(Thirty-)Six Views of Bass Rock

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It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from.

Robert Louis Stevenson Catriona

Japan’s Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano that looks just like a volcano should. An almost perfectly symmetrical, snow-capped cone, its image is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche. Sacred, beautiful, mysterious, its most iconic representation in art is the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series painted late in life by the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760—1849). Probably the best known of the series is Under the Wave off Kanagawa, which depicts a distant Fuji framed by a terrifying tsunami wave. My own favourite is no. 33 Fine Wind, Clear Morning, which shows Fuji’s cone rendered deep crimson by the rising sun. Featuring delicate cirrus clouds against a blue sky and iconic sun-lit mountain, its aesthetic simplicity ticks all the essential boxes of classic Japanese woodblock art.

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In the United Kingdom, a long way from the tectonic frontline of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, our volcanoes are of a more ancient vintage. Not so much dormant as comatose, long inactive through an aeon-slow unfolding of geological time, all that we have are fossilised remnants of our islands’ distant fire-spewing past. In Scotland, Arthur’s Seat just outside Edinburgh is one such example, as is the rock upon which Edinburgh Castle sits — both volcanic remnants from the Carboniferous period that gripped the Earth over 330 million years ago. Further east, close to the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the island of Bass Rock, located about two kilometres offshore, is of similar pedigree. An igneous volcanic plug created when magma hardened within the vent of an active volcano, the surrounding rock eventually eroded to expose the plug and leave an upstanding landform that rises 100 metres above the water it finds itself in today.

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Bass Rock is probably better known for its bird life than its geology. Northern Gannets nest here in enormous numbers — something in the order of 150,000, making the rock the largest colony of the seabird in the world. The gannets are not permanently resident but leave the rock after breeding each year, migrating their way south for the winter. They were still present when we viewed the rock from the East Lothian shore at Tantallon Castle in October, a small number of the birds straying from the security of the rock to fish close to the shore.

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We had seen Bass Rock from a much closer viewpoint six years previous when we had sailed past it on a boat. It was June then, the height of the breeding season, and the birds seemed to fill the sky above the guano-washed rock, crisscrossing haphazardly above our heads before peeling off to plunge vertically at great speed into the sea in pursuit of fish. On that occasion we were able to smell the colony long before we arrived – an ammoniacal stench so strong that you could almost see its vapour shimmer skywards. Our boat drew close enough to the rock to be able to identify the individual nests of birds, and we could also make out the ruin of St Baldred’s Chapel atop the rock – not the most obvious place for a retreat into the spiritual life given the omnipresence of eye-watering guano deposited by the  rock’s hyperactive tenants.

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Even from the more distant viewpoint of the shore we could discern the rock’s landing places, a fragment of the old castle remains and the white lighthouse, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David. Although there was nothing to be seen now, there was also once a gaol here. James I incarcerated a number of political enemies here in the 15th century, and two centuries later religious prisoners, Presbyterian Covenanters mostly, were also held on this island prison.

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Comparisons between Mount Fuji and Bass Rock are, of course, futile. But there is at least some commonality: both are/were volcanoes; both are capped with white. Hokusai famously produced 36 different views of his beloved mountain, each work unique in terms of distance, viewpoint and time of year. I can only offer something far more modest. Here then, are six views of Bass Rock, taken either in June or October, from shoreline (Tantallon Castle and North Berwick) and from sea.

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Landfall – absence and dislocation on the Forth shore

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It began with a dislocation. A couple of weeks’ residence north of the border in the house of friends who had chosen to trade the Scottish late winter for the Antipodean summer. It was an opportunity for some writing time away from the usual distractions, with the bonus of optional walks along the Firth of Forth to stretch legs and imagination. The house, in a village a dozen miles east of Edinburgh, was situated midway between the railway station and the Forth shore – a ten minute walk to either. And if I needed a dose of cultural inspiration then I could easily catch the train into Auld Reekie and stay for as long as was necessary.

