It is a place within easy walking distance from the front door and yet it is unlikely that anyone would stumble across it. It is not on any well-trodden path. However, nor could it be described as a remote location as would be evident if you managed to locate the area on a map. It is almost as if it has slipped through a crack in time and topographic space.
There are certain landscapes where the walker quickly becomes self-conscious that they are an intruder. Where every footfall announces to the non-human world that there is a potential threat moving in the landscape. A cracked twig underfoot that ricochets through the calm stillness, creating unseen rustlings of unease and the nervous flexing of wings. No matter how quiet you may whisper there is a strong feeling that you are being closely observed and monitored by unseen eyes. It is you who is perceived as the danger in this quiet world.
For convenience we will refer to this place as the Heron House on account of the siege of herons that appear to have colonised this world. It is not unusual to see upwards of ten of them roosting in the trees that surround this body of water or swirling silently overhead. As if each wing movement slows down time incrementally, evoking a sky filled gathering of ancient pterodactyl. Until we discovered this place, we had always associated herons as zen-like, solitary stalkers of the shoreline, so it was a surprise to see so many of them in the high branches of this wooded setting. Their presence transforming this place into something that feels forgotten and ancient. Almost a ‘Land that Time Forgot’.
This feeling of being steeped in accretions of time is heightened by diverse morphologies of lichen on many trees.
It is easy to lose yourself in the afternoon colours and textures of stillness.
Bizarrely, we come across a huddle of Giant Redwood trees, having no idea of how or why they are growing here in Fife. We stop to feel the aged textures of the deceptively soft bark which looks more like dripping lava
… and in contrast, ephemeral cascades of snowdrops flower close-by exotic looking fungi which resemble some imaginary, animated wood spirits from a Miyazaki film. Organic antenna, as if alert, listening, sensing …
This uncanny world is further transformed by the still body of water which creates a mirror world with only a thin liquid membrane appearing to prevent both of these worlds from collapsing into each other. Herons soar in the sky and amongst the watery depths.
The Heron House is not a place to outstay your welcome. We are the strangers and eavesdroppers here and can sense that our presence has disturbed some fragile equilibrium.
We return to pass through an opening in stone, sodden and marbled by weather and the colours of time.
Within minutes of walking we begin to hear familiar sounds start to puncture the stillness that we still carry.
The distant hum of traffic, a tractor turning over fresh clods of earth in a field. Tending the ground, ready for a new planting, a new cycle.
As long as the earth keeps turning
Now playing: Heitor Alvelos – ‘The Other’ from Faith
Thanks to @EdinDrift for joining us on this journey. February 2017.
At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost
Rainer Maria Rilke
a shedding of leaves
my green cloak
I notice that Autumn is more the season of the soul than of nature
Even decay is a form of transformation into other living things, part of the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming
listen – in(g)
to the huddled whispers
of the forest flock
a suggestion of russet
Above the roof of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Temple of Apollo’ at Jupiter Artland
Hawthorn bushes and the call of a cuckoo conjure up the tale of Thomas the Rhymer a thirteenth century Scottish mystic, wandering minstrel and poet. Folklore tells of how Rhymer meets the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo is calling. The Queen takes Rhymer on a journey of forty days and forty nights to enter the faery underworld. Some versions of the tale say Rhymer was in the underworld for a brief sojourn. Others say for seventy years, after becoming the Queen’s consort. Eventually, Rhymer returns to the mortal world where he finds he has been absent for seven years. The theme of travellers being waylaid by faery folk and taken to places where time passes faster or slower are common in Celtic mythology. The hawthorn is one of the most likely trees to be inhabited or protected by the faery folk.
The wild wood can be found amongst the terra incognita of farmland, old paths and hedgerows between the village of Pattiesmuir and Dunfermline, Fife.
Now playing: Bert Jansch – ‘The Tree Song’ from Birthday Blues.
We are walking out, along the shoreline, from Leven towards Lundin Links. Coastal energies are in full flow, our field of vision filled with an excess of sand, sea and sky.
In the distance, an intensity of white light appears to drift in the Firth of Forth like a frosted iceberg. The Bass Rock. Invisible threads loop in the conical forms of Berwick Law and the sacred hill of Largo Law. Three nodes of a triangle that collapse North and South; earth and water; land and sky. An energy field that pulls us into an expanded world. Bardic bird yells, brine on the tongue and buffeting sea breezes whip up folding white breakers that fizz over the sand.
