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.

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.

Exploring East Lothian: beaches and books

High meteorological pressure and sunshine meant that heading to the beach was a must last week. There are several, covering about 40 miles on the East Lothian coast but our first choice was Tyninghame. We had been there on a number of occasions a few years ago, once for a New Year’s Day barbecue. After parking at the end of Limetree Walk where the parking attendant had just arrived and was checking everyone had purchased a ticket, we took the left-hand path which runs through the woods

down to Tyne Sands, passing some concrete World War 2 anti-tank defences before reaching the beach. The coast from Peffer Sands to Dunbar Castle is part of the John Muir Country Park. The tide was out

and we walked along Sandy Hirst, a promontory. I found quite a few pieces of sea glass. One of the few people we saw was a metal detector.

I don’t know how lucky he was going to be.

On the way back to the car I foraged some blackberries. On the way back to Edinburgh we stopped off in Haddington; sitting in the sun outside Falko’s with a coffee and then exploring the nearby Reading Room, a secondhand bookshop which also sells a few ornaments and confectionary. I found a missing volume of my New Naturalist and was very surprised to find that the bookseller was unaware that this was a collectible series. We wandered around the town centre for a while, noting some of the businesses that were here but not in North Berwick and a few of the older buildings, one of the which had been a Primitive Methodist Church. I had not known they had got as far as Scotland. The movement began at Mow Cop, not far from where we used to live and the bookshop I volunteered at supported the work of the Englesea Brook Museum of Primitive Methodism.

A few days later we met up with some friends from Cheshire who were camping at Yellowcraigs just east of the town on the coast. We arranged to meet at the lifeboat station and just before they arrived, I had a little wander around. On the shore is a statue ‘The Watcher’ by Kenny Hunter which looks out towards the Bass Rock with binoculars. Even he had a mask on!

In front of the seabird centre are the remains of St Andrew’s Auld Kirk. All that stands now is a small white-harled building that was the porch and some low walls behind. The church was destroyed in a storm in 1656 but there is said to have been one on the site for 1000 years prior to this. Pilgrims would come to North Berwick to catch a ferry to Earlsferry in Fife en route to St Andrews. There are some information boards inside the porch which contain information about some of the finds during archaeological digs on the site.

With our friends we walked along the West Beach which had quite a few dog walkers and others on it.

I spotted a curlew down by the water’s edge with some gulls. Afterwards, we had a coffee together. Before we left, I popped into the Pennyfarthing, a shop that sells antiques and secondhand books. On the way back to Edinburgh we passed a load of portable toilets and another of generators going to Archerfield which holds events. This was a little surprising in the midst of a pandemic. At Longniddry Bents there were a large number of wind surfers but I think that they could maintain social distancing on the water at least. There is a lot more to explore and we are looking forward to moving here in around a month’s time.

A windy walk in the Pentlands

Having several weeks to wait until completion on the house we are buying happens means we have some time to spend exploring our local area. This has been limited by some very heavy rains but Saturday’s overnight heavy rain had ceased but it remained very windy. We had arranged to meet up with some friends for a dog walk because new pandemic rules meant that we could not meet up with them and another couple for a meal that had been planned for the following week. The Pentland Hills Regional Park is outside Edinburgh but the part we visited is only six miles from the city centre on the north slopes of the hills. There are access points from other places and a visitors centre at Flotterstone on the A702. Clubbiedean and Torduff reservoirs are close to Bonaly and south of the city bypass. They were constructed in 1850 and are managed by Scottish Water who have some works ongoing nearby. After parking, we walked up the path to the first reservoir; Tarduff.

As it was a weekend, the track was fairly busy with walkers and cyclists. At this time of year, it is also good place for foraging with blackberries, rowan and hawthorn berries and rosehips to be found by the side of the path. Wild camping is permitted and I spotted one tent on the other side of the water. The regional park is large and there are many other paths around it, including loops around each of these reservoirs.