Travelling north by train, I don’t think I was even aware that the ‘Beast from the East’ was brewing trouble far away in continental Russia, and I had been installed in the house for a few days before the repeated warnings started to slowly filter into my consciousness. In those first few days of settling in, I usually worked until early afternoon before going out for a walk along the shore before it got dark. The first of these outings was at low tide. I walked westwards along the tide-ribbed sand, picking my way across shallow channels of water to head in the direction of Edinburgh, the city clearly visible ahead around the curve of the estuary. The twin-peaked bulge of Arthur’s Seat nudged the skyline in the distance, looking every bit the extinct volcano it was. Beyond it, the outline of Edinburgh Castle stood out amidst a hazy tangle of high-rise blocks and the spidery cranes of the docks at Leith. Across the calm, dark water of the Forth were the low hills of Fife. Beyond these, beyond the horizon, the jagged peaks of the Scottish Highlands rose stealthily in the imagined yonder of my mind, unseen yet a presence nevertheless.

The foreshore, glimmering in the low-slung sunshine of late afternoon, was dotted with waders preoccupied with probing the estuary mud. Periodically some perceived threat would alarm them sufficiently for them to fly off in groups before they settled somewhere else to resume feeding. A mixture of redshanks, oyster catchers and curlews, each bird provided their own distinctive piping call to create a wistful shoreline soundscape. In the shallow water close to shore, groups of wigeon huddled together companionably, elegant feathers rustling in the breeze. Out to sea, just about identifiable at this range, small rafts of goldeneye and eider bobbed dozily in the waves lost in sea duck dreams.

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Approaching Port Seton I came upon the wreck of a boat sticking out of the sand, its remnant ribs blackened by salt and age. I wondered about the boat’s history; how long it had been wrecked and abandoned here; what of the lives of the men that had once made up its crew? Time and tide had reduced it to a stark sculpture of salt-soaked wood, a skeletal marker for a vessel that had once sailed the Forth and provided a livelihood: a monument to past lives, or perhaps a warning, a cautionary memento that spoke of the power of the sea.

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On the day before the storm arrived I headed in the opposite direction for my afternoon walk, across the headland of Ferney Ness in the direction of Aberlady Bay through the curious woodland of the Gosford estate.  The sky was greyer today; the Fife shore across the water less well-defined, the ships out in the Forth no longer highlighted by sunshine but hunkered down in the water. The signs were there: a change was coming. Large concrete cube blocks lined the shoreline – tank trap defences dating from the last war; an incomplete wall to chaperone the meeting of land and sea. The blocks continued even through the woodland, weaving through the trees like a broken causeway, an accidental land art installation that marched like a concrete-laying behemoth ever eastwards.

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The ‘beast’ made landfall on Tuesday but the full extent of its might was not fully apparent until the following day. On Wednesday and Thursday it snowed all day without stopping… and then some more – Snow had fallen, snow on snow, as the famous carol goes. The world outside quickly started to lose its familiar topography – the edges of roads blurred then disappeared, footpaths and gardens lost their definition as they submitted to an ever-thickening cover of white. The world had been transformed; made pure, made ice, filtered of colour and tone to leave it monochromatic, but mostly white. The whole notion of travelling far became laughable – in a world without edges there is nowhere else to go. By Friday it seemed almost as if the world had always been like this… and always would be. Frozen in space, frozen in time, this was a world where eternity was cold and white.

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During a break in the snow showers I ventured down to the Forth shore and found the same transformed world. Stems of straw-coloured grass poked thinly through the snow on the dunes as if grasping for air. Another landfall other than that of the storm had taken place – the fresh arrival of wind-blown thrushes from Scandinavia. The sea buckthorn bushes behind the dunes were flurried with activity, noisy with bird chatter, their branches weighed down with feeding fieldfares that threw themselves up into the air at regular intervals to make a quick fly-over of the beach before returning to the shelter of the bushes and the winter-bleached berries that sustained them. In the trees of the golf links behind, there were hundreds – perhaps even thousands – more of the thrushes perched in the higher branches, occasionally flying up en masse into the air on a whim before returning to the tree. The tide was on the turn and the narrow ribbon of sand and seaweed between the water and dunes held an improbable number of birds frantically sifting through the tide line detritus for something to eat: an odd mixture of redwings and golden plover along with a few lapwings and turnstones.  This unusual parliament of birds appeared to coexist peacefully enough, out of the necessity of hunger if nothing else, but it all seemed strange and topsy-turvy: the harsh weather had brought about a dislocation, a disavowal of familiar habitat to leave an absence somewhere else.