We soon encounter the talisman lying in the dunes. It’s protective, synthetic membrane, perished long ago by wind and water. Now crusted with sand and water-logged, it has transmuted into a living entity. Green tendrils sprout from the surface. It appears to be an auspicious omen, a process of alchemy worthy of the legendary Wizard of Balwearie, Michael Scot, (1175 – c.1232), reputed to have form in these parts.
Local legend has it that Scot summoned his three imp familiars, Prig, Prim and Pricker to Largo Law with a view to levelling it. A sort of job creation scheme for hyper-active familiars. As they began to dig, Scot had a change of plan and the imps were hurriedly despatched to Kirkcaldy to make ropes out of sand. This was to assist Scot in his showdown with the devil on Kirkcaldy beach. Scot appears to have triumphed in the encounter as evidenced by a local saying: “The devil’s dead and buried in Kirkcaldy”. As a result of the ‘Kirkcaldy interruption’, only a single shovelful of earth was thrown from Largo Law to create the cairn of Norrie’s Law at the wonderfully named farm of Baldastard. There are also local folk tales about an abundant goldmine that supposedly exists underneath Largo Law and that sheep have returned from grazing on the foothills with golden fleeces.
Huge concrete blocks line this part of the coast like giant stepping-stones. Could we step all the way to Largo Law? The blocks were part of the necklace of coastal defences installed during WW2 and were designed to frustrate any German tank invasion from the sea. The blocks were constructed and laid by the Polish army who had several divisions based in Fife during WW2. Today, the original purpose of the blocks may be somewhat forgotten but their solidity and mass provide a pleasing sculptural rhythm to the foreshore.
One of the blocks serves as a makeshift altar to revere the action of the natural world on our talismanic old football. A process of transmutation – of rebirth and growth.
We turn inland from the coast to take the path, called Mile Dyke, that heads between the links golf courses. This will take us to Silverburn and we can now feel its connection to Leven and the coast. S i l v e r – b u r n is a name to roll around the mouth and along with golden fleeces and transmuted footballs we can sense that we are truly in an alchemical landscape.
Silverburn – a Brief History
Silverburn is the former estate of The Russell family who were owners of the Tullis Russell paper making business. The land was originally part of the Barony of Durie and was leased to Mr David Russell by Charles Maitland Christie of Durie in 1854. Arthur Russell purchased the land in 1866 and rebuilt Silverburn House. A dower house known as Corriemar was also built and a flax mill was established on the site.
David Russell died in 1906. His son, (also named David) and who later became Sir David Russell was born at Silverburn in 1872 and in 1912 married and went to live in Aithernie House. He returned to Silverburn in 1929. Sir David had a great interest in trees and many were planted including some rare and unusual species which continue to thrive today.
The flax mill closed around 1930.
In 1973, Sir David Russell’s grandson, Major Russell (Head of Tullis Russell Paperworks) gifted the houses and grounds to Leven Town Council, but also stipulated through the National Trust for Scotland that the “subjects should remain forever as a quiet area used for the benefit of the public in general and the people of Leven in particular for nature trails, quiet parkland and organised camping”. In the mid to late 1980s, the former Kirkcaldy District Council undertook a Job Creation Programme to reinstate Silverburn House for use as a Residential Centre for groups to use such as scouts and guides; school parties, caravan rallies etc. A stand alone wing to the rear of the House was used by crafters to make and show their wares throughout the Summer and Christmas/New Year periods.
Between 1990 and 1999, an average of 20,000 + people per year visited Silverburn. Its main attraction was the former “Mini-Farm” which had on show a wide range of domestic and exotic animals, birds, reptiles and insects. However, following a Council policy decision in 2002, to cease operating Animal Centres across Fife there have been very few visitors to Silverburn, other than local people. Financial constraints have also led to year-on-year reductions in revenue expenditure with no meaningful capital investment in the Park.
Over the years, various ideas have been proposed for Silverburn including the setting up of a Scottish Music/Arts and Craft Centre and redevelopment as a crematorium.None of these have come to fruition.
However, work is presently underway by Fife Employment Access Trust (“FEAT”) in collaboration with the local community, agencies and local authorities in the Levenmouth area on a project entitled ‘Heart Mind Soul Silverburn’. This aim of this initiative is to secure a long-term future for the park and to promote wellbeing and employment opportunities.
We have visited Silverburn a number of times over the past few months. Drifting around the mixed woodland trails and environs of the estate at different times, on different days and in different weather conditions. Most apparent is observing and feeling the subtle changes of a thriving natural world; an incipient wildness forever encroaching on the deteriorating materiality of the buildings. Silverburn is a place highly conducive to the immersive dérive. A locus of past, present and possible.
