Ice. I’ve lived in cold places, but never this cold I suppose. Frozen sand, iced ponds, incredible shards and circles and forms, as beautiful on incredible beaches as within the pocked asphalt alongside an industrial estate. I know these have nothing on what can be seen all along the East Coast today, the frozen wonder of Niagra Falls, but then I suppose you should never compare wonders.
Inverness. It is cold and beautiful, full of sun and mists followed/preceeded by rain. I have seen ice, have walked on frozen sands. We are staying in a most beautiful fisherman’s cottage on the river Ness, fixed up by wealth, a claw-foot tub in one gabled window, central heating and a le creuset casserole dish of the kind I aspire to own just left here in which to cook my favourite chicken with garlic, lemon, white wine. We curled up after dinner on the couch, watched the Godfather and an old Sherlock Holmes played by Basil Rathbone. Caught Hootenany with Mavis Staples and George McCrae and Soul II Soul and Ruby Turner. At the new year, fireworks exploded over the river just for us I think. Happiness complete last night.
This morning we woke to sun.
We thought we had to move quickly to keep the sun, we crossed the bridge to a world beautiful. Like paintings I stared at when I was little, could never imagine being present within.
Our cottage whitewashed there on the left, a green door. We walked down along the water through industrial and council estates, past burdens civil and into Merkinch Nature Reserve.
Back home to a breakfast of Lorne sausage and haggis and eggs, the sun now shining warmly on the world, unforseen by all weather predictions. Long may it continue.
Happy New Year.
An unexpected reminder of the transitory nature of life and flight
An immensity of space
And into the woods
and out again
I have never walked across frozen sand before
through a watercolour world
of frozen waters
The only thing missing, a great flock of salmon pink flamingos glowing against the dark cliffs and snowy peaks, being herded by Tilda Swinton back into her exotic aviary. It did start raining by the time we got back to Nairn to wait for our train.
Begun in 1224 and ruined by 1560, we found Elgin Cathedral frozen into the grass, inscribed against the sky.
Its bulk fades into fragility, its space shaped loosely by huge gaping walls, remains of windows that spin your view about the grayness of sky. Stubs of pillars that pull it down again to the grass and fill its center with memory.
Enough remains to remind you of just how beautifully human being worked this stone.
The chapter house, still miraculously standing
A Pictish cross, with barely visible views of falconry
I have not seen so many Memento Mori since St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, certainly never so many in the UK. Here they are carved into stone, reminders of death sat alongside symbols of labour in life. How much better is this than the polished marbles of conquest and pillage.
Memento Mori, Elgin Cathdral
And there are some most beautiful stone heads, human and animal alike.
Views of the ruins from above
And views over Elgin from the tower:
It is so hard to photograph trees, but the burn of Kelburn Castle was of surpassing loveliness and contrasts on this mid-February day. Wind through branches filled the world, an icy roaring mostly above our heads — a few branches came down around us as we were walking. One huge crack and a falling of one just in front of us provided some photographic comedy gold (Much as did my wearing three shirts, jumper, hoodie and coat), but also a slight thrill of danger.
But the woods, oh the woods. Empty of people, full of forest soundings. They sang impossibly beautiful around us in traceries of twigs framed by moss covered trunks. The red of fallen leaves still glowing.
My little brother, who at over six feet isn’t actually all that little but seemed hidden and small in this place…
Trees surrounding the falling of water…
This incredible mossy bark…
The wooly character of branches
The microcosms that live here
And then to slowly emerge from the trees to see the view of the Firth of Clyde and its islands and snow-capped mountains in the distance:
And its unexpected additions
From there we returned back to the castle, to a most wonderful walled garden and trees tamed — yet not entirely.
Single trees, enormous and ancient yews, some of them planted over a thousand years ago and framing more formal gardens alongside Kelburn castle. Three of Scotland’s most historic trees are here.
The first spring flowers I have seen this year, and a few other budding branches:
This whole place is primarily geared towards kids, families, campers — there were wonderful things for kids all around, though I was glad that the weather meant we had the place to ourselves and I imagine it is heaving in the spring and summer. I quite love what these Brazilian artists did to the castle when let loose on it:
But the last bit of the walk brought an unexpected reminder of some of the underlying social relations that have clouded this place. Not least that it is privately owned, but also in how it connected to power and Empire. All of this beauty was once owned by the Earl of Glasgow, who also served as governor of New Zealand — in an old not-very-waterproof shed sits a small museum with some of his collection. The faces of those who had their own wilds stolen from them stared back at us.
Tristram and I drove down to Kelburn Castle, and it was baltic, with rain almost sleet as we left but we headed from Hamilton towards Largs and occasionally the clouds would break to reveal patches of blue sky. Some sunshine, though lighting the world up far from us. The wind was freezing, even among the trees. Ice lined the puddles of water, though water flowed and rivuleted everywhere down the burn as we climbed it.
It was astounding to see these amazing snowdrops:
Thousands of them. Like these, adorning the banks, among these enormous, ancient trees.
As we walked back to the car park, we passed this last, lone utterly mad daffodil.
