On the Coffin Road
We approach the village from the North by the coffin road known as Windylaw. A sign indicates that this path was used for many centuries by people to carry their dead to Rosyth Church. Sometimes they would come from as far away as Dunfermline.
The ground is sodden underfoot and standing still you can feel the ticklish trickle of rivulets, running around your boots off the slight incline. This is the first day of reasonable weather for weeks and it feels good to stand under the mottled blue canopy and listen to the murmur of the flowing field.
Windylaw meanders up towards a small copse of trees. We are greeted by the guardian of the forest, a snuffling, wood-hedgehog type apparition which looks like it could have come straight out of Pogles Wood.
A woodpecker industriously loops its rrrrrat-a-tat-tat rhythm but remains unseen. We stand still and stare but there is no dart of kinetic red against gray bark. Instead, one particular tree conjures up a Medusa like quality. The branches appear to move, twisting and writhing like a cauldron of snakes.
Windylaw meanders through the trees and we walk alongside all of the ghosts who have tramped this path over centuries.
How many stopped to make their mark such as Toad has done here?
Once over the ridge of hill, we start to descend towards the shoreline and the village of Limekilns which we can see off to the right. We leave the path briefly to take in the vista over the Forth Estuary.
In many ways a picturesque enough view. Over the farmers fields to the river Forth and beyond to West Lothian. However, no view is ever as ‘innocent’ as it seems so let us tilt our heads a little bit further to the left and to the right. Let us ponder on what we can see…
Firstly off to the left, lies Rosyth Dockyard:
The picture is not great but you can clearly see Goliath’s looming presence of whom we have written before:
“Goliath is the largest crane installed in the UK and part of the most expensive project in British naval history with two aircraft carriers presently being constructed at £3 billion a pop. We have already been told that once constructed, one will be mothballed immediately and the other will have no planes to fly from it. Try explaining this logic to a five year old. The carriers are to be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The sheer folly, financial carnage and symbolism of this whole escapade is such that it almost fries our collective brain into meltdown. However, very soon we are all whistling and singing Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding – the Robert Wyatt version naturally – so we can hum the piano solo with our kazoos. This has the desired effect, tames the beast and calm descends. As we walk further along the road, we can gain a better vantage point to look down over the dockyard and see the true scale of Goliath. Our fear turns to pity as we realise that all we are looking at is simply a dumb, beast of burden, a heavy lifter, on which has been foisted the indignity of jingoistic colours, the White Ensign flag and the reek of failed empire. Also lurking down there, somewhere in the bowels are seven decommissioned nuclear submarines, still radioactive and we are reminded of some possibly apocryphal tales of technicians metal-capped boots glowing green in the dark. Isn’t it amazing what can be buried in the edgelands.”
On the same day as our walk (31st March 2013), a number of articles appear in the press to indicate that Rosyth Dockyard has been chosen for a pilot project to break up some of the nuclear submarines, prompting fears it could become a dumping ground for radioactive waste. (Ignoring the somewhat obvious fact that it already is). The one fairly fundamental snag in this proposal is that no site or facility has yet been identified to store radioactive material safely. (It is going to be there for a long, long time). I suspect that our inventory of Empire and hubristic bravado – HMS Dreadnought, HMS Churchill, HMS Resolution, HMS Repulse, HMS Renown, HMS Revenge and HMS Swiftsure may continue to sit and rust for many years to come, hopefully with the nuclear reactors remaining intact.
You can also just make out the Forth Bridges, beyond the dockyard, in the above photographs. The iconic red diamonds of the Victorian rail bridge and the twin suspension towers of the not inelegant road bridge. Construction work is now well underway for a third bridge to join them. It would appear that the existing road bridge has literally become a piece of auto-destructive art. Road vehicle usage, far in excess of what was originally envisaged has reduced the life of the suspension cables and consequently the bridge. (although there is some debate about this). The result will be a new road bridge with an increased capacity to continue to satiate our desire for car travel. Build it and it and it will be filled is the usual outcome of transport policy so perhaps we stand as witnesses to the birth of yet another piece of auto destructive art.
As is becoming evident, the Forth is still very much a working river and from our viewpoint it would not be unusual to see a container ship – the new packhorse of global capitalism – chugging up the central channel to Grangemouth container port to drop off its wares. Alternatively, it could be a British warship off for some ‘munitions and maintenance support’ at Crombie Pier which is part of the sealed off Crombie Munitions Depot.
This is very close to Crombie Point where Jules Verne and Aristide Hignard disembarked from an Edinburgh steamer in 1859 to continue their travels through Fife and Scotland. This journey inspired Verne’s novel The Green Ray.
