Tag Archives: Edinburgh

Here and there we find an opening

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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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Milklight

 

 

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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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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But the only ghost I could see -

 

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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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?).

 

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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:

 

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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.

 

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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).

 

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

 

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The Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow

 

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Dusk at Dalry Graveyard, Edinburgh

 

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

 

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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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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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At the right hour

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- you’ll catch a sky like this over Embra. A gloaming sky.  A few solitary clouds like this, delicate but moving fast.

 

If you’d like something to read, whatever hour of the day it is with you, I’ve written the next installment in a series of essays on The Female Gaze recapping Supernatural. One essay per episode per season (of which there are currently 8 – 8 essays). They do contain spoilers but I’m trying to dig into aspects (as well as problematic sides) provided in each episode.

 

Here’s a taster of the current essay:

 

You’ve thought it before. People have sung of it: Our lives could be very different to how they are now. Those tiny twists in fate accrued over time and became a part of you. That coin you dropped and didn’t stop to pick up. That spelling mistake on a job application. That face whose glance you chose to return with a smile. That time you pulled the bottle from your lips and made it stay put down.

You might not want things to be any different, but it doesn’t stop you thinking about how it could have been.

READ MORE

 

Aside from these essays, I’m trying to summon the energy to alter an essay on the Aethiopika, though the priority this week seems to be to edit Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts down to a sharp white point. I really want to tackle the long essay – stirred to do so by the kindness and insight of Chris J Rice – but whenever I sit down, it’s the novel I am dragged to. Make it better, make it lighter. Why are you taking so long with what will be a little clawed snow hare of a thing when it’s done?

 

My friend C gave me some advice that kicked me into action. Very simply, it was to number chapters, rather than write ‘chapter one’ etc as I had been doing. Such a small change made the text feel immediately fresher. And highlighted the soft squashy lines (and whole paragraphs) that needed peeling down.  Revelation. My eyes furring up as I struggle a page at a time, into the night.

 

So while I grow tired often and sometimes feel creatively spent, or isolated, I know that there is a community of writers and wise souls. Virgils, yes. But not leading me down to the inferno.  Writing back from their own spaces, waving across the ravines. Thank you, all.

 

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Love Letter 6 – ‘Edinburgh, Scotland’

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‘Edinburgh, Scotland’ appeared in ‘I <3 _____: Everywhere is the New New York’. Here it is in full, with pictures from previous posts:

 

To begin with, every city is about the people, of course. But in Edinburgh, the city is more about the interplay of stone, weather and light. The people have coursed through this space in its various forms for at least twelve centuries, but the stone and the weather and the angle of the sun outlast them all.

 

It’s easy to say we don’t have four seasons here, that we lack definites. Summer is cardigan weather most days. Winter, umbrella. Spring is much the same, and Autumn. But we do have two distinct seasons: the season of light and the season of dark.

 

In Winter, we wake to dark at eight, to bluish haze and the egg-yellow glow from the windows across the shared back green of our tenement.

In Summer, morning is at four, striking against the cliffs of Salisbury Crags. Stark outlines, warm tones against a keening pale blue, like a 1930s hand-drawn postcard version of itself. Dusk at eleven.

In Winter the dark comes knocking at four om, and some days it feels never light at all.

This is how we know our year, by the way the light or dark shapes our buildings, our volcanic rock.

 

From the summit of Calton Hill; Arthur's seat, Salisbury crags (the long diagonal cliffs) and at their feet the Scottish Parliament (among other structures)

From the summit of Calton Hill; Arthur’s seat, Salisbury crags (the long diagonal cliffs) and at their feet the Scottish Parliament (among other structures)

 

There’s something mournful about the city. I remember reading the writer AL Kennedy calling it a sad place, saying that she couldn’t live here through all that restrained sadness. I understand, yet here I am.

 

North Bridge towards Princes Street and the Balmoral Hotel

 

It’s cold and the sky lips the hill of Arthur’s Seat. The commuters walk down the blue and red North Bridge from the high-leaning higgledy of the Old Town over to eighteenth century New Town. The Crags and the Seat overlook them, leaning back in their mist. The commuters keep their hands in their pockets, their scarves neatly tucked at their throats.

 

Below, the train station, jimmied Victorian, glass encased, wonders if there will be another jumper from the bridge, remembers the days of steam and of ‘North Britain’. The grey shipwreck of the Scottish Parliament, off by the cliffs, whispers, wheesht. Shhh. Says, now really. We’ve more to show than those days.

 

It’s sometimes easy to get lost in the layers of the cake. How do we live here? It’s true that in Edinburgh, people are polite and reserved. That they won’t fight you so much as shake their head at you, judging. They are conservative in ways that defy the modern notions – socially progressive, politically too, they will purse their lips at someone speaking loudly in a cafe, wryly say, “oh that lot, there they go again.” The goth and punk kids stalk their limits of territory on Cockburn Street and Hunter Square. The arts fall within certain limitations, though artists are always there, pushing quietly back.

 

Festival time, in August, is the carnivalesque, the moment of sanctioned release. Here come the Irish, English, North Americans to tell us jokes and paint themselves silver. Here are the writers with books coming out, and issues to shuffle and spark. Then, when the month goes, most of them go too, and the grey stone re-solidifies, and the sounds muffle til the New Year. Hogmanay. A Viking longboat is dragged down North Bridge on a river of burning torches, then set alight by the unfinished pillars on Calton Hill. The dark is there, pressing tightly round us. History, of another part of the country altogether, really, pressing too. Dark at 3:40, that last first day of the year.

 

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Beyond the feast days, it is a quiet city. Sometimes the breweries tang the air, bagpipes play on the street corners in the centre. Sometimes it’s a fraction of a scent or a reedy song you hear. Passing as you are under a wide dark bridge, up a cobbled narrow wynd, you become liminal, neither in one year or another. Adrift between the walls. The cities is entirely itself. It has grown and fossilised and now all that can change it is the weather, the light. Forces greater than human endeavour.

 

A roundabout of graves, in the centre of the kirkyard's road

 

You could go into a kirkyard to see the gravestones, think: did you all feel the same? How little and how great a space you had to slip yourself within? The green, black stones are silent, it’s one-thirty and there is no sun. A great inevitability. But you’re already here, within the weather, breathing clouds. A narrow space in your own body. A line in the book of history, though your name itself might not be reported.

 

Right now. Here. Edinburgh. A yolk-yellow light beams from your own window, charming a rain-harried passer-by.

 

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Objects+spaces, mute

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Edinburgh, in permanent pre-spring. Hard stoned and blue.  The glasshouse, The Scott Monument in a whirl of snow, an alley in the University district. Only a model of the town, showing it in 17th century layout, looks warm, Mediterranean. Let’s go and live there in the tiny houses, rake the wee gardens, sun ourselves.

Nothing to do but wait and blow on our fingers.

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