the habit of dreaming and the ability to dream are primordial
casting a line
to pull down
at the threshold
of hearing, sounds
of the city, stored
in the stones
of the white dove
of translation – PA?
of a kinder
kind of blue
in the forest
From a walk through the New Town of Edinburgh on 14th January 2017.
(Edinburgh’s) buildings are dominated by locally quarried sandstone so that the stone-built heritage literally grows out of the bedrock foundations of the city. (McMillan and Hyslop, The City of Edinburgh: Landscape and Stone, 2008).
Now playing: Morton Feldman – Triadic Memories (Steffen Schleiermacher).
” ‘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.
The Charlestown limeworks were one of the earliest industrial complexes in Scotland at the advent of the industrial revolution. Conceived in 1752, within ten years, they had become the largest lime producing facility in Europe.
The Charlestown limestone was quarried locally. Coral laid down 300 million years ago formed calcium carbonate (limestone) which was heated in the kilns with coal to 900°C. During this process the weight of stone reduced by 40%. More of a devils’ share than an angels’ share.
Working conditions have been described as a “hellish scene” with the hot air thick with sulphur and ammonia from the limeburning. The list of worker’s functions leach from the page into the ‘old words’:
Today the kilns exist as another, largely, forgotten memory of an industrial past. The encroaching green fingers are tightening their grip.
on the old railway track
traces of sleeping
above the surface
of rhizomatic agitation
On Charlestown Brae
the old horse trough
of water and air
the need to create, islands for contemplation.
in black ocean
a coastline emerges.
Inlets, an isthmus
From a short walk in Charlestown, Fife.
Now playing: Steve Roden – Four Possible Landscapes.
Norman Fotheringham, Charlestown, Built on Lime (Charlestown: Charlestown Lime Heritage Trust, 1997).
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).