The excellent Blacketyside Farm Shop is a wonderful place for sustenance at the start or finish of a Silverburn visit. However, this does means crossing the A915 road which is the main artery into the East Neuk of Fife. The road is a long, straight stretch which can be very busy with vehicles tanking past at high-speed:
Overhead, a charcoal smudged blue, heralds a chorus of rooks riffing off the traffic screech.
Giant American redwoods stand sentinel, stretching for the sun. “Ambassadors from another time” silently announcing that this may not be your conventional Scottish woodland:
The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stay with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.
N: “do you know you can punch a redwood and it doesn’t hurt your hand?”
Blue melts to green as sunlight showers through the tree canopy, dappling the forest floor. Traffic thrum gradually dissolves in the low lipping burr of the flowing burn. A sunken path beckons and so our immersion into Silverburn begins.
Once in the shade, a sprinkling of light and water; a scattering of silver drops:
A network of wooded paths through and around Silverburn provide ample scope for aimless drifting. The topography is interesting with a long flat elevated plateau where Silverburn House sits which tumbles away quite steeply down to the flax mill with the golf courses and coast beyond.
Depending which path you take you will soon stumble across one of the ghosts…
Corriemar: The Dower House
Corriemar is thought to have been the dower house for Silverburn House. A dower house is usually a moderately large house available for use by the widow (dowager) of the estate-owner.
Corriemar has been vacant since 1970, having previously served as day patient accommodation for Stratheden Hospital or the Fife and Kinross District Asylum as it was formerly known. (Stratheden will be a place-name that resides in the (un)consciousness of many Fifers. My mother used to say that the teenage antics of my brother and I would send her there. In hindsight, I hope that she was only joking. RIP Mum).
The house today is a crumbling ghost of a building. Buildings need capital, care and a purpose to thrive and Corriemar has had neither of these since the 1970s. Now officially classified as a dangerous building and on the Buildings at Risk register, nature is slowly restaking her claim.
A pine tree grows out of the roof guttering. Many slate tiles have been lost to the elements, leaving the roof like a mouth full of smashed teeth.
The building is not just boarded but sealed.
All flow and circulation broken:
Graffiti abhors a blank surface and Corriemar has become a canvas for a surprisingly diverse display:
Interesting in that all of these shots, the green leaves of nature always encroach into the frame.
Once a home to the Russell family. Old, super-8 film shows children playing and running around on the lawn in front of the house. Adults relax in deck chairs, smoking and chatting…
Now, like Corriemar, Silverburn House is sealed up and dangerous:
The entrance to the old crafts centre:
Stretching for the sky:
On our last visit, we noticed a new addition. Some outdoor seating has been added, fashioned out of tree trunks:
And at the opposite end of the lawn, a collection of shamanistic divining posts in the family sculpture area:
As is common with any drift, with a little attention, a surreal world can reveal itself:
The shoe tree:
The worm mound:
One tries to wriggle free:
The giant pencil:
The stalled roundabout:
The unknown and undecipherable signs:
One visit, late Saturday afternoon, a dull twilight. No other humans around and even the bird song is subdued. Only the rustle of leaves – hopping blackbird and scurrying rabbit. The fungi radiate a pale light:
A message from the trees:
Stare for long enough and the tree spirits begin to reveal themselves:
tentacle clawed … ?
The Flax Mill & Retting Pond
On the lower level of Silverburn sits the Flax Mill and its associated retting pond.
Retting is a process which employs the action of micro-organisms and moisture on plants to dissolve or rot away much of the cellular tissues and pectins surrounding bast-fibre bundles. This process is used in the production of fibre from plant materials such as flax and hemp stalks and coir from coconut husks.
The flax mill was built in the mid 1800s and was one of the first industrial buildings to be roofed with a ‘new material’ called corrugated iron. Flax fibre was prepared for spinning at Silverburn and was soaked in the retting ponds for about 10 days, after which it was thrashed. Retting Ponds were brought into play after an Act in 1806 prohibited the use of local streams due to excessive pollution which occurred from the process. The flax mill itself was run on steam power. The mill closed in 1930, although, as previously mentioned, the outbuildings were used for the mini zoo during the 1990s. Today, the brickwork is failing in some places, with over 50% of the brick turned to dust. An adjacent row of cottages were probably built for the flax mill workers and remain used and in good condition today.
