” ‘Nature’ is not to be understood as that which is just present-at-hand …”
It is difficult to convey a sense of scale.
Perched on the edge of a collapsed harbour wall, the vestiges break from the blue expanse ahead like a stone-flippered sea serpent, emerging from the depths.
At this height, the field of vision is a wash of blues and greens, daubs of cloud. Dark emerald maps trace imaginary continents on the sea floor; an atlas of time and tide. Drowned oceans, swirls of bottle green bleeding through ultramarine. Hints of International Klein Blue. As a couple of herring gulls swoop close by and aim for the water, there is a fleeting urge to emulate Yves Klein’s leap …
A whisper of wind, pulls the gaze back to the horizon and acts as a useful reminder that to leap from this vantage point would be unlikely to end well. I press my back firmly against the narrow, elevated ledge and watch the clouds scudding east.
Whilst we could be gazing out across the Mediterranean, we are looking out over the Firth of Forth at Seafield, just west of Kirkcaldy. The collapsed harbour arm in front of us is an industrial folly dating from 1899. The harbour was never completed and looking towards the banks of serrated rock teeth, just to the west, it is perhaps not surprising why. It is difficult to envisage safe passage for any vessel across this bay.
We are also aware that underneath these coastal waters, subterranean entrails of hollowed out ‘black diamonds’ reach far out below the Forth. Behind us is a landscape of absence with no visible trace of the Seafield pit which once dominated this coastline. Seafield was the last of the Fife coalfield ‘superpits’ and was one of the largest undersea mines in Europe. It linked up underground, beneath the Forth estuary, with its sister pit, ‘The Frances’, situated to the North of Kirkcaldy.
Preparatory work on sinking a mine shaft at Seafield began in 1954 with production starting in 1965. The pit was one of Egon Riss’s (1901 – 1964) modernist designs for The National Coalboard Scottish Division, which also included: Bilston Glen, Killoch, and Rothes, with Seafield and Monktonhall being completed after his death. Riss was an Austrian of Jewish descent who had studied at The Bauhaus and was acquainted with Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Klee.
Seafield just managed to survive the fallout from the Miner’s Strike, but closed four years later in 1988 with all of the above-ground infrastructure erased from the landscape in 1989. A relatively short industrial life of 45 years from conception to dust. Walking the landscape today there is no trace of the pit having ever existed. A new housing development sits up on the hill where Riss’s modernist landmark towers once stood. As we consider the marvellous views that these houses must command, we alight on a tomb-like structure on the side of the hill, complete with what could be a memorial stone. All is blank.
At the time of writing, (December 2015), the COP21 Paris climate deal has just been agreed, which at least outlines an intent and ambition to secure a low-carbon future for Planet Earth. We can’t help thinking that, like the oft cited butterfly of chaos theory that flaps it’s wings and causes a hurricane in another part of the globe, the burning of the first lump of carbon produced its own unforeseen effects over a longer time scale.
“It was my first acquaintance (1859) with the geology of Fife, and furnished me with many fresh and striking manifestations of volcanic phenomena – a foretaste of the rich harvest which the county was afterwards to yield in the same field”.
Sir Archibald Geikie (1859)
Our sense of human time, industrial time and earth-time is given a further jolt as we start to walk along the rock strewn beach towards Kinghorn. This part of the Fife coastline offers some dramatic examples of rock formations and lava flows dating back to early Carboniferous times of between 360 – 320 million years ago. The Binn (hill) which overlooks nearby Burntisland is believed to be the source of these lava flows.
Any rock is an index of deep time. Liquid lava movement arrested by abrupt cooling. Intense heat solidifying, fracturing, frozen in time.
Inevitably, our stroll along the beach throws up some interesting items:
We wonder if we have come across the staff of the Spear of Neptune:
Unfortunately a search for the trident is unfruitful.
On any beach, these days, there is always at least one tyre:
A sea-smoothed anteater:
and a rock pool submerged sea skull:
We leave the beach and pick up the footpath that leads to Kinghorn. Up ahead we can see the outline of Seafield Tower with the outer wall remaining largely intact.