And beyond Crombie Pier lies the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, Scotland’s only oil refinery. An industrial city of chimneys and cooling towers, belching steam, and when darkness falls, shooting dramatic flares into the sky against a wash of sodium hue.
Chances are that all the cars sitting nose to tail on the Forth Bridges will ultimately get their petrol from here. Just another nodal point in the network of global petrochem dollars.
OK surely that’s it. But no. Strain your eyes to the far right and another iconic sight can be zoomed into view. The chimney of the coal powered Longannet Power Station. I’m sure it keeps our lights on but is regularly towards the top of the charts in any survey of ‘most polluting power stations’ in the UK and Europe.
Anyway this digression is just an illustration of how a landscape view is never neutral. On one level, yes this is a beautiful landscape. However, this is also a landscape inextricably linked into the ebb and flow of the global capitalist economy or on a more pessimistic note is there any more perfect spot to catalogue and observe the agents and consequences of what George Monbiot calls the Age of Entropy. (Thanks to Liminal City for alerting us to this). At the very least, the psychogeographer can reverse the panoptical gaze of the modern political machine. Standing here we can use landscape as a mirror to reflect back. We can see the war machines, the entropic processors of fossil fuels, how the local is connected to the global. On this spot we can be the watchers. We can see what you are up to and imagine and enact alternative possibilities. (Such as going for a walk!).
We continue our descent down Windylaw which edges the perimeter of the newer built part of Limekilns. A desire path breaks off to the left and we soon find ourselves at the rear of the old ruined Rosyth Church. Records indicate that the church dates back to the 12th century when it is mentioned in the charter sent to the monks of Inchcolm Abbey in 1123. The church ceased to be used as a place of worship sometime between 1630 and 1648. You can clearly appreciate why the coffin road evolved. Even today, the only access to this spot is by walking or possibly by boat. Whilst doing a bit of research, a curious entry in the RCHMS archive records catches the eye. In 1998 a “stray human mandible was found on a grassy area just south of Rosyth Old Kirk burial ground by Mr Walmsley of Inverkeithing. The very weathered and friable bone belonged to a child aged 6-9 years.”
there is none more lonely and eerie than Rosyth, at anyrate at the close of a winter day, when a rising wind is soughing through the bare branches, and the sea is beginning to moan and tramp to and fro over rock and shingle.
John Geddie, The Fringes of Fife, (1894)
Unlike Geddie, we find the church reflecting sunlight on a bright, still morning with just the slightest intimation of Spring in the air. Little of the original structure remains. Only the East gable and part of the North wall. A mort house still stands, built at a later date, to no-doubt frustrate the profitable enterprise of the resurrectionists (body snatchers) who are known to have prowled the coastal graveyards, often arriving by boat.
The churchyard, as in all churchyards, is full of stories. Manicured fragments of past lives lived. How much of a person can be captured when reduced to a few lines of inscription on a gravestone? In many cases, the weather and the passage of time work to gradually efface even this small act of material remembrance. Chiseled stone is returned to smoothness as the distant past becomes literally more difficult to read yielding up only broken fragments and guesses.
This gravestone below is particularly rich in symbolism: the trumpet blowing Angel of the Resurrection; the memento mori skull as a representation of death and the hourglass denoting the passing of time.
This stone was erected in the year of the French Revolution:
We were really intrigued with this one. The reversed numeral “7” in particular. Also the fact that four sets of initials are on the gravestone?
Nowadays, the quiet graveyard appears to be a haven for bird life. During our visit, blackbirds scurried amongst the leaves whilst a robin dotted around the gravestones following us.
One last photo before we leave and its only later that we notice the ghostly halo around the door frame. Saturated light I’m sure but who knows?
On leaving the the graveyard, we head right which leads to a pleasant shoreline walk along to Limekilns. Looking over the water there is even a hint of Glastonbury Tor over in West Lothian. It’s the tower folly of The House of the Binns, Tam Dalyell’s family home. It’s a short walk to Limekilns and as we approach we are reminded of David Balfour and Alan Breck who visit the village in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped:
“about ten in the morning, mighty hungry and tired, came to the little clachan of Limekilns. This is a place that sits near in by the water-side, and looks across the Hope to the town of the Queensferry.”
(Kidnapped, Chapter XXVI, End of the Flight: We Pass the Forth).
We will write-up what we found in Limekilns and Charlestown another day.
Now Playing: Current 93 – Baalstorm, Sing Omega
Alan Reid, Limekilns and Charlestown: A Historical Sketch and Descriptive Sketch of a Notable Fifeshire Neuk, (Dunfermline: A. Romanes, 1903).