Tag Archives: Edinburgh


This was a few days ago, but it is also May

This was a few days ago, but it is also May


A smudge in a grey dressing gown. I’ve been writing, too much. If that is possible. Fourteen flash in the last two weeks. More in a collection I’m building. But I’m beginning to feel the cracks. In among the cracks, the heads of cherry blossoms, folded neat as sentences.




I’ve finished the book that took a month and a bit to read, and expect to review it shortly. When I am not a smudge sick with creativity. When I’m not pink candyfloss puffball seen torn through mist, adding up to – something. I pick up a book – Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, and hope I can devote to it what it deserves, and that it will repay me with severe and stinging balm.


More news here when it is to be shared.

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st cuthberts



Damp and bright day. Reading flash. Drinking tea. Bouts of comfort and dis-. Writing, small pieces. Listening here. and here. Moored to the room, moored to the moment.

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Rain tonight



Edinburgh Castle at dusk


Rain at dusk, and rain later, and rain likely all through the night in the city. So, a poem for it, rural:
Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
in its ghost-part when the bark
slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.
When it falls apart, some feel the moondark air
drop its motes to the patch-thick slopes of
snow. Tiny blinkings of ice from the oak,
a boot-beat that comes and goes, the line of prayer
you can follow from the dusking wind to the snowy owl
it carries.
- from ‘Some Feel Rain‘ by Joanna Klink

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Here and there we find an opening







I don’t know that these photos are any good; I was trying to capture a sun-shower that started up as I walked home yesterday, through Edinburgh’s financial district. It is raining in that top picture too, though it might be hard to tell. There’s always something magical when it rains while the sky is so bright. That gap in the bottom picture, beyond the cars, is where a plot of land stands empty and unsold. It’s all weeds and piles of earth that, if not one lays down concrete, will soon be covered in new grass, thistles, those waving purple-blossomed trees that butterflies are said to love.


I hope that if developers do take it over, they make it a park. To keep the opening, open, for just such times as these.

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I hardly have the art down, but sometimes the light’s like this, and it makes the canal softened, the path and rooftops metallic, the grass and hedge something from a painting by 19th century artist forgotten in a loft by her family for decades and then unfolded in winter. But here in person, it’s Edinburgh, October. 



In ten days I leave to be in the mountains and research flash fictional narratives and write the third novel, which is of beauty and of desolation. Edinburgh in white, explosive mountain light. Or what lights the mountains have, and I shall find out. 



I wish sometimes I could be better than I am. Cooler, sharper, smarter, more direct. But I can only reflect the places that made me. Like a book of photographs. Moors and hills, and the cities and towns of Scotland. Even New York couldn’t spit polish me, or Sydney buff away the mist. 


Ten days before I go. I’m not sure I’ll post before then. Maybe one last rallying shout. The explorer to her home-rooted crew.





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The empty grounds



Not a factory except one for the mind – or a holding pen, maybe. D and I went wandering around the abandoned Tynecastle High School grounds. Note – we didn’t open anything, just went where the empty space allowed us.


tynecastle 1



I don’t know how long it’s been empty. You can see how high the hedge has grown. A decade maybe? The school stands wide on its grounds at the back of Tynecastle stadium, where, if you don’t know, Hearts of Midlothian play. Things are starting to break down the tarmac. Water, plants. Pushing towards colonisation.







Tynecastle 2






The buildings have a strange harmony together, which seems not entirely a product of design – age and concomitant softening have given their edges a good fit. Like slots of wood meant to be used together, and often used, and now found in a drawer some time later, worn but still clinging to their sense of purpose.






Tynecastle 4




The place was neither desolate nor unpleasant (schools sometimes are – that air of bleach-tinged misery). I looked in the windows -





But the only ghost I could see -


author photo



Was my own.




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Horror and Weirdness at the Edinburgh International Book Festival


Not as negative as you might be led to believe! This is the aforementioned discussion on ‘the Scottish Peculiarity’ that D and I went to see along with his mother and step-father who are visiting us at the moment.


Margaret Atwood chaired the event beautifully, with an understated hand and a wry sense of humour. My biggest regret after the show was that I only went to one of her events – clearly, I should have gone to more. Next year!


The other speakers were Ian Rankin Valerie Martin, a writer from New Orleans previously unknown to me. She wrote a novel called Mary Reilly, which is a retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story from the maid’s point of view. Martin added a quiet thoughtfulness to the proceedings. I was particularly interested in the too-brief chat about the Mary Celeste, which she has also written a novel about, and that mystery’s ties to Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote an anonymous ‘account’ of the ship’s abandonment.


