Jubilee.

There was a lonely tree on the slope.

The reservoir at the base of the western side used to supply the town’s water and the overflow becomes the Glen Burn which runs down the slope not far from our house and into Milsey Bay. Over time, growing populations and increasing demand meant that the water supply had to be obtained from further afield. The lower slopes can be accessed from other directions so there are several routes to explore in the future.

Blackford Hill

Blackford Hill is 164m high and sits on the south side of Edinburgh. It is comprised of some of the oldest rock in the city in contrast to the volcanic rocks which form most of the other hills in the city. From our flat we can see the summit and most days there is at least one person visible on the top. Together with the Hermitage of Braid it comprises a Nature Reserve. We often walk around there and it is very popular with dog walkers, families and joggers. There was an ancient hill fort on the summit and in the 12th century there was a castle built by Henri de Brad who was Sheriff of Edinburgh at the time. The Hermitage of Braid house was built in 1785 and was the residence of Charles Gordon of Cluny who died in 1814. It was gifted to the council in 1938 and is now a visitors’ centre which is closed at present due to the pandemic. The Braid Burn runs through the reserve and there is also Blackford Pond which has resident swans and is visited by other birds. On our last visit most of the swans were being fed at one end of the pond and this lonely gull was at the quieter end.

There are 30 acres of woodland, many trails and other areas of open pasture. It provides views of the city including Arthur’s Seat

and over towards the Pentland Hills

On one visit I was close enough to see this crow who had found something to eat.

It is a very popular spot to view the fireworks on New Year’s Eve and we have done that on a number of occasions, weather permitting

or to watch the sunset

On one visit in 2017 we found musicians performing on the summit

The hill is also home to the Royal Observatory which used to be located on Calton Hill but relocated here at the end of the 20th century to avoid light pollution. Here is one of the more interesting buildings.

There are gorse bushes on the slopes and it was still in bloom in October. There is an old saying that when the gorse is out of bloom; kissing is out of fashion but at least there is food for the pollinators.

Unfortunately, there is also some Himalayan Balsam

and I did spot an insect on some seed heads.

On our most recent visit the leaves were colourful.

North Berwick Law is higher and once we have settled I must go up there for the views.

Colinton Tunnel

The railway which ran from Balerno to Princes Street Station and passed through Colinton opened on 1 August 1874. Colinton Station was situated where the access road and car park are currently. Both the tunnel and road bridge were built at the same time. Predominantly used for transporting goods to and from the mills on the water of Leith; passengers were also carried but this ceased on 30 October 1943. All services were withdrawn on 4 December 1967 as part of the Beeching cuts; the tunnel was closed and bricked up. In 1980, the Water of Leith Walkway was created. The tunnel re-opened as part of it, was painted and lighting installed. However, over time the painted walls deteriorated. In 2019 the lighting was changed to LED and work began on creating Scotland’s largest heritage mural. The tunnel is 140 metres long and all of it plus an extension to the outside wall at the Slateford end has been painted.

The lead artist is Chris Rutterford and he has worked with a team of professional and volunteer artists illustrating Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem From a Railway Carriage published in his 1885 book A Child’s Garden of Verses.

The poem runs along one side and on the other are many images linking it to local history.

More than 550 local people and groups including schools have contributed. Around 3% of the walls are still damp so some of the work was done elsewhere on marine plywood and then attached to the tunnel walls. The project has already brought more people to the local area and businesses and got rid of antisocial graffiti in the tunnel. There were quite a few dog walkers, joggers and others on the weekday we visited. We started at the Easter Hailes End near the carpark and walked through to the other end.

An event to celebrate the finished work was planned for September 2020 but of course the pandemic put a stop to that.