Field Trip Observation Poetry Psychogeography

Tracing the Cut: On the Path of Sleeping Sleepers


On the path of sleeping sleepers

as it looked

on the last day of 2014.

Time to return

and follow the line.






The small part of the track that we had walked at the end of last year was overgrown but easily passable. The rails and sleepers still intact. We returned a few weeks ago on a day heralding early intimations of another spring to come. That change in light, the soft drone of an awakening insect world and pointillistic bursts of unseen and unidentified bird calls.

The paradox of being off the well-trodden path and yet only following a line to wherever it may eventually lead. We are not sure how far it goes and whether it will be entirely passable.

We almost fail immediately as we soon encounter impenetrable thickets of bramble bushes. (noted for autumn). This leaves no option but to take a slight detour and pick up the line again by sliding down an embankment beside a small road bridge. This looks more promising. The line stretches out ahead. Blue pools trap the sky whilst shadow branches sweep across the cut in the light breeze.


This incision through the landscape is just another example of a history of human activity that leaves its traces and stories embedded in the earth. Field enclosures, drystane dykes, managed woodlands, roads and a network of railways have all left enduring marks on the landscape from the pre-agrarian to the post-industrial.

Prior to construction of this railway line, ox-drawn wagons delivered coal from the Dunfermline pits to the nearest harbour at Brucehaven a distance of around five miles on primitive roads. By the end of the 18th century, growth of the lime industry at Charlestown – which relied on large amounts of coal – led to the construction of the Elgin Wagonway which laid down wooden and then, in 1812, iron rails on which heavy horses pulled coal wagons. By 1852 a fully functioning steam railway carrying freight and passengers connected Dunfermline and Charlestown. Passenger trains continued to run up until 1938 (with a break in continuity between 1863 and 1894). The line was apparently maintained and kept usable to service the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Crombie, if required, but it is clear from our walk that no train has passed this way for a very long time.



Whilst not the smoothest of conditions underfoot, many stretches offer pleasant walking. The iron rails guiding us under abandoned bridges and then on to long straight tracks that disappear into the horizon.




But this is no isolated rural idyll. To the north, the line runs parallel to the A985, one of the busiest trunk roads in Scotland and the white-noise throb of passing traffic is our soundtrack for a mile or so. To the south, the views are over agricultural land, recently ploughed. In the foreground a suggestion of trees:



Occasionally we have to navigate over, under or through some obstacles:





and traverse abandoned level crossings:



Forgotten mileage markers barely stand upright as we walk high over earth-piled embankments:




A rooftop eyrie. What creature could inhabit this green island in an ocean of blue?



We wonder how long it has been since anyone has walked the entire line. You are not actively encouraged to walk it with each entry and exit point fenced off. Not surprisingly we encounter no-one.  Our only constant companions are the buzzards who circle high in the sky and the occasional explosion of displaying pheasants. We guess they are escapees from the nearby Elgin Estate where they are bred and shot by corporate middle managers who like to go ‘hunting’.




Tuning forks

sounding out


of the sun




As the line curves northwards towards Dunfermline, we approach the bridge which crosses the A985:




Echoes of a painted relief by Ben Nicholson?




Shadows and rust:




Old branch line

new branches


Old Branch Line.

Tracing the cut northwards, we become submerged within the landscape as if walking through a post-industrial holloway. A waterlogged, sodden stretch with tumbled trees conjures up visions of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Our views of the surrounding land obscured as we walk into The Zone, following the rusting red rails.





And when we walk, we stroll alongside retrieved memories but also construct new ones. Small pebbles collected and stored: the sun warmed lichen; that particular apparition of trees; the smell of an emerging spring; laces in boots being shredded by brambles.






The sun reflects from the elegant curve of bleached white bone amongst a bed of grey feathers. Ribs sparkle like some primitive xylophone and still attached to the leg, a small dark hoof.  The sweep of bones and sinew appear to retain some residue of movement; of a life-force that has been so abruptly arrested. Who knows what happened to this (we guess) young deer?

Detached and slightly further away lies the white skull, stripped and pecked clean. The downy feather bed suggests that some of the birds who came to feast on the carcass ended up being part of someone else’s meal.








Fur, feather, rib, bone

Old Nature Writing


We eventually come to the end of the track alongside a well maintained and clearly operational train line. We later find out that this is Elbowend Junction where the track to Charlestown branched off from the Dunfermline and Alloa line.

The connection is now clearly severed.



Another mark, a cut, embedded in the landscape, made by human activity and reflecting the ebb and flow of industry and capital. Slowly merging back into the earth a corridor of memory and potential new futures. An incision slowly being repurposed by nature once again.

Now playing: Andrew Chalk – Blue Eye of the March


Norman Fotheringham, Charlestown, Built on Lime (Charlestown: Charlestown Lime Heritage Trust, 1997).

16 replies on “Tracing the Cut: On the Path of Sleeping Sleepers”

Thanks Brian. Definitely something hypnotic about following the abandoned parallel lines and the way that they continue to trace a route, or a suggestion of a route, through the landscape.

Looks like you had a great day. A beautiful sequence of photos, I particularly like the first 4, straight down the line, and the one with the birch tree growing on the track. Looks like you got into the zone.

Most old railway lines I’ve walked don’t still have so much, if any, of the tracks! I like the witty asides – “old branch line, new branches” especially.

We recently explored the old cut of a former railway, this one looks so much more exciting with its tracks and remaining features. A spooky feeling I find retracing the steps of those travels undertaken long ago.

Thanks. I think the clear, unseasonal day certainly helped make it more interesting. Also recognise that spooky feeling when you reflect on the many journeys that must have once taken place over these rails.

Thanks Laurence. I agree that still having the rails in place on an old line certainly adds to the experience. Just back from New York and walked the High Line, an old elevated rail track running through Chelsea that is now a very popular urban walk. Great to see that they have kept the tracks and other rail paraphernalia, in place at certain points, reminding the walker of the industrial heritage.

Thanks very much. Deliberately didn’t look at the map before walking it although had a good idea that it would likely stop/connect somewhere close to Dunfermline if it was passable.

Thanks Alex. It almost failed very quickly, after becoming entangled in the brambles, so once we got back on the line, after a short detour, it was a delight to just follow and see where it would lead.

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