Look out for the face in the factory:
and the quizzical ghost:
The old stables:
Inside the old stable
the darkest corners – bleed
in slatted sunlight
The retting pond where the flax was soaked is close by. Now heavily overgrown with vegetation, it is a meditative spot to watch the reflected trees in the water and the teeming pond life on the surface:
The Tree House and Formal Gardens
How could anyone not be captivated by the tree house? It looks as if it could walk away at any moment on its stilted legs:
The sense of being watched by the animal heads on either side add a touch of the uncanny:
By complete coincidence, N has a copy of Reforesting Scotland in his bag. The cover illustration an echo of what we are standing underneath:
The formal gardens, also comprise a sensory and walled garden. They are clearly places of meaning and memory. On our first visit, we find a wreath of knitted flowers:
By the time of our second visit they have gone. There are also the lives commemorated and remembered. Emotional linkages between people and place.
From the sensory garden, the gentle trickle of running water projects around the natural amphitheatre. Bees congregate upon yellow and pink petals shower down on grey.
Perhaps there is also evidence of the cunning folk at play. A small entrance through a hedge; a portal to another world?
What is in a Name?
We leave Silverburn to head for the coast once again. Following the flow of the burn back down Mile Dyke to where the silver stream meets the sea.
We reflect on the name:
Silver – precious, with, the highest conductivity of any metal, allowing energy to flow.
Burn – always in flux/flow. As Heraclitus said, you never step in the same river twice and we know we will never visit the same Silverburn twice. There is also the idea of how prescribed burning of vegetation can recycle nutrients tied up in old plant growth to invigorate new growth. With the current FEAT and community initiative ‘Heart Mind Soul Silverburn’ perhaps new possibilities for Silverburn are emerging.
And to end. A whispered message from a beach encounter:
To end with a name and only the name. To end with only the letters of the name:
County Folk-Lore Vol VII. Examples of Printed Folk-Lore concerning Fife with some notes on Clackmannan and Kinross-Shires collected by John Ewart Simpkins (London: Sidgwick & Jackson for the Folk-Lore Society, 1914).
Casting an eye over some local maps from the late 1800s. Stumble and trip.
An actual place on the map.
The delineated form resembles a long-front-legged cartoon fox. We resist the urge to draw on ears, eyes, nose and a brush. Somewhat ironically, The Wilderness is represented by dotted clumps of trees contrasting with the surrounding patchwork of largely undefined white space.
A field trip beckons. Is it possible to visit The Wilderness as an actual place, rather than just as an idea? Is The Wilderness always just an idea, conjuring up clichéd images of distant rain forests, shifting desert sands or a featureless frozen tundra pulled towards a distant white edge of land and sky. What would this Wilderness look like in 2012?
On a sunny December Sunday of 2012 we set off to see what we can find and mentally attempt to visualise the area of the cartoon fox, as it is today. Our best guess is that if anything is left it may now be in the middle of a housing estate in Rosyth, Fife. There could also be a Tesco store and pub planted firmly in its hind quarters…
The above map dates from 1896 which predates the building of Rosyth, Scotland’s only Garden City. The town was built to service the Royal Naval Dockyard which began construction in 1909. The original houses were first occupied in 1915 and still stand, exuding a solidity and displaying attractive design features that would be alien to the mass, wooden boxbuilders of today. (Who would bet against the big bad wolf confronting a timber-framed flat pack?). The original tree-lined street plan also remains largely intact although you will have to search harder to find a front garden. Many are now paved over into parking spaces for the ubiquitous car.
Arriving in Rosyth, we orientate ourselves from the railway station and set off. As suspected, it is clear that the rear end of our fox, on the 1896 map, now houses a Tesco store with Cleos pub alongside. The main road through the town – Queensferry Road – dissects a later phase of house building on the other side. As we walk down Queensferry Road, there is certainly no obvious sign or hint of any wilderness. We can see some mature trees lining the side of the road but it is difficult to say whether these could be original Wilderness trees or part of the town landscaping plan. Following our noses we turn left into Wemyss Street and ponder on the name. “Wemyss” is derived from the Gaelic word ‘uaimh’, meaning ‘cave’. There are strong landscape resonances in Fife to the Wemyss caves up the coast, beyond Dysart but we guess that the linkage is more likely to be associated with the landowning Wemyss family. Descended from the MacDuff Earls of Fife, (Macbeth!) the Wemyss built their castle between what is now known as East and West Wemyss. There are certainly no obvious caves around, that we can see, but in appellation terms, the connotation of landed gentry hobnobbing with royalty sits well with the nearby Kings Road and Queensferry Road.