Clubbiedean reservoir lies above Torduff; they are two of several in the park and the surrounding hills have views over the city, the River Forth and over to Fife. There are the remains of an ancient fort consisting of a ditch, stony bank and stone wall on the other side of the water from the track we were on. Fishing licences can be obtained and a number of people were fishing when we visited. There is a café next to Clubbiedean run by a relative of our friends which was a great place to stop before returning back to the city.

A Journey into the Past

Early March saw us taking a few days to revisit some of our old haunts in Scotland. The first stop was Dundee where James studied at the university from 1979-1984. A keen football fan, he followed Dundee United. So, when he spotted that Dundee Rep Theatre were putting on a production entitled ‘Smile’ about their manager Jim McLean, it was a must. We stayed at a central hotel just a short walk from the theatre and although some of it was a bit of a mystery to me (having never been to a football match), he and the rest of the audience enjoyed it very much. In the morning we drove along the Tay towards Perth pick up the A9.

Before reaching Perth we diverted near Errol to Cairn O’Mhor Winery. Someone James was at university with left the course and with her husband, has been making fruit wines and cider since 1987. We had a look around the winery and saw some cider being bottled before having a coffee with Judith and Ron.

After driving down the very familiar A9 south of Perth, we arrived at Doune. The castle, built in the 1300s, is now under the care of Historic Scotland.

My first visit there was in the early 1970s when my clarinet teacher had to arrange a musical group to play at the wedding reception of Lord Doune’s daughter. The castle has been under renovation for some time and not open the last time we passed by. Today, we did manage a wander round the interior

but the grounds and riverside were too wet from the recent heavy rains. The guy in the gift shop told us that while filming had gone on in the castle since Monty Python and the Holy Grail; after Game of Thrones and Outlander were filmed there, the number of tourists visiting had increased. Last summer they had days with more than 1000 visitors (many from the USA), causing huge problems when coaches tried to drive down the single-track road to the car park. Continuing up the route my school bus used to take, we arrived in Callander. Parking down by the meadows, I could see a snowy Ben Ledi behind all the ducks and swans hanging around on the water, hoping for some food.

At the south end of the car park is a mound known as the ‘Hill of St Kessog’.

St Kessog was an Irish follower of St Columba preached here in the 6th century. It is not certain whether or not the mound was part of a motte or castle hill but in the 1930s an archaeological dig found the remains of a pre-Reformation church just to the right of the mound. It is thought to be the first church in Callander built in 1238. It was later demolished and the graveyard was established with the hexagonal watch house nearby to look out for grave robbers. Callander also has a second-hand bookshop with adjacent book bindery.

Our next night was in Stirling where we met while working at the hospital there. Our hotel, in the old town was the original Royal Infirmary and the hotel next door was the old High School. We watched the sun go down from the castle terrace.

In the morning we were at the entrance just as the castle opened and had a look around the palace which was restored in 2011.

As most of the other visitors were waiting for the guided tour, we had the place to ourselves, looking at the sculptures and views over the surrounding countryside. Staff told us that in the high season they get up to 5,000 visitors each day.

A few miles further on is the Wallace Monument. Like Stirling Castle, I had not been there since childhood. The path winds up the Abbey Craig where snowdrops and primroses were blooming with blue bells and dog’s mercury emerging. These are both indicators of ancient woodland.

A few miles further along the foot of the Ochil Hills lies the Broomhall. It was built in 1874 by John Foukes and Frances Mackison for James Johnstone. He was the younger of two brothers who owned a shipbuilding and mills business. After a family argument, James had the hall built in the style of Balmoral Castle with the tower so that he could look down on his brother. It is situated next door to where I lived from the late 1960s to 1974 on Long Row in Menstrie.