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As if experiencing the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, I felt a parallel sense of dislodgement from the world. Telephone calls to my wife and emails to the house’s owners heightened the sense of dislocation as our communications triangulated between Scotland, Norfolk and Australia. There were absences too – of me at home in Norfolk, of my friends in the house in Scotland. The snow globes of our everyday lives had been given a severe shake up and we were all dislocated, unwittingly or otherwise, from our habitual places in the world. Digital technology has resulted in the world we live in becoming a shrunken globe of instant communication, yet the heavy snow and the enforced lack of mobility that the storm wrought resulted in a sudden reduction of the possibilities the world had to offer. In an instance, while horizons had drawn closer, the world beyond had become vast once more.

Life went on as normally as possible. I spent the days indoors writing and editing work, glancing occasionally out of the window to see if it was still snowing. I occasionally ventured out to trace a route to the village shop to buy food basics from its panic-shopped shelves. I followed my own boot prints back on the return journey – Crusoe and Man Friday on a snow-desert island. In the evenings, I cooked a meal and drank a glass or two of rationed wine. I watched the TV weather forecasts and listened to Landfall by Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, a newly purchased CD that turned out to be uncannily apposite. The music helped to extricate an ear worm: Harry Lauder’s  Keep Right On To The End Of The Road, which had been put there by way of googling for something I was writing (don’t ask… not yet anyway). There again, the Lauder song was appropriate too.

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After five days of snow, wind and reduced horizons, the thaw began. Local trains started to run once more and I was able to get into Edinburgh, where I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow bloggers Murdo Eason and Brian Lavelle. Meeting with folk whose interests overlapped with my own, my sense of dislocation eased – I was back in the world, the familiar world of brick and stone and street signage, once more.

Before I returned home I went back for a final look at the shore. The snow had largely melted by now, although there were still frozen pockets of it on the dunes. The beach birdlife was much depleted: the usual redshanks and curlews were there but only a handful of redwings remained. The sea buckthorn bushes had also fallen silent now, although I could make the silhouettes of a small number of fieldfares that remained in the trees on the golf course. Thousands of birds had vanished overnight from this same locality in the brief transition from freeze to thaw. Their abrupt departure had left a void; an emptiness in the soul of this place, a sudden absence that was almost heartrending.

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Thanks to Murdon Eason and Brian Lavelle for taking the trouble to slog through the Edinburgh slush to meet up with me. Both have excellent blogs that are well worth investigating, From Hill to Sea and Edinburgh Drift. They have collaborated together to produce the highly recommended book + CD Language of Objects.

Gloomy Sunday

It is Sunday in Edinburgh and the city streets are filled with Frenchmen in blue shirts and black berets all come for the Six Nations rugby match against Scotland at Murrayfield stadium. Preferring the game that favours a more spherical ball it seems like a good opportunity to take the train to Glasgow for the day.

The previous day, on our mentioning Scotland’s largest city, Colin, our bed and breakfast host, remarked, “Well, I’m Edinburgh man so I’m biased but I think Glasgow makes the most of what it’s got to be fair.” It is no secret – Edinburgh and Glasgow may be less than 50 miles apart – one hour on the train – but there is a cultural gulf between the two cities. Or so they would have you believe: rough, working class Glasgow versus genteel, middle-class Edinburgh; Billy Connolly versus Miss Jean Brodie; deep-fried pizza versus herb-infused foccacio. This is, of course, a misleading generalisation but it cannot be denied that the two cities do have a markedly different feel. Edinburgh is no longer ‘Auld Reekie’ but a stylish European capital with a beautiful skyline. Glasgow, on the other hand, remains a Victorian city par excellence – famously, the second city of the British Empire. While Edinburgh seems to thrive on its glorious past and embody the spirit of the Georgian Enlightenment, Glasgow, like Manchester and Sheffield over the border in England, is a place in post-industrial transition, a city trying to find its rightful place in the 21st century. Despite its City of Culture makeover a decade or so ago, Glasgow still manages to look a bit threadbare around the edges in a way that central Edinburgh does not. This is only part of the picture though – take a bus out to one of the outlying ‘schemes’ in either metropolis and peripheral Edinburgh looks every bit as unattractive and dysfunctional as the wastelands of outer Glasgow.