Walking along Wemyss Street, it does occur to us that this may be a short trip. We are surrounded by residential houses and yet looking at the map we must be walking over part of the fox’s torso mapped as The Wilderness in 1896. Maybe this is actually a walk of mourning. A wake for an idea that, for whatever reason, resulted in an area of land being named The Wilderness. We can also extrapolate from the local to the global and the sense of the Earth’s Wilderness footprint being appropriated, exploited, diminished and perhaps lost forever.
We continue to follow the sweep of Wemyss Street and start heading south when we come across a little cul-de-sac named The Woodlands. This feels better. The signs are singing. We can see trees to the East. This looks more promising – and it is.
Across the world, people have perceived forest wildernesses to be full of spirit, as if the real and visible world had an equally real but invisible world folded within it.
Jay Griffiths (Wild: An Elemental Journey, p. 53).
It never ceases to amaze how, within a few short steps, the feeling of our surroundings can change completely. Guy Debord talks of moving between zones of distinct psychic atmospheres in the city. We believe that this can also happen outwith an urban setting as described in our post on the Fife Coastal Path. This happens here. One minute we are unmistakably in a quiet residential area of a small Fife town. Our most noticeable observation is a black cat dozing contentedly on top of a blue plastic dustbin. She jumps down to greet us and walks a few paces alongside glad of the company. A few steps later and we are through that transition zone and enter The Wilderness. It really does exist.
It’s good to feel the sun today. Fingers of warmth entwine and clasp hands amongst us. The lichens on my skin dissolve into light and the ivy loosens slightly. Stretching up towards the blue, a moment held in these short, chill days. Drinking from the earth, heavy with water. Sustained.
There are movers on the path. Coming.
We enter the invisible, folded, other world of the wood. Old trees, bark encrusted with mottled green. Root formations resemble clawed, long-toed dinosaur feet. We expect them to lift free from the ground at any time.
Hollowed out stumps of wooden teeth sup on leaves and sunlight.
There is a sense of a trail through the woods but little evidence of human visitation. During our visit no one arrives. No one goes. Just us. The trees and the sound and sense of birds. We find out later that there is no through-route. You have to climb a fence at the other end to get out so The Wilderness is effectively a bounded area. No doubt this discourages the use of the woods as path of transit, but perhaps helps to retain a little sliver of embedded wilderness.
We have often found that bounded, hidden areas become covert fly tipping sites but there is remarkably little evidence of this practice. A stray carrier bag probably relates to the two empty cans of Foster’s lager tossed aside.
You can almost visualise the youngsters chipping in to scrape up enough money for their couple of cans before heading to the woods in anticipation of some bacchanalian wildness. We later find one car tyre and a bicycle frame. No white goods!
The purring murmur of running water soon entices and we follow the slope of the land down towards a wee burn.
Flowing here for many a year that’s what us wee burns do. The flow and the flux of the present moment, always existing in the eternal now. No history, no future, no time. Old Heraclitus was right you never step in the same burn twice.
Burn, stream, river, estuary. It’s all just a matter of scale.
A balloon lies trapped on the water underneath a branch. A human breath captured in time and space.
Imagine a situation where the last trace of human life on earth was the breath captured in a balloon? The most ephemeral of traces. Perhaps this is the breath of the Earth. The life-force slowly puckering, deflating, evaporating. If The Wilderness can exist in Rosyth, then why not the breath of Planet Earth?
We follow the burn through to the end of the wood, watched by the bug-eyed tree spirit. Chameleon eyes surveying, observing. Oblivious to time or circumstance.
Listening and watching the wildness of the fungi, spilling from the tree stump.
[L o s t t i m e i n t h e m o m e n t]
Over the fence at the other end and we are back in a residential street. We know that we are walking down the front leg of the cartoon fox. Appropriately, the road is called Burnside.
The paws of the fox mark the transition zone and we exit The Wilderness and track back through Rosyth past the Carnegie Institute.
Back to civilisation, the chimneys, the birds and the tags.
Appendix: The Wilderness over time
1915 – The Wilderness and our Fox are fully formed.
1926 -1927: The Garden City of Rosyth is now built. We can still see our fox although the rump has been annexed. A trail through The Wilderness is indicated on the map. Wilderness Cottage sits at the South West corner. Our best guess is that this was demolished and replaced by a new build church.
1952-1966: New residential building has dissected our Fox’s torso almost right through the middle.
2013: This is how The Wilderness is represented on Google Maps. Only a sliver of green remains – the head of our fox. The name has also disappeared but we know that however diminished it may be, The Wilderness most certainly does exist.
Now Playing: Andrew Chalk – The River that Flows into the Sands
Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey (London: Penguin Books, 2006).