In 1906 the Castle was sold to an Italian Riding School and in 1910 became the Clifford Park Boys Prep School run under the auspices of William Herbert Leetham. Some sources say that in the early hours of Friday 28th June 1940 (others say in 1941) the building caught fire whilst the boarders were camping in the grounds. The fire seemed to originate on the second floor towards the rear of the building and the alarm was raised by the Local Defence Volunteers who were out on their night-time patrol. It took hold quickly and could be seen for miles as it lit up the sky. Under the direction of Fire Master Robert Cairns, water was pumped from the county mains near the old Menstrie railway station and it was brought under control before 9am. By this time a large crowd had gathered to see what had happened and offered what help they could. No one was injured but the building was completely gutted, although some furniture was saved. The cost of the damage ran into several thousand pounds but luckily Leetham had the building insured. Meanwhile, the boys were shipped elsewhere to continue their education. Information in the hotel (and other sources) state that a German schoolmaster took the boys camping on Myreton Hill and then set fire to it so that it could act as a beacon for the Luftwaffe returning from bombing Clydebank Shipyards in Glasgow. The Clydebank Blitz took place on the nights of 13th and 14th March 1941; nine months after some say the fire occurred at Broomhall. In 1946, and mostly in ruins, the proprietor of the house was Walter Alexander of Kork-N-Seal, a metal bottle cap manufacturer. By 1950, he had moved on and it belonged to Walter McAlpine Chalmers who rented it out to radio operator William James Sillars. During the 1950s the gardener’s cottage was sold to Tommy Kettles. I lived next door and went to school with his daughter; we used to play among the ruins although we were not supposed to as they were inevitably unstable and dangerous. The stables were converted into a house in 1977. In 1985 Broomhall was rebuilt and turned into a nursing home. In 2003 it was purchased by the current owners, who turned it into a small hotel with 16 bedrooms and a restaurant. The field which was in front of the hall and our house is now full of houses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Findhorn River and beach

In mid-November we visited friends in Inverness whom we had not seen for a while. One day they took us for a trip around some of the sites on the River Findhorn in Moray. It is one of the longest rivers in Scotland at 100km. We began at Dulsie Bridge which was erected in 1755 by Major William Caulfield as part of General Wade’s military road strategy designed to assist in suppressing the local population. It survived the Muckle Spate flood of 1829 which swept away mills, farmhouses and several other bridges.

Further downstream, Randolph’s Leap is the narrowest part of the gorge.

In the 14th century Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray lived on one side of the river at Darnaway. Sir Alexander Cummings and his six sons lived on the opposite side. Problems arose when the Cummings who had held the lucrative post of ranger of the Forest of Darnaway fell out of favour with Randolph and King Robert the Bruce and were told to keep away from Darnaway. The eldest Cummings son, Alistair, gathered a thousand men to attack Randolph but they were ambushed and retreated back to the river where Alastair and three others jumped over to the other side so it really should have been called Alastair’s Leap. There are several walks around the river and forest here of varying lengths. We did one of the shorter ones as it was quite wet.

Continuing down the riverside we came to Logie Steading which has been converted into a visitors’ centre with a café, art gallery, a bookshop and several small businesses including Logie Whisky and Wine. The road continues through Forres and on to Findhorn on the Moray coast at the mouth of the river.

We had passed through earlier in the year as part of the Round Britain drive but I have always loved the Moray coast since working in Inverness so was very happy to return. The Findhorn Foundation eco-village has been here since 1962 but is a separate entity to the rest of the village. We walked along the beach and dunes at the edge of the forest

and round to the harbour

before returning to Inverness. Wild camping is allowed on the beach for a small fee so I suspect we will be back.

Round Britain: John O’Groats to Dunnet Bay


After dinner at the Seaview Hotel which has an extensive menu and was very busy, I wandered around the now quiet seafront. There was no-one standing next to the milepost (there had been several coaches earlier).

Many people think that it is the northernmost point of the mainland. It is the furthest from Lands End on the road network but Dunnet Head is the most northerly point. There is a sculpture nearby entitled ‘The Nomadic Boulders’. Two Scottish environmental artists Dalziel & Scullion created it when it was discovered that huge boulders are moved long distances along the seabed when it was being surveyed for use by turbines. This is a small part of the sculpture which was made with three boulders that appeared on a local beach:

I then watched the sun go down.