Ian Rankin had a great stock of knowledge of the Scottish weird and macabre in his head, and a great wit to boot. I was particularly interested in the clootie well he mentioned being somewhere outside of the city – I hadn’t known about it. A clootie well is similar to a fairy tree (schietree as I’m calling it here) in that it’s used to try to address problems through interaction with the natural world as a conduit to the spirit world. In Scots ‘clootie’ means cloth – folk go to trees and wells and tie small cloths to branches or by the well in order to seek remedy for some bad fortune. Rankin said he went by the well once and saw a full quilt tied up, and written on it was ‘BIG PROBLEM, BIG CLOOTIE’. This story I had to later explain to my in-laws as they, as Doug is, are American. It got me wondering if there mightn’t be a site in North America where people have made a clootie tree. Anyone know of this?


Some of the books and writers discussed included:


Robert Louis Stevenson, for his Jekyll and Hyde for the most part – with some great revelations about a story of his childhood home containing a wardrobe built by Deacon Brodie, the respectable citizen by day, housebreaker by night who some people say inspired the famous novella.


Arthur Conan Doyle and his rationalism tempered by an obsession in spiritualism.


James Hogg, author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – as Rankin rightly said, a difficult and important book and one that more people should read. I hadn’t thought of this before, but it made sense that as he said this book had been quite influential on Scottish crime fiction writers, given that it’s perhaps the first book about a serial killer. Read it!


Some smatterings on Poe and Macbeth too – and a sprinkling of names of Scottish writers male and female who served to whet the appetite but sadly were not addressed. Scottish ballads were brought up, and now I’d like to get myself a wee look at a collection of them, given how rich and grim their stories are. Other highlights included the story of Half-Hanged Mary of Massachusetts, apparently a relation of Margaret Atwood, and the famous anecdote about a drunken David Hume falling in the Nor’ Loch, Edinburgh’s former heavily polluted water supply, and only being rescued after he, a firm atheist, recited the Lord’s Prayer. Which he did, atheists in particular not being overly fond of death.


The discussion was baggy, wide-ranging and utterly engrossing. I really did not take notes because I was too caught up in it. It could have been a little more scholarly – but I say that as someone who has delved into the Supernatural in Scottish fiction as a casual interest since I was about ten, so. I might be a little more prepped and keen than those who got themselves an intriguing introduction to the topic. The question of whether Scotland is more into its fictive horrors and weirdness was moot and addressed, as I’ve thought before, as a by-product of the Northern Dark. If anything my criticism would be that it was all far too short. I’d have happily listened to the three speak for hours on the subject. In fact they mentioned talking in the writer’s yurt at the festival beforehand, and as my step-father-in-law said, ‘to be a fly on that wall!’.


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Down where the stories lie buried in the grass

dalry graves 2



This wild, rangy graveyard is a few minutes walk from where we now live, and long-term readers of this blog will know that graveyards are some of my favourite places to visit. In particular, those older fields where no new occupants can be interred, so that in my wanderings I don’t disturb any mourners. It’s more than that of course. Old graveyards have a certain quality to them. Hard to define in a single word – still, perhaps? sad, softly fumy with greenness overgrowing, with old trees reaching above well-settled grass. They are places to walk and think slow, graveyard thoughts.


dalry graves 9


dalry graves 8


Dalry is a wonderful spot for exploring. According to this history student’s Yelp review, the only reason the cemetery exists is because of a Cholera outbreak in the 1830s which filled the other extant graveyards in the city. Now closed, but with twenty-four hour access for the curious, Dalry cemetery displays signs of both benign neglect and selective management, which adds to its charm. The main paths and the edges around some stones have been mowed, but off the beaten track the nettles have sprung up high like a protective cloak or sea around unreachable graves.


dalry graves 1




The council have knocked down many of the stones, which I think they do in order to protect walkers from injury when they fall. But this does add to the feeling that the dead who lie here are somewhat forgotten. Which draws me nearer to those whose markers still stand.


dalry graves 3



This white stone was for a young man, I think. It draws the eye from all the way down on the path to the exit.


dalry graves 6



I love when professions are recorded on the graves – there was also a ‘master plumber’. But this goes far and above the others, telling where Ms Rea, governess, died. It says below the cut-off, she died in 1861, along with the line ‘I have longed for thy salvation’.