In the walled garden there were some beautiful rhododendrons blooming as well — I love walled gardens, what wonderful places they are in this climate! Yet I don’t feel I can count them really.
Bass Rock is now the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets, and along with neighbour Craigleith, is also home also to cormorants, kittiwakes, shags, guillemots, razorbills and, of course, PUFFINS (I saw puffins!).
Like everyone else, I adore puffins.
From afar I saw puffins. They are so small! So wonderful! So hard to see! Flecks of white floating in the firth between the boat and the island, because my camera has no zoom:
The head of a curious seal was also visible, just one, another bright shape watching us from Craigleith’s shadows where stone meets water.
Craigleith with the great white mass of Bass Rock beyond it.
Amazing sight that it is. (Also, I saw puffins!)
Northern gannets are beautiful things, spending time here between March and about October.
They mate for life, and return year after year to the same patch of rock to mate and raise their young. They are intensely territorial while here, but after leaving Bass rock they will head to Africa. Seeing a natural wonder of the world and birds who migrate from Africa to the UK and back again right above all stupid human borders doesn’t make the world any easier to bear right now, but, you know, it shows there are other ways to do things. Spending time with my little brother was also pretty awesome.
More views of gannet-strewn rocks and crevices — I somehow didn’t get any of the guillemots, who I also love.
Tantallon castle’s ruins lie quite spectacular in the distance, but nothing compared to this.
The cliffs themselves, wondrous.
Rounding them, there are caves along the other side:
up to the lighthouse, and the castle-become-prison for Covenanters and Jacobites with an old hermitage somewhere there as well.
The lighthouse on Bass Rock was built by the Stevenson family who were lighthouse engineers — the family, in fact, of Robert Louis Stevenson, who also trained as a lighthouse engineer. It features in his novel Catriona, and an island just down the coast from here (visible from the boat in fact) is supposedly the inspiration for Treasure Island.
A last cormorant from the shore, I still love them too…
A last view of this wondrous place from North Berwick — itself a beautiful little town.
I saw puffins! Tristram and I had quite a lovely day, which also included Dirleton Castle, but I’ll write about that later I think.
Sunday we had a traditional Scottish barbecue with Laura’s family — in the pouring rain with our brollies and sandals, and for a little while there I also though Ireland might progress to the final eight, but sadly that first goal was not repeated. Good games today though, and good to see family I’ve not seen in ages. We even watched an hour on the Royal Highland Show — a procession of bulls, cows, sheep and coats moved across my screen in a strange recap of the past two months that has transformed how I watch such things.
I wrote this a week ago in an internet free environment…
I’m in Aberdeen with Sara and Rowen and today sparkled with sunshine and rain, the train ride up here was glorious and filled with golden light and green moors and the sea, space around me in all directions, freedom stretching out side to side. And tonight I am absurdly happy. Very few people know happiness I think; I am so lucky.
A great chat, a tramp along a dirt path through the woods alongside a burn, and then a right up the hillside past fields with horses and a high stone wall to Rowen’s school to pick her up. A wee rest and then down to visit Sara’s brother past fields of pigs. We made pasta with fresh vegetables picked from their garden and romped with three tiny puppies who all finally fell asleep in my lap, and played tig and took a walk with the two dogs Bonnie and Meg down the road to the woods. We lost Meg and had to go back to look for her and then lost some time on the great bales of hay. My first time on bales of hay, you can jump and fall and roll around and it is soft almost like I imagine a cloud would be. There is honestly little better in the world than playing tig on bales of hay and clambering up and around and over and falling and not minding a bit. We lost Meg again, Meg was asserting her right not to go for a walk, so back to the house we went and then back home. And watched the empire strikes back munching on biscuits. Nevis the small black mouse had been released to enjoy his freedom a while in the living room, and it took some time to find him. I was having some misgivings about sleeping on the floor in said living room with Nevis running about, not enough to fall asleep somewhere else of course. But I have woken to find myself face to face with a mouse before, in the good old desert days, I can’t say I enjoyed it particularly. Luckily he was found underneath the chest and put to his own bed and so the room is mouse free and I am sleepy.
And I think in spite of everything life is beautiful.
So I know Andy Murray lost the U.S. Open yesterday, Federer was playing brilliantly and there wasn’t much hope…
But I watched the match in a Glasgow pub, and it was extraordinary. The great working class, yelling unrepeatable phrases at the screen, as much into a tennis match as they were into the Scotland v. Macedonia qualifier for the world cup. To be sure, there were less of them, but they were no less emotional, no less committed, no less gutted in defeat. It was extraordinary. And I suppose it is nationalism, and nationalism is bad bad bad. But there was also something lovely about hoity tennis players being fluently cursed in broad and colloquial glaswegian, and I enjoyed myself immensely.
And no one else seems to remember the Monty Python sketch where evil alien blancmanges come to earth and turn everyone in the world into scotsmen so they (the blancmanges) can win Wimbledon. It is one of the most absurd ridiculous sketches of all time, and one of my favourites. I think it adds a bit more depth to Andy Murray’s presence at the US Open. But I could be wrong.