In the morning I had a quick walk along the shingle beach looking for the cowries called Groatie buckies and are said to be found here. I did not find any. We left, heading west past the vehicle ferry harbour at Gills Bay which crosses the Pentland Firth to St Margaret’s Hope on Orkney. On a day with high winds we passed a house called Windy Ha. After the Castle of Mey we took the coastal route via Scarfskerry. The old telephone box here is now a book exchange. At Ham there is a disused mill

a rocky beach and old harbour constructed from slabs of the striated rocks.


At Brough, where the most northerly café on the British mainland was closed, we turned on the road to Dunnet Head. There are several lochs on the headland.

There is a lighthouse with foghorn.

A viewpoint on the summit and overlooks to the cliffs. It is an RSPB reserve but the high winds made it difficult to spend more than a couple of minutes looking at the cliffs.

In World War Two a large encampment and wireless station was built on the head and a few concrete buildings remain.

We carried on to Dunnet Bay and had a good walk on the beach before settling in at the campsite before rain arrived. The bay had a Viking settlement and farm which had been buried by the blown sand dunes. When the current road was built, sheep on the slope rubbed themselves against it and exposed traces of a wall and a rubbish heap. In 1995 archaeologists found more evidence of the Viking farm.

Some of the objects I saw on the beach might be turned into an abstract painting. I had hoped on this west-facing beach to see the sunset and the full moon rise in the east but clouds came in and destroyed my hopes. Tomorrow we have 500 miles to drive home. On this leg of the journey we have travelled 237 miles; taking our journey at a much slower pace than some of the people doing the North Coast 500. Our total so far, from the start in South Queensferry; is 3072 miles. This is more than Route 66 but not quite as far as the Lincoln Highway.

Round Britain: Wick to John O’Groats


Before leaving Wick we drove down the coast on the Trinkie Road. Trinkie means trunk and the road passes the Trinkie outdoor swimming pool. In the first third of the 20th century many local authorities around the Scottish coast created outdoor pools filled by the tides. They were used for swimming lessons, parties, barbecues and other festivities. Trinkie was restored several years ago and re-opened in 2003.

Just in case you cannot remember the name, it is painted on the rocks.

A little further along the road is the car park and the path to Old Wick Castle. It is a simple tower form and is one of the oldest castles in Scotland, thought to have been built by the Earl of Caithness, Harald Maddadson in the 1160s. In the 14th century wars of independence it was held by Sir Reginald Cheyne, a supporter of English King Edward I.

Driving back around the harbour, across the bridge and round the other side, we passed through the communities of Papigoe and Staxigoe. Before the road system was fully established this far north, Staxigoe was an important port in Caithness. At the end of Noss Head is a Stevenson lighthouse built in 1849 and automated in 1987. Noss comes from the Norse for nose: snos.

There was a statue outside it with no mention of who it was/represented. On the north side of the headland stands Castle Sinclair Giringoe. The Sinclair family who became Earls of Caithness have occupied the site since the 14th century when building began. It was remodelled in the 16th century by the 5th Earl but seized by Cromwell’s troops in 1651. They used it for nine years as their major north stronghold. The Sixth Earl sold the land title to a cousin and after the Earl’s death there was a dispute leading to a land battle and the castle became ruined and has remained so ever since.

The headland was a radio and secret listening post in World War Two. There are views across Sinclair Bay towards Castle Keiss and Duncansby Head. It is about 58.28◦ North. Back in town we picked up the A99 which runs around Sinclair Bay and through a number of small communities. Keiss has a castle; The Caithness Broch Centre is at Auckengill and there is another Castle at Feswick in a small bay. We ran into rain and low cloud before the road climbed Warth Hill and then descended towards John O’ Groats. We turned off to Duncansby Head, the most north easterly part of the British mainland. In between showers we looked at the lighthouse.

The Pentland Skerries are a group of islands offshore. The smallest, Little Skerry has a lighthouse.

Stroma lies to the north and a little further north are the Orkney Islands. After lunch I walked over the hill to the Duncansby Stacks which are impressive structures along the cliffs.

After we had settled into the campsite at John O’Groats, a transient rainbow raised our hopes of better weather tomorrow.