In Glasgow, the Willow Tearooms still operates in the city centre, a working shrine to the distinctive secessionist style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the city’s most famous sons. The Glasgow School of Art designed by Mackintosh when he worked as an architect in the city lies just around the corner. The ‘Room de Luxe’ at the top of the stairs is a delight – elegant high-backed chairs, roses in vases and a view through stained glass windows down onto Sauchiehall Street below.  The window glass (original we are told) distorts a little, affording a slightly twisted view of a boarded-up Pound-Mart store opposite, humdrum 1960s and peeling paint. A solitary busker, clearly audible from the tearoom, plays the trumpet to passers-by, belting out jazz standards like Summertime in fast rotation. But summertime it is not – the day is dreich and chilly, the sky the colour of cold porridge – Gloomy Sunday might be a more apposite choice.

A mile or so to the east, beyond Queen Street Station and George Square with its Modern Art Gallery, St Mungo’s Cathedral sits next door to the Royal Infirmary, a proximity that is surely no mere coincidence. Beyond the dark glowering sandstone of the cathedral and across a footbridge (‘the Bridge of Sighs’ utilised by funeral processions) lies the Necropolis – Glasgow’s city of the dead. The most obvious monument, looming high on a Doric column at the top of the hill is a memorial to John Knox, the Protestant reformer but the first that we pass on the winding road uphill is a monument to William Miller, ‘The Laureate of the Nursery’ responsible for the children’s nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie, which was originally written in Scots:

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Upstairs and doonstairs, in his nichtgoon,
Tirlin’ at the window, cryin’ at the lock,
“Are the weans in their bed? For it’s now ten o’clock.”

We climb the path to the top. Low cloud has drained all colour from the view apart from that of the glowing rust brown of the neo-Norman Monteath mausoleum, which brings to mind an Armenian church but was apparently modelled on the Knights Templar Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Further up, the William Rae Wilson mausoleum is decidedly Moorish, a fitting monument to someone who travelled and wrote about the Middle East. Next to this, the entrance of the Graeco-Egyptian mausoleum of John Houldsworth is flanked by stern white angels, Hope and Charity, while Faith lies within glowing almost praternaturally in the gloom.

The view is the thing here. From the vantage point of the Necropolis it is easier to grasp the scale of Scotland’s largest city, even on a dull day such as this. The concrete, brick and stone of the city centre sprawls to the west beyond St Mungo’s spire and buttresses. Elsewhere, the land dips and rises gently to trace the valleys of Glasgow’s rivers, the Clyde and Kelvin. High-rise housing schemes dot the horizon east and north, an architectural echo of the serried ranks of tombs that line the Necropolis thoroughfares – a world of folk that once belonged to Glasgow’s inner city but now find themselves detached and isolated. If you believe the clichéd image, a realm of ne’er do wells – bampots, malkies, and chiv-wielding neds – but also pensioners, terminally unemployed steel workers, young single mothers and beleaguered immigrants. Whatever the reality, it is a long way from the fancy designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and certainly no place for Wee Willie to wander alone at night.

Heading back to Edinburgh our train squeezes past another returning to Glasgow at Croy station. Not quite as crowded as those we saw heading for Edinburgh on the way there, its carriages are full of middle-aged men in kilts and Scotland rugby shirts. They look somewhat subdued – clearly Scotland has lost the rugby.