My mind ran wild with the idea that this woman died in strange circumstances, which led those left behind to write the line with something like doubt for her soul. Once home, I typed her name into google, and there she was, on a census twenty years before her death, twenty years old, a governess at a farmhouse in the parish of Yarrow, Selkirkshire. Irish in origin. It took the help of David Greig to fill in other clues: Kilgraston was or is a Catholic school for girls. So Elizabeth Rea died at forty or so, probably unmarried, still a governess. Though there is room for ambiguity: why a governess and not a teacher? And why so young (or was that a good age for 1861?).


dalry graves 10


Another Elizabeth has a stone which gives an entirely different impression. I haven’t researched Elizabeth Purdie (mother) and Davina Welsh Christie (mother and grandmother),  who were buried together in this plot, but I feel like I should, given the eerie feelings I got standing over them. In the above picture you can see the grave at a distance. Here it is up close:


dalry graves 4



Now, I’m not generally a superstitious person. As much as I believe in the afterlife, ghosts and haunted spaces are another matter entirely. I love the idea of them, the way certain places seem to hold on to their past – usually unpleasant, usually bloody – in a near visible way. I am generally affected, as I walk around an old battleground or castle, by the atmosphere lent by mossy stone or my own knowledge of the history. I will think of those who died and wonder at their lives, at the cruelty which took them in such violent ways.


But here it was hard not to pause. Not to shudder just a little at the dark barren ground around the grave. All of the plants had died back. They had not been cut – it was simply that nothing grew. Now, maybe (given the signs of mourning here, which were on no other grave that I could see), the family or someone else sprayed the area around about with weed killer. That would be a good, rational explanation, wouldn’t it? I’d like to be rational. But something made me hesitate after taking the picture, and pick a sprig of what was either hemlock or queen anne’s lace and leave it in the flower holder. To pacify or show respect to the spirits or Purdie and Christie, yes.


dalry graves 11


The  problems of an over-active imagination. Or we can say it was a point of overlap, a thin place. If we like. All I can say is that old graveyards are a great place for research into fiction, because they are broken chains of meaning, which nature is attempting to erase, and writers tend to grub about for meaning, letting their minds fill the gaps. I’m not sure if I’ll go to google for the two companions, because I rather like not knowing. If you do go looking, feel free to leave a comment here.


By the way, in that picture above I was not crouching. The stalk of that plant (hemlock or queen anne’s lace?) is about seven feet tall. I reached for the smaller stuff to leave behind in courtesy.  And now, back to planning this third novel, with my mind all teeming with overgrown weeds.




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First pack


Something different today: a little gallery all taken in the last few weeks, on Impossible Project Film, using the 30+ year old Polaroid camera (a Supercolor 635, for those who like to know these things).




Rhododendrons seen from the window of the Lochranza Youth Hostel, Isle of Arran (first image taken)




The Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow




Dusk at Dalry Graveyard, Edinburgh




A reflection of the Polaroid camera and my hand, taken through the window in our new flat, Fountainbridge, Edinburgh




The Union Canal, Polwarth, Edinburgh


As you can see, the images have a few colour leaks, and a dreamy look to them. Possibly that means I have to clean the rollers on the camera. Or, in the case of the last picture, refrain from stuffing it into the pocket of my trousers. But anyway, using the Polaroid is a treat, and one that I take full care to enjoy. I like the wooziness. The unpredictable qualities. And being able to have a physical thing to hold. To watch emerge over minutes (long minutes, hidden in a safe unlit place) as I once watched darkroom films swim into clarity.


I have to be mindful with each shot, since the film costs £24 for 8 images. For the next two days, there’s a discount code for five euros off, though I’m not sure if it will work in the UK. As of right now, I have one pack left, tucked into our tiny fridge.  What would you like me to take a picture of out and about Edinburgh? I’m thinking the castle from down near St Cuthbert’s Kirk. I’d love to hear your ideas. And of course, have an excuse to go roaming.

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Love letter 7 – stone collisions

angles 3


Because Edinburgh is built over hilly terrain and up against and on the crest of volcanic cliffs, it is often hard to navigate for those who do not know it well. Points of visual reference, such as the castle, prove useless when suddenly you find yourself at a lower level than the street you wanted to be on. Now you’re under a high spanning stone bridge. Now you’re curving round, looping back on yourself. You just saw that infernal castle a moment ago, but now the compass is spinning and wherever you are, it’s oddly dark for a Spring afternoon.


calton hill


Pro tip- that’s not actually the castle. It’s the governor’s house of the old Calton Jail, on Calton Hill.


At other points, the landscape of the city provides an chaotic but visually appealing collision of stone and texture. Over the years a sequence of building and rebuilding and adjuncts and buttressing has lead to brick and stone insets in the natural cliffsides (ruins of old churches, or stopgaps to prevent rockfall) and to the picture at the top of the page, where an alley smashes into itself as two buildings come to a head.




It confounds the eye – one building heaving into another. Lights rim the floor so that in the dark there are some simpler definitions for the foot passenger to use as guide. But not all of Edinburgh is like this, of course. There are the grand parades among the frenzy of knots and neuks.




And then there’s the final image I will leave you with here. One of my favourite parts of the city, where the vistas open  and the cliffs rise in their changing colours over the rough and short cropped grass. Holyrood Park, by the Scottish Parliament:




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