For how long the tower will remain standing is another matter given the clearly visible fracture running down the middle like a poorly executed appendix scar. It feels as if a really strong wind could cleave the structure in two.
The tower is believed to date from the early 16th century and was the stronghold of the Moultrays of Seafield until 1631 when the estates were sold to the Archbishop of Glasgow. More intriguingly, a 1774 plan shows the enclosing courtyard walls and a circular tower at the NE angle described as the ‘Devil’s Tower’ although the derivation of this is unclear. The local coastline was known to be the haunt of smugglers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Perhaps it would do no harm to circulate rumours about a devil’s tower to keep people well away.
Built of red sandstone, the tower has not weathered well and now resembles a crumbling, hollowed out old tooth:
On a day as radiant as this one, the tower doesn’t feel too devilish and the red sandstone softens the sun which is high overhead and beating down. This should favour one of the key reasons for our trip and we head further along the coast to see if we are in luck.
It is fairly common to see seals bobbing around the Fife coast, but we rarely see them congregate together. Today they are revelling in the sunshine, lounging on a series of rocks not too far from the shore. Occasionally, one will slide into the water and bob around closer to shore, clearly curious but feeling well protected by the aforementioned waves of rock teeth to discourage anyone trying to get too close. This is also a very quiet part of the coast. The railway hugs the coastline between Kirkcaldy and Kinghorn which prevents any access to the path other than by foot from either end. Even on a day such as this, with glorious weather, we encounter less than a handful of people on the path. There are the usual dog walkers who populate the entrance and exit areas but otherwise it is a remarkably quiet stretch.
Not surprisingly, the area is also rich in bird life. Oystercatchers puddle around the shore, whilst common gulls and herring gulls criss-cross the air in constant movement. Further out cormorants dry their wings, as if juggling a pair of half extended umbrellas. Our identification skills are insufficient to precisely identify many other species but the area is known as a rich haven for guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars.
Above our heads, a bunch of swifts engage in frantic aerobatics, explosions of kinetic energy and zig-zag movement. In stark contrast, a grey heron appears to slow the world to a standstill as it descends from the sky. The silent movement of its wings dissolving time in a held breath as it gracefully glides to a halt.
A more puzzling conundrum is the discovery of a still feathered wing caught up in some thick bramble thorns. Had the bird just inadvertently flown in to the thicket and become trapped or been attacked by a bird of prey? Or was it some totemic symbol carrying a message for the initiated or marking some form of threshold?
As the path ascends to higher ground, it looks over some fairly steep cliffs and runs parallel with the railway line for a stretch with expansive views over the Forth and onwards towards Kinghorn itself.
The presence of so many seals, earlier, conjures up visions of their close relatives in folklore whose stories pepper this coastline. As we look out to Inchkeith island we think of Kelpies and mermaids:
We eventually reach Kinghorn as the railway arches soar over our heads.
Kinghorn will have its own post at some future time, but as we walk down to the harbour we are reminded that Pettycur Bay nestles under a prominent crag known as ‘Witches Hill’:
When the time comes to make the return walk back to Kirkcaldy, the sun has sunk low and we encounter no-one on the path. The landscape becomes more auditory than visual: the repetitive lip lip lip of a rock pool; the fizz of the receding tide. But it’s a low groaning drone that begins to fill the air. A deep and doleful lament rising to a eerie howl.
The seals are singing.
Is it a warning? a wake? Or do we hear the call of shape-shifting selkies, shedding their sealskins to assume human form …
We walk on quickly …
Tired of dreaming
the sun slipped
from the sky
in the dying light
a fizzle of water
a settling of sand.
Now playing: Kevin Drumm – The Sea Wins
The walk was undertaken in late May 2015. Written up in December 2015.
4 replies on “Coastal (Being and) Time”
Have frequently made that train journey and always enjoyed the fascinating sights along that coastline – crumbling docks, seals (although not as many as you saw), beaches, the view across the Firth, rock sculptures, a cemetery flashing by the window. Great post – lovely colours.
Thank Alex. Yes always worth a look out of the train window on that part of the coast.
I lived in Dunfermline in the early 70s. This glorious post makes me think I must revisit Fife. Thank you
Thanks very much. Good to hear you